What are the Long-Term Effects of Electronics?

controllerAs more and more generations learn to use computers, phones, and GPSs from a young age, the population is beginning to see an array of negative medical results. With electronics around every corner and the ability to access them at virtually any time of the day, more and more are seeing the onset of technology-educed pain and disorders. No more are older folks catching their first glimpse of carpal tunnel after retirement, and the same goes for hunched backs and vision issues. Now it’s happing as young as one’s teens and early 20s.

However, as trends continue to progress, those ages may actually decrease. Schools now regularly include computers and tablets into their lessons, and items are coming with kid-friendly apps and accessories. Because kids are introduced to more electronics younger and younger, the side effects will only continue to increase.

The Effects

From minor aches and pains to diagnoses that require serious treatment, new and existing issues are steep a strict increase. And of course, the treatment depends on the cause. For instance, those who spend multiple hours typing or fidgeting with controllers each day are wearing wrist braces, doing arm stretches, or seeing chiropractors or physical therapists to try and reverse these effects. However, depending on the sheer number of hours spent in a static location, the typers may experience carpal tunnel, arthritis, shoulder and back pain, or even numbness throughout the arms.

Another growing condition is that of “Gameboy back,” caused from excessive hunching. Often seen in teenage boys who play video games on a regular basis, this condition can affect one’s posture, cause pain, and even bring tension within the muscles. Items like specialized chairs or being aware of how one sits can greatly reduce the chance of “Gameboy back” taking root by creating an ergonomic environment.

Other electronic-related injuries include headaches, neck pains, and eyesight issues, which occur from reading too-small text on bright screens. Regular phone or tablet readers have reported cases of obstructed eyesight, to damaged retinas, caused from reading excessively in the dark.

From aches and pains to more serious conditions, electronic devices are causing medical issues in their most frequent users. To avoid falling victim, be sure to take the proper precautions before logging in for long periods at a time. Or, if you’re already experiencing technology-induced conditions, talk to your doctor to find an effective treatment regimen.

Game review: Super Hexagon requires your full attention and brain capacity

Many of the best video games are immersive. They pull us in, disconnect our brains from the real world, and let us pretend, at least for a while, that we are wizards, superheroes, or Italian plumbers.

Some game-makers achieve this effect by using fancy graphics or creating expansive, complex environments. Others, like Terry Cavanagh (who also created the excellent VVVVVV), skip all the fluff and just go straight to work rewiring your brain.

Cavanagh’s new game, Super Hexagon, forcefully pulls you from the real world by requiring your full attention and brain capacity.

Super Hexagon

Gameplay

The premise of Super Hexagon is simple; so simple, in fact, that it’s difficult to categorize. Cavanagh has labeled it as an action game, but that doesn’t really seem to fit. It’s more of a twitch-maze-dungeon-runner.

Your mission is to avoid the walls of a moving, hexagon-shaped maze. Success is measured by how long you survive. Sounds simple, right? Just watch the game trailer:

When you first start playing, it seems impossible. My first attempt lasted only 2.26 seconds. The next several attempts weren’t much better. After days of playing, I’m finally up to 25 seconds on Hard mode, the lowest difficulty level.

Acknowledging that the game isn’t easy seems to be Cavanagh extending an olive branch to gamer egos. Easy, Medium, and Hard modes have been replaced with Hard, Harder, & Hardest (Hexagon, Hexagoner, & Hexagonest respectively). Three increased difficulty modes are available via unlocks.

There is a balance to the difficulty. Super Hexagon is tuned to allow for small improvements that help you feel that you are getting better versus just bashing your head against a wall. I also found that the less I thought about my moves and tried to anticipate incoming walls, the better I performed.

This is where the immersion part comes in. While playing around the 10 second mark, I usually start to feel a sort of twich-zen clear out my mind. It’s a really odd feeling that reminds me a lot of my days playing Quake 3 Team Arena, when I’d hit “the zone” that unlocked seemingly inhuman speed and accuracy by filtering out everything but the dot of my scope and players’ heads.

An excellent chiptune soundtrack helps round out the immersive effect and matches the game perfectly.

Availability & pricing

Super Hexagon is available on iOS devices for $2.99 through the App Store. PC and Mac versions are in the works with a possible Android port.

Final thoughts

“In my day, video games were hard. They required skill. They required chutzpah. They required finely-tuned reflexes and hand-eye coordination. You kids, with your plants and your zombies and your fancy hats – you don’t know games. You’re too soft.”

– Me, as I hit “Try Again” for the thousandth time.

Review: Minesweeper for Windows Phone 7

Minesweeper for Windows PhoneLast month, Microsoft released two free Xbox Live games for Windows Phone 7, one of which being the classic Minesweeper. While releasing any game for free is a great way to ensure a lot of people play it, is Minesweeper for WP7 worth your valuable time?

Being the nerd that I am, I was excited to see Minesweeper see a release on WP7. I’ve sunk many hours into this game over the years, becoming quite good at Expert level puzzles. Originally released for the Windows platform in 1990, this version manages to add some nice new features while staying faithful to the original.

Gameplay

The core of the game consists of the original gameplay we all remember. If you love Minesweeper on the PC, everything will feel familiar here. The game board consists of a matrix of little squares, with the size of the board and number of mines varying based on the difficulty. The game starts when the player clicks on an arbitrary square, at which point the mines are randomly generated and hidden behind the squares. Of course, the challenge comes from figuring out which squares contain the mines. Clicking on a non-mine square will reveal a number indicating how many adjacent squares contain mines, giving a clue as to where the mines may be hidden. However, make a single mistake, and BOOM! It’s game over.

New Features

Gameplay
Updated, yet simplistic graphics for your finger-poking pleasure.

While the core game is definitely not groundbreaking, Microsoft has added some new twists to make the game really shine. The most obvious new feature is the power-up system, which gives the player certain powers designed to help solve the puzzle. One power-up acts as a shield and allows the player to click a single mine without losing. Another uncovers a certain amount of squares and automatically flags any mines within the range.

As the game is played, experience points are earned which unlock new power-ups. Each power-up has a cost associated with it, and each time it is used, tokens are deducted from the token bank. Over time, the tokens regenerate, at which time the player can use more power-ups. This system definitely helps add a new dynamic to the classic gameplay, while paring down the difficulty of some of the harder puzzles. Did I mention that highest difficulties are downright tough?

Aside from the power-up system, this version also adds Speed Mode, which is nothing more than playing with a count-down timer, rather than the classic count-up timer. You will also find Xbox Live Achievements, with a paltry 50 Gamerscore available to be earned. More importantly (this is a mobile game after all) Microsoft has given players the ability to suspend a game at any time and resume it later. This is perfect for receiving phone calls or texts, or when your real life requires you to temporarily stop playing, without losing any of your progress.

The only drawback of the game being free is that it is ad-supported, so be prepared to watch ads come in and out across the top of the screen. It in no way hinders gameplay or enjoyment of the game, but it is worth noting.

Bugs

I did experience one minor bug worth mentioning during my extensive playtime with the game. Occasionally when I would try to start a new game, the power-up selection screen would pop up, even when I had not clicked on it. I’d click the exit button to get it to go away, and then start the new game. This would seem to cause the new game board to be unresponsive, forcing me to exit back to the main menu. It’s definitely annoying, but it’s not a game-breaker and fortunately, it doesn’t occur all that often.

Summary

Overall, the WP7 version of Minesweeper is a solid brain-teaser. Minor glitches aside, if you love the classic Minesweeper you’ll probably love this updated version as well. If you never got into the classic game, this version may add enough fluff to warrant a second look.

Wii 2: A Speculative Look at Nintendo’s Newest Console

It's-a me! Mario! I believe-a you have-a my cup!

For those of you who don’t know, it has been confirmed that Ninendo’s next generation console will be announced at this year’s upcoming E3 expo.  The highly anticipated console being  revealed is the Wii 2.

Sources say that the Wii 2 (code named “Project Cafe”) will be HD and at least as powerful as the current Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles.

Other features that have been confirmed are a standard controller (dual analogue sticks, a D pad, triggers, etc.) that will function much like the Gamecube controller (basically a normal gaming controller). This controller will have a 6” touch screen embedded on it, with the ability to stream data (and even entire games) from the console.

For now, this is all that is really known about Nintendo’s new mystery machine. I have seen comment boards ablaze with praise and skepticism about what lies ahead for this project. To weigh in, here are some of my thoughts on it all:

Power

The first and biggest concern for most gamers seems to be the power of the new console. While I do think it is important to be able to pump out spectacular visuals, I think it is becoming less and less important as time and technology progress.

The Wii’s inability to output HD was definitely a big downfall. Simply put, 480p does not look good on a 42” TV.  HD is a MUST.

As far as how important it is for the new console to blow away the current consoles in the power spec, I would say it is pretty minimal. It’s starting to get to the point where graphics aren’t going to get a whole lot better. While there is always room for improvement, I feel like we are quickly approaching a point where processing power is becoming less important. If the claims of this console being at least as powerful as a PS3 are true, that is good enough for me.

The Touch Screen

From what I’ve seen, many people are skeptical about the touch screen being integrated with the controller. Many are concerned that is going to be gimmicky and a novelty. I think that a large screen on the controller may do a great service getting rid of menus in games. One game that comes to mind is Call of Duty: Black Ops.

First off, you would never have to have a menu blocking your view to see maps or see the current score. Second, when you’re using kill streaks such as the RC Car, you could use the on remote screen to drive it around while still being able to see what is happening to your guy on the main screen. That way, no one is sneaking up on you while you’re driving around your Bomb Car.

I can see similar uses in games that rely heavily on inventory screens, but what if you could navigate through these screens quickly on your controller without having to stop the action?

As far as how it would fit or where it would be on a controller, I’ve had two ideas: One would be having the screen flip up from the top of the controller, much like a 3DS. Another would be to have it at the bottom, much like where the add-on keyboard for the Xbox 360 sits.

An onboard screen gives a resolution to those Madden screen cheating problems, and also gives the promise of adding the realism of being able to text your friends while driving cars in any upcoming games.

Conclusion

Although it is incredibly hard to see where any of this is going before seeing the actual console announcement at E3, it’s always fun to speculate on what could be. I am personally excited to see Nintendo return to the hardcore gaming arena. Hopefully, they can really make a statement with this next console.

On the other hand, I hope there’s something more to it. I really felt like the Wii was a step in the right direction by not following the “more power, more graphics” principle and finding a different way to interact with games.

Nintendo has always been innovative; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t and I respect them for taking risks and searching for new ways to experience games. I think the industry as a whole is better because of it.

How to make your favorite Nintendo characters with Perler beads

If you’re reading this article, it’s safe to assume that you’re either my editor, or a geek/nerd/dork or something in between. Whatever your case, you’re probably like me in that you spend a lot of time on your computer, playing video games, waxing philosophically over the merits of Linux vs. Windows, etc. Sometimes it’s nice to push away from the desk and return to your roots, and perhaps engage in something a bit more “hands-on”.

Perler beads are a surprisingly fun (if juvenile) way to reconnect with your past by creating nifty sprites of your favorite Nintendo characters. Cheap and easy, this is a good pastime for decorating your geek/nerd/dork dwelling, or if you have kids, set them on the road to eternal geek-cred and loneliness.

Let’s get started!

Getting Started

First, you’ll need a few things. A Perler bead pegboard is essential, and without it you will fail, so don’t even try. They cost about $2.50 at any hobby shop, so grab a few. Make sure they are the kind that can connect to other pegboards, just in case you decide to tackle larger (more geeky) projects.

Clear pegboard. Notice the connectors on the sides.

You’ll need Perler beads in individual color packs. Most Perler beads come in jumbo multi-color packs. Trust me, nothing is more irritating that searching for the correct shade of brown in a 20,000 bead pack.

Perler beads. 48 colors from which to choose.

An iron with a steamless setting will be needed to fuse the beads together once you have your character made. Be sure not to fill your iron with water beforehand. Additionally, a cardboard or heatproof surface will make things easier.

A few sheets of ironing paper will keep the Perler beads from melting and sticking to the iron. You can buy several sheets for less than $2 at any arts & crafts store. Or if $2 is too expensive (or you can’t find ironing paper), wax paper is also a good substitute.

Ironing paper. Essential and inexpensive.

The full setup may appear to you as shockingly childlike, and it would be wise to have some sort of alcoholic beverage nearby to reinforce that you are indeed an adult.

The complete setup. Purchasing all 48 colors is unnecessary and may lead to buyers' remorse. Pay no attention to the Xbox controller.

Making Your Figure

So, you’re ready to start crafting some sprites, but you’ll need a template first. There are a number of good websites that specialize in old school NES and SNES sprites, including (my favorite) the Shy Guy Kingdom. Wherever you choose to get your sprites, simply save the image file and zoom in for a pixel-by-pixel representation of your character. Now, it’s just a matter of selecting colors and counting.

Start with an outline. I have a tweezer nearby for detailing.

Make an outline! This is made much easier with a good template.

Add some color! You’ll soon recognize that this activity doesn’t require a ton of cognitive power, so now is a good time to finally finish Season 6 of LOST. See your sprite taking shape? Pretty cool!

Add some colors. With appropriate color-matching, you may get a little giddy at this point.

Okay, so you’ve finished adding all of your “pixels”, and your sprite is looking complete. It’s time to pre-heat your iron. Set your iron to “medium” and ensure that the setting is steamless. My iron doesn’t have a steamless setting, per-se. Instead, I just don’t fill it with water. This could destroy your iron. I really have no idea.

Complete with more colors. Can you feel the memories flooding back? Be careful not to knock your pegboard.

Cover your sprite with your ironing paper and wait for your iron to finish heating. Mine beeps when it is ready, but my iron may be more awesome than yours, so just wait 15 minutes and that should be sufficient.

Cover your creation with your ironing paper.

Slowly iron circles over your sprite while applying only slight pressure. Let the weight of the iron do most of the work as you heat the sprite for 20 seconds. Lift the iron without removing the ironing paper and have a look.

Most of the Perler beads should now be melted and appear wet under the ironing paper. If it looks like the image below, you’re nearly done. Let the sprite cool while leaving the ironing paper in place.

After ironing, the beads should be melted and appear wet under the ironing paper.

Hey, that looks pretty good! Last step — after it has cooled (allow 5 minutes or so) flip your sprite over and repeat the ironing on the back side to make sure the beads are properly fused.

Ironing complete. Let your super, duper hot figure cool for 10-15 minutes.

Because sprites tend to get lonely, it’s best to make a few more. You’ll be tempted to show all of your friends your creations, but choose wisely. This sort of hobby could be ammunition for your friends for years to come.

Create some friends for your figure. Next, defeat the Elemental Fiends and restore the balance of the world.

Conclusion

It’s fun, it’s cheap, and it kills a boring Saturday afternoon as effectively as Angry Birds and booze mixed together. These bad boys can be used as coasters, refrigerator magnets, or simple decorations to express your personality.

Have a good time, and rock on, geek.

Review: Kinect for Xbox 360

Kinect with Kinect Adventures!

Remember when the PlayStation EyeToy came out? How about the Wii with its ground-breaking motion sensing controls? You can throw those gimmicks out the window, Microsoft’s Kinect for Xbox 360 is the new way to play!

The Kinect gained huge popularity over the holiday season. Microsoft has finally done motion controls right and has done it simply enough that everyone can join in. The Kinect uses three different sensors in order to see a person’s entire body in 3D: a RGB camera, a microphone running proprietary software and an infrared laser projector. This technology, combined with Microsoft’s advanced gesture, facial and voice recognition, gives the Kinect the upper hand in motion controlled gaming.

I was in Minneapolis last week and had time to head over to the Mall of America. Being a geek, the only stores I cared about visiting were Lego Land (of course), Best Buy Mobile, the Apple store and the Microsoft store (the latter two coincidentally were directly across the hall from each other).

As I walked into the Microsoft store, a crowd of  over 10 people watched as two little boys battled in Kinect Sports Boxing. Everyone was amazed at the ability of the Kinect to track the punches so accurately and without delay! The store was so busy that I wasn’t even able to try the Kinect – every TV was full of people watching or playing.

This is the magical beast.

The Kinect is very simple to set up. Plug the USB cord into any of the USB ports on your Xbox 360. After placing the sensor in a location near your TV (I recommend above the TV), turn on your Xbox 360. You will immediately need to update your console over Xbox Live to enable the Kinect; this only takes a couple of minutes on decent internet speeds. After updating, you will be presented with a long but worthwhile tutorial showing you where to stand, how to use your hands to navigate and how to use the menus.

Now comes the best part: You can stand in front of your TV and control your entire Xbox 360 experience with your body! I swear this was straight out of Star Wars, utilizing what seemed like The Force to throw the navigation panels back and forth across the screen. The accuracy of the sensors is incredible. It is so simple, smooth and fun to wave your hands around and see instant feedback on the screen in front of you.

The Kinect comes bundled with Kinect Adventures, a not-so-great representation of what the Kinect can do. I recommend buying Kinect Sports, otherwise you will be left frustrated and bored with the poor quality of Kinect Adventures. For the sake of learning how the Kinect works, I played Kinect Adventures first and a few of the game types were pretty entertaining. Once I got the hang of using my body to do EVERYTHING, I was eager to try Kinect Sports.

Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports

Kinect Sports is where the Kinect technology really shines. Not only did I sweat up a storm, even after placing a fan in the room, I felt like I was actually playing a real sport! There was no weird controller hindering me and Kinect was able track my movements back and forth, left and right, along with my legs and feet, all accurately.

Currently, the stand-alone Kinect is priced at $149.99 with Kinect Adventures included. You can spend a little over $300 to get a new 4 GB Xbox 360 bundled with Kinect and Kinect Adventures, which is the best deal if you don’t mind the small hard drive.

If you are looking for a way to entertain the whole family this year or just have a great time with a few friends, the Xbox 360 Kinect is the best choice you can make, assuming you know the ways of The Force!

Image courtesy: closari on Flickr

A Return to Old-School Gaming: Emulators and Retro Games

Mechner used video of his little brother to help create his animations in Prince of Persia.

Back in the early ’90s things were different and, in some ways, better. MC Hammer was lighting up MTV with inflatable pants, Compuserve 3.25″ diskettes were confusing households across the US, and my family’s 66 MHz Pentium PC was a $3500 fiery hellbeast that made the Pentagon as nervous as current-day Wikileaks.

And the video games…

Before the gaming behemoths swallowed up the industry during the console wars, many games were developed by small groups of programmers that emphasized gameplay and challenging puzzles over graphics. Heck, the original Prince of Persia (1989) was developed by a single guy, Jordan Mechner, who carefully crafted a game that required a keen sense of timing, problem-solving ability, and patience…because approximately 0% of this game was passable on the first attempt.

You’ll try. You’ll fail.

I miss those days, sitting in my basement with my brother playing our NES and SNES, trying to get past that ridiculous ‘speeder’ level in Battle Toads (seriously, I’ve never played a game that went from ‘easy’ to ‘impossible’ as quickly as Battle Toads). Final Fantasy, Tetris, SimTower, StarFox! I want them back!

There are a few ways you can once again enjoy these classic games, so dust off that Power Glove and your favorite Zubaz, things are about to get retro.

Retro Gaming Repositories

Praise the Lord for basement-dwelling nerds that love their retro gaming. Two of my favorite places on the internet are RGB Classic Games and Liberated Games, which are sites devoted to the free legal distribution of retro games from DOS, Windows, and even a few from OS/2. If you’re looking for titles including the original Grand Theft Auto, Wolfenstein 3D, Age of Empires (1 and 2), and Duke Nukem (1 through 3D), you’re in luck.

It’s not all fun and games though – this software isn’t always a piece of cake to get working on modern computers. With some titles you’ll have to install in Compatibility Mode to get them to work on Windows 7. When I was installing SimTower the other day, I had to ensure that it was running as “Windows XP compatible”. I guess you take the bad with the good.

To complicate things a bit more, some titles absolutely will not run on a 64-bit operating system. To help ease the stress of geeks around the world, Microsoft offers the freely downloadable Windows Virtual PC which can be run within the Windows 7 environment, and effectively emulates a 32-bit version of Windows XP. This can be a hefty download, but if you absolutely NEED to get in a round of the original Command & Conquer, a few hundred megabyte download won’t hold a candle to your turbo-nerd resolve.

Pro-tip: Before downloading your favorite classic titles, make sure that it is legal to download the game.

Console Emulators and ROMs

Try again…maybe prop it on its side with a book? There we go, that’s better. Ah crap, try blowing in it again.

Remember that trick with the NES where you’d take out the cartridge, blow into it, blow into the console, and then suddenly it would work? First of all, who invented that trick, and how did everybody find out about it? Second, wasn’t that Blinking Gray Screen Of Failure (BGSOF) depressing?

NES enthusiasts have helped to turn the system into something more reliable (and less susceptible to stray popcorn seeds) that can be played within your Windows or OS X environment. It’s pretty simple–people have written programs that essentially act as the console, and you can download “ROMS” which are the cartridges, single files that can be played by the emulator.

What are some popular emulators? For Windows 7 I use Nestopia (NES emulator) and ZSNES (SNES emulator). I’ve had great success with these programs, and very few problems. Some nice features include a built-in Game Genie (remember? That thing that destroyed your console two decades ago?) and the ability to interface with pretty much any USB gamepad ($10-30, depending on quality).

Have a Mac? No problem. Nestopia was originally developed for OS X and I’ve heard good things about  BSNES (SNES emulator for OS X).

Happy Days are here to stay

Modern games like Halo and Starcraft 2 are great, and a lot of fun because they offer fantastic multiplayer options that just weren’t available in years past. However, sometimes you just want to kick back and enjoy some 8-bit graphics and mono sound. If you’re compelled to indulge your inner child gamer, don’t fret…your options abound.

Happy gaming, geek,  and don’t forget:

↑, ↑, ↓, ↓, ←, →, ←, →, B, A, start.