Monday, June 11, 2007

New games merge fantasy with real world

By GREG BLUESTEIN, Associated Press Writer 17 minutes ago

ATLANTA - There's no alien world behind the virtual reality gear, just a modestly
But once the game "AR Facade" starts, you might wish there were space invaders. That's because it puts you in the middle of an excruciatingly uncomfortable argument between Trip and Grace, a bickering thirty-something married couple.

Do you play moderator and decide to help broker a truce? Do you instigate them by complimenting Grace on her decorating style or pretending to be impressed with your pal Trip's place? Or do you act as if everything's peachy while their arguing heats up?

Whatever path is taken, this participatory soap opera at a Georgia Tech research lab is at times funny, awkward and intriguing. And it's always intense and emotionally draining.

"AR Facade" is an "augmented reality" game, a genre that mixes a virtual world with physical reality. The technology is still emerging, though someday people may play such games with gear as simple as their cell phones.

So far, scientists seem to be having fun with the possibilities.

At the University of South Australia, researchers created a version of "Quake," the popular shoot 'em up game, where users with a wraparound visor and a backpack walk around streets and fight superimposed computer objects that only they can see. A human "Pac-Man" game, created at the University of Singapore, places virtual yellow dots along the city streets and allows players to become the game's hero or one of the Ghosts set on catching the little gobbler.

Some have a more practical use, too.

Mark Billinghurst's "Magic Book" is an animated children's book that turns into a 3-D pop-up, changing with each page when viewed through head-mounted goggles. The New Zealand scientist also is helping develop "AR Tennis," which lets gamers use their cell phones as rackets on a virtual court superimposed on a real table. The action is watched on the phones' screens.

"Within five years people will be able to easily experience Augmented Reality applications on their mobile phones, in their homes, schools, hospitals, workplace and cars," he said. "One of the most exciting things is that the current generation of mobile phones have the processing power, display resolution and camera quality necessary to provide compelling AR experiences."

Billy Pidgeon, a games analyst at the research company IDC, says the field shows promise, especially if its future is staked to the growing computing power of cell phones and other handheld devices.

"I don't know if it's a sustainable industry, but there's definitely money in it," he said. "There's many ways you can link gaming and interactive entertainment outside because portable devices are getting pretty powerful — and so is the network. I can see it growing."

At Georgia Tech, the Atlanta school where Trip and Grace's "AR Facade" was created, researchers are using the technology to create "interactive dramas."

The games are "somewhere between a movie and a video game," said Steven Dow, a Ph.D. student in Georgia Tech's human-centered computing program.

"You can kind of choose your own outcome, and you can define your own way to win," he said. "In a way, it's a theater and a stage where people can step in to become an actor in the experience."

Researchers there are creating a game called "Four Angry Men" — based on the play — where players debate the fate of a young man accused of killing his father.

"AR Facade" had a more traditional beginning. Created over a five-year period, it started as a free traditional PC game that asked players to type in comments to interact with the bickering couple. More than 300,000 copies have been downloaded, and it earned critical acclaim for its sophisticated artificial-intelligence system.

Dow and other researchers spent a year trying to bring the game into the real world. They built a living room with a couch, a bar, pictures on the wall, a phone and other household staples. In fact, everything is real except Trip and Grace — the two cartoonish characters can only be seen through a backpack-mounted laptop worn by the player and a screen mounted from the player. The virtual arguing comes through a pair of thankfully comfortable earphones.

The goal of the research is to gain a better understanding of how humans and computers interact. Dow has studied dozens of gamers, watching as some have antagonized the characters while others have grown emotional as the quarreling intensified. One gamer tried to physically stop the fight, only to remember she was trying to block a virtual character from walking away.

The equipment that gamers strap on to enter the Facade world seems imposing, but the processing power that runs the system is no more daunting than what's found in an
Xbox 360 console.

"This whole thing could run on your home game console," said Blair MacIntyre, an associate professor in Georgia Tech's College of Computing.

Professional voice actors recorded thousands of lines of dialogue to play the young couple's voices. As the player talks, a researcher types the words into a computer behind the set. They trigger certain reactions driven by several complex algorithm engines that control the drama, dialogue and even the facial expressions of Trip, a pushy blond, and Grace, an attractive and temperamental brunette.

There are hundreds of different story lines and seven different outcomes — and most of them end badly, with Trip, Grace or both kicking you out of the apartment. But there's one ending, extremely rare, that can almost be described as happy.

The disgruntled couple argues, as usual, over vacations, home decor, jobs and even wine selection. But then, after a shift in tactics by the gamer, they launch into an emotional, loud and occasionally profane fight. You can almost sense the moment they let their guard down.

That's when Grace admits to a lingering depression and concedes that she has allowed Trip to dominate their relationship. And Trip admits his materialism is rooted in his experience growing up on the edge — including living in a shelter for six months.

They finally come to terms, a hesitant truce, and agree to talk about their problems.

But this time, they talk alone.


Friday, June 8, 2007

Printing books online: an author you can't refuse

By Robert MacMillan 36 minutes ago

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller are among the world's most respected authors, but for a while they had a hard time finding a publisher.

Rather than seek a mainstream outlet for racy novels such as "The Black Book" and "Tropic of Cancer," they used the Obelisk Press, a French publishing house started by Jack Kahane to print his own novel.

That was the 1930s. Now, a young Henry Miller could use new Internet companies like, i-Universe, or Xlibris to print his book -- and even sell it through their online stores.

Gwen Fuller used Blurb ( to publish her book, "Do Mallet the Suitcase," a collection of spam e-mail arranged as haiku.

Among them: "Dude, get all U need/And dragonhead by reckon/She will love you more," and "Just what all men need/C'Mon Baby, Light My Fire/Chat and meet women."

Avoiding traditional publishing was a plus for Fuller, 48, a life coach in Menlo Park, California.

"There was a process that I was sort of unwilling to get engaged in when there was something that could so immediately deliver a quality book," she said.

Blurb requires customers to download its software, which then lets them lay out text and photos. Then they send the specifications to the company, which prints the books in either hardcover or soft.

Rates start at $18.95 for one small softcover. Bulk-order discounts start at 10 copies, company founder Eileen Gittins said.

"If you order 10 copies, you get a 10 percent discount, 100 copies you get a 15 percent discount," she said. "Over 200, we encourage you to give us a shout."

Blurb also allows authors to sell their works on its in-house bookstore, printing copies as new orders come in, and to charge a markup so they can make a profit. The company sends out a check every time an author earns $25 or more.


Many people use Blurb for personal projects as well. Michelle Flaherty and her husband Peter received a book made by their daughters with photos of Haunted Acre Woods, the large-scale Halloween display they mount each year at their home in East Falmouth, Massachusetts.

"It was the first Christmas gift in I don't know how many years that actually made me cry," she said. "It was so original, so different."

While a budding novelist could use Blurb, the company specializes in photo layouts with glossy paper and the look of a "coffee-table" book.

Some writers looking to print more literary works are visiting Lulu (

Lulu, founded by Bob Young, co-founder of software company Red Hat Inc., allows customers to publish school yearbooks, artwork, calendars and many other things -- but especially books. Lulu recoups expenses and takes a 20 percent cut of the profit on a book sale.

Mark Wilkerson's biography of Who guitarist and writer Pete Townshend has led him to the brink of a deal with a conventional publisher in Europe.

Wilkerson, 37, is an aircraft maintenance planner for UPS, and lives in Prospect, Kentucky -- about as far away from the mainstream publishing world as it gets.

Publishers that he pitched rejected him or asked him why he was qualified to write his book, the 618-page "Amazing Journey: The Life of Pete Townshend."

"Lulu has been fabulous for me, because what else would I have done?" he said. "I was completely ignorant of the many facets of the publishing industry."

Wilkerson sent his book to reviewers, and received positive notices in The Rocky Mountain News, the Chicago Sun-Times and influential music magazine MOJO. The book came to Townshend's attention, and the legendary musician tentatively committed to writing a foreword to the next edition, Wilkerson said.

Blurb and Lulu are not the only self-publishing options on the Internet. Xlibris ( is a self-publishing company that works in a partnership with Random House's investment unit, and iUniverse ( offers similar services.

Both offer more services, with packages from about $300 all the way up to nearly $13,000.

Blurb and Lulu are better for enthusiasts, said Scott Flora, executive director of the Small Publishers Association of North America,

"If there are people who love to write and they want to see their book in print, this is a good option," he said.

Beware of fake Microsoft security alerts

Robert McMillan 31 minutes ago

San Francisco (IDGNS) - With Microsoft's monthly patch release expected on Tuesday, scammers are sending out fake security bulletins that attempt to install malicious software on victim's computers.

The e-mail messages claim to describe a "Cumulative Security Update for Internet Explorer" that fixes a critical security flaw in the browser. It comes with a link entitled "Download this update."

When users click on this link, they are taken to a server that attempts to install malicious software known as Trojan-Downloader.Win32.Agent.avk.

This Trojan software then attempts to reach out to other computers on the Internet in order to install more programs on the victim's computer.

The SANS Internet Storm Center received its first and only report of the scam on Thursday night, but a second sample has also been posted to the Chinese Internet Security Response Team blog.

SANS volunteer Lenny Zeltser believes that the criminals behind this scam may be gearing up for more activity. The trojan looks for three different servers, and two of them have domains that haven't yet been registered. He suspects the authors of the scam may be planning to register those domains before embarking on a more widespread campaign.

The two e-mail samples contained obvious errors that would be caught by technically savvy users. For example, although the patch Zeltser examined claimed to have been issued in June 2007, it was entitled MS06-4 instead of the more-plausible MS07-004.

Still, these scams need to fool only a small percentage of victims in order to be successful, said Zeltser, information security practice leader at Gemini Systems in New York. "You wonder, does it really matter that there are these strange discrepancies in the way the fake security alert is written," he said. "People who would notice probably would be the kind of people who wouldn't click on the link."

Another tip-off: Microsoft does send out notification e-mail when it publishes security bulletins, but the links in these alerts take users to the bulletins themselves, not to executable downloads