Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Balticon 50 (part 2)

As I often say, each game experience is totally different with new players, even if I'm running the same mission. But before the first mission of the convention even started, one player surprised me with his extremely unusual character build. Instead of purchasing weapons, armor, or any other items with his allotted 5,000 credits, this gamer decided he wanted to buy and implant a 5,000 credit “talent chip” in his head. The thing about this piece of cyberware is that it will randomly erase one of your existing talents and replace it with the talent on the chip—but the talent on the chip can be any talent from the Player's Guide, regardless of level or prerequisites. This player chose the “Fading Touch” talent, one of the deadly martial arts nerve strikes that allows the user to touch a hidden pressure point. This pressure point will convince the opponent's brain that his heart is beating too fast. If the attack is successful, the opponent's brain responds by slowing the heart too much, causing the opponent to go into cardiac arrest. It was a big risk, but considering that the mission involved going undercover without weapons or armor, it turned out to be an excellent choice for his character (though he did have to rely very heavily on his teammates for other things like hacking, ranged attacks, etc.) I loved the innovative approach, though!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Balticon 50 (part 1)

This past weekend at Balticon 50 was a blast! I was there representing Corefun Studios, the publisher of science-fiction RPG Solar Echoes, and was sponsored by Balticon to run game demos in their RPG game room. Before I found the room, I was overwhelmed by the crowds of people present for the 50th anniversary of Balticon. I visited the dealer's room and was impressed with the immense number of options for a sci-fi enthusiast like myself to part with my money (I'll admit, I did spend a little!) When I found the RPG game room, I was shocked by the beautiful view of the Baltimore harbor. The room had great table space, a table with water waiting for the thirsty, and a comfortable gaming atmosphere ready for RPG gamers to dive into their imaginations. This weekend was a lot of fun, and I met a lot of great people during the many Solar Echoes missions I ran. Whether we were building characters together, stopping a bank heist,  or blowing up robots, Solar Echoes brought together all kinds of people. This week, I'll touch on a few highlights during the games we played!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Gaming Community (part 5)

There are countless games available, and many of them involve direct competition. Some games, like tabletop RPG’s, are about people playing together as a group, on a team, in order to overcome challenges together. One of the core precepts I built Solar Echoes on was that it must involve everyone—I wanted Solar Echoes to be a game that brings people together and doesn’t leave anyone out. Thankfully, after running countless demos at conventions where complete strangers all sit together at my table, I believe this has been achieved. Without turn-taking (no initiative order), with somewhat fragile characters that suffer penalties when wounded (which hurts the overall effectiveness of the team), and with every system in the game designed to involve all players working together, Solar Echoes is definitely the kind of game that will turn total strangers into friends. I’m excited to be a part of building the game community! This weekend, Solar Echoes will be at the science-fiction and fantasy convention, Balticon, for its 50th anniversary. I hope to see you all there!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Gaming Community (part 4)

Now, this is just my personal observation (I have no research to back it), but I’d like to suggest that games are effective at breaking social barriers, especially with males. Put a few guys that don’t know each other in a room together without anything to do, and its extremely likely that they will quickly pull out their smartphones and sit there in total silence, never talking. Guys rarely seem to feel comfortable talking to each other unless they have some kind of shared activity. This can even be true among guys that are friends! Yet games provide a shared, goal—suddenly, anti-social tendencies dissipate because gamers have something in common. And it doesn’t just stop there, either—how many times have you gathered together with friends to play a game, and the game becomes second to entertaining conversations and joking around? Games are truly an “ice-breaker,” so if you are ever worried about a social event going well, throw in some games!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Gaming Community (part 3)

There is a history of games being used to strengthen communities. One of the earliest mentions of gaming being used for community bonding is in the first book of Herodotus’s Histories, considered the founding work of history in Western literature (written in 440 BC!) During a severe 18-year famine, the ancient Lydians used games to keep their community together. To survive, they had to ration their food so that they were only able to eat once, every other day. On the days they did not eat, they played games! Considering that they were starving, it is likely that the games mentioned in Histories were tabletop games and not physical sports. Games are entertainment, and entertainment is often used as a distraction from reality. Even today in our stressful, fast-paced culture, we sometimes anesthetize ourselves against reality by escaping into a game.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Gaming Community (part 2)

There’s something about table-top gaming that transcends age, race, gender, and occupation. I’ve seen combinations like a mother with her teenage kids paired up with a college student and a grade-schooler, or an elderly military veteran playing at the same table with a single lady in her mid-twenties, a middle-aged engineer, and his teenage son. When everyone is focused on a common goal within the game, everything else falls away—such disparate groups as I’ve described often end up performing amazingly well as a team, overcoming challenges cleverly and effectively. A fun game can cause people who normally might never have even talked with each other to suddenly find themselves playing and laughing together as if they were old friends. Games can truly be the basis of friendship among people of all types.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Gaming Community (part 1)

As anyone that plays competitive team sports can tell you, it’s just as important to know your own team as it is to know your opponent. Knowing the actions and temperaments of teammates is crucial to group success, and having the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and understand how they think—to know their personal motivations—is going to make you much more effective on a team. Yet I've seen some amazing groups of gamers who have never met each other come together and play very effectively as a team. This approaching weekend, I’m going to be at Balticon running demo’s of Solar Echoes, and I’m already excited when thinking about what kind of teams I’ll be interacting with. There something incredible about playing a tabletop game at conventions, where teams are often comprised of total strangers.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Synthetic Human Design (part 5)

The secret meeting of scientists at Harvard, organized by Harvard professor George Church, does seem to be suspicious, considered it being veiled from the public. But Church claimed that the meeting was closed to the news media because he wanted the paper the scientists submitted to a scientific journal to first have a chance at peer review. Church insisted that discussing things publicly before the publication of the paper was out of the question. However, Stanford's Drew Endy challenged this claim by posting a Twitter screenshot that is supposedly a message from the meeting organizers, which stated, "We intentionally did not invite the media, because we want everyone to speak freely and candidly without concerns about being misquoted or misinterpreted as the discussions evolve." Endy retorted, "If you need secrecy to discuss your proposed research ... you are doing something wrong."

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Synthetic Human Design (part 4)

One benefit of these studies is that we could synthetically “print” human organs with organic plastic. Dr. Lee Smith, chief of pediatric otolaryngology at the Cohen Children's Medical Center, stated, “Before 3-D printing, there was no way we could make a trachea ideally fitted for a 2-year-old.” Printing the trachea requires a desktop 3D-printer and a syringe filled with bio-ink, a syrupy material made of living cells. Research is already underway towards producing bionic body parts, living organs, implants made of synthetic bone, and a variety of other creations. Someday, a kidney or liver transplant may not require a compatible donor—we may very well have our organs custom-printed and replaced without the threat of rejection. Mechanical heart valves that require blood thinner for life, or pig heart valves that must be replaced every 15 years might become a thing of the past, when a brand new heart valve, customized and printed from your very own cells, might give you another lifetime's worth of a fully functioning and entirely compatible heart valve.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Synthetic Human Design (part 3)

If the human genome can be written, consider the possibilities. Genetic disorders could be stamped out in a society entirely. Specific physical and intellectual capacities could potentially be targeted and produced. “Designer” humans could very well be walking among us someday, but what would the presence of such “superior” humans mean? The haunting memories of Hitler's intended “master race” come to mind, and a society driven by a genetically elite class echoes scenarios already depicted in science-fiction movies like Gattaca. If a human was entirely artificially produced without biological parents, then who exactly is responsible for this human--the facility that produced him/her, the government, or the individual scientists that wrote the genetic code? Would facilities be designed for raising these synthetic humans? What if some of these facilities were military, designed for raising elite soldiers? None of this is certain yet, but as we approach the possibility of synthetic humans walking among us someday, many of these questions will need answers.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Synthetic Human Design (part 2)

Marcy Darnovsky, the executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California, expressed concerns about the Harvard gathering, stating, “If these reports are accurate, the meeting looks like a move to privatize the current conversation about heritable genetic modification.” Hank Greely, director of Stanford's Center for Law and Biosciences, stated that Genomics is “in the middle of four revolutions: sequencing, editing, synthesizing, and understanding.” He asserts that the crucial question about the human genome is “what changes are made, with what results?” With new production techniques, the cost of assembling the entire human genome has fallen from $12 billion to $90 million. If cost reductions continue as projected, in only two decades it might be as low as $100,000, making the concept of “designer children” and “super soldiers” a realistic and affordable possibility.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Synthetic Human Design (part 1)

Nearly 150 scientists recently convened at Harvard in secret to discuss plans for the creation of a synthetic human. The few that attended this secret meeting were instructed not to contact the media or to tweet on the internet. The stated goal of the meeting was to "synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years." The prospect of chemically constructing a human being, essentially bringing a person into the world without biological parents, raises a number of questions, both ethical and practical. Harvard genetics professor George Church, one of the organizers of the meeting, has indicated that the proposed project is not intended for the creation of people but just cells, and he stated that it would not be restricted to the human genome. However, Stanford's Drew Endy (bioengineering) and Northwestern's Laurie Zoloth (medical ethics and humanities) raised questions in an essay published shortly after the meeting—have these scientists gone too far? “Would it be OK, for example, to sequence and then synthesize Einstein’s genome? If so how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them? Taking a step back, just because something becomes possible, how should we approach determining if it is ethical to pursue?”

Friday, May 13, 2016

Future Tech: Innovation or Gimmick? (Part 5)

We live in an era where, if you can imagine it, it might just be possible to bring your idea into reality, if you can find the right people and some money to fund it (Kickstarter, perhaps?) Perhaps our era will someday be looked upon as a Renaissance of technological innovation. However, there is such an immense surplus of great ideas that it is easy to get lost in the crowd, and often, only the companies with lots of money for big marketing campaigns can convince people to adopt their new tech. Even then, it fails sometimes. Still, it's exciting living in a country that rewards innovation and gives people a chance to make a huge difference from a small beginning. I only hope that this country will remain as such a place. With all the obstacles that inventors face (regulations, taxes that punish small businesses, and the challenges of the marketplace) creators may eventually give up and leave their ideas on the drawing board. Let's just hope that this exciting era we live in will continue to grow—imagine what the future might be like for your children!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Future Tech: Innovation or Gimmick? (Part 4)

One technological innovation that is slowly but steadily being embraced is 3D printing. When you think of 3D printing, you might imagine a large, expensive machine that prints fun plastic toys, but the use 3D printing has exploded in recent years. According to some surveys, two-thirds of the manufacturing industry is using 3D printing, some for rapid prototyping, others for production or for custom parts. The global market for 3D printing is projected to be at $16.2 billion in 2018, and research has predicted that it will quadruple over the next decade. Desktop 3D printers are becoming more affordable, and the range of application is expansive: dentists are printing Invisalign braces for patients, General Electric is printing complex metal parts for motors, and even commercial airline Airbus has been using 3D printing to save millions in parts production and fuel costs by shaving off the weight of an aircraft. Airbus even has plans to completely 3D print an airplane someday. A Chinese company has even managed to use a giant 3D printer to print 10 single-level houses in one day. Someday, you may be able to buy something on Amazon and then 3D print it right at home, enjoying near-instant delivery! (and don't worry, 3D printing speeds are improving quickly as the technology advances.) It's looking like 3D printing isn't just a passing fad—what we're seeing right now may just be the beginning.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Future Tech: Innovation or Gimmick? (Part 3)

Another technological innovation that has already hit the market and will continue to do so in various iterations this year is virtual reality. The Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, Google's VR Cardboard, and in October, Sony's Playstation VR are all making 2016 the year of virtual reality. What remains to be seen is if this is another fad (like motion-controlled games) or if this new tech will become the next big thing. For gaming, virtual reality is extremely immersive, but the success of VR in the game industry really depends on the kind of support it will see from the software developers. Developers must make a big gamble right now, because it's really hard to gauge whether the public will buy these expensive devices (the Oculus Rift is about $1200, Playstation VR is $400). However, even if the game industry doesn't end up making VR a big hit, VR has also been adapted for other uses: Travel agencies are giving customers a taste of where they can visit, colleges are giving virtual tours, films are being released for VR rigs, NASA is preparing to use VR to give astronauts a taste of the familiar while far out in space, VR is being adapted for use with medical technology for complex procedures, and of course, the military is using VR to better train recruits. VR may not necessarily be the future of video games (though it might!), but it already looks like it might be here to stay.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Future Tech: Innovation or Gimmick? (Part 2)

Google is one of the largest supporters and innovators of new tech, and one of their latest and lesser-known pursuits is currently known as project Soli. The project involves the use of radar sensors packaged in a tiny chip that detects physical movements, allowing a person to manipulate and interface with existing tech simply by small gestures. Imagine turning up a radio by rubbing your fingers together, or flipping through channels by quickly extending your index finger. Gestures we're used to making with touch screen technology may soon become airborne. It's hard to say if this tech will catch on, but if Microsoft's "Kinect" fiasco is any indication, people aren't really all that excited to feel like they're living out a scene of "Minority Report." Some research has even shown that people prefer tactile interface, whether through buttons, keys, or touch screens. Still, even though Google Glass didn't exactly catch on, Google is an expert at saturating the market with new tech standards. We might see more of project Soli in the future, whether we like it or not.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Future Tech: Innovation or Gimmick? (Part 1)

We live in an exciting time, where it seems that almost every year, revolutionary new technological advances are being made. With such a saturation of new tech, though, some advances quickly and easily fall out of favor and drift into obscurity, failing to really engage the public as something worth adopting. Sometimes pricing is the deterrent, sometimes marketing, and in the case of "Google Glass," negative public response can even shape the course of new tech. There are new emerging technologies that we may see available very soon, and some are already available. This week, let's take a look at some of this new tech (gesture tech, VR, and 3D printing) and speculate--is it a passing fad, a gimmick, or will it quite possibly change our future?

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Edge of Known Space (part 5)

Look around for a moment, and note the many tiny objects nearby. A paperclip, a USB drive, a small coin. These innocent little things can actual be deadly in space—imagine one of them traveling in space at 17,000 mph, or worse, imagine a cluster of them flying toward your spacecraft at that rate. Space junk is a very serious threat to space explorers, considering that today's spacecraft shielding can only deflect objects smaller than a centimeter. As unlikely as it seems in the vastness of space, things do collide sometimes, breaking into millions of tiny pieces that can quickly become a deadly cloud of debris. Even if the intrepid space explorer clears the deadly orbital threat left behind by human litterbugs, there is the risk of space dust—clouds of tiny particles moving at incredible speeds. In 1967, NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft ran into a cloud of cosmic dust that impacted it so severely, the insulation was ripped off the craft and the force of the debris was enough to change its course. Tiny bits of debris are untrackable because they are so small, so flying through space is like sailing blindly through an ocean mine-field. Early explorers on Earth faced a lot of challenges and serious hardships, but the explorers of our future and those that have already braved the dangers of space—those men and women possess courage beyond measure!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Edge of Known Space (part 4)

While we probably associate static electricity with scuffing our shoes around on our grandparent's old carpeted floors so we can zap an unsuspecting little brother or sister in the ear with a miniature lightning bolt, we otherwise don't think much about static electricity here on Earth, except maybe when we are handling sensitive electronics and want to avoid frying the expensive gear. Space, however, is a very dry environment, so without moisture to carry off electrons, static electricity is something that space explorers are very likely to encounter on a regular basis. Already, NASA is extremely concerned about the static electricity situation on Mars—they engineered reverse lightning rods for the Mars Pathfinder to deal with the problem. Walking on the surface of Mars or our moon can generate enough static electricity to short-circuit crucial life-preserving equipment, including the suits that protect astronauts from the vacuum of space. We already learned this week how moon dust can be a threat, a static electricity will worsen that situation for explorers. Solar storms can also generate tremendous amounts of static electricity, and the results can be akin to an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) bomb being dropped—space explorers are in serious trouble if their sensitive space equipment gets zapped!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Edge of Known Space (part 3)

Another factor that is an obvious challenge for space-goers is temperature. Obviously, the vacuum of space is extremely cold, but a less obvious consideration is our own body heat. Space suits are designed to insulate the astronaut and protect him/her from the freezing temperatures of space, but the astronaut's own body heat can be a significant danger as well. In 1966, astronaut Gene Cernan was the third person to attempt an EVA (extra-vehicular activity) in space, and part of his three hour spacewalk included testing the first Astronaut Maneuvering Unit. Despite his air-cooled spacesuit, his faceplate fogged up so badly that he was completely blind in space, and his pulse hit 195 beats per minute—NASA had to cut his spacewalk short to save his life. In another instance, Russian cosmonaut Alexander Kaleri began to overheat during his spacewalk in 2004, due to a single bent tube in the water-cooled system that kept his suit from overheating. Death by your own body heat is a serious hazard that space-explorers must contend with. It's amazing how fragile and precarious space exploration can be, and how explorers can even become a danger to themselves in such a foreign environment!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Edge of Known Space (part 2)

Now that exploration has moved beyond planet earth, there are new challenges that must be considered. If things go wrong, what resources are available in space? At least with the explorers of the early world, a steady supply of air was a resource no one ever questioned. Even if a sailor, like Magellan, faced the open seas for endless months, food could be obtained from the sea. Less obvious challenges, like the dust of a new planet, might also present serious problems to planetary explorers--astronauts that landed on the moon faced complications caused by the fine "moon dust" that coated their boots and gummed-up their space-suit joints, spreading inside the capsule for the ride home. The stuff became airborne and "smelled like gunpowder," giving the astronauts a sort of lunar hay-fever. It was later discovered that this fine dust was similar to silica, which is dangerous to human lungs, much like the silicosis over 16,000 miners have died from.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Edge of Known Space (part 1)

It has always been human nature to explore and to test the boundaries of the unknown. Pioneers of the early world like Magellan, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Lewis and Clark all bravely ventured into uncharted waters and lands. People like the crew of Apollo 11 first touched down on the moon, with Neil Armstrong being the first man to walk upon its surface. What will we see in the future, and what great explorers will be making history? It is safe to guess that the next great explorers will be those that journey to and land on Mars, which quite possibly may happen within the next decade (NASA is aiming for the 2030's, but Space X is aiming for 2026.) After Mars, what is next? With methods of space propulsion improving, we may be capable of testing the borders of our solar system sooner than we thought...