The business and culture of our digital lives,
from the L.A. Times

Category: Virtual worlds

USC researchers hack Microsoft Kinect to play World of Warcraft

Researchers at USC have hacked a Microsoft Kinect camera and gotten it to control the hugely popular computer game, World of Warcraft.

And the software they used to pull it off, known as Flexible Action and Articulated Skeleton Toolkit or FAAST, is downloadable for free online. CAT_SE_3D_RGB_NA_RTsm

FAAST, built by USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, allows users to play computer games with a Kinect motion-sensor camera by translating body movements into the inputs that would otherwise be triggered a keyboard and mouse, or a gaming controller with joysticks and buttons.

A video on YouTube from the researchers shows off FAAST controlling World of Warcraft, a hugely popular computer game in which players control a customized character in a land of witches and knights and gnomes.

In the video, Skip Rizzo, one of the researchers, touts the software and motion-sensing camera such as the Kinect as a tool toward healthier lives for those who spend hours a day playing computer games.

"I think the real compelling aspect of all this is that you can now take off-the-shelf games, content that's already built, and emulate the keyboard actions with body movement," Rizzo said in the video. "This opens up the doorway for building rehabilitation exercises for people after a stroke or traumatic brain injury. And in an area that's getting a lot of attention, the area of childhood obesity and diabetes."

"You got a kid who’s interacting with World of Warcraft for six hours a day, perhaps a parent can step in and say, 'Hey, alright, for one hour of that time, you're going to do it with the Kinect ... and you're got to exercise while you're doing it,'" he said.

"So, instead of using a thumb controller to move your character, you've got to run in place, you've got to use arm gestures and you actually build into the application for a way for a kid to physically engage with digital content like a game."


Microsoft welcomes hackers to Kinect

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 -- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Video: World of Warcraft being controlled by Microsoft Kinect. Credit: Evan A. Suma of USC's Institute for Creative Technologies via YouTube

Image: World of Warcraft Cataclysm expansion box for the World of Warcraft computer game. Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Google Earth 6 adds 3-D trees, integrated Street View, to the mapping application

Google Earth 6 was released Tuesday morning, bringing a few new features to the free mapping application, such as 3-D trees and full integration with Street View.

Street View should be familiar to almost anybody who has used Google Maps.

In previous versions of Google Earth, Street View was only available for certain streets. Now, the 360-degree images of city streets are fully integrated in Google Earth. So, if it's available in Google Maps, it will be available in Google Earth 6, the company said.

Sf_goldengate1 The latest version of Google Earth gives users the ability to fly in from a digital version of outer space, with a floating Earth and stars, right to a city street or 3-D rendering of notable buildings and structures.

And, in Google Earth 6, those 3-D buildings will be sitting next to 3-D trees.

Google said it had added more than 80 million 3-D trees to Google Earth, in cities such as Athens, Berlin, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco and Tokyo.

The tech giant also is working with environmental organizations such as the Green Belt Movement in Africa, the Amazon Conservation Team in Brazil and CONABIO in Mexico to create 3-D models for Google Earth of some of the planet’s endangered forests.

Historic photos, introduced in Google Earth 5, also have been updated in Google Earth 6.

When old photos for a location are available, the date of the oldest imagery will appear in a status bar at the bottom of the screen. If a user clicks the date, the map will shift back to the photo from that time, or users can choose photos from time periods in between as well.


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-- Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Video: Google explains updates found in Google Earth 6. Image: a screenshot of 3-D trees in a Google Earth 6 map of San Francisco. Credit: Google Inc.

FarmVille maker Zynga unveils CityVille

Hud.jpg For all those social gamers unmoved by the rural charms of Zynga’s popular FarmVille, the developer has released a far more cosmopolitan option.

In CityVille, players will build a metropolis from scratch, creating a community that they will preside over as mayor. The game will launch in coming weeks in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish on Facebook, which also hosts FarmVille.

San Francisco-based Zynga also makes the MafiaWars and FrontierVille games, with hundreds of millions of players total.

The concept of CityVille is “Monopoly meets Main Street,” said Sean Kelly, the game’s general manager, in a statement. Users will build from the ground up –- clearing the land, assembling roads, then building post offices, schools, fire departments and businesses -– all rendered in 3-D.

They’ll  run sales at local shops to keep the economy healthy, decorate homes to justify higher rents, even build train systems and piers to encourage trade with other players.

“Instead of harvesting crops you're harvesting your neighborhood,” Kelly said.

Interactivity will be key. Players can visit each others’ cities and even operate business franchises there. And as the urban sprawl expands, more characters will be available –- doctors, policemen, businesses owners, residents and more.

It’s a bit more ambitious than managing a farm, and it also sounds similar to the SimCity game. Wonder if Villaraigosa plans to give it a spin.

Kelly and others explain the mechanics in this YouTube video:  


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-- Tiffany Hsu

Photo: Zynga

Cutting-edge virtual reality technology in development in Playa Vista

Computer-simulated battlefields, three-dimensional video teleconferencing and sprawling virtual worlds are just a few of the tools being developed at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

The cutting-edge research institute, known as ICT, recently opened a facility in Playa Vista where it develops virtual environments used to train U.S. military personnel.

A story in today's Times features the institute, whose work is used by the military for purposes including training fighters to combat insurgents and calming nerves of weary soldiers. ICT’s wide-ranging technologies are now found on 65 military sites across the country.

As the Pentagon has stepped up spending on training military personnel through simulations, ICT’s funding has increased from $5 million in 1999 to about $30 million this year.

Take a look at the photo gallery, which includes pictures of ICT's live 3-D video teleconferencing tool, dubbed "headspin.”

The technology is similar to Skype, but users appear as a hologram, capable of looking around and making eye contact with whomever they need to address. Through the use of two spinning curved brushed-aluminum panels, images are much like R2-D2’s hologram projector in the "Star Wars" films.

In a training tool dubbed Stretching Space, users wear head-mounted displays that makes them feel as if they are walking through an expansive labyrinth of rooms and buildings that covers 3,000 square feet. In reality, users are walking in circles around a space that is just 300 square feet.

Randall W. Hill Jr., executive director of ICT, said the institute outgrew its old facility, which was in Marina del Rey.

"The move is a mark of a new era for us," Hill said.

-- W.J. Hennigan

Lego Universe's quest: Build on toy's offline success

In a galaxy not so far away (near Boulder, Colo.) brews a game with ambitions to be the online focal point for millions of people who hold a peculiar fascination for colored plastic bits.

Lego Universe, set to hit Earthly computers Oct. 26, is a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game in the same genre as World of Warcraft or EverQuest. But there are two important distinctions. Whereas WoW and EQ are primarily for teens and adults, Lego Universe is meant for kids aged 8 to 12. Avatars in the game are customizable "mini-figs" who try to save the universe by collecting bricks and using their imagination to defeat an evil force called the Maelstrom.

The second, key feature is a software tool that lets players build virtual Lego models, drawing from an assortment of 80,000 bricks that Lego has sold over the years. Once a virtual model is built, say, a bunny, players can program it to perform certain actions. The bunny can jump, run away or explode when approached, for example. To see the software in action, watch the video above.

Lego afficionados will recognize elements of Lego Digital Designer and Lego Mindstorms in this tool. For the rest of us who are not in the know, Lego Digital Designer is a software tool that Lego's master brickbuilders use to design new Lego sets. A free version of the software is also available to anyone. And Mindstorms is a kit that lets players build a robot out of Lego bricks and customize its movements.

The game is being developed by NetDevil, an independent studio in Louisville, Colo., with design support from Lego engineers imported from the company's headquarters in Denmark. Like other MMOs, the game will require players to buy a disc for about $40 at a retail store and pay $10 a month to access the online world.

-- Alex Pham

Facebook and Zynga declare detente over virtual currency

Mafia Wars Zynga Facebook and Zynga have buried their pitchforks -- for now.

The two Silicon Valley companies Tuesday morning issued a joint release announcing a five-year agreement that officially puts an end to a game of corporate chicken in which both threatened to run over the other.

Facebook had wanted to start using a virtual currency called Facebook Credits used by all developers on its platform, with Facebook taking a cut of all sales. Zynga, which created Farmville, Mafia Wars and several of the most popular apps on Facebook, threatened to start taking its games elsewhere.

In a kiss-and-make-up statement, Zynga's chief executive Marc Pincus and Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said Zynga is "testing Facebook Credits in select games and will expand to more titles over the coming months."

They declined to say how much of each sale Zynga would get to keep and, conversely, what Facebook's cut would be. In similar models, such as Apple's iTunes and Microsoft's Xbox Live, the owner of the platform typically takes a 30% cut, with developers receiving 70% of any sale.

Outside estimates of Zynga's annual revenue range from $240 million to $600 million, according to Jeremy Liew, managing director of Lightspeed Venture Partners. That's $72 million to $180 million a year potentially walking out the door of the San Francisco social game company.

Traces of the dispute remain, however. Here's Pincus' quote:

We are excited about Facebook’s long-term commitment to social gaming and Zynga, and look forward to working with them and other platform providers to bring the best social gaming experience to users worldwide.

And here's Sandberg's statement:

We look forward to continuing our work with Zynga and all of our developers to increase the opportunities on our platform.

The subtext is clear: If this doesn't work out, there are other fish in the sea.

-- Alex Pham

Image Credit: Zynga.

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter:

Will Wright, creator of The Sims, talks toys

Will Wright
Will Wright, creator of The Sims. Credit: Stupid Fun Club.
Will Wright is still messing around. The 49-year-old creator of The Sims, Sim City and Spore quit Electronic Arts in April, but he continues to "build things that people would want to play with."

Wright is still cagey about what he has up his sleeve, but he's given us a few clues.

Hint #1: It's a toy. Wright will be taking his concept to the New York Toy Fair in February, where he will deliver a talk titled "The Evolution of Entertainment: A Toy's Place" at the Engage! Expo, a conference on the convergence of toys, the Internet, virtual worlds, games and social media.

Hint #2: It will involve games. How could it not? Wright's games have sold more than 100 million copies and generated more than $1 billion in sales for EA, which has invested in Wright's company, the strangely named Stupid Fun Club.

Hint #3: It will have robotic components. "To some degree," he qualifies. "All of our projects have crossover elements. Even calling it a toy makes it too specific." Wright's fascination with robots dates back to when he was a child building model tanks and attaching motors to them.

Hint #4: It will be connected to the Internet. Many toys have developed online components. Ganz's Webkinz, for example, is both an online virtual world and a line of plush toys. Hasbro has collaborated with Electronic Arts to create a virtual world based on the toy company's Littlest Pet Shop line of stuffed animals.

Hint #5: It will rely on crowdsourcing. No surprises there, since The Sims spawned hundreds of thousands of fan-created YouTube videos. Wright cites a toy called 20Q that asks players to think of an object, then proceeds to guess what that object is after asking 20 questions. The program that generates the answers came from a database of questions and answers generated by millions of visitors to a website of the same name.

Still don't get it? Neither do we. But we're still intrigued. Hopefully, Wright will have more to say at The Engage conference at Toy Fair.

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

Riot Games snags $8 million, will launch League of Legends in China via Tencent

League of Legends
Artwork from League of Legends. Credit: Riot Games.

Riot Games, a Culver City company started by two former roommates from the University of Southern California, this morning announced it has bagged $8 million in venture funding, bringing the studio's total financing to nearly $20 million -- even before Riot has launched its first game.

The largest investor in the latest round of financing is Tencent, a Chinese Internet company. Based in Shenzhen, Tencent operates QQ, China's largest instant messaging services, with 448 million active users. Tencent had previously agreed to publish Riot's title, League of Legends, in the world's most populous country.

Riot, founded in 2006 by USC grads Brandon Beck and Marc Merrill, will launch the game in North America and Europe in October, followed by a launch in Asia. As a fantasy role-playing game, League of Legends is born out of the World of Warcraft mold. Indeed, it was developed by the same team that made Defense of the Ancients, one of the most popular player-created "mods" based in the Warcraft III universe.

But League of Legends, or LoL (go ahead, snicker), is expected to differ from WoW in two key respects. The first is that League of Legends focuses on short game sessions that last 20 to 30 minutes from start to finish. In contrast, World of Warcraft campaigns can last hours at a time, much of it waiting around for something exciting to happen. League of Legends promises to distill that experience into shorter bursts of combat and strategy, minus the thumb twiddling.

Secondly, League of Legends will be free to play, whereas World of Warcraft players must buy the game disc and pay a monthly subscription to play the game online. Riot's business model, which is much more prevalent among game companies in Asia than in America, is to entice players to buy virtual goods, such as character outfits and power-ups.

"There are people who will play for a couple of months and spend a couple of bucks," said Mitch Lasky, partner in Benchmark Capital, a venture fund that has invested in Riot Games along with Tencent and FirstMark Capital. "Then, there will be people who will play for a couple of years and spend a couple hundred bucks. This game provides an experience that can accommodate that."

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

Habbo creates Twilight space for virtual vampires

Habbo Love Forbidden love is about to go virtual.

In November, fans of Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" series will be able to indulge their paranormal passions in Habbo, a virtual world played by more than 12 million users worldwide.

While its audience is geographically diverse, Habbo's deliberately pixelated aesthetic (right) has appealed mostly to teenagers who grok its retro vibe and can appreciate the game's campy, playful humor. The average age of a Habbo player is 15, according to Teemu Huuhtanen, executive vice president of Sulake, Habbo's developer in Helsinki, Finland.

As a result, a number of Hollywood properties have used Habbo as a doorway into the fickle world of teens, including "American Idol," "Heroes" and "Spiderwick Chronicles."

The latest to jump on the Habbo bandwagon is "Twilight." The four books in the series have sold 70 million copies worldwide, and the first movie, produced by Summit Entertainment, generated $400 million in box office sales last year.

Twilight To kick off the Nov. 20 release of the second movie, "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," Habbo's developers will be opening up Twilight-themed rooms and hosting related online parties to stir up fan fervor in early November. In addition, players have the option of buying virtual items associated with the franchise.

If you've read the books or watched the movie, you may be interested in knowing that among the virtual items for sale on Habbo are a water fountain, a clock tower, the Volturi Crest and Jacob's barn door.

If you're not a Twilight fan, it could just be a matter of time before you get bitten by the vampire epidemic that's spreading faster than swine flu among the world's women and teens.

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.

Robots + virtual worlds = Robini-i

The problem with robots is that they tend to do the same thing over and over. That's great if it's a robot that builds cars but boring if it's a toy.

This is something Sony learned with its Aibo robotic dog years ago. The Aibo had a small but dedicated group of hardware hackers who took joy in programming the robot to customize its movements, to play soccer or do synchronized dance moves. Alas, there were not enough hackers in the world to keep Aibo alive, and Sony put the product to sleep in 2006.

Starting Sept. 28, another company is making a run at robots for the masses. Robinica, a South African startup, said it will start selling a $250 robot that can be programmed to do any number of things. In addition, the robot can jack into an online virtual world by way of a computer to download new programs, play games or socialize with other robots and their owners.

"We're hoping to create a whole new genre of robotic gaming with Roboni-i," said company director Tom Dusenberry, a veteran of the toy- and video-games industries who founded Hasbro Interactive.

Roboni-i is equipped with an array of infrared, RFID and touch sensors. Players can use a remote control to steer the robot. It also roams around, looking for other robots or objects to play with, if left on its own.

It also has the ability to evolve a personality based on four artificial intelligence characteristics -- playful, adventurous, competitive and mission-oriented.

The mission for shoppers, should they choose to accept it, is to locate one to buy. The company is only selling the robot at select stores, including FAO Schwartz, Fry's, and

-- Alex Pham

Follow my random thoughts on games, gear and technology on Twitter @AlexPham.


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