CES 2012: More Powerful PCs and New Ways to Game

It was a record year across the board for the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES). More than 150,000 people converged in Las Vegas to check out gadgets, computers and electronics from more than 3,100 exhibitors from around the globe. Plenty of new computer technology and games were spread across the 1.85 million net square feet of show floor in the Las Vegas Convention Center and neighboring hotels. And for good reason, consumer electronics are forecast to top $1 trillion in 2012 for the first time, including more than $202 billion in the U.S. alone.

Ultrabooks were everywhere during the show, opening up new gaming capabilities for those on the go. Dell debuted its XPS 13 ultrabook, an 11-inch ultrabook that’s only 6 millimeters at its thinnest and features a carbon fiber base, which means it weighs less than three pounds. Future ultrabook laptops will implement tablet features and have touch screens, voice recognition and longer battery life.

Innovation is always a key driver at CES, but this year there were plenty of leftover trends from the past few shows. 3D isn’t going away. In fact, there were more large-screen autostereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D devices than ever before from big companies like Sony, LG, Samsung and Panasonic.

Although it will still be years before price points on these devices come down for the mainstream, new laptops from Toshiba (Qosmio F755 3D) and new smartphones bring the third dimension to smaller screens at an affordable price. Stereoscopic 3D has seen price drops and larger, thinner screens. There is also continued support for 3D content, something that has been sorely lacking thus far, in the form of new Blu-ray 3D movies from Hollywood studios and new games for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

will evolve as well.

All photos: Getty Images

The Crossroads of Art and Technology: Creating The Creators Project

Technology has revolutionized social interaction, giving individuals unprecedented access to global distribution channels. Thanks to incredible advances in content creation technologies and multithreaded processors, today’s artists, musicians, filmmakers and designers are reshaping the boundaries of creative expression.

The Start

The Creators Project, founded in part by Vice Media, was started to showcase innovative artists and enable them to realize new artwork. “The Creators Project celebrates the connection between art and technology,” says David Haroldsen, a creative director for the project. “We set out to give people who use computers every day a look at artistic experiences that are only possible because of technology.”

“The Creators Project is about cultivating artists from around the world and exploring the boundaries of creativity as well as the role technology plays in the process,” adds Hosi Simon, general manager at Vice Media. With offices in more than 30 countries, Vice is uniquely positioned to draw from its relationship among the global art community and identify cutting-edge interdisciplinary artists.

When The Creators Project launched in 2010, Vice used a variety of media -- including television, print, online and mobile outlets -- to document the work of more than 100 creators to date, hailing mostly from seven countries (Brazil, China, France, Germany, South Korea, United Kingdom and United States). “In 2011, we pushed that concept forward by showcasing their work at events around the world, and by getting involved with the creators, their future and their creative process,” says Simon. “But we wanted to go beyond telling their stories. We wanted to help them take their work to the next level.”

The Studio

The Studio, an ongoing arts initiative supported by The Creators Project, was created to do just that. “Think of The Studio as an art foundation,” says Simon. “It offers creators the means to realize their artistic visions. We foster interdisciplinary collaborations and give them access to the latest technology. Then we disseminate the work using a number of media channels and an event series.”

The event series kicked off at Milk Studios in New York City and then moved to London, Sao Paulo and Seoul, culminating in a three-day exposition in Beijing. “We learned a lot in those first events,” says Simon. “They were all-day, all-night affairs with everything from a film festival to panel discussions where creators explained how they do what they do. We had some of the best bands -- amazing bands -- playing. In New York City, we had MIA, Interpol, Mark Ronson -- and we had incredible art installations -- all in one building. Frankly, it was too much to experience in a single day. That led us to planning multiday events.”

Coachella

In 2011, The Creators Project was the first-ever creative partner for Coachella -- one of the world’s premier music and arts festivals -- and reimagined the event by creating groundbreaking visual experiences. The project collaborated with acts such as Arcade Fire and Interpol to enhance their performances. It also unveiled a series of original, large-scale artworks, including United Visual Artists’ reinvention of Coachella’s main stage and Muti Randolph’s Sahara Tent installation. For the first time, The Creators Project billed international bands from China, Korea and Brazil and also showcased interactive works by Mark Essen, Lumpens, Feng Mengbo and Hojun Song in The Creators Project tent.

The original artworks created for Coachella were unveiled as the first series of projects from The Studio. For example, J. Spaceman (from Spiritualized, a U.K.-based space rock band) and Jonathan Glazer (director of Radiohead’s OK Computer video and the film Sexy Beast) created a light and sound installation. The installation was a physical manifestation of Spiritualized’s iconic track “Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space,” and was presented in a cathedral-like space designed by the architecture firm Undisclosable. 

“I had an interesting conversation with Jonathan Glazer,” says Simon. “He was amazed that, despite the technical difficulties, the finished project was exactly what he had envisioned. So often, projects end up being only a third as good as the original idea. Vice and The Creators Project stood behind Glazer’s and Spaceman’s idea 100 percent.”

Joining Up

To become part of The Creators Project and The Studio, check out the application process on The Creators Project website. Notes Haroldson: “We are enabling artists all over the world to build new things with the caveat that they need to push technology.”

“Visual experience is our top-level brief,” says Simon. “It’s not enough that someone be a great electronic musician. There also has to be a visual element. And it’s essential that the Creators want to be involved because this only works if the Creators are enthusiastic. We’re not paying them to be part of the project.”

“We have a mix of emerging artists and leading artists,” continues Simon. “There has to be some aspirational aspect to The Creators Project for emerging artists to get included in the program and feel like, ‘Wow, I’m hitting the big leagues.’”

Globally, that approach helps artists who are well-established in their home countries to gain exposure abroad. “We can help a Chinese artist get recognized in the U.K., for example,” says Simon. “The same goes for someone like Diplo, who’s arguably quite famous in the States -- but by being featured on The Creators Project website, his profile gets a couple million hits in China.”

The Creators Project is a balance between passion for the arts and an intimate connection with technology, as well as the culture surrounding the two. By supporting and showcasing emerging and established Creators and their work, Vice hopes to demonstrate that the status quo is simply not good enough.

Power to the People: The New Consumer Video Revolution

The consumer video renaissance is in full swing thanks to technological innovations that make it possible for anyone to create professional-looking HD videos complete with Hollywood-style transitions, effects, graphics, sound and animation.

Modern video and still cameras, smartphones and webcams are all capable of shooting and storing high-quality HD -- even stereoscopic 3D (S3D) -- video digitally. And a new generation of software from companies such as CyberLink and Roxio offer hobbyists and serious enthusiasts powerful yet uncomplicated tools for ease in editing, converting and sharing their movies, photos and music creations.

CyberLink Technology
CyberLink specializes in designing software solutions that showcase the latest advances in processing power. It also markets its own line of video software. So when PCs equipped with multicore processors hit the market earlier this year, CyberLink was ready with versions of its top-selling applications for consumers -- CyberLink PowerDirector, PowerDVD 3D and YouCam -- all tuned and optimized to tap into hardware-accelerated media processing and the multithreading capabilities built into multicore processors.

For CyberLink customers, those performance optimizations translate to usability. “We surveyed our users and discovered they all wanted one thing: to be able to edit faster,” says Louis Chen, director of product marketing at CyberLink. “We’re seeing a significant performance boost using the latest generation of processors thanks to deep parallelism, greatly increased throughput and integrated media processing. In some cases, video encoding, playback and conversion is up to 10 times faster.”

PowerDirector 9 Ultra64 -- billed as the world’s first native 64-bit consumer video editor -- utilizes all the RAM on the system and reduces the time it takes for HD footage to load. Together with new TrueVelocity Technology, including TrueVelocity Parallel and TrueVelocity Accelerator, users can handle multiple layers of HD video and graphics overlays and perform picture-in-picture effects with multiple streams of HD video, all in real time. That sort of power previously was the exclusive domain of professional video software and high-end workstations.

“Our goal was to deliver the best aspects of high-end functionality, without making the software overly complicated,” says Chen. That focus on ease of use is evident at every stage of the video workflow. For example, PowerDirector supports a file-based workflow that lets users handle video clips stored in the latest digital formats for use in devices such as smartphones, camcorders, point-and-shoot cameras, Canon and Nikon DSLRs, and webcams.

Bringing video clips into PowerDirector is as simple as connecting your device’s storage media to your computer, browsing through the files and choosing to import them as individual clips or a batch of clips. Most of the complexity is hidden from newbies, but easily discoverable by more advanced users. In another nod to more advanced users, the timeline -- a ubiquitous feature in both professional and consumer video-editing apps -- supports up to 100 video tracks and key-frame animation, as well as numerous advanced editing and enhancement tools that provide added control and flexibility. PowerDirector 9 Ultra64 even includes Audio WaveEditor, a stand-alone sound editor.

The Magic Movie templates let anyone get expert results with minimum effort. For example, the Slideshow Designer lets users choose from eight styles, add their photographs to the timeline, pick a soundtrack and, in the blink of an eye, get a slideshow timed to the music, appearing as if a professional motion graphics artist labored over it for days.

When it’s time to share your creations, it’s easy to output projects to YouTube and Facebook in full 1920 by 1080 resolution HD, send them to all sorts of handheld devices, game platforms, smartphones and tablets, or save them in a number of popular file formats. Simply choose a device and a quality setting and press “Start.” PowerDirector’s batch conversion is another feature typically reserved for high-end applications.

Consumers Use Fast Format Conversion
With PowerDVD 11, a universal media player, CyberLink’s video expertise reaches the home theater enthusiasts. PowerDVD lets users extend their viewing experience beyond their PCs so they can watch video in virtually any format on their home theater system or on smartphones, tablets, CE devices and more.

“Many of our more technically savvy users like PowerDVD because our extensive format support includes MKV and FLV -- two formats that are quite popular,” says Chen. “These users tend to have large collections of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs and want to be able to access their media collection wherever they are. They also want maximum image quality and sonic fidelity in 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound at very high bit rates.”

PowerDVD 11 Ultra was the first Blu-ray 3D-certified player for PCs. Users can experience S3D movies at home by using a hardware-accelerated decoding of Blu-ray 3D Multiview Video Coding (MVC). This process outputs bit streams through an industry-standard HDMI 1.4 connection to the latest generation of S3D televisions and projectors.

In addition, PowerDVD features unique TrueTheater Technology that boosts SD video to S3D at HD resolution. This automated conversion technology lets consumers experience their existing DVD collections in S3D. It can also automatically convert 2D photos to stereo 3D slideshows, stabilize shaky cam video footage and clean up noisy audio tracks.

Roxio Tools
With roots in CD-ROM- and DVD-burning software, the Roxio division of Rovi Corp. specializes in consumer digital media software. Roxio Creator 2011, its flagship product, is a suite of software applications that lets users easily edit and polish videos and store them on DVD or Blu-ray Disc and share them on portable devices, YouTube and Facebook. Like many of its counterparts, Creator offers advanced features wrapped in a user-friendly interface.

Recognizing that S3D was coming to televisions, PCs and other consumer electronics devices, including camcorders, Roxio designed Creator 2011 to be the first media suite to implement S3D conversion of both 2D still photos and video. That conversion process places incredible demands on the processor, particularly when working with video footage.

“That posed some technical challenges for us,” says Michel Yavercovski, senior director of product management in the Roxio Consumer Product Group. “We had to accommodate all of the current S3D formats available to people using stereo 3D camcorders, allow them to edit the footage and support most of the major formats that TVs will accept.”

Roxio created an intermediate format -- one that is easier to process and allows users to simplify the S3D workflow. “Our users don’t want to have to wrestle with formats, they just want to be able to work with their video,” says Yavercovski. “We also felt that using the 2D workflow that people are used to for S3D was important. We chose an AVC side-by-side, full-frame format that still creates rather large, computationally intensive files.”

Roxio’s users, however, don’t want to wait while their video projects take hours to render. “People want results right away, so speed is essential,” says Yavercovski.

Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/webphotographeer

Inside the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center was founded in 1999 by drama and arts management professor Don Marinelli and the late Randy Pausch, professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design. An independent center housed in neither the School of Computer Science nor the College of Fine Arts, the Entertainment Technology Center is headquartered in a riverfront technology park along the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, Penn., directly across from an old steel mill site that is now a mixed-use commercial-residential development designed to blend into the adjacent National Historic District. Its hallways are a pop-culture explosion (geek skewing sci-fi, where a life-size carbonite Han Solo statue leans next to Lara Palmer’s image hanging on a wall above a Blade Runner poster), the men’s room decorated in a Super Mario Brothers World 1-1 motif.

Mission and History

Since its first class of Masters of Entertainment Technology (MET) students graduated in 2001, the program has expanded internationally, with campuses in Japan, Singapore and Portugal, in addition to Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley in the United States. This international focus is a key part of the ETC program, which aims to prepare students for work in video game development, film animation or special effects, and what ETC-Pittsburgh Director Drew Davidson terms “location-based” work: design for theme parks and museums.

The latter is inspired in part by Pausch’s 1995 sabbatical with Disney Imagineering and sustained by Disney’s sponsorship of Carnegie Mellon’s Disney Research Laboratory. Associate executive producer Mk Haley and associate professor Jesse Schell also have backgrounds with Disney Imagineering, and ETC graduates have gone on to work for Disney theme parks and animation studios (as well as Pixar).

Alumni from the program work across the video game industry, from core to casual, from Bethesda to Zynga. In 2005, four students in the program, including 2D Boy’s Kyle Gabler, created the ExperimentalGameplay Project with, according to its website, “the goal of discovering and rapidly prototyping as many new forms of gameplay as possible.” 2D Boy eventually took one of Gabler’s prototypes from this project to completion as World of Goo.

Virtual Boot Camp

Building prototyping skills is the aim of Building Virtual Worlds, one of the program’s four required first-semester courses. (They call these four courses “boot camp.”) Students are assigned to interdisciplinary teams of four and are given one to three weeks to design and build a virtual world.

The course was founded by Pausch, who detailed its origins in The Last Lecture, a memoir written as he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Pausch’s legacy, his book and the lecture it is based on, called “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” are key components of the program’s identity.

The Building Virtual Worlds course’s structure was established by Pausch that first undergraduate semester; after two years of its success, he and Marinelli successfully expanded it into the graduate-level Entertainment Technology Center.

“We want students that have skills already,” says Davidson. That allows the program to focus less on developing specific skill sets and instead hone in on the kind of project-based interdisciplinary work students are likely to encounter in the industry. The main focus of the program is to prepare students for work, and Davidson likens the MET to professional degrees such as a master’s of fine arts or a master’s of business administration.

In boot camp, students also take a class on improvisational acting, another class on topics like project management and effective presentation methods, and another on visual storytelling, which Davidson says is “a film class for non-film people.” There’s also education going on at the meta level, as these other classes often have students working on schedules that are slightly different from the regular schedule of Building Virtual Worlds, encouraging them to hone their time-management and communication skills.

According to Davidson, alumni range in age from 19 (fresh out of finishing their undergraduate degree when their peers are just finishing their freshman years) to 55. Sixty percent of students come from outside of the United States, and 40 percent of students are women. Recently, almost half of the students on every team for the Building Virtual Worlds presentations were women. Davidson attributes the near-gender parity to the program’s interdisciplinary nature. (It should be noted that though women’s representation skews toward the art side of the programs’ art/tech interaction, there are also women with programming and engineering backgrounds in the program.)

After finishing boot camp, students move on to the rest of the program, which is designed to give them experience in working on projects. Each student works on one project a semester. Some of the projects are sponsored by outside businesses, both in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Students have developed games and aided in research and development for companies like EA, General Electric and Lockheed Martin. They have also worked on projects with the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, The National Aviary and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Beyond the Classroom

Students also have the opportunity to work on grant-supported work with ETC faculty, or on other government-sponsored projects for the Department of Defense. CMU’s computer science and robotics research is often DARPA-funded, and that connection is leveraged here, such as in 2004’s Augmented Cognition project.

Every semester, the ETC sponsors a number of what they call “pitch projects,” which are student-conceived and student-driven. A group of students form a team and pitch their project to the faculty. Students are given resources and office space, and they sometimes test their project demos on visitors. Student explanations -- and their success in encouraging outsiders to, say, flail around with a Kinect in front of strangers -- is another part of their education. It helps them learn the kind of communication skills necessary for successful teamwork.

That’s ultimately the goal of the program: not an alchemy that transforms artists into programmers or vice versa, but a structure that allows artists and technologists to work together, to learn from each other and to communicate.

Green Means GO! The Technology Behind the World Solar Challenge

The World Solar Challenge is a 3,000 kilometer race across the Australian outback. That’s 3,000 kilometers of scrubland and blistering sunlight -- the kind of environment that’s not particularly welcoming to humans or technology, unless that technology happens to be solar-powered.

In late October 2011, for the eleventh race since 1987, a group of solar-powered cars designed by groups from around the world attempted to cross the continent, from Darwin to Adelaide, on solar power alone. Some cars made it; some had to resort to being towed on trailers part of the way by gasoline-powered vehicles. Members of one 70-person-strong team from Cambridge University designed, built and drove a car in the race.

The Start of a Racing Team

The Cambridge University Eco Racing (CUER) team first competed in the 2009 World Solar Challenge. CUER, founded four years ago, has its roots in another Cambridge: In 2007, an engineering student named Martin McBrien spent a year studying at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. While in the U.S., McBrien was inspired by a project there working to create and race solar-powered cars. Upon his return to the U.K., McBrien founded the CUER team, recruiting students who used a solar cell they acquired from MIT to build a prototype solar car, which they christened Affinity.

“The year after that, the original CUER team was able to raise money and go on an end-to-end trip across the U.K., from one tip to the other tip: John O’Groats to Land’s End,” says Mark Nicholson, CUER’s current business manager, leader of both the sponsorship and PR teams, and a chemistry student at Cambridge. “They enlisted schools and various public places along the way to advertise the project.” The Affinity was the first solar car to cross the U.K. on solar power alone.

CUER’s next car was the Endeavour, which they raced in 2009. Despite a battery issue, the team managed to place 14th out of a field of 26 in their first transcontinental race. Returning home, they were excited to continue working on the car, preparing it for the next race in 2011. The students faced a mix of challenges: developing sustainable energy and automotive technology, promoting education outreach and acquiring sponsorship.

Securing the Funding

Sponsorships were key to CUER’s next (and current) car, the Endeavour Mk II. “The majority of our funding comes from sponsors,” says Nicholson. “We get some from the engineering department, mostly in the form of help: A large number of things are set up for the faculty researchers to use, and we get the ability to use quite a lot of those. Room bookings, hiring cars, printing -- the kind of day-to-day stuff you need. They’re quite helpful, but there’s a limit to what the university can do.”

The fall of 2009 wasn’t the best time to be looking for sponsors for something as seemingly off-the-wall as solar car racing. But early in 2010, the team had a little bit of luck: They met Mark Green, a technical marketing engineer for Intel. [Disclosure: Intel’s Visual Adrenaline magazine is the sponsor of DigitalInnovationGazette.com.]

“The relationship came out of a chance meeting. I went to a local school’s Transport Day with my family back in March 2010,” says Green. “The CUER team had a stand with their car. I noticed that there were several corporate logos on it. I was very interested in what they were doing and got to talking to them, exploring whether there was an opportunity for sponsorship from Intel.”

There was a precedent: Green and Intel sponsor the Bloodhound SSC Engineering Adventure, a project in which engineers design a car that can reach speeds of 1,000 miles per hour. Green knew that sponsoring CUER would provide a blend of opportunities in engineering and educational outreach, as well as offering computer equipment and some technical support. The Bloodhound Adventure, though focused on land speed records rather than solar power, had similar goals to CUER: to develop new technologies under extreme automotive conditions that could lead to useful breakthroughs for everyday people, while also motivating young people to get involved with science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Assembling the Team

Since the CUER team is made up of university students, the project provides double educational benefits: It actively trains future engineers and engages younger students through demonstrations and community outreach. “We ran a competition for schools last year and invited the finalists up to Cambridge for a Solar Fun Day,” says Nicholson. “The competition was aimed at 6- to 13-year-olds.”

CUER is a key part of the education for many of the students involved in the project, according to Nicholson. The engineering program at Cambridge requires students to work on a project for a year. But for some dedicated students, working with CUER is a four-year commitment. “We’ve got some people who joined in their first year and have now graduated having just been to Australia,” says Nicholson. “So they’ve been following the project the entire way through.”

Some of those recently graduated students are still involved in the project in an advisory capacity, explains Nicholson. And even with those members’ recent graduation, the team is still fairly large. “We’ve got about 20 in the business team (sponsorship and PR) and more like 40 in the technical team,” says Nicholson. “And then there’s the senior team, a group of five or six of us who are much more heavily involved in the project.

Building the Car
The technical team works the most with sponsor-provided tools, including workstations with solid-state drives (SSDs), a micro-processor and an SSD for in-car telemetry, consulting support, and access to a high-performance computing cluster located in Swindon, a city about 150 miles southwest of Cambridge. The team uses this HPC center to run its computational fluid dynamics simulations.

According to CUER, this cluster allows them to run in six minutes a simulation that took 24 hours to run during their 2009 preparation. Speeding up simulation also means speeding up the design process: After running a simulation, the team is able to quickly and easily make changes to their model and run it again. This means that developments that once took eight weeks can now be achieved in one afternoon.

Under the Hood

The three-wheeled Endeavour looks like a large diving board -- or a giant white tongue -- covered with black rectangles (the solar cells), with a cockpit for the driver rising out of the back section. Support vehicles, which accompany the Endeavor on its races across the outback, have computers that communicate with onboard telemetry systems in the car. This communication system allows members of the team to monitor the car’s power supply, speed and other stats, without the need for the driver to relay them verbally.

The system generates nearly 2 GB of data every day, which is stored on the SSD in the system. Unlike a standard hard disk drive, the SSD has no moving parts and isn’t affected by the Endeavour’s lack of smooth suspension. (Shocks would weigh the car down too much.)

The 2011 Challenge
The sun did not shine upon much of the October 2011 race: Smoke from brushfires and heavy clouds prevented the vehicles from completing the race on solar power, and the vehicles had to be towed on a trailer for parts of the race. Despite nature being against them, the CUER team managed to log nearly 1,500 solar kilometers -- almost half of the height of the Australian continent traversed on solar power -- and finished 25th out of 37 teams.

The team’s experiences will help members in the future, whether they’re returning to the team for another year, or have graduated and are moving on to obtain their doctorates or pursuing careers in engineering. And as the project continues, it will keep training students to work in a world where sustainable technology is important and where engineering is engaged with the public through education.

Photo Credit: Getty Images