Computing Comes to the Surface


The most interesting technology surprises. The iPad surprised me.

Hold it in your hands and it is just a big iPod. Neat, flashy. A wonderful gizmo. But just that, a gizmo. The surprising thing happens when you lie the device flat on a table. As a horizontal computing surface, and one that integrates input with output on the same surface, you have the makings of a revolution.

This claim probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to anyone who has grown up in a culture dominated by screens. Screens hang on walls, stand on desks, float vertically at every turn. Screens don’t lie on tables. Even the Steve Jobs unveil of the iPad had him sitting in a chair, propping the tablet up on his knee, slightly inclined away from his face, but far from horizontal.

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But if you look around the built environment, the world is filled with horizontal surfaces–tables, chairs, shelves, stands and cubbies. At home we stack papers on the backs of our couches, on the floor, on top of stacks of books and on top of stacks of stacks.

From an architectural stand point, this is hardly surprising. Our bodies are heavily oriented toward to the horizontal. Our eyes are set in our head making the horizontal primary in our field of vision (thus screens are wider than they are high). Our arms are attached on the sides of our body making us better at dealing with things on a plane projecting out in font of us.

Vertically oriented screens create a viewing experience. Almost literally, these screens become windows through which you watch the world, as a viewer. The vertical screen inspires a meditative passivity.

A piece of paper lying on the desk is the action model, the metaphor for doing. We draw on the horizontal plane, we drop books and magazines on the table to read and flip through pages to research. Like a board game, we place things horizontally on the kitchen table to act on them, to interact with them.

And that’s the big surprise for the iPad user. As a screen, it’s one more vertical viewing plane in a world of viewing planes. And like so many of Jobs driven innovations, this is a personal media model–my privileged view into the world. But apple’s Achilles heel has always been it’ baby boomer focus, which is really a 1960’s vision of media you watch. Not media that acts.

So, for me the killer iPad app is board games. The table top game–Monopoly, Scrabble, Risk, Spades and more-form the referece case for the future of surface media.

Because once you acknowledge how much of our kinesthetic life is organized around the horizontal, then the idea of opening up horizontal surface to computing is nothing short of amazing.

Download a board game on the iPad, I like Small World a lot. Play it with a friend. Horizontal computing changes the interaction model, it changes the social model. It is more comfortable and natural for many tasks. It changes how we think about what we are doing and reintroduces a spatial mode of behavior that we have largely ignored in the history of computing.

Sent from my iPad

GDC Day 3: Seriously, they Have Games Here


If you go to swimming pool convention, do you go swimming?

My guess is that you just stand around with a bunch of balding men with deep tans and talk about filters. But I really don’t know.

At GDC, the whole idea has been to talk about games. This is the place that people who make games come to talk about making games. Playing games is sort of a tangent to the whole thing. When your work in making games, you can’t really justify playing them at a work event.

But when your job is to write about games, then playing games counts as work. Which is an oxymoron that no one wants to talk about. But it is also a situation that has lead GDC over the years to start to look like a mini-product expo for your journalists. PR people are as good as time share salesmen at figuring out how to talk you into paying attention to what they have to offer.

So I look at games.

Although iPhone users have created an entire new class of smug casual gamer player, I can’t help but envy their access to a new game called Qrank ( Sign up for free and every day the game downloads a new board of 20 questions. Answer them when you have time—waiting in the elevator, while zoning out on a conference call or pretending to be busy while waiting for the bus. Speed matters and throw in some power ups to make it interesting and you have an enjoyable trifle to pass the time. Invite your friends to compete and things get interesting. The game makes it easy to create leader boards of your Qrank-enabled iPhone buddies. Since it knows how long it took your girlfriend to answer the same question earlier that day, you can seed arguments about intellectual supremacy long before you come home from work.

Starting arguments with technology is cool. But if you want to get a real brawl going, you’re going to need more people. And since your iPhone knows where you are, it can let Qrank look for other trivia fans in the neighborhood. And by neighborhood I mean bar.

Bar quizzes have grown in understandable popularity over the years and people drinking need something to do to feel productive while throwing back rye and ignoring phone calls about getting in home to take Sissy to ballet. And the apparently endless availability of slacker guys with scraggly bears and horn rimmed glasses to host the quizzes have made them into a barroom mainstay.

Qrank, would like a piece of that pie, and be the game that people play in the bar.

Once they port the game to other platforms (Android, Blackberry and Facebook versions are in the works), I’ll be ready to drink to that.

GDC Parties


Do you want to know what the best part of a GDC party is?

You are not there.

If you were there then you’d just be standing around, talking to the three or four people you might know. You’d be getting drunk because you don’t have much else to do. And you’d be trying to figure out how many of those free meatballs you should before you leave. Eat too many, and the next party might have something better and you’ll feel bad that you filled up on meatballs. Don’t eat enough and you’ll be sucking limes out of your gin and tonic because that party has nothing at all to eat.

But it doesn’t matter. Once the parties are over, once the hangover clears, you’ll have been at that party. It won’t matter that you probably could have done something useful with last night. Because you did do something useful. You got invited to a party. And that means someone cares. It’s like there is a God and he really wants you to be happy. So, he made a party for you.

The problem is, he made this party for a whole bunch of people. And they are all bumping into you and getting in your way when you need a drink. These other people are clearly more important than you. They know people. They get to go past the rope at the PlayStation 3 event and play in a special area, for special people. You have to stand around with all the other people. It’s like being a seat filler at the Oscars. You’re just decoration. And then you start to worry that they will find out and replace you. Surely, there is some one better at filling up space than you. And that’s when you figure you should have drunk that glass of wine they offered you at 3:30 in the afternoon when you got to the event. Your nerves are shot. You at least need to pretend like you belong.

If you’ve been doing this for a while, you learn some survival techniques, though. You pull out your notebook and jot down a few things. Notes. Story ideas. Anything. Just look busy. Look like you care. Pretend you are at the party for a reason.

Eventually though, you just become a student of the parties themselves. There’s a science to parties and a culture of parties. And since you really don’t want to go to bed, you start thinking about the nature of parties. Sad! But true.

At least you weren’t there. You can imagine that it was actually fun.

GDC Day 2: Super Ball!


Any culture that gives you hard candy to listen to someone tell you about software has lost track of something.

What, I’m not sure.

But wandering the stiff wonderland that is the GDC Expo, you pretty much expect that if you want a bite-sized Snickers or a free t-shirt, you’re going to have to pretend to be interested in someone selling middleware, or payment services, or call center support or super balls.

I’m sure that that there are perfectly reasonable people selling useful things at the Expo. But if you want to know what people care about, they care about giant gerbil balls that you get inside, mount a pair of VR goggles on your head, grab a gun controller and wander around in a 3D world and shoot things that are probably Martians. Or aliens. They’re bad, whatever they are. And you have to shoot them.

Guy Dubord might have lamented the society of spectacle in the 60s. But the dude should not have shot himself in the heart so long ago. He really needed live to see the superball. Then he would have shot himself in the eyes.

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GDC Day 1: Your Monitor is Lame


I’m an individual, just like everyone else.

Not so long ago, the appellation “gamer” meant you were a part of something special. The blessed. The ones that got it. Being a gamer was more about not being one of the zillions of people that were not gamers. And as a part of the zealotry that fuels any missionary, we the gamers proclamed endlessly that games were awesome.

Not so many years later, everyone knows that games are awesome and being a gamer is sort of like saying you are a sports fans. Sure pal. I am one too.

As a special sort of semantic solution, gamers just started calling themselves “hardcore.” And that usually meant that ether you played the same games everyone else did, just with more intensity and achievement-earning passion, or you made an effort to only love old 8-bit games that no one can really remembered all the clearly. Seriously, who really spends that much time thinking about N.A.R.C.?
The trouble with the new hardcore is that your mom’s PlayStation 3 she uses as a Blu-Ray player to watch Weeds reruns on Netflix looks just like the one that you spin your hardcore Modern Warfare sessions on. Game hardware has become a commodity and there is less and less that helps you the hardcore boast their dedication to playing games. Thanks to Judd Apatow, even being a fat slob doesn’t mean “hardcore” and instead that you’ll probably end up with a gorgeous girlfriend in some improbable way.

But I found out that the industry hasn’t completely forgotten about the lonely hardcore gamer. At least ATI hasn’t.

With the launch of their Eyefinity platform, gamers can hardcore to their mulit-monitor delight. Connect two, three, four, hell, six monitors and bask in the electromagnetic glory of your own personal picture window into gaming.

Right now, not a lot of games support the platform—Battlefield 2, Oblivion and Supreme Commander 2 are being demoed at the show. But expect more games to support the technology in the future. And count on AMD to keep promoting it. Because even though their tech shows up in popular gaming consoles like that the Xbox and Wii, the raw economics of graphics cards dictate that there is more money to be made in selling PC graphics card upgrades.

This inevitable collision of financial opportunity, a need for conspicuous consumption for the hardcore to tout and the somewhat mindless and relentless march of technological innovation has produced the super screen.

How many monitors do you have? Dude. Two is so lame. I got twenty.

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