In space, can anyone hear you scream?

When I was a teenager, I remember seeing a television-edit version of Aliens. When I think of it now, all that meant was that they’d edited out some of the “worst” swear words and replaced them with ones from further down the sliding scale of rudeness. I was fascinated, though… probably by the combination of these dangerous alien organisms and the marines running round with big guns. I’ve kind of been reliving this at the moment, as I’ve been playing the new Aliens: Colonial Marines game on my Xbox.

Anyway, it was a while after seeing Aliens that I got to see the original Alien movie… the one that started it all off… the one with the tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream”.

STRaND-1 smartphone satelliteFunnily enough, a team from the University of Surrey are testing that with the launch of their new smartphone satellite, STRaND-1.

What’s a smartphone satellite? Well, if you imagine a “normal” satellite – it’s got all manner of complex systems including, most likely, a custom-built computer. The thing is, smartphones are also little computers, and are actually powerful enough to be used in place of the custom-built components. The benefit is that they’re cheaper and more readily available than getting someone to build a satellite from scratch. Additionally, smartphones are designed to allow developers to write apps for them, so it’s not a mammoth task to create the required software for the task at hand. Finally, smartphones are brimming with sensors… cameras, accelerometers, gyroscopes, compasses, microphones… all of which can be put to use in the name of science.

So this particular smartphone will be running an app that plays screams through the phone’s speaker, and then checks whether those screams can be heard by the phone’s microphone. In reality, any sound could have been used, but the satellite’s builders have obviously been influenced by Alien… and that’s no bad thing!

There’s more to this satellite than just testing a movie myth though – it will also test how durable consumer electronics are in space (if this goes well, we could see more smartphone satellites), and will test two new propulsion methods; the WARP drive, which uses a jet of water and alcohol to provide thrust, and a pulsed plasma drive which uses electricity to heat and evaporate a material to produce a jet of ionised gas.

It’s all very clever, and there’s some great science being done here. What I want to know, though, is whether those screams can be heard or not!

You can keep up with the latest about the satellite, STRaND-1, on the official Twitter account at http://twitter.com/SurreyNanosats.

[Source: BBC News]

Valve unveils their Steam Box

Valve Steam BoxThis is a guest post by William Judd.

This Consumer Electronics Show has been an unusually good one for PC gamers. Not only has Nvidia announced Project Shield, a hand-held Android games console that uses their new Tegra 4 processor to stream videogames from your PC, but Valve has finally officially announced their Steam Box.

The idea of the Steam Box is that it is a Valve-endorsed gaming computer designed to be hooked up to an HDTV in the living room. The Box hooks up to Valve’s Steam online store and gaming community, allowing you to play PC games with the ease of a console. Steam recently released their “Big Picture Mode” update, which added a console-style UI suitable for using with a controller on an HDTV. The Steam Box should have a small physical footprint and should offer a fairly good price to performance ratio, allowing it to play the majority of games at HD settings.

Speaking to The Verge in an extensive interview, Valve Software CEO Gabe Newell described three levels of hardware: “Good”, which would cost around $100 and would come down in price from there, “Better” which would cost approximately $300 and “Best” which could cost as much as any top-of-the-line gaming PC.

Valve would look to build its own Steam Box running Linux, but would also work with other hardware partners to create an entire new class of computers running along similar goals. While the Valve-built Steam Box would have tightly controlled hardware standards like a traditional games console, other Steam Boxes could have a range of specifications and features decided on by their manufacturer.

The Steam Box created by Valve won’t just be useful in the living room, however. The Box would also work as a server, with next-generation versions of the box running post-Kepler Nvidia architecture being capable of running as many as 8 disparate displays and controllers.

Valve are also investigating innovative new game controller. Newell stated that Wii Sports, the launch title for the Wii, remains the pinnacle of motion-based input, so Valve have moved onto other options. Biometrics look like they’ll provide a potentially new avenue for exploration, as instead of replacing mouse and keyboard or controller based input, they would instead add new inputs that would allow the game to respond to your heart rate and other subconscious clues. Gaze tracking was also mentioned by Newell as an area of interest.

Overall, the Steam Box definitely seems to be an interesting new development for PC gaming. For too long, the attention has been on fairly inconsequential mobile gaming developments like tablets and iPhone accessories - with the Steam Box, we may see something much more exciting. Valve revolutionised the industry with their Steam gaming service and marketplace, and it looks like they could have a similar evolutionary leap on their hands with the Steam Box.

Microsoft rumoured to be working on Xbox Surface Tablet

According to a report posted on The Verge, Microsoft is building its own 7 inch tablet for gaming. Called the Xbox Surface, the tablet will run a stripped down version of Windows with a custom kernel. While basic tasks like messaging will be included, the focus will be on providing an ultimately portable Xbox gaming experience that can still be connected to TVs and sound systems for a more traditional console experience.

The hardware, which was originally leaked in June, is quite impressive. The spec calls for a 7″ display running at 1280 x 720p, two IBM Power7 SCMs (for a total of 12 CPU cores) running at 3.1 GHz, 5 GB of DDR3 memory, and a custom 28 nanometer GPU from AMD. There’s also slated to be a 250 GB 10,000 RPM mechanical hard drive, and support for a number of peripherals including USB storage via 4 USB 3.0 ports, wireless game controllers, headsets, component video / HDMI, and Optical Audio. The system should support up to 1440p output – something that makes me incredibly happy, considering I’ve just picked up a 27″ 2560 x 1440 display.

The Verge are reporting that the hardware for the device hasn’t yet been nailed down, but could include a custom ARM processor or an unannounced Intel system-on-chip. The hardware production process is said to be ‘secret’ and not with the partners that traditionally have made the Xbox console. The Xbox Surface should debut ahead of the company’s suspected future Xbox console.

I’ve got to admit – I’m massively excited about this. We’ve seen attempts at a gaming tablet before – with Razer’s Project Fiona and the Wikipad – but if there is anyone in the world who can do it well, it will be Microsoft.

This article was written by William Judd. William writes for Mobile Fun, who recently opened a US store that is stocking a wide range of Samsung Galaxy Note 2 cases.

This Saturday: Free photography guide in The Guardian

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Fish in negativeDo you fancy yourself as something of a photographer? Are you an aspiring professional, or perhaps a keen amateur? I love photography, and am always on the lookout for hints and tips to make me better at it.

If this sounds familiar, you might be interested to learn that, on Saturday 17th November, The Guardian will be issuing an 84 page guide to photography, drawing on the experience of the photographers from both The Guardian and Observer. Included in the guide will be seven masterclasses, where the photographers reveal their techniques and inspirations.

I sometimes find that pure guides are  little difficult to get into – the most progress I made with my photography was when I was being set assignments on an evening course that forced me to get out there and push myself. Each masterclass in the upcoming Guardian guide also includes reader assignments which will help you put what you’ve read into practice.

Here’s the really good bit, though: if you send your photos in to The Guardian, you could win a place on a photography masterclass of your choice. There’s nothing better than actually being taught by a photographer, able to ask questions and experiment while there’s someone with experience in the room… so I reckon this is going to be well worth going for.

So, why not pick up a copy of The Guardian on the 17th, enjoy the photography guide and, if you’re up for it, send in your photos? You’ve nothing to lose and, the way I see it, a whole load to gain. If you do get the guide, why not drop back in here after you’ve had a look and let us know what you think of it?

Sponsored Post: I will receive financial payment for posting this article. Please be aware that I will never accept offers of paid posts where I am required only to give a positive opinion – objectivity is important to me and you can be sure that what I write, even in paid posts, is what I really think.

Chrono Trigger comes to Android

This is a guest post by Will Judd. If you’re waiting for the interview with Robert Llewellyn, don’t worry – it’ll be online later in the day.

chronotrigger The Super Nintendo was an brilliant gaming console, producing some of the best RPGs that have ever been made. While Final Fantasy VI, 7th Saga and Breath of Fire are excellent titles, the one that sticks out in most people’s minds is Chrono Trigger.

If you haven’t played the game before, suffice it to say it is a unique RPG with a wide and memorable cast of characters, a good progression and battle system, and an awesome setting. If you have, you’ll understand my excitement.

Chrono Trigger has been released for Android. While you could quasi-legally play the game on an emulator before now, without a controller connected it wasn’t an ideal experience, and with a controller it was a bit of a bulky conveyance.

The new release works much better on touch screens and still supports controllers, allowing the best of both worlds. Better yet, the Android version is a port of the 2010 Nintendo DS re-release, which includes extra areas, items and cutscenes.

If you’re looking for a long and epic RPG to devour your time on the go, then this is an excellent choice. While the price is relatively high for an Android app, it’s much cheaper than finding an original SNES cartridge or even the Nintendo DS re-release.

While the app works on both phones and tablets, I reckon that probably the 10″ tablet will be the best way to play this title. This game could be an essential Google Nexus 10 accessory – I know I’ll be playing it once mine arrives!

Chrono Trigger is truly worth it – if you haven’t played it before, you’re in for a treat. If you have, prepare for a trip down memory lane. Now all we need is an Android version of Chrono Cross, and we’ll be set.

Windows 8 – fast & fun… and slidey, apparently

Windows 8 is well and truly upon us. If you tried out the Consumer Preview, you got a sneak peak of what was going to be available from the latest incarnation of Microsoft’s flagship software title. Well, Microsoft want to keep themselves firmly in the front of your mind, so they have set up an installation at Bluewater Shopping Centre, Kent, UK, that’s a little bit different.

See, the message Microsoft want you to get about Windows 8 is that it’s “fast and fun”, so they started thinking about what else would fit that bill and came up with the idea of replacing the stairs at a shopping centre with a big playground-style slide. Surely that would be faster and more fun than walking down some boring old steps?

Windows branded playground slide at Bluewater Shopping Centre

OK, so you can see that they haven’t actually removed the other means of getting between floors because, to be honest, old auntie Ethel isn’t likely to want to go down the slide, but they have created something memorable that will, hopefully, make you think positively about Microsoft, and Windows 8 in particular. Shoppers who take the slide will have their photo shown on electronic billboards around the centre, will be given a printed photo, and will be able to receive an electronic copy send to their mobile phone.

If you’re in the area, the slide will be there until Sunday evening (4th November). I happen to be “down South” this weekend, so will be heading along on Saturday evening for a shot…

Star Wars: The Old republic goes Free-2-Play

Droid and Jedi in the desert

After launching to much fanfare and with a massive budget last year, Star Wars: The Old Republic has proven that it takes more than a load of cash and a Star Wars license to sell an MMO against World of WarCraft. After poor sales and few new subscriptions in the months that followed the launch, developers Bioware have made the tough decision to go Free 2 Play.

That means that they’ll be ditching the subscription fee requirement, allowing players to continue to pay for the full experience but also allowing others to experience a large chunk of the game for free, with the hope of converting them to paying subscribers or at least have them make in-game purchases.

I played The Old Republic on and off for a month, getting most of the way through the game, and I found that the single player content is really up to Bioware’s high standards. The game is much more fun to play singleplayer than any other MMO I’ve experienced, and it’s this part of the game that will be completely free to play – every story mission for every class you can play with a free account. You can also reach the highest level in the game – 50 – without paying a dime, if you choose.

Of course, there are restrictions elsewhere, primarily in the multiplayer and cooperative elements of the game. You can only play 3 PvP games and three flashpoints (cooperative dungeons) per week. Most purple items are unavailable. You need to buy a weekly pass to access space missions (one of my favourite parts of the game!). You also can’t access the cargo hold of your ship or use more than one crew skill. There are loads more restrictions here, on almost everything in the game.

All in all, it’s a fairly limited set of restrictions that will make even doing the singleplayer content a lot harder. You’ll be able to do it, but if you’re actually wanting to spend the hours required in the game, then buying full access will definitely be worth your while. This is a really intelligent way for Bioware to allow people to try the game without risk, then only commit to a subscription when they’re ready.

You can find more information on the game and the restrictions in the F2P version here. I’d say it’s worth a look, particularly given the much lower cost of the game and the high quality of the singleplayer content. It’s not a new Knights of the Old Republic, but it’s close.

This article was written by William Judd. William writes for Mobile Fun, the UK’s leading online retailer of iPhone 5 leather cases.

Motorola RAZR i – “full screen” in the palm of your hand [sponsored post]

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I still remember the first mobile phone I chose myself… it was a Nokia 7110 and I loved it. I loved how you could answer calls by pressing a switch that made the phone extend, just like the ones in The Matrix. I loved how it looked, and how it felt. But now it’s old hat, and I wouldn’t want to go back.

In fact, I can’t help feeling that anything that uses more than a couple of physical buttons or switches is old hat. In my mind, a modern smartphone should be mostly taken up by a touchscreen. It just makes sense. If I’m honest, it’s made sense since I read the Star Trek: The Next Generation technical manual‘s explanation of how the control surfaces on the Enterprise worked (yes, I’m that much of a geek… what did you expect?).

The fact that “big screen, few physical controls” seems to be the ideal smartphone form factor makes me wonder about the recent bout of arguments between Apple and Samsung. Did Samsung copy the iPhone’s design? Well, sure there are similarities… but there’s only so much you can do when your main feature is a screen!

So along comes Motorola (who are now owned by Google, remember), advertising their Razr i as a “full screen” smartphone. That is, the screen goes from edge to edge. And it’s a capably large screen – 4.3 inches across the diagonal… and, yes, it does go pretty much right to the edge of the phone. I can’t help but feel, though, that while a larger screen and less wasted real-estate round the edges is a good thing, it’s not revolutionary. It’s, well, what a smartphone should be like. Don’t get me wrong, the RAZR i is a good looking phone – I’m just not sure about using “full screen” as one of the main marketing points.

So what else is there to this handset?

The RAZR i sports an Intel processor, capable of clock speeds up to 2GHz, an 8 megapixel rear camera and 0.3 megapixel front camera. Average battery life is 20 hours, which will obviously vary depending on how the phone is used. It’s designed to be tough, too, with Gorilla Glass, Kevlar fibre, splash-guard coating and aircraft-grade aluminium all used in its construction. It would be interesting to see how it holds up to being dropped on the doorstep a few times, but it certainly sounds impressive.

Most interestingly, for me, is the choice of operating system: the RAZR i comes with Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich). This is one version behind the most recent (4.1 Jelly Bean), which will annoy people who always want to have the latest and greatest versions, but it’s still pretty good.

I’m quite impressed with the RAZR i. As I say, I don’t think it’s revolutionary, but it appears to be a respectable device in almost every respect.

For more information about the RAZR i, check out the official website, or watch the advert below.

Sponsored Post -  I will receive financial payment for posting this article. Please be aware that I will never accept offers of paid posts where I am required only to give a positive opinion – objectivity is important to me and you can be sure that what I write, even in paid posts, is what I really think.

First reviews of iPhone 5 released

This is a guest post by William Judd

iPhone5With the release of the new iPhone comes the corresponding release of reviews from across the industry. Overall, the iPhone 5 has scored highly with critics across the board, who cite the improved hardware design, taller screen and faster performance as excellent reasons to upgrade. The feared lower battery life due to the larger screen and LTE seem not to have materialised, as Engadget reports that the phone lasts just as long or longer than the previous iPhone 4S even when using LTE.

Joshua Topolsky of The Verge calls it “the best iPhone yet”, but notes that the whole phone feels very safe, and that while that will appeal to the majority of the population, Apple seems to have lost its disruptive influence that it had when it debuted the first few versions of its iPhone.

iOS 6 has had a much rockier time of things, with many outlets reporting the widespread issues users have reported with the new home-grown Maps app. The new app dispenses with Google’s maps data for a home-grown solution, and in many cases the coverage is much worse than what came before, with missing details, a lack of integration with common navigation tasks and occasionally straight up wrong information.

Elsewhere, iOS is seen as a slight step forward but nothing too exciting, with the new Passbook app being well organised but lacking NFC support or use-cases for some people and not much really changing. Twitter and Facebook are now more nicely integrated into the OS, as are sharing options, but these still pale in comparison to what is possible on other platforms, noticeably Android.

Overall? It’s definitely worth an upgrade if you’ve got the cash, but the iPhone 5 isn’t the shake-up that some of us hoped it would be – unless you’re talking about the new connector demanding new iPhone 5 accessories. Hopefully with the expected release of the iPad Mini later this year we’ll see Apple really show us that it’s still capable of true innovation.

Black Mesa Source – coming soon

Waaaay back in December 2008 I wrote an article about something that had me excited: the original Half-Life game was being given a makeover by fans using the more up-to-date Source graphics engine. Half-Life was a watershed in my gaming experience, and the possibility of playing it again, with modern graphics, was positively mouth watering.

…and then it all went quiet. There were no obvious updates to the Black Mesa project’s website, and I thought it had come to a quiet end without ever seeing the light of day.

A countdown recently appeared on the Black Mesa site, however, and at the time of writing this has 9 days 17 hours to go. ‘Till what? Why, the release of the Black Mesa mod, of course. This will be a free download, and requires Valve’s Source  SDK to run. Luckily, Source is also free, so the only investment you’ll have to make is the time to download and install the SDK and mod.

I’m excited again… how about you?

For more information, check out the Black Mesa website.