Friday, May 23, 2008

Virtual Worlds 'useful' for children

Virtual worlds can be valuable places where children rehearse what they will do in real life, reveals research.

They are also a "powerful and engaging" alternative to more passive pursuits such as watching TV, said the BBC-sponsored study.

The research was done with children using the BBC's Adventure Rock virtual world, aimed at those aged 6-12.

Prof Gauntlett said the research revealed that children assumed one of
eight roles when exploring a virtual world and using the tools they put
at their disposal.

At times children were explorers and at others they were social
climbers keen to connect with other players. Some were power users
looking for more information about how the workings of the virtual

Social climbers
Collector consumers
Power users
Life system builders

Prof Gauntlett said online worlds were very useful rehearsal spaces
where children could try all kinds of things largely free of the
consequences that would follow if they tried them in the real world.

For instance, he said, children trying out Adventure Rock
learned many useful social skills and played around with their identity
in ways that would be much more difficult in real life.

Prof Gauntlett said what children liked about virtual worlds was the
chance to create content such as music, cartoons and video and the
tools that measured their standing in the world compared to others.

"The kids know what they are doing and are very good at telling you in
a brutally honest and forthright manner about what they want to see,"
said Wil Davies, a teacher at Peterston Super Ely primary in Glamorgan,
from where some of the research subjects were drawn.

Irene Sutherland said: "Children were adamant about the bits they did not
play but were full of ideas about how to improve them."

Article Link (BBC)

Haptic Bunny

Robticist Steve Yohanan thinks there's something missing from the design of many robots:
the human touch. By omitting the touch sensation from robotic design,
Steve thinks that scientists and engineers are missing out on an
important machine-human interaction, capable of communicating emotions.
So he's designed and built Haptic Creature, a furry robotic research bunny with touch feedback as it's only way of communicating.

"I had a cat for many years, and what I miss most about interacting
with her is touch," says Steve. So he designed the furry rabbit robot
to be laced with pressure sensors so it can sense where and how it's
being touched or stroked. It then responds by making breathing-like
motions, purring vibrations, or ear wiggles.

And though it sounds like a whacky bit of science, apparently a

research study at the University of British Columbia showed that people
who stroked the bunny had an emotional response even to this limited feedback, and could identify the bunny's "emotions" across a range of negative to positive.

Article Link (Gizmodo)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Flame: the world's most advanced walking robot

Flame walking robot

By mimicking the way that humans actually fall forward when walking, Flame comes insanely close to the real thing. Usually, walking robots are energy-hungry propositions,
but this is the first that's both efficient and stable. Inside Flame
are seven motors and a balance "organ" loaded with stability
algorithms. By measuring each step, the robot adjusts stance width,
speed, and gait on the go. In the end, kids, we're looking at the
world's most advanced and efficient walking robot.

Article Link (Engadget)

Nielsen: MySpace, Club Penguin growth static, LinkedIn soaring

The April 2008 iteration of those numbers that Nielsen releases each
month about social-networking site activity indicate that growth on
News Corp.'s MySpace continues to slow, and that kiddie virtual world Club Penguin--acquired by Disney last year for $350 million--is just about static.

The Nielsen numbers, which track monthly unique visitors to
social-networking sites, found that MySpace's growth from April 2007 to
April 2008 was just 3 percent, and that Club Penguin's traffic shrank 7
percent. If Nielsen's numbers are accurate (which is always debatable with online metrics), that's not good for News Corp and Disney. In August, for example, the same methodology from Nielsen
found that Club Penguin had grown 250 percent year-over-year and that
MySpace was still growing at a healthy rate of 23 percent.

The numbers also reveal that business social network LinkedIn, which may or may not be aiming for a billion-dollar valuation,
is still growing rapidly, pulling in 361 percent more unique users than
it did a year ago. Facebook is growing more slowly, with 56 percent
more visitors--and keep in mind that April 2007 was just a month before
the company announced its developer platform and "exploded," at least
in terms of Valley chit-chat.

Music-focused social-media sites Imeem and Buzznet
are also notable, pulling in 92 percent and 104 percent growth
respectively. Over the past year, both well-funded sites have been
pursuing ambitious development strategies: Imeem has been inking licensing deals with both music and video content providers, and Buzznet has been acquiring blogs like Stereogum and the formerly Gawker Media-owned Idolator.

Article Link

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grasshoppper "robot" sets new high-jump record

This grasshopper-inspired bot from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology lays claim to the robot high-jump record, which it was able to capture handily by jumping 27 times its own height. That was done with the aid of a motor originally designed to power the vibration unit of a pager which, in this case, winds up two metal springs that eventually release and spring the 5-centimeter tall bot into the air. What's more, while it doesn't have any means of directing itself or even landing on its feet just yet, the researchers behind the bot eventually hope to add some solar panels, sensors, and a microprocessor to it, which they say could one day allow swarms of 'em to explore disaster areas, or even hop their way around the surface of other planets.

Article Link (Engadget)


PopSci is showing off a cute little robot that will use grasshopper principles to get a leg (or two) up during search-and-rescue operations. Dario Floreano and Mirko Kovac of the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems in Lausanne, Switzerland built this two-inch, 7-gram wonder capable of leaping eight feet in the air while carrying tiny cameras and sensors. Apparently landing isn't as easy for the thing, so it's good that Floreano and Kovac are also skilled at making little flying bots. They will combine the two insectoid talents for maximum potency.

Article Link (Gizmodo)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Robot Climbs Walls With Static Electricity

This unnamed robot by SRI International has a useful trick—it can climb walls using the principle of electro-adhesion. But what's most promising is that the robot needs only a "very small amount of power" to stick to surfaces that can be covered in dust and other debris.

Article Link (Gizmodo)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rotopault Kinetic Sculpture

It does the same thing over and over again: Launches a ball as it rotates, then catches the ball as it swings back around, without ever missing. Incredibly simple, but for some reason incredibly hypnotic, I think because the sounds it makes as it goes through the motions are precisely rhythmic.

Article Link (Gizmodo)

Bristlebots + Paint = Robo-Pollocks?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Game girls

The profile of the typical gamer has changed drastically over the past decade, with middle-aged housewives now as likely to play games as teenage boys.

The average gamer in Australia is now 28 years old, up from 24 just two years ago. And despite being largely ignored by the game industry, 41% are female.

Women and older Australians are the fastest-growing audience for computand video games and if trends continue, by 2014 the average age of Australian gamers will be the same as non-players - 42 - with an equal number of male and female players.

Trends are similar in the US, where 38% of gamers are female, spending an aver erage 7.4 hours a week playing, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

The popularity of video games has led to astonishing growth. Australians spent a whopping $1.3 billion on video games and consoles last year - a rise of 43% from 2006.

Much of the recent growth in the Australian game market and the dramatic shift in gamer demographics is due to the success of a small number of non-traditional games such as the SingStar karaoke range (more than 520,000 sold), the Buzz trivia titles (more than 280,000 sold), Wii Sports (more than 350,000 sold) and the hugely popularly hand-held games such as Nintendogs and Brain Training.

The Sims, the world's most popular computer game, has also been hugely popular among women, as has the multiplayer online game World of Warcraft. Both are largely about building relationships.

The Casual Games Association reports that 74% of paying
customers for these games are female. And when it comes to mobile phones, women are just as likely to
play games as men, with Forrester Research suggesting that 19% of
Australian mobile phone users are playing games at least once a
week on their phone, while another 24% play less regularly.

Article Link (Sunday Morning Herald)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Club Penguin

Finishing up the
week of special content around the massively multiplayer online genre
is a look at a title that's not often considered as part of the MMO
stable at all - although that's not likely to bother the founders of
Club Penguin, an online social play experience for children that was
acquired by Disney in August last year.

Here, co-founder and general manager of the title
talks in-depth about the challenges and rewards of putting together
something for a wholly different audience, and how trust is the brand
is of paramount importance.

Q: You've
done a great job of connecting to audiences not really catered for in
the usual suspect MMOs - are the parents understanding what it is
you're trying to do?

Lane Merrifield:
Yeah, because it's so different, even the concept of virtual worlds
didn't exist when we first started talking to the press about this, so
they would ask if it was an MMO like World of Warcraft - and we'd tell
them that it wasn't really, that it's far simpler, it's not about
levelling up, it's much more of a social game.

And then people would compare it to
Facebook or MySpace, and again, we'd tell them that it wasn't like that
- in the exact antithesis of those we encourage kids to not reveal any
sort of personal identifiable information. And we have huge filters and
over 100 moderators to try and keep the world as safe as possible.

So we'd always use the example of a
virtual playground, like a sandbox - taking lots of fun elements,
putting them together, and watching how the kids use them. And then
learning from that, and creating more elements that are attuned to

For example, there's a coffee shop, and
often you'll come in and see somebody posing as the coffee shop
manager, or find people walking around and serving each other coffee,
and it's no different to a play set in school.

How did people respond to that message? Has it been easier over time?

Lane Merrifield:
Well, we didn't really have a marketing budget when we first started,
but a lot of the media were finding out about it by watching their kids
play it. And then they'd come and talk to us about it, so there was a
general understanding of it, because of a relative who happened to
play, so we really haven't faced a lot of barriers.

I think one of the biggest challenges
is the irresponsible nature with which our industry has taken care of
kids for a long time - so there's a great cynicism out there, and
understandably so. I'm a parent myself, and part of why we created Club
Penguin was my own frustration with what was out there.

And even this over-reliance on
technology...I mean, we're technologists, but we know its limits, and
there needs to be that human element - which is why over two thirds of
our staff are safety moderators, customer service, and so on.

We know the limits of technology, even
though I would put our filtering software up against anybody's,
especially because of that human element - we're adding 500 to 1000
words every day to the filters, simply because of slang that works its
way into the language.

And every new pop song that comes out
is inevitably going to reference something that was innocent the week
before, but isn't so much now.

It's a kind of emergent play in a way - that must throw up a lot of problems?

Lane Merrifield:
It's been refined a lot in the past two years, when you look at the
number of players coming through, and we've still not had a single
reportable incident. For most of our peers it's pretty common to at
least have one or two issues.

We've had to work with authorities when
for instance somebody has sent an email to customer support threatening
to hurt themselves or something - those are issues that we'll deal with
if they come up, and Disney has a great infrastructure to deal with
that sort of thing.

But there's nothing that's actually
happened in-game, because of how much we've learned, and the human
resources behind it. There's a lot of human intervention, and if there
are any gaps, they are spotted pretty quickly and dealt with before it
can become an issue.

Have you been surprised by Club Penguin's success?

Lane Merrifield:
Absolutely, I'd be silly if I said I wasn't. We built this for our kids
- I mean we built it scalable, and part of why we didn't have any VC
money, no investors, was because we didn't build it as a business - we
built it as a side project.

Lance, another of the partners - his
oldest child and mine are about three months apart, and we were talking
about how they were learning to use the mouse, starting to use the
computer and the internet.

And it was that dialogue, and some
technologies that Lance had been working on that really was the birth
of Club Penguin. So a lot of this has come as a surprise. We were
hoping that a lot of parents would see the value in it, to subscribe in
order to keep it ad-free.

A lot of people accuse us of being
anti-ads - the ad model is a great model for most of the Internet, and
it even is for older kids who understand the differences, but I found
that my son would sometimes end up in shopping carts on websites,
because at five years old he couldn't read it all to tell the
difference - and that really bothered me.

So we decided that for this young
demographic, to keep it as pure and as clean from advertising as
possible, and we needed to fund it another way. People said we were
nuts for trying to do it on subscription, but if we're nuts, we're
nuts. We thought we'd try and build it on a shoe-string, and then build
a scalable model.

We have a saying in our office that if
it doesn't matter to an eight year-old, it doesn't matter. And that's
why we didn't spend a lot of time with the press, we didn't spend a lot
of time at conferences or trying to build up awareness of the site -
because we wanted to focus on the user experience.

And we thought if we did that, and
delivered what we said we were going to do, didn't overhype, then the
rest would take care of itself.

My hope is that it's shown a lot of
other companies out there that there's a desire for parents to have
that kind of experience, and a desire from kids who play the site and
enjoy it that they're not shying away from safe environments - that
they do long for that, but the also want a compelling social experience
as well. They don't want a single player experience all the time, they
want to connect - and there's nothing wrong with connecting with their
friends in a moderated environment.

What led to the decision to accept Disney's offer? What does it bring to the table?

Lane Merrifield:
Well, we got to a point where we'd gone as far as our infrastructure
could take us - not that we couldn't continue to grow it out privately
or independently, but being in a smaller city in Canada...and frankly
we were getting to the point where the desire to spend three or four
years building up the infrastructure versus getting into the creative
process was a difficult one.

We used the example of home-schooling a
child - we'd brought it through elementary school and high school, and
we saw that it had the potential to go on and get its PhD, but we
weren't fully equipped to get it there. So we had a choice.

A lot of people obviously focus on the
money, and obviously that's been a big part, an amazing part of it, but
for us...we've been offered money from VCs in the past, but it really
came down to not needing the financial resources as much as the
creative resources.

We feel like kids in a candy shop now
because we're able to explore all these avenues now, with experts in
these fields, who are very willing to work alongside us while also
being careful to not trample us. From the top down they've been very
careful to let us continue doing our thing, and not squash us.

I've actually been very surprised,
because I went into the process almost quite cynical about it, and it's
gone far better than I could have hoped.

Are there any plans for cross-brand experiences with some of the other Disney properties?

Lane Merrifield:
We're never going to do anything in-game - we'll never do anything in
Club Penguin. So Mickey's never going to show up. The game will
continue to stay pure, in the same way that a Pixar movie would. It's
that kind of environment.

In terms of taking the brand offline, it's something that we've been
listening to our fans about for a long time, and they've obviously been
wanting to experience it in other ways - and we're still in the initial
stages of talking about that.

There are conversations happening with
the parks, but we're trying to tread very slowly and make sure we're
simply being responsive to the audience, and that we're never pushing
anything on them. It's a delicate line - you don't want to ignore them
on the one hand, but at the same time Disney is not treating this like
a movie, they're not going to through a million products at this.

No 'Club Penguin on Ice', then?

Lane Merrifield:
[laughs] Actually...that's one of the few things that could work...but
no, there's nothing in the pipeline, not even in the early stages of
planning at this point. Disney sees this as a long term brand, and they
want to continue to explore it, but frankly they've seen the power of
letting the fans make the choices, and the hope is that we'll simply be
able to extend that offline.

Lane Merrifield is the
co-founder and general manager of Club Penguin and executive VP of the
Walt Disney Internet Group. Interview by Phil Elliott.

Article Link

Saturday, May 10, 2008

WowWee Chatterbot

Move over iBuddy and Availbot, the masters of robo-companionship toys have arrived on scene. This is a WowWee Chatterbot, a USB-powered desktop companion that reacts with some motion and a bit of chattering to "trigger" words typed into emails, IM, calendar entries and the like.

It does look like their sensitivity is a bit off, since they seem to miss some trigger words, but that's the sort of thing that may be addressed in a software update at a later date.

At least these animated toys have another function besides annoying you as you type: they have a speaker and battery-powered action so you can plug in an MP3 player and use them standalone. They're PC and Mac compatible, and are available for $49.99.

Article Link (Gizmodo)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

UK's "Grand Challenge"

Mehmet Ali Erbil of Middlesex University poses for photographs with an unmanned flying vehicle for reconnaissance during a Ministry of Defense competition in central London Wednesday April 30 2008. The competition aimed at encouraging scientists inve ...

The British Ministry of Defense's first ever "Grand Challenge" intends to encourage participants to turn their ideas into prototypes for machines the army can use in urban environments.

The six finalists, who each received $600,000 to build such contraptions as a disc-shaped remote-controlled flying robots fitted with heat and motion sensors, were in London last week to display their models.

From Swarm Systems Ltd. comes a set of tiny helicopters that fly in formation into a village and record images and audio tracks to beam back to headquarters. And British aeronautical company BAE Systems teamed up with the University of Manchester to build a self-propelled, remote-controlled camera.

The Silicon Valley Group PLC, a small research company in southeast Britain, teamed with the Bruton School for Girls in Somerset to build an unmanned buggy that can analyze gunmen's movements to determine whether they are angry or nervous.

Finalists will take part in a mock battle in August in Copehill Down, a village built near Stonehenge for military training during the Cold War. The contestants will have their machines search for pretend gunmen and mock bombs, earning points for each find and losing points for hitting civilians or transmitting data too slowly.

Article Link (Physorg)

Monday, May 5, 2008

Robo Vacuum

While a Roomba is a bit of a financial commitment, just $14.99 will
score you a passable alternative. This Robo Vacuum lacks the automated
finesse of iRobot's creation, but its hand-held operation coupled with
its rotund robot body will make it the most charming dust buster on the

Article Link (Gizmodo)

Wall-E Robot Toy In Action

We just saw the Wall-E toy in action, and it's a pretty interesting toy
(although not $190 worth of interesting). The best features include
fully articulating tank treads, 10 motors, audio and vision sensors,
remote control by both joystick and touchpad, individual shutters on
each eye, and collision detection. Wall-E also has a "follow me" mode
that'll allow a Wall-E to stick to a kid or dog and track it around the
house. (We would have tried it out, but it was far too noisy and
crowded at Maker Faire for Wall-E to track anything or anyone reliably.)

Article Link (Gizmodo)

Update - Maybe it was a miscalculation, or perhaps it is Disney trying to capitalize on the success of the film, but the Ultimate Wall-E remote controlled robot is now available for pre-order at $250—about $60 more than originally expected. Not a big deal, though—this toy is so feature-packed, it is almost like having the real thing.
Article Link (Gizmodo)

Army's Bug-Bot Swarm Takes on Terrorists

Perhaps this picture of a bug-like robot that joins a military horde of intelligent machines
intrigued you. If so, then you'll probably enjoy this animated
promotional video, from defense contractor BAE Systems. In it, the
company off its vision for "Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology" --
tiny, swarming, insectoid robots. The Army just gave BAE Systems a $38
million contract to head up a consortium of researchers into the
next-gen mini-drones.


Article link

Saturday, May 3, 2008

robogames in June