SciTechBlog
April 9, 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane - really!

Posted: 10:51 AM ET
Global Hawk in flight
Global Hawk in flight

Flying higher, farther and without a pilot.

NASA's Global Hawk plane can fly to altitudes of 60,000 feet – way above normal flight paths – and as far as nearly half way around the world. It does this completely automatically, without the aid of a pilot or controller.

The plane follows a preprogrammed flight path and can stay aloft for nearly 30 hours while staying in contact with NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center via satellites. The Global Hawk maiden voyage took it over the Pacific and Arctic oceans to study the atmosphere over those bodies of water.

Researchers hope that the plane's range and endurance will make it ideal to sample and measure greenhouse gases, ozone and air quality over a wide area in a short period of time.

"We can go to regions we couldn't reach or go to previously explored regions and study them for extended periods that are impossible with conventional planes," said David Fahey, co-mission scientist and research physicist.

Scientists expect the high altitude flights to let them measure dust, smoke and pollution that cross the Pacific from Asia and Siberia and affect U.S. air quality. The Global Hawk is scheduled to make four more flights this month over the Pacific and Arctic areas.

Global Hawks – obviously not retro-fitted with scientific sensors – are also used by the U.S. Air Force for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They were recently used after the Haiti earthquakes to provide more than 3,600 images of affected areas to help with disaster relief.

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Filed under: Aviation • climate change • environment • greenhouse gas • NASA • Space


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April 7, 2010

Springtime for Harry, Mario, Tiger, Samus

Posted: 11:24 AM ET
Harry in the showers
Harry in the showers

The next three months of game releases are going to be light compared to the first three months of this year. Expect a lot of downloadable content to come out for previous released games, but not as many blockbusters.

There are some big names coming out this spring, though. Mario makes a return as well as Harry Potter, Tiger Woods and Metroid. And there are hints about something that has been nearly 12 years in the making.

April kicks off with "Splinter Cell Conviction" (Ubisoft), as hero Sam Fisher gets some new moves and tricks to make him even sneakier than before.

A new "Mark and Execute" command lets Fisher take down opponents faster, but stealth is still required to make your escape.

"Splinter Cell Conviction" is rated M (blood, drug reference, intense violence, sexual themes, strong language) and available for the PC, iPhone and Xbox 360 on April 13.

"Monster Hunter Tri" (Capcom) is a RPG game for the Wii in which you battle monsters with huge, oversized weapons, collect loot and then do it again. The Wii controllers make it more than just a button-mashing game and the early release in Japan is doing very well.

"Monster Hunter Tri" is rated T (blood, use of alcohol, violence) and available only on the Wii on April 20.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa kicks off in June, but why wait to see who will hoist the gold trophy. "2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa" (Electronic Arts) will let you carry your favorite team to glory and includes all 10 stadiums that will be used in South Africa as well as regional stadiums.

The game is not rated yet, but will be available on the PS3, Xbox 360, PSP and Wii on April 27.

May marks the return of the Prince as "Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands" (Ubisoft) takes us back to the deserts. Our hero is forced to do whatever is necessary to save the kingdom. The Prince gets a partner in this chapter of the saga, but wait until you see at what cost.

"The Forgotten Sands" has a tentative rating of T+, but that rating is not final. The game will be out for the PS3, PSP, Xbox 360, Wii and DS on May 18.

"Modnation Racers" (Sony) has been called a cross between "Mario Kart" and “Little Big Planet." Players can customize their vehicles, the drivers and just about everything else.

If you aren’t feeling creative, there are many pre-made elements to let you dive right into the racing portion. "Modnation Racers" is rated E for everyone and will be out on May 25 for the PS3 and PSP.

June begins with the next installment in the now-classic series in golf games, "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11" (Electronic Arts). This version integrates the Ryder Cup into the mix as well as online team play.

Tiger is also sharing his cover art this year with Irish golfer Rory McIlroy to give it more of an international flavor. "Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11" is rated E and will be out on June 8 for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PSP.

Snake is back and ready to kick tail. "Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker" (Konami) takes us back to the 1970s where the "Soldiers Without Border" group gets its start with Snake in the lead.

Gaming Web sites are already touting this as the PSP Game of the Year, but hold those expectations in check until the final version comes out on June 8.

It is a PSP-exclusive and has a tentative rating of M. There are also reports that Snake may be appearing in other games, so keep your eyes open.

"Metroid: Other M" (Nintendo) lets players switch from 2-D side-scroller to 3-D action-adventure as Samus' past is explored. It is going to be a Wii-exclusive title so expect some unique gameplay using the Wii controllers. "Metroid: Other M" is expected out on June 27 with a T rating.

June will also be the premier of Harry Potter – in Lego form. "LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4" (Warner Bros. Interactive) chronicle the boy wizard’s adventures in "Sorcerer's Stone", "Chamber of Secrets", "Prisoner of Azkaban", and "Goblet of Fire" in blocky, Lego fun.

"LEGO Harry Potter" will be available for the Xbox 360, Nintendo DS, Wii, PC, PS3 and PSP in June (no specific date yet).

Plenty of other games will be filling in the gaps including some movie tie-ins ("Iron Man 2", "Clash of the Titans") and a new Mario game ("Super Mario Galaxy 2") that offers up some new powers for the famous plumber and his faithful dino, Yoshi.

Casting a long shadow this summer is the expected release of "StarCraft II" (Blizzard). They've been working on this title for years and released a closed beta to select gamers for testing. A spokesman for Blizzard said they are on track for a mid-2010 release, so don't be surprised if Terrans, Zerg and Protoss descend on your PC this spring.

What are you looking forward to in the next three months? New titles or DLC for ones you already own? Let us know!

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Filed under: Games • Gaming • Nintendo • Sony • Tiger Woods • video games


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April 2, 2010

New baseball games swing for the fences

Posted: 03:22 PM ET
Baseball games swing for the fences
Baseball games swing for the fences

The baseball season officially starts Sunday night when the Boston Red Sox take on their perennial rivals, the New York Yankees. For gamers, that means the latest incarnations of baseball video games are released. Here's a look at two heavy hitters on the market.

MLB10: The Show” (Sony) and “Major League Baseball 2K10” (Visual Concepts, 2K Sports) both launched last month with brand new features and highlights.

Both try to put you in the game with realistic player movements, authentic ball parks, and lifelike sounds from the seats. Each is licensed with Major League Baseball so you get real players with real stats (always important in baseball) to simulate actual MLB games faithfully.

“The Show” has upgraded the accuracy and variety of animations for players, coaches and fans. Improved logic and presentations provide a wider type of hits, ground balls and even player collisions. Hitting a hard one back through the middle deflects off the pitcher rather than going through him into center field.

“2K10” unveils a new Motion Model, which features hundreds of new signature movements and a totally revamped fielding system. The new animations try to give accurate portrayals of batting stances and pitching deliveries for all players around the league.

Each title allows for different types of game play to suit your mood. Career mode lets you build your own player and guide him through the minors to his big league club. There are manager and franchise modes to allow gamers to take charge of as many aspects of their team as they want.

In an effort to hang on to its title as the #1 selling baseball franchise in history, “The Show” adds new stadiums, new practice drills and customizable music, fan yells and chants. The biggest addition is the ability to call the game if you play as a catcher in career mode, thus providing more control and more realism to the gameplay. Previously, the catcher was only involved if the ball was in play. Now, players can call pitches, locations and plan strategy for the game.

“2K10” is challenging gamers to play their best game ever - and is willing to pay them for it. 2K Sports is offering $1,000,000 to the first player to pitch a perfect game in “2K10” and record it. A couple of provisos: the game has to be played on the PS3 or Xbox 360 and it must be recorded in its entirety either digitally or with a camera pointed at the screen. 2K Sports said they expect someone to do it.

The biggest difference between the two baseball franchises is how the controllers are used to play the game. “The Show” uses meters and buttons to pitch, hit and throw. “2K10” uses the right stick to sling those curveballs or to swing for the fences.

Baserunning controls are also slightly different for the two games. “2K10” wants you to point in a consistent direction for each base (right for 1st, up for 2nd, etc.). “The Show” requires you point to the next base as you are viewing the game, which can cause some delays when the camera angle changes after the ball is hit.

The differences in gameplay are subtle even if the differences in presentation are not, so it may be a matter of preference for which game you want to play.

“MLB 10 The Show” is exclusive to all PlayStation consoles (PS3, PS2, PSP, and PSP Go). “Major League Baseball 2K10” is available on the Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, Wii, Nintendo DS and Windows PC.

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Filed under: Games • Gaming • video games


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Geek Out!: Classic 'Clash of the Titans'

Posted: 09:22 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Yes, the new “Clash of the Titans” movie comes out this weekend, and yes, I will go see it (but not in 3-D). But as good as this film could be, it cannot and will not replace the original 1981 version as one of the “classic” movies of my younger days.

The story is an ancient tale of bravery, love, gods and monsters. Growing up, I remember watching the movies of Godzilla and Gamera and being bedazzled by the awesomeness of monsters coming to life on the screen.

I also watched King Kong, Mighty Joe Young and the Sinbad movies just for that reason. I became familiar with the name Ray Harryhausen after watching “Jason and the Argonauts” and the animations of skeletons fighting the sailors.

Even though I knew it wasn’t real, Harryhausen’s stop-motion model animation made it seem real. But it was in “Clash of the Titans” where his most memorable work was waiting for me.

The skeletons returned to harass Perseus and his men as well as giant scorpions, a winged horse, mythical creatures, and, of course, the Kraken. The legend of the Kraken portrayed them as very large octopi or squid. Harryhausen went one step better and gave the monster a head that resembled a cross between a parrot and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Even the funny and smart mechanical owl, Bubo, was made so well that I wanted to find an owl like that for myself.

It wasn’t that these creations were done so masterfully that made the movie memorable. It was that there were so many throughout the entire film. A scene with one animated creature would end and another would begin with a brand new monster. As a teen boy who was reading Tolkien (for the billionth time) and playing “Dungeons and Dragons”, these were my imaginations coming to life.

“Clash” would be Harryhausen’s last feature film to showcase his stop-action work. Computer animation was already being used and movie companies were using it more and more for their productions. While the use of computers made the creatures more life-like, they seemed to sap away my need for my imagination to make them seem real.

While I have only seen trailers for the new version, I can say I am impressed with the new Kraken. I will go see the 2010 film and probably be dutifully entertained. Will I come away with the emotional and nostalgic feelings that I get when I watch the 1981 version?

Probably not. But that doesn’t mean I won’t like it.

What was your favorite part of the 1981 “Clash of the Titans”? What made it a memorable movie for you? Let us know in the comments area below. In the meantime, here's what moviegoers told iReporter Chris Morrow about the new version at an early screening.

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Movies • pop culture


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March 26, 2010

Geek Out!: New Nintendo handheld goes for bigger, better

Posted: 10:02 AM ET

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's Marquee and SciTech blogs

Is bigger better?  Or is it just bigger?  Nintendo is banking that their latest handheld console – the DSi XL – will be both.

The Nintendo DSi XL is similar in many ways to its little brother, the DSi.  The configuration of the buttons and screens are the same as are the camera tools, Internet connections and available software.

 What sets the two apart is the size.  The XL version is 93 percent larger than the regular handhelds.  The new screens measure 4.2 inches diagonally and the closed unit grew to 6.3 inches wide by 3.6 inches tall.

 Nintendo is counting on the increased size to promote family fun.  With the smaller DSi, gamers hunched over their consoles to focus in on the action on little screens. 

With larger screens and an improved wider viewing angle, Nintendo hopes to make it easier for friends and family to watch and join in on the game.

 “For some people, good things come in big packages,” Nintendo executive vice president Cammie Dunaway said. “This new portable system really lets players enjoy the fun together.”

 The XL comes pre-loaded with three titles: "Brain Age Express: Math," "Brain Age Express: Arts & Letters," and "Photo Clock."  Nintendo is also releasing 2 new titles at the same time, "America’s Test Kitchen: Let’s Get Cooking" and "WarioWare: D.I.Y.," which it hopes will highlight the advantages of the larger screen.

 I got my hands on the new XL and it definitely felt better than the smaller version.  It felt solid and didn’t feel like it was going to snap apart in my hands [not that I’m a strong guy, but I am destructive].

 There are no new features other than size.  But the size difference makes itself felt when you power up the device and load some software. 

 The new screens made it easier on the eyes to enjoy my games.  "Flipnote Studio," a program that allows you to draw and animate, became easier to work on finer details in my art.  Gameplay jumps out of the screen and finesse seems more manageable.

 Nintendo said the DS handheld (Lite and DSi combined) sold 11.2 million systems in 2009 in the U.S. alone.  It said they sold 30 million DS units in Japan during their last fiscal year, so they have a large market to entice with their latest device.

 However, Nintendo just announced that they would be launching a 3-D version of their DS handheld sometime before April 2011.  Will gamers go big or go 3-D? 

 The Nintendo DSi XL will be available on March 28.

UPDATE (Tuesday): Nintendo announced that games on older handheld consoles cannot transfer over to the new DSi XL. The company said DSiWare games and points would have to be repurchased on the new XL console.

Nintendo of America released this statement: "The games and applications are specific to each system, not each user. We’re looking into that specific topic, but we don’t have anything to announce at this time."

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Filed under: Geek Out! • Nintendo • video games


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March 24, 2010

Will EA charge for game demos?

Posted: 10:02 AM ET

In an effort to expand its video-gaming business, Electronic Arts may start charging for certain pre-game content – a possible move that is already drawing fire from gamers.

In an interview with Wedbush Morgan Securities' industry analyst Michael Pachter, EA Group GM Nick Earl said the company plans to start charging for “premium downloadable content” before releasing the entire game at full price. Earl said the strategy would "serve as a low-cost marketing tool” and limit the risk of promoting a full game that may not do well.

Reaction from gamers was swift. Some denounced the move as a blatant attempt at money-grabbing while other urged patience to see what the final plan would be.

A user named Fimmel wrote on GameSpot’s message board, “Do they really think we'll pay to DL the beginning of the game before we've even gathered enough information to decide if we want to buy the game at all?”

Another commenter, Lord Thayer, wrote on Kotaku, “So, is it safe to assume that, if you buy the demo, then upgrade to the full game digitally, that they would take the price of the demo out? If so, I actually think that would be rad. “

Facing a possible backlash, Electronic Arts has tried to clarify its position on demos. A statement from the company said there were no set pricing strategies for the entire EA portfolio and included a curious line:
“None of the proposals call for charging consumers for traditionally free game demos."

The statement also said EA was working on delivering “premium content” to gamers before, during and after the launch of a final game package. It said each division of EA was experimenting with downloadables in an effort to provide “fresh game content in formats players want to experience.”

We’ve asked EA officials for further clarification about what they mean by “traditionally free game demos” and what impact this will have on future game releases. We’ll let you know if they get back to us and what they say.

UPDATE (10:37 a.m.): An EA spokesman responded to our request for additional information. He said, "EA will continue to release demos and we have no plans to charge for them."

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Filed under: Games • Gaming • video games


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March 19, 2010

GameStop predicts growth for gaming

Posted: 10:35 AM ET

In a time when financial news about the gaming industry has been largely doom and gloom, the world’s largest video game retailer says 2009 was a very good year and 2010 is going to be better.

GameStop announced that sales for fiscal year 2009 increased 3.1 percent to more than $9 billion. They also plan to open 400 new stores in the upcoming year in an effort to capitalize on gamers who want to buy, sell, or trade their software and hardware.

GameStop is expecting 5 to 10 percent growth in the “used products” market.

The company is also predicting a decrease in profits from new hardware sales - somewhere from 5 to 15 percent - due to reduced prices compared to last year and in spite of the launches of Project Natal and PlayStation Move motion-sensitive controllers.

The report also showed that comparable store sales decreased nearly 8 percent, possibly indicating that more people are getting their merchandise online through the GameStop.com website.

The company currently operates 6,450 stores worldwide in 17 countries.

Do you get more of your software and hardware online? Do you only go into a “brick-and-mortar” store when you want to trade your older games? Let us know in the comments.

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Filed under: Games • Gaming


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March 12, 2010

iPad pre-orders start today

Posted: 07:31 AM ET
Steve Jobs and his new iPad
Steve Jobs and his new iPad

The "magical and revolutionary" moment is finally here. Apple is allowing fans the opportunity to pre-order the new iPad starting today.

In preparation for the onslaught, the Apple Store was down early Friday with a yellow sticky pad saying, "We'll be back soon." The store since has reopened and are now taking pre-orders for Apple's latest creation.

Even though you can order today, the iPad won’t be in the customer's hands until April 3rd. Our partners at Mashable say "this moment is exciting because from now on, Apple (and, hopefully, the media) will have some idea how well this thing actually sells."

Will you be one of the first to order? Are you going to wait? Or do you even want to get an iPad anyway?

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Filed under: iPad


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March 5, 2010

Sony to launch challengers to iPad, iPhone

Posted: 12:26 PM ET

Sources have told the Wall Street Journal that Sony is planning on making a challenger to Apple’s iPad that will have all the capabilities of a netbook, a Sony Reader and a PSP, the company's handheld gaming device.

At a Sony news conference in Tokyo, Sony’s CFO Nobuyuki Oneda didn’t provide any details but expressed the company’s desire to compete against Apple’s newest gadget, due in stores next month.

"That is a market we are also very interested in. We are confident we have the skills to create a [great] product," said Oneda. "Time-wise, we are a little behind the iPad but it's a space we would like to be an active player in.”

The WSJ also reported Sony is making a new smartphone - containing Sony Ericsson mobile technology and capable of playing PSP games - to compete against the iPhone. Both devices are expected to work with Sony Online Services, an online store due to launch in March and sell music, movies, books, and other downloadable applications for mobile products.

The iPad challenger and the new smartphone are expected to launch sometime in 2010, but no details about specs, price or design have been released.

Sony has tried to get into the phone/gaming gadget arena in the past. A patent was filed in 2006 for a device that looked like a PSP on one side and a smartphone on the other, but such a device has never hit the market.

Apple sold 8.7 million iPhones in the last three months of 2009. The company announced Friday that the iPad will be available April 3.

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Filed under: Apple • iPad • iPhone • smartphones • Sony


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March 2, 2010

Developer: Betas, demos make games better

Posted: 06:05 PM ET
But how do I take down the chopper?
But how do I take down the chopper?

Putting together a game takes lots of work from developers, artists and writers. But gaming companies also put great stock into gamers who take advantage of demos and beta releases.

Beta releases are usually advance versions of games that aren’t fully formed, but the development team wants to test out particular aspects of the overall gameplay. Demos are often limited versions of what the full game will ultimately become.

Patrick Bach, a senior producer at game developer DICE, said his company went “old school” when putting together its latest release, “Battlefield: Bad Company 2” (Electronic Arts, DICE), which goes on sale today.

“Betas are used to test the game, get feedback and make adjustments,” Bach said. “Our demo from last year was needed to make adjustments in game balance.”

Bach points out that betas and demos are about more than just getting feedback from testers. Tracking software can show what gaming elements are being used, how gamers are using them and what impact they have on the overall feel of the game.

He said often gamers will tell them what they think about a particular element, but the stats show a different story. It is meshing the two types of feedback together that helps developers create a more enjoyable game, he said.

“It is super important to find the balance of fun and fair,” Bach explained. He called it the “rock, paper, scissors balance” where no one element overpowers another.

“Battlefield: Bad Company 2,” a first-person shooter war game, took two years to get from drawing board to a ready-for-shelf product. During that time, Bach said his team worked on making the game fair, but never really knew how fun it would be for the players until they got important feedback from them.

The DICE team kept close contact with their entire community and blogged updates to keep their fans in the loop.

“We were surprised to find out [after beta testing and early demos] that our gameplay was perfectly balanced,” Bach said. “We expected to do more tweaking. And we found that gamers were using the full spectrum of kits available in the game. We were surprised it worked as good as it did.”

DICE did do some minor tweaking with weapons and vehicle handling based on suggestions from the play testers. But the company is quite pleased with its final product, he said.

“Most people are used to linear shooters,” he said. “We want to show people with the downloads and betas that it is about quality and strategic options in our game.”

“Battlefield: Bad Company 2” is available for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.

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Filed under: Games • Gaming • video games


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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