NVIDIA’s A.I. Thinks It Knows What Games Are Supposed Look Like

Videogames have always existed in a weird place between high art and cutting-edge technology. Their consumer-facing nature has always forced them to be both eye-catching and affordable, while remaining tasteful enough to sit on retail shelves (both physical and digital). Running in real-time is a necessity, so it’s not as if game creators are able to pre-render the incredibly complex visuals found in feature films. These pieces of software constantly ride the line between exploiting the hardware of the future while supporting the past where their true user base resides. Each pixel formed and every polygon assembled comes at the cost of a finite supply of floating point operations today’s pieces of silicon can deliver. Compromises must be made.

Often one of the first areas in games that fall victim to compromise are environmental model textures. Maintaining a viable framerate is paramount to a game’s playability, and elements of the background can end up getting pushed to “the background”. The resulting look of these environments is somewhat more blurry than what they would have otherwise been if artists were given more time, or more computing resources, to optimize their creations. But what if you could update that ten-year-old game to take advantage of today’s processing capabilities and screen resolutions?

NVIDIA is currently using artificial intelligence to revise textures in many classic videogames to bring them up to spec with today’s monitors. Their neural network is able fundamentally alter how a game looks without any human intervention. Is this a good thing?

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Somewhere Down in Africa Toto is Playing on Loop

Amidst the vast expanse of sand dunes in the Namib desert, there now exists a sound installation dedicated to pouring out the 1982 soft rock classic “Africa” by Toto. Six speakers connected to an MP3 player all powered by a few solar powered USB battery packs, and it is literally located somewhere down in Africa (see lyrics). The whole project, known as TOTO FOREVER, was the creation of film director [Max Siedentopf] who himself grew up in Namibia.

“I set up a sound installation which pays tribute to probably the most popular song of the last four decades…and the installation runs on solar batteries to keep Toto going for all eternity.”

Max Siedentopf, Creator of TOTO FOREVER

[Siedentopf] certainly chose a song that resonates with people on a number of levels. Toto’s “Africa” was one of the most streamed songs on YouTube in 2017 with over 369 million plays. The song continues to reach a new generation of fans as it has also been the subject of a number of internet memes. Though those local to the sound installation have had some less than positive things to say. [Siedentopf] told BBC, “Some [Namibians] say it’s probably the worst sound installation ever. I think that’s a great compliment.”

The idea of the installation “lasting for all eternity” will certainly be difficult to achieve since the components most certainly lack any serious IP rating. The audio player itself appears to be a RHDTShop mp3 player that according to its Amazon listing page, has three to four hours of battery life per charge. Considering the size of those solar cells the whole thing will probably be dead in a week or two (it is in a desert after all), but no one can deny the statement TOTO FOREVER makes. Below is some footage of the art piece in action taken by the artist himself.
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Retrotechtacular: HGTV, The Place For Everything CES 1996

It’s January, and that means it’s time once again for the Consumer Electronics Show. CES is the place where electronic manufacturers from all across the globe to show off their future products and make promises they probably can’t keep. Of course there is no better indicator of a company’s future than looking at the past, and thanks to [Home & Garden Television] we have a comprehensive look at what CES was twenty three years ago. The cable channel aired a special, “Plugged In with Wil Shriner”, covering CES 1996 and it is certainly illuminating to see in hindsight. Plus it even comes complete with “cable money” tier mid 90s motion graphics.

Over on YouTube, user [videoholic] has uploaded the HGTV CES ’96 special into five separate segments (links provided below). Some of the highlights include:

Part 1 – Home Video

  • Canon introduces IR eye tracking (akin to the New 3DS) in their camcorder line
  • Dual recording VCR from Sharp on one VHS tape provided you can fix the tracking with the remote.
  • The term “I triple E 1394” may just have been said for the first (and last) time ever on cable television.

Part 2 – Audio

  • A digital alarm clock from Oregon Scientific (called the Time Machine) that will tell you the weather.
  • Magellan thought, “Who needs a cell phone when you can have a satellite phone for $8000”.
  • Soundtube, the fashionable beer cozy for your gigantic speakers as seen on MTV Beach House.

Part 3 – Games & Multimedia

  • Noise Cancellation Technologies INC wanted to turn your cars headliner into a big ol’ speaker.
  • Cyber Pong promised online multiplayer a full decade before Rockstar’s Table Tennis on Xbox 360.
  • The Simpsons Cartoon Studio helps create fan fiction on multimedia CD-ROM.

Part 4 – Home & Office

  • Compaq’s PC keyboard with an integrated fax machine.
  • Norris Communication’s handheld voice recorder full of flash memory to offload to your PDA.
  • Crestron’s idea of home automation involved a touchscreen to operate a light switch (some things never change).

Part 5 – Digital Video

Netflix Drops ZX Spectrum Homebrew Title Nohzdyve

The dark, dystopian future is ever-present in the Netflix show Black Mirror, but the latest release in the series, Bandersnatch, presents a decidedly different narrative. Bandersnatch is a branching story that follows the fictional events of a garage-programmer named Stephan who develops the titular game, Bandersnatch, for the Tuckersoft company set in 1980s England. The whole thing plays out as a choose-your-own adventure game fit straight off the Sega CD (albeit with actual full motion video) by allowing watchers to pick what happens next in the story. Not one to miss a cross-promotional opportunity, Netflix also released a playable ZX Spectrum homebrew title, Nohzdyve, developed by a friend of Hackaday, [Matt Westcott].

Keen viewers of Bandersnatch were able to ascertain that the screeching sound at the end of the show when loaded into a ZX Spectrum would display a QR code. That in turn led to a real website for the fake Tuckersoft company (thankfully in HTML). The website itself showcases the fictional company’s software library and upcoming releases, but it also took things a step further. The duality of Bandersnatch is carried over to the website as there are branching paths for those that remove ‘www’ from the URL. Doing so reveals Tuckersoft’s website from an alternate timeline where Bandersnatch was never created, however, a downloadable copy of Nohzdyve in a .tap file is there for the taking.

The Nohzdyve game itself is a vertically scrolling action game that uses the ZX Spectrum’s garish color palette to great effect. Racking up a high score in the game can be done via emulator (for example Speccy) or for the most authentic experience, on real hardware. This may be the best reason to fire up a tape drive in a while, but for those seeking the less-analog approach there is always this gameplay footage from Mr. Tom FTW’s channel:

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DooM Retrospective: 25 Years of Metal

Metal is many things. A material hard and coarse in nature that by forging it in fire becomes sharp enough to cut through anything in its path. The music that bares its namesake is equally cutting and exudes an unyielding attitude that seeks to separate the posers from the true acolytes. Metal is the sentiment of not blindly following the rules, a path less taken to the darker side of the street. In videogame form, there is nothing more metal than Doom.

The creators of Doom, id Software, were always hellbent on changing the perception of PC gaming in the 1990s. Games of the time were rigid and slow in comparison to their console counterparts. The graphical fidelity was technically superior on PC, but no other developer could nail movement in a game like id. The team had made a name for themselves with their Commander Keen series (which came about after a failed Super Mario Bros. 3 PC demo) along with the genre defining Wolfenstein 3D, but nothing topped Doom. In an era that was already soaking with “tude”, Doom established an identity all its own. The moody lighting, the grotesque monster designs, the signature push forward combat, and all the MIDI guitars a Soundblaster could handle; Doom looked and felt a cut above everything else in 1993.

In December of that year, Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl held a hearing to publicly condemn the inclusion of violence in videogames sold in America. The bulk of the arguments sought to portray the videogame industry and its developers as deviants seeking to corrupt the nation’s youth. Id Software responded as if to raise the largest middle finger imaginable, by releasing Doom to the world the very next day. A quarter of a century later people are still talking about it.

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The Evolution of Wireless Game Controllers

The story goes that Atari was developing a premium model of their popular home video game console, the Atari 2600, for the 1981 fiscal year. Internally known as the Stella RC, this model revision promised touch sensitive game selection toggles, LED indicators, and onboard storage for the controllers. The focus of the project, however, was the “RC” in Stella RC which stood for remote control. Atari engineers wanted to free players from the constraints of the wires that fettered them to their televisions.

Problem with the prototypes was that the RF transmitters in the controllers were powerful enough to send a signal over a 1000 ft. radius, and they interfered with a number of the remote garage door openers on the market. Not to mention that if there were another Stella RC console on the same channel in an apartment building, or simply across the street, you could be playing somebody else’s Pitfall run. The mounting tower of challenges to making a product that the FCC would stamp their approval on were too great. So Atari decided to abandon the pioneering Stella RC project. Physical proof of the first wireless game controllers would have been eliminated at that point if it were created by any other company… but prototypes mysteriously left the office in some peculiar ways.

“Atari had abandoned the project at the time…[an Atari engineer] thought it would be a great idea to give his girlfriend’s son a videogame system to play with…I can’t [comment] about the relationship itself or what happened after 1981, but that’s how this system left Atari…and why it still exists today.”

Joe Cody, Atari2600.com

Atari did eventually get around to releasing some wireless RF 2600 joysticks that the FCC would approve. A couple years after abandoning the Stella RC project they released the Atari 2600 Remote Control Joysticks at a $69.95 MSRP (roughly $180 adjusted for inflation). The gigantic price tag mixed with the video game market “dropping off the cliff” in 1983 saw few ever getting to know the bliss of wire-free video game action. It was obvious that RF game controllers were simply ahead of their time, but there had to be cheaper alternatives on the horizon.

Out of Sight, Out of Control with IR Schemes

Nintendo AVS 1985 Display
Nintendo AVS console deck and IR controller on display.

Video games were a dirty word in America in 1985. While games themselves were still happening on the microcomputer platforms, the home console business was virtually non-existent. Over in Japan, Nintendo was raking in money hand over fist selling video games on their Famicom console. They sought to replicate that success in North America by introducing a revised model of the Famicom, but it had to impress the tech journos that would be attending its reveal at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

The prototype system was called the Nintendo Advanced Video System (AVS). It would feature a keyboard, a cassette tape drive, and most importantly two wireless controllers. The controllers used infrared (IR) communication and the receiver was built-into the console deck itself. Each controller featured a square metallic directional pad and four action buttons that gave the impression of brushed aluminum. The advancement in video game controller technology was too good to be true though, because the entire system received a makeover before releasing as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) that Christmas. The NES lacked the keyboard, the tape drive, and the IR controllers and its change in materials hardly captured the high-end flash of the AVS. The removal of IR meant the device was cheaper to manufacture. A decision that ultimately helped the NES to become a breakout success that in turn brought back dedicated video game consoles single-handedly.

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PlayStation Classic Hacked Live on Stream

When Sony announced they planned to release their own classic/mini/plug-n-play system this year, many fans were filled with excitement at the chance to relive countless classic games from the 90s. However, once the actual list of titles were made public that excitement faded as reality set in. So many favorites like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon were left off the final PlayStation Classic list, no doubt due to the complexity of licensing agreements. That will all soon change now that [YifanLu] cracked the PlayStation Classic live on a Twitch stream thus laying the ground work for swapping-in a “more curated” list of classic PlayStation games.

Over the course of three days, [YifanLu] documented the process in real-time of cracking the PlayStation Classic’s security armed with little more than a keyboard. The crux of the hack came from fellow hacker [madmonkey]’s revelation that the firmware update files were signed with a key that had been mistakenly left behind on the device by Sony. Or as [YifanLu] stated, “One key is, ‘Hey am I Sony?’…The other key is saying, ‘Hey I am Sony.’ They distributed the key that identifies [themselves] uniquely and this key doesn’t expire for another 50 years or so.”

Once inside [YifanLu] was able to sideload a prototype image of a Crash Bandicoot over USB. He simply overwrote the first title on the list, Battle Arena Toshinden, and could launch the freshly injected game from the PlayStation Classic menu screen. The video below is from Day 3 of the PlayStation Classic hacking series, so skip to timecode (03:44:45) to see the results in action. For a bit more nuance there are another 15 hours or so of video to catch-up on [YifanLu]’s Twitch page. Here’s to everyone getting their favorite onto the PlayStation Classic in the near future.

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