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Battlefield 3 Battlelog: the changing face of PC gaming

The first time I launched Battlefield 3 on Windows, a browser window appeared with the Battlefield website. I wondered to myself “did I click the wrong button?”. It turns out I didn’t.

For those living under a rock, Battlefield is no web game, in fact it’s one of the most anticipated AAA game titles of this year. What initially seemed like a bad idea to most PC gaming enthusiasts including myself is now growing on me. In fact, this may actually be a sign of PC gaming evolving for the better.

For most current PC games, playing them involves finding and launching it from the Start menu full of other applications, sit through unnecessarily long and repetitive logos and introduction videos, wait for menus to load before waiting again for the actual game to load. Compound that with fancy but poor faux-user interfaces, everything besides the game can be rather tedious.

In contrast for Battlefield 3, it takes just seconds to sign in to the “Battlelog” portal which undeniably resembles Facebook complete with “Hooahs!” instead of “Likes”. However with one click of a “Join game” button, it launches the game application straight into the match with loading times in seconds, rarely seen in any game of its genre before.

While Battlefield 3 isn’t the first PC game to tie some aspects of the game to a browser – Quake Live made its debut as a browser game, it’s much more refined with drag-and-drop party management, integrated voice chat and more.

Granted the current beta of the game and website is undeniably buggy, by having the actual game and its out-of-game management tasks clearly separated not only by design but by code, it also allows the game developers to fix one without relying on the other like they have already.

As a forum post on the popular gaming forum “NeoGAF” best puts it, “Battlefield 3’s Battlelog and server browser is risky, bold, but absolutely brilliant”, I can’t help but agree. Although I would add not only is it pushing the boundaries of the genre, but evolving the PC gaming experience much more social and engaging experience than its console equivalents.

What’s amusing is that console gamers too will have to log on to this portal to check their achievements and stats, but not have the ability to hop straight into a game.

Finally, if you’re wondering the game is as good as it’s hyped up to be, it’s pretty awesome. Although I must state the “Operation Metro” map in the beta is a poor representation of the game. From the few hours I had the chance to play the 64-players Caspian Border, the game will be worth every penny.

The curious case of internet sharing on legacy Windows Phone Mango devices

Forum user “OndraSter” from xda-developers.com deserves a round of applause for brute-forcing his way into the internet sharing feature of Windows Phone Mango. His fine work not only proves the internet sharing feature can be enabled with carefully tuned registry keys but it also works for legacy Windows Phone Mango devices like the Samsung Omnia 7.

Although the original process seemed a little daunting, there’s a much much simpler tutorial by the Windows Phone Hacker which utilizes an updated homebrew application that has the hack built-in. I decided to bite the bullet to try it out because I actually need the internet sharing feature for my planned power outage next week.

After deploying a handful of homebrew XAPs, dialing Samsung diagnostic codes and a few long breaths during restarts, “internet sharing” finally popped up in my settings dialog. A quick flick of the “on” toggle, lo and behold, it actually works! My laptop was browsing funny memes on Reddit in seconds.

Microsoft’s official statement on internet sharing was that it’s currently only available to new Mango-era devices and would eventually roll out to some older devices with the supported WiFi chipset from Broadcom.

This hack proves at least two such devices, the Samsung Focus (US) and Samsung Omnia 7 are already capable with driver support presumably added in the Mango update(s). My heart goes out to HTC and LG users.

I did notice the battery draining much quicker and warmer just during the half-hour I was testing the tethering which might be one of the reasons why it’s not natively enabled yet. Although I can’t claim the process to be easy or safe, as someone who needs the functionality time to time, it’s great to finally see it in Windows Phone.

Update: A spokesperson for Vodafone Australia seems to have confirmed the fact that HTC have not added support for internet sharing at the driver level for at least one of their devices, the Trophy.

Kieran McIlwain says:

We would love to include the Internet Sharing feature in this update, but unfortunately as it was added at the last-minute of the Mango development cycle HTC have not been able to include it in the first release of Mango for the Trophy. I can confirm that it is planned for a future release, however we don’t have any ETA at this stage. As always we will keep you informed in our weekly Device Software Wrap Up with any new information.

Windows Phone Mango: Internet Sharing, Visual Voicemail and improved services availability

It’s officially Mango season. Windows Phone 7.5 has just been officially announced (even though it’s been already spoiled by the new website launched several hours early) and there are plenty of new features and functionality to appreciate. While most of these are available to everyone everywhere, a few in particular are limited by region, carrier and even manufacturer.

One of the most anticipated features, and one that I’m looking forward to the most, is the ability to share a cellular internet connection via WiFi to laptops and other devices. As it turns out, “Internet sharing” may not be available to every carrier or even every device. A Microsoft spokesperson said,

Internet Sharing is available to Windows Phone 7.5 users where supported by their mobile operator and handset hardware. A Broadcom chip, associated drivers, Mango software and carrier support will all be required to support this feature.

With limited knowledge of the internal chips used in Windows Phone devices, I haven’t been able to narrow down which phones do not feature a Broadcom WiFi chip, however the wording suggests such devices do exist. The official documentation on the feature also confirms this feature must be selectively enabled by the carrier for your mobile plan and is likely to cost.

On a more positive note, Visual Voicemail, another highly anticipated feature is going to be much more commonly available.

Visual Voicemail is available to Windows Phone 7.5 users where supported by their mobile operator. There are no new hardware requirements for this feature, so all existing devices in market along with new hardware will be capable of supporting visual voicemail when enabled by the carrier.

I anticipate if the carrier already supports the visual voicemail standard for iPhones, it’ll be immediately if not quickly available for Windows Phone 7 users too.

Last but certainly not least, the Mango update is also making Windows Phone much better global citizen. Alongside the 22 languages and 20 new keyboard inputs it now supports, it’s also bringing a range of Bing-powered services to new and previously unsupported regions around the world.

  • Bing search (accessed from the phone’s hardware Search button) is available in 33 countries: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom, and the United States. (Elsewhere, handset and mobile operators can configure the hardware search button to a locally-relevant search site).
  • Local search results show up in 6 countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, United Kingdom, and the United States.
  • Image search results (which appear as a pivot in Bing search results) are available in the following countries/regions: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom and United States.
  • Music search results are available in the following countries/regions: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom and United States.
  • Vision search results are available in the following countries/regions: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Singapore, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, United Kingdom and United States.
  • Maps is supported in 19 countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and the United States.
  • Voice-to-text and Voice-to-dial is available in 6 countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, United Kingdom, and the Unites States.
  • Voice search is supported in 4 countries: France, Germany, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Even though the feature-set in some regions still leaves a lot of room for improvement, credit where credit is due – Mango brings a drastic improvement over the original launch and proves progress is being made across the board. Hopefully Mango sets the pace for Windows Phone improvements to come.

Microsoft Touch Mouse: a smart mouse with an achilles’ heel

A multi-touch-enabled mouse has been long in the works at Microsoft Research with demonstrations of many experimental designs and gestures, so naturally there was a lot of excitement when Microsoft Hardware finally announced the Microsoft Touch Mouse earlier this year.

Now in September, eight months later, it’s finally available in stores and I’ve been using it for the past week to see if multi-touch is worth all the fuss on Windows 7.

It goes without saying the Touch Mouse looks slick and elegant with a distinctive Microsoft Hardware styling. From the packaging to the touch surface itself, there’s a sophisticated level of attention to detail that one can easily appreciate.

For example, the little crosses on the top surface of the mice not only visually indicates to what extent the surface is touch-sensitive, but it’s also microscopically embossed to provide a subtle amount of tactile feedback whilst keeping the surface smooth enough to glide.

Apple’s Magic Mouse, released almost 2 years ago, is the obvious comparison for the Microsoft Touch Mouse. Although the two mice shares many similar gesture-enabled functionality such as the ability to manage application windows, a subtle but important difference is that multi-touch gestures are natively supported in Mac OS X, whereas for the Touch Mouse they’re provided by the driver’s companion Windows 7 software.

The simple gesture of scrolling is actually one of the Touch Mouse’ strong points since without mechanical wheels, it supports scrolling at different speeds which is extremely useful for browsing websites and working in Photoshop. Having said that, because of the indirect connection between the mouse and the application, some applications scroll differently to others leading to an inconsistent experience.

Speaking of gestures, I have also grown extremely fond of the “back” and “forward” gestures that can be easily activated by flicking the thumb left or right at the edge of the mouse. In comparison it’s much more natural to access than the two finger swipe on the Magic Mouse to navigate between web pages.

As a pointing and left-clicking device, the Touch Mouse is very capable mice. The BlueTrack sensor works accurately on a wide range of surfaces and left-click is satisfactorily tactile. I purposely mentioned left-click because right-clicking is actually not as simple as one would hope for a Windows-optimized mice where right-clicking is quite prevalent.

The cause of the issue is the lack of two distinct click sensors. By design, if you have one or more fingers resting on the left side of the touch surface, the Touch Mouse automatically defaults to a left-click action, even if you applied pressure with your right finger. Needless to say this is quite frustrating for click-intensive applications such as games. This behavior also prevents mouse-chording where both left and right click need to be simultaneously activated.

In conclusion, the Microsoft Touch Mouse is a notable first attempt by Microsoft Hardware for productizing a multi-touch mice mouse for Windows. Barring a significant but fixable hardware design issue, the Touch Mouse is worth trying out for the casual user. For everyone else, it’s a no secret Microsoft products truly shine at the second or third revision. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.”

Microsoft Research Asia explains the magic behind Kinect-based object digitization

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If you’ve ever had the chance to try out Kinect Fun Labs‘ “Build a Buddy” or “Googly Eyes” games, then you would have had the chance to witness the magic of Kinect’s object digitization technology to build animated and texture-mapped 3D model of almost anything. It turns out being able to do this in under two seconds required some help from Microsoft Research Asia.

In the video, researchers Minmin Gong and Xin Sun demonstrates that the raw data from Kinect’s depth sensors is actually much rougher than as one might have imagined. To produce a smoother and “water-tight” model, they use a process called “Poisson Surface Reconstruction” to process the spatial points into more realistic surfaces.

To make the algorithm practical for a gaming platform like the XBOX 360 with limited computing power and memory amongst other game code and resources, they were able to optimize the algorithm to reduce 80% of triangles in the 3D mesh with minor change to the resulting shape which cut the process down from 20 seconds to just 2.

Although they didn’t go into more detail, one can only imagine cryptic math equations like those drawn on a glass wall in the video were involved.

Just as they say at the end of the video, “in the future, it will become faster, more accurate and more realistic”, I can only hope these guys are having lunch every day with the Microsoft Research people working on KinectFusion. Only good things can come from that.