Sunday, December 30, 2007

Teenager Plays Video Game Just By Thinking

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The days of attacking aliens with a joystick could soon be over thanks to a breakthrough technique where a teenager played Space Invaders using only signals from his brain.

With a technique that takes data from the surface of the brain, a 14-year-old boy from St. Louis was able to play the two-dimensional Atari game without so much as lifting a finger [see video of the study].

In Space Invaders, a popular computer game from the 1970's, players control a movable laser cannon in attempts to shoot rows of aliens that move back and forth across the screen. The objective is to kill the aliens before they have a chance to get to the bottom of the screen. Once they land, the game ends. The aliens can also shoot at the cannon, so the player has to try and evade the shots.

The boy, who already had grids implanted to monitor his brain for epilepsy, was connected to a computer program that linked the video game to the grids. He was then asked to move his hands, talk, and imagine things. The researchers correlated these movements to the different signals fired by the brain.

They then asked the boy to play Space Invaders by moving his hand and tongue and then to imagine those movements without actually performing them.

"He cleared out the whole Level One basically on brain control," said Eric Leuthardt, a researcher at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. "He learned almost instantaneously. We then gave him a more challenging version in two-dimensions and he mastered two levels there playing only with his imagination."

A couple of years back, Leuthardt and colleagues performed this research on four adults. But they wanted to explore possible differences between teenagers and adults. Although it's too early to tell from testing just one teenager, Leuthardt thinks that teens may win this game.

"We observed much quicker reaction times in the boy and he had a higher level of detail of control—for instance, he wasn't moving just left and right, but just a little bit left, a little bit right," Leuthardt said.


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Saturday, December 29, 2007

IE7 vs. Firefox: The Competition Really Begins

It's been a busy couple of weeks in the browser market, with Microsoft finally "shipping" Internet Explorer 7 and Mozilla making its Firefox 2.0 final.

Of course, both browsers have been around for a long time in beta versions, but it's good to see them finally considered ready for everyone. I've been using both a lot over the past couple of days, and they are nice improvements.

Internet Explorer 7 shows a bigger set of changes, but that's to be expected, since it's been years since IE 6 came out. The browser finally adds tabbed browsing, making it the last significant browser to do so, along with anti-phishing controls, integrated RSS reading, and an ability to much more easily manage add-ons and active X controls.

I particularly like a couple of ease of use features, notably its zoom capability, and the Quick tabs button, which lets displays thumbnail versions of your open browser tabs at the click of a button.

Firefox 2 isn't as big of a change, but it also adds a number of new features, such as putting the button to close a tab on the tab itself (rather than the far right hand side of the tabbed bar), anti-phishing features, a spelling checker, a session restore feature (for getting back to a whole group of open tabs") and an undo close feature. While a few of the old extensions don't work, most seem fine.

My favorite new feature is probably the spelling checker, which is very helpful when you're filling out or typing in a web form. This worked really well for me.; and I can imagine it improving the spelling on blogs all over the web. I also like the way Firefox integrates an RSS reader, but also lets you easily choose among some alternatives.

In my tests, both browsers had some nice features and pretty good compatibility with the web sites I tried. Even most of the complicated AJAX-based sites worked pretty well. But I did run into some problems.

IE 7 doesn't work properly on the Community Server site where I create this blog, which is a major problem for me. Yahoo Mail beta gave me a warning about an unsupported browser, but seemed to work fine. Firefox was better on the sites I tried, with it not working only on a few MSN sites (such as administering an OfficeLive web site).

Of course, one can blame the software behind these sites as much as the browsers, and that's a real issue. We all like new features, but it would be great if every site and every browser just worked together. (I've had even more problems with Opera 9, even though that passes some of the compatibility tests out there, which just proves we need better tests.)

In my normal surfing, I haven't yet come across anything marked as phishing in either browser, but that's probably me. But I'm glad to see both browsers doing things here, as it may be the biggest issue facing browser users these days.

If I had to choose just one browser, I'd stick with Firefox, in part because it was more compatible for me, and in part because it has a couple of features I found myself using a lot, especially the spelling checker. I also like the idea of portable applications, which you can run from a USB memory stick, which I expect will be out shortly for Firefox 2 (betas are available now.)

But in practice, I'll probably keep both browsers around because not everything is compatible with any one browser these days. That's a shame, because the whole point of the web is to be able to link to any site and be able to use it.

For now, though, it's great to have two competitive browsers out there (or really three, because I'd include Opera 9 in the list). Competition is leading all the browser developers to push forward and make their browsers do more, be more secure, and get easier to use. That's good for all of us.


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Friday, December 28, 2007

2006 IgNobel Prize Winners

Research into stinky feet, a study on the sound of fingernails on a blackboard and a device that repels teen-agers with an annoying high-pitched hum on Thursday won IgNobel prizes -- the humorous counterpart to this week's Nobel prizes.

Other winning research included a U.S. and Israeli team's discovery that hiccups could be cured with a finger up the rectum and a study into why woodpeckers do not get headaches.

"The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine and technology," said Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine "Annals of Improbable Research," which sponsors the awards with the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students.

All the research is real and has been published in often-prestigious scientific and medical journals. However, unlike the Nobel prizes awarded this week by the Swedish Academy of Sciences, IgNobel winners receive no money, little recognition and have virtually no hope of transforming science or medicine.

Even the name of the award, a play on the word "ignoble," is meant to be deprecating.

But they receive their awards from real Nobel winners in an event broadcast on the Internet at on

Thursday evening.

Some of the 2006 IgNobel winners:

-- BIOLOGY - Bart Knols of Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands, the National Institute for Medical Research in Tanzania and the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria and colleague Ruurd de Jong for showing that the female Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which carries malaria, is attracted equally to the smell of limburger cheese and to the smell of human feet.

"We have shown that three different Anopheles mosquito species prefer to bite different parts of a naked motionless volunteer and that this behaviour is influenced by odors from those body regions," they wrote in their report, published in the Lancet medical journal in 1996.

-- ORNITHOLOGY - Ivan Schwab of the University of California Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California Los Angeles, for explaining why woodpeckers do not get headaches.

-- NUTRITION - Wasmia Al-Houty of Kuwait University and Faten Al-Mussalam of the Kuwait Environment Public Authority, for showing that dung beetles are finicky eaters.

-- PEACE - Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, for inventing a teen-ager repellent -- a device that makes a high-pitched noise that is annoying to teen-agers but inaudible to most adults; and for later using the technology to make cellphone ringtones that teenagers can hear but not their teachers.

-- ACOUSTICS - D. Lynn Halpern, Randolph Blake and James Hillenbrand of Chicago's Northwestern University for a 1986 experiment aimed at discovering why the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard is so irritating.

-- MEDICINE - Francis Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine and the team of Majed Odeh, Harry Bassan and Arie Oliven of Bnai Zion Medical Centre in Haifa, Israel who both published studies entitled "Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage."

-- MATHEMATICS - Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation, for calculating the number of shots a photographer must take to almost ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed.

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

XBox Celebrates Its Fifth Anniversary

November 15, 2001. With PlayStation 2 dominating the console market, software giant Microsoft - renowned for its Windows operating systems and PC gaming titles - takes its first, bold steps into the console gaming arena with the US launch of the highly anticipated and much vaunted Xbox.

Its release signals the start of an epic rivalry between Microsoft and Sony, two corporate giants jostling for marketplace supremacy like a pair of combatants in a coin-op beat-'em-up. Console gaming would never be the same again...

Despite the countless millions pumped into its aggressive marketing campaign, Xbox's birth was anything but idyllic. By the time it hit the shelves, PS2 already boasted an impressive back catalogue, which included PS2-exclusive, multi-million selling franchises such as the Grand Theft Auto series.

Microsoft's task was made even harder when Sony inevitably dropped the price of PS2 on the eve of Xbox's launch - a tactic which helped the machine almost triple its previous year's sales figures from 6.4 million to 18.5 million, further hampering Microsoft's early efforts to gain a convincing foothold on the market.

But Xbox wasn't without its own fair share of merits, not least its excellent online capabilities, built-in hard drive and vastly superior system specs which provided developers with some exciting new possibilities. "Shipping a console with a hard drive was a big step," explains Jaime Griesemer, a designer at Bungie Studios.

"For games that took advantage of it, the hard drive virtually eliminated load times, allowed for much higher resolution content and huge amounts of audio. Also, you can't really do downloadable content without a place to store it. It was crucial to Halo. We couldn't have had those giant levels, thousands of lines of dialogue, no load times and checkpoint saves without it."

Brand Management

Perhaps one of the most significant reasons why Xbox didn't achieve an even greater level of success was franchise exclusivity, a factor which was to prove a major stumbling block in Xbox's attempts to establish itself as a viable alternative to PS2. After the staggering success of PSone franchises such as Gran Turismo and Tekken, PS2 had an inherent advantage over its rival.

PS2-exclusive sequels such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (which would go on to sell some 14 million copies worldwide) only served to highlight the chasm that Xbox needed to span.

"PS2 built up a massive head start over Xbox by coming to market fully 17 months ahead of it in Europe, and about 14 months in the US," explains Kristan Reed, Eurogamer editor.

"But that's only half the story. What really catapulted the PS2 into orbit was the release of GTA3 in October 2001. At the time, nobody quite realised what a true system seller this was going to be for Sony, but it - and the subsequent release of Vice City and San Andreas - made sure that the PS2 was the console you absolutely had to have."

Bungie Jumping

Microsoft desperately needed a hit, and towards the back end of 2001, it got one. Released to titanic critical acclaim, Bungie's first-person shooter, Halo: Combat Evolved, would prove to be the console's flagship title - cementing Xbox's position as a viable contender to PS2 while showcasing the console's impressive capabilities.

The game shifted a hugely impressive 6 million units worldwide and, almost overnight, the Xbox was up and running. It was to be a success that would only to be surpassed by Halo 2, which racked up an even more formidable 7.5 million worldwide sales.

Halo's success proved to be both the Xbox's turning point and its defining moment. "It certainly established the Xbox as the FPS console," explains Griesemer.

"I think a lot of publishers thought that it was the perspective or the sci-fi setting that sold the game, so there was a slew of sci-fi first-person shooters after Halo hit. Lots of those games didn't do very well because they were borrowing the wrong things.

"Luckily, I think a lot of developers saw the real reasons Halo worked, things like recharging health, the accessibility of the controls, having instant access to grenades and melees at all times, AI that didn't cheat, the checkpoint system that didn't punish you for taking risks and dying, the two-weapon limit, all the ways that we broke with established FPS conventions... So now you even see Halo's influence in lots of non-FPS games."

Other titles such as Project Gotham Racing, Fable and a raft of Tom Clancy games, including Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon, would also go on to provide a core base on which Microsoft could build.

Going Live

Xbox Live's influence on the console's success should also not be overlooked, as it allowed console owners to enjoy viable online gaming experiences for the very first time.

"Xbox Live was a phenomenal success on Xbox," reminisces Microsoft's senior director for UK home and entertainment, Neil Thompson. "The attachment levels were 40 to 50 per cent, which in anybody's universe is a phenomenal install basis."

With its excellent voiceover IP and broadband bandwidth capabilities, Xbox Live heralded the advent of a new era for console gaming, stepping into a realm which had until then been firmly reserved for PC gamers.

Support Systems

As Xbox's popularity soared, an ever-growing number of developers and publishers began to see the benefits of developing games for the console. After an initial struggle to engage the interest of publishers, the Xbox's positive early unit sales, and the astounding success of titles such as Halo and Microsoft's drive to support third-party development, began to reel them in.

"Day one, we struggled to get publishers to support us with Xbox," explains Thompson. "But as we worked with them, changed products and strategies to help them succeed on the platform, they became more pleased to work with us on the platform."

By the end of 2004, Xbox had shifted an impressive 20 million units worldwide and laid down formidable foundations. And with rumours trickling out from Sony that PS2's successor was suffering from teething trouble, Microsoft now found itself in the unlikely and enviable position of seizing the initiative in the race for next-generation console supremacy...

December 2005. Xbox 360, the world's first next-gen console, hits the shelves across the US, Europe and Japan. Expectations are high, but after disastrous sales in Japan and stock shortages elsewhere, what was meant to be a glorious launch turns out to be a PR disaster for Microsoft.

However, despite this major hitch, Microsoft's embarrassment is considerably lessened by news that even more serious problems blight Sony - forcing the electronics giant to delay PS3 release dates and ensure the 360 enjoys an exclusive next-gen Christmas...

Looking Ahead

It wasn't long after the 360's launch that Microsoft made the conscious and somewhat controversial decision to shift its resources to next-gen gaming and all but withdrew its backing for the original Xbox. The effect was compounded by an ever-dwindling list of new releases for the aging machine.

Microsoft's decision to pull its support from the Xbox market was one that surprised many industry insiders. Kristan Reed, editor of, believes Microsoft's abandonment of the Xbox was premature. "Sadly, it's pretty much already dead in the minds of most publishers. It's basically being killed off well ahead of time."

Neil Thompson, Microsoft's senior director for UK home and entertainment, disagrees. "In terms of high-def gaming, we felt that the whole of the consumer movement would move into that era quite quickly," he explains.

"We felt that the high-def era was here. You have to get momentum and an install base very quickly. Being out early and getting early momentum on a platform is very important and it's very tough if you don't get that.

"Component-wise and technologically, the Xbox was far more advanced than the PS2. At the time we came out, Sony was able to get the price points that we weren't due to the technology we'd built in. As a result, it proved very difficult for us to compete."

Trading Places

With Xbox 360 forging ahead and establishing an early foothold on the next-gen ladder, it's now Sony and not Microsoft that finds itself having to play catch up. With PS3 having failed to launch in time for Christmas in Europe and with limited stocks in Japan (only 88,400 units were sold at the console's weekend launch) and the US, a price tag of around £450, and with Microsoft securing many previously PlayStation-exclusive franchises (GTA, Pro Evolution Soccer, etc.), the second round of the Xbox/PlayStation battle is already shaping up to be a far more competitive and closely fought contest.

Kristan Reed believes that Sony will still eventually win out due to its massively superior fan base, but only just. "Sony can rely on its native audience to make up the shortfall," he argues.

"I do think, though, that the 360 will have a significant lead through 2007 and most of 2008. I think the crucial period will be Xmas 2008, when it will come down to who has the most compelling exclusive games.

"I think this time around Sony will have far less exclusives than ever, with most publishers now happy to play safe and release their games across as many platforms as possible."

Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford backs up Reed's argument, observing, "It's going to be difficult for Microsoft to get over the power of the Sony brand and their confidence and capability to reach customers with consumer electronics and content.

"To be fair, Sony has challenges of its own. It's going to be very interesting to watch things play out. For my part, I have to consider that all of these platforms are going to have customers that are interested in the games we're making at Gearbox Software, and I have to make sure that Gearbox remains flexible and agile as this generation unfolds."

Looking Ahead

Despite an overriding industry belief that Sony will continue to dominate the console market for the foreseeable future (all be it to a far lesser degree than before), Microsoft's Neil Thompson remains upbeat that the original Xbox has laid down a solid platform for his company's drive to become No. 1 in the market.

"The Xbox did a lot for us," he says. "A lot of people were very sceptical about whether we'd be able to be successful and be able to innovate in this business, and whether we'd have any longevity. I think it proved that we can bring phenomenal franchises like Halo and Project Gotham Racing to the platform, plus it helped us win a lot of friends in the publishing community.

"If we hadn't been through those experiences with Xbox V1, we wouldn't be in the position that we're in now. This Christmas we have over 160 High Definition games from every major publisher in the world, we've got the premier online gaming service in the world and in America we've just announced that you'll be able to download movies, TV content, videos etc through Xbox Live.

"All of these innovations only become apparent having gone through a lot of the learning lessons and successes that we had with Xbox V1."

Despite its myriad accomplishments, perhaps the original Xbox's legacy is yet to be fully unveiled. One thing however is for sure; the machine managed to do what few believed was possible by offering a viable and competitive alternative to Sony's all-conquering PlayStation franchise.

It also laid down the foundations upon which Microsoft has been able to quickly build a formidable fan base, one that's already looking like swelling yet further with the release of the 360.

PlayStation may have won round one, but half a decade on, it's looking like the Xbox franchise is in a stronger position than ever. The battle for console gaming supremacy has only just begun.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Is iPhone Steve Job's Greates Truimph?

As Apple sets itself for another spectacular earninings announcement after the exuberance of Steve Jobs' Macworld keynote has died down, in some sections of the media nagging doubts are beginning to surface coupled with a dose of harsh reality.

Most of the doubts concern the market positioning of the iPhone, while the harsh reality is that Apple is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the US Attorney's Office.

Starting with the possibility of an options backdating scandal which threatens to reach to the very top of Apple, meaning Jobs himself, until now there has been widespread sentiment that Jobs and the Apple Board are beyond reproach. Not many want to believe that a company of the stature of Apple led by a computer industry pioneer like Jobs could be the subject of a criminal investigation over its corporate governance practices.

However, the US Attorney's Office is probably not interested in public sentiment. If it finds that corporate laws have been broken then it will do its job and make the collar. If such a collar gets made, even if Jobs is not directly involved, as a very hands-on CEO it would be hard for him not to share at least some of the responsibility.

With this in mind, some very bullish financial analysts are starting to shift a little uncomfortably in their seats. Without Jobs, Apple would not be the same company. With Apple stock at an all time high, no-one wants to think about such a scenario.

With regard to the iPhone, in the minds of many it is Apple's killer app. It is indeed a remarkable device. However, there is a measure of uncertainty about its target audience.

Apple has never been a big player in the corporate space and the iPhone, being very much a closed system, may not be able to change that. If like the rest of Apple's products, the iPhone will primarily be considered by consumers, then it's expensive. Many consumers in the wider market outside the Apple world may baulk at paying a base price of US$499 for a phone on a fixed two year plan with a carrier.

At Macworld, Jobs pushed the fact that at US$499, the 4GB iPhone is cheaper than the cost of a smart phone and an iPod combined. However, even the wildly euphoric pro Apple crowd at the keynote could not be coaxed into raising a deafening cheer when the price was announced.

Like all mobile phones sold on contracts, the iPhone is probably heavily subsidised by the carrier and therefore is actually a bargain at the announced price points. However, in many cases, particularly in places like Europe and Australia, consumers can pick up a top end mobile phone on a contract for zero up front cost.

Some observers believe that the iPhone, being an iPod (Jobs said the best ever iPod) will merely eat into existing iPod sales. However, this is unlikely. Despite its large 3.5 inch screen, the iPhone does not have enough storage to compete directly with the iPod Video. Likewise, the much cheaper iPod Nano just does not have the same feature set as the iPhone.

Regardless of the outcome for Apple and Jobs, 2007 is likely to one of the most significant in the history of the company. Apple and Jobs have engineered a scenario where the company has a shot at bridging the divide between IT and telecommunications. However, failure could signal that the company reached its zenith with the Intel Mac and the iPod and has only one way to go.


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Thursday, December 13, 2007

YouTube vs. MySpace?

Just a few months ago, News Corp landed a crucial deal with Internet leader Google. News Corp. designated Google as the search engine for MySpace, the social networking leader that News Corp. acquired last year for $580 million. The Google deal guaranteed $900 million in revenue for MySpace over a three-year period, more than enough to recoup News Corp.'s cost of acquiring MySpace, plus a tidy profit.

Now News Corp. is seeking reassurances in the wake of Google's $1.65 billion agreement to acquire Internet video leader YouTube. The YouTube deal poses several potential conflicts. Today, YouTube doesn't compete directly with MySpace, where members keep home pages loaded with photos, videos, music and messages. But YouTube has a social networking component, because its users can share playlists and other information. That could be the foundation for more YouTube social networking features that would put it into more direct competition with MySpace.

VIDEO IN PROFILES. The main point of potential conflict is the millions of YouTube videos that are embedded on the profiles of MySpace users. Google is expected to integrate advertising into YouTube videos produced by professionals and amateurs alike. As a result, Google could soon have the ability to stream ads to MySpace users who are viewing YouTube videos embedded onto their MySpace pages. The question is whether News Corp. will get a slice of that revenue, and if so, how much.

So far, little or no money has been on the line, but if revenues from online video advertising surge, as both companies predict, how that money is shared will become increasingly important. "The revenue-sharing question for MySpace and YouTube is really tough, but it has to be resolved," says Nick Holland, a senior analyst at Pyramid Research. News Corp. declined comment, and Google didn't respond to several requests for comment.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch have opened a series of meetings between the companies in an effort to clarify their relationship. By holding the meetings at News Corp., "Google has shown how seriously it takes News Corp. as a partner. Both companies want to work out something," said Rick Corteville, executive director of media at Organic, a digital communications agency.

AT THE TABLE. Both companies do want a deal, but they could play hardball if they don't get an agreement on terms they find acceptable. At one extreme, News Corp. could block YouTube videos from MySpace and put more resources into its own MySpace Video, which competes with YouTube. (Roughly one third of the traffic on YouTube comes from MySpace.) It's a threat with some credibility, since MySpace briefly blocked YouTube in the past. News Corp. could also yank Fox clips and other video off of YouTube and make them available exclusively on its own Net properties. Any drastic steps, however, risk alienating MySpace members, who are enthusiastic about YouTube as well.

For its part, Google could play hardball by declining to expand its current advertising agreement with News Corp. That, however, could harm the search giant's financial interests, since it wants to expand its advertising business and MySpace provides an audience of potentially great value.

There are few precedents to guide the way, because the medium is so new. "Maybe something new will emerge from this. They could possibly lease ad space from each other," Corteville said.

BEYOND REVENUE SHARING. The most valuable prize for News Corp. may be what it learns about using technology to target ads to consumers. News Corp. executives appreciate the fact that Google has unrivaled technological prowess in the field of advertising. YouTube is a leader, too. "Because of the tagging technology at work on YouTube, there is much more ability for organizing and clustering than what you have on MySpace," said Tom Chavez, CEO of Rapt, which provides pricing and monetization technology for media companies including Yahoo and MSN.

News Corp. would doubtless love access to the tagging technology that helps users organize and navigate sites with tags, which are like keywords. In the long run, that knowledge could be more valuable than the revenue-sharing deal that emerges from the current talks.

Rosenbush is a senior writer for in New York

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Australian Man Sells His Life on eBay

SYDNEY, Australia -- Get a life! And now you can, on eBay.Australian Nicael Holt offered his life for sale on the Internet auction site.

He received a bid of nearly $5,900 and said he'll go through with the deal if the buyer pays cash.

Holt is throwing in introductions to all his friends, his ex-girlfriend, the girls he's flirting with currently and a four-week course on becoming him.

The 24-year-old philosophy student said he'll make a documentary if the top bidders turn out to be the real deal.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sony Play Station 3 And Gray Market

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PlayStation 3 consoles advertised as used are appearing for sale in Japan shops as well as online auctions.

They are being sold for up to four times the retail price of the console, which went on sale in Japan last Saturday for about £270.

There are also reports that homeless people were paid to queue for the console on behalf of people now selling them on at a higher price.

The product launch is one of the most crucial in Sony's history.

Thousands of people queued for many hours in cities across Japan on Saturday and many people went home empty-handed.

Sony has had difficulties in mass producing the console due to problems with a specific part of the console's Blu-ray DVD player. The firm put the European launch of the console on hold until March next year due to the shortages.

One PS3 with a 60GB hard drive, which would have cost about $500 (£270) in Japanese stores, was on sale on Monday on the auction site eBay for an asking price of $2,300 (£1,200).

Other PS3s were attracting bids starting from $600 (£313) up to $1,475 (£771).

Brian Ashcroft, an editor for gaming website Kotaku in Japan, said: "I witnessed homeless people waiting in line as well as a high number of Chinese customers."

He said he had heard similar stories from other shops around Tokyo and in Osaka.

A Kotaku reader, Dirk Benedict, contacted the website about the launch day at flagship Tokyo store, Bic Camera.

"The first buyers of PS3 were largely elderly Chinese men and young Chinese women with shaky Japanese language skills," he wrote.

"Opportunistic Japanese businessmen have the largest presence, hiring poor Chinese men and women to wait in line for a PS3."

Mr Benedict said the Chinese men and women were then delivering the consoles to Japanese men, who were paying them up to £90 for queuing.

He wrote: "Sony should be scolded for staging a national launch event with 80,000 units.

"An extreme lack of supply ignited an extreme surge of demand - that of which poor Chinese and opportunistic Japanese took full advantage of."

Kotaku reports that PS3 consoles advertised as used are now being sold for 144,900 yen (£645) in some Japanese shops.

The PlayStation 3 (PS3) is being sold in two configurations.

The more expensive version has a 60GB hard drive and wi-fi on board and its official cost in Japan is 60,000 yen (£270).

The cheaper version has a 20GB hard drive, lacks the wi-fi and will cost 49,980 yen (£222).

European prices are expected to be higher than direct comparisons suggest.

Both versions include a wireless controller, a Blu-ray high-quality video player and a port so they can work with a high-definition display.

Buying a PS3 also gives owners free access to the online PlayStation Network where they can meet and take on other gamers.

Source - BBC

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Humans must colonize other planets?

Humans must colonize planets in other solar systems traveling there using "Star Trek"-style propulsion or face extinction, renowned British cosmologist Stephen Hawking said Thursday.

Referring to complex theories and the speed of light, Hawking, the wheel-chair bound Cambridge University physicist, told BBC radio that theoretical advances could revolutionize the velocity of space travel and make such colonies possible.

"Sooner or later disasters such as an asteroid collision or a nuclear war could wipe us all out," said Professor Hawking, who was crippled by a muscle disease at the age of 21 and who speaks through a computerized voice synthesizer.

"But once we spread out into space and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe," said Hawking, who was due to receive the world's oldest award for scientific achievement, the Copley medal, from Britain's Royal Society Thursday.

Previous winners include Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin.

In order to survive, humanity would have to venture off to other hospitable planets orbiting another star, but conventional chemical fuel rockets that took man to the moon on the Apollo mission would take 50,000 years to travel there, he said.

Hawking, a 64-year-old father of three who rarely gives interviews and who wrote the best-selling "A Brief History of Time," suggested propulsion like that used by the fictional starship Enterprise "to boldly go where no man has gone before" could help solve the problem.

"Science fiction has developed the idea of warp drive, which takes you instantly to your destination," said.

"Unfortunately, this would violate the scientific law which says that nothing can travel faster than light."

However, by using "matter/antimatter annihilation," velocities just below the speed of light could be reached, making it possible to reach the next star in about six years.

"It wouldn't seem so long for those on board," he said.

The scientist revealed he also wanted to try out space travel himself, albeit by more conventional means.

"I am not afraid of death but I'm in no hurry to die. My next goal is to go into space," said Hawking.

And referring to the British entrepreneur and Virgin tycoon who has set up a travel agency to take private individuals on space flights from 2008, Hawking said: "Maybe Richard Branson will help me."

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Big Media’s Crush on Social Networking


I WAS wandering around recently in Second Life, the much-ballyhooed online virtual world, and had a nice chat with one of its "residents." But at the end of the talk he (or perhaps she; you never really know in these digital dioramas, where anyone can create an identity and just about anything else) asked if he could add me to his "friends" list and thereby keep tabs of my comings and goings in the online world. "Sure," I replied, not because I was yearning to keep in touch but because it just struck me as rude to turn down such an invitation.

Last week, a similar episode occurred in my real life, when I prepared to leave a meeting with someone I had never met before but really liked. This time, my host asked me if I was part of LinkedIn, a buzzy Web site intended to link people with similar business interests. The site has gained much attention in the tech industry: Business 2.0 magazine recently hailed it as "MySpace for grownups." (MySpace, the social networking site owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, is, of course, the ne plus ultra of such Web sites, where young and youngish people put all kinds of information about themselves online in search of friends, dates, music and whatever.)

In the case of LinkedIn, I was privately relieved to be able to say that I had not yet joined, although I noticed that people kept asking me if I was a member. And, I must acknowledge that the invitation, like the one in Second Life, irked me on some level — though it was a nice gesture after one meeting. It struck me as far more personal than just exchanging business cards, yet less of a commitment than adding someone to your instant-message "buddy list." Yet a tad forward nonetheless: like a three-cheek kiss from strangers on a distant shore.

Don't get me wrong. I like people, and interacting with so many of them is one of the great pleasures of my job. And, heck, all that journalists do all day long is call people who may not want to hear from them. But that said, I have always recoiled at the use of the word "network" as a verb. I wouldn't want to join any social networking Web site that would want me as a member. You might say that I am into antisocial networking.

I say this in full recognition of the rampaging popularity of social networks and the fact that big media companies — particularly the large club that still envies Mr. Murdoch's snatching of MySpace in 2005 for what now looks like a knockdown price — have developed a full-bore teenage crush on these businesses.

Social networking is a close cousin of the other obsession of the moment: user-generated content. Of course, there is a difference. User-generated content is basically anything someone puts on the Web that is not created for overtly commercial purposes; it is often in response to something professionally created, or is derivative of it. So, it could be a blog, a message board, a homemade video on YouTube, or a customer's book review on

Social networking, on the other hand, is something potentially deeper — it represents a way to live one's life online. In many ways, it is the two-dimensional version of what sites like Second Life aspire to be in 3-D: the digital you. And that ties to another earnestly overused term of art at the moment: engagement.

Engagement basically refers to the amount of time people spend doing one thing — reading a magazine, watching a TV show — but also to the depth of their participation. Do they vote on "American Idol"? Flock to Disneyland? Go to the NBC Web site after "The Office" to watch deleted scenes? Or, now, do they integrate their favorite media into their digital personas?

Sony, for instance, paid $65 million for a video-sharing site called and started a nifty service through which you can load your favorite clip from one of its movies — say, Jack Nicholson barking, "You can't handle the truth" at Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men" — onto your MySpace or Facebook page.

Over the last few weeks, other media companies have accelerated their efforts in social networking. For example, the Hearst Corporation on Jan. 8 bought a small company called And the Walt Disney Company, the CBS Corporation, Viacom and NBC have all been busy planning new social networking features for their various Web sites.

Many of the ventures sound like logical extensions of existing media brands because, hey, media companies are all about attracting and keeping audiences and then figuring out ways to bring them closer to marketers.

Hearst's acquisition of eCrush and related Web sites fits nicely with a coming revamp of, and other online publications for teenagers. One of the sites it acquired,, is basically a flirting site for teenagers that vets its participants' information before matching kids up, to keep the fun clean and safe. So far, the site has attracted more than 3.8 million "hotties" (its term).

Chuck L. Cordray, the vice president for Hearst Magazines Digital, noted that part of the appeal of eCrush is that it is a stand-alone business that can also become a feature of other Hearst online ventures.

"It's a new way of fulfilling a mission magazines have fulfilled for some time, which is creating communities of interest," Mr. Cordray said.

What is striking about many of these mainstream media ventures into social networking is that they mirror the big debate over whether Internet surfers will continue to migrate to big portal sites like AOL and Yahoo or will use widely available tools to fashion their own customized Web lives.

According to the online ratings firm ComScore Media Metrix, most of the Top 10 social networking sites as of December 2006 were still big portals like MySpace, Facebook, Yahoo Geocities, Lycos Tripod and AOL. Of course, if social networking soon becomes a popular feature of existing media brands' Web efforts, its success will be measured by how much it drives traffic and revenue to existing brands, not just by whether it creates winning new ones. For now, NBC, like Disney, is placing most of its bets on integrating features like personalized pages into its existing Web sites rather than trying to build new destinations.

IT can be a tricky business when audiences evolve from being consumers to members. For instance, the need to keep out the wrong element adds a new layer of complexity to the media mix.

MySpace, which according to ComScore Media Metrix attracts more than one-third of the entire social networking audience in the United States, was sued last week by several families who accused it of negligence and recklessness; they said predators were introduced to their underage daughters on the site. MySpace denied any wrongdoing but has been working on ways to make the site safer.

Know this: if you are part of the social networking wave, you will have all the "friends" you can handle. The invite is the new handshake. Get ready for a lot of opportunities to join all kinds of networks — and, one hopes, some appropriately Webby new way to politely say, "No, thank you."


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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tenn. jail Web cam jeopardizes security

An East Tennessee county that has beamed live 24-hour video from its jail on the Internet for nearly six years may nix the practice following complaints of harassment and security concerns.

Some viewers have been using the cameras to harass female jailers by calling them on the telephone and taunting them as they work, according to Anderson County sheriff's officials.

In other cases, viewers are tracking inmate movements and using the information to coordinate deliveries of contraband to prisoners on work details outside the jail.

"It shows the public what we are doing. I like that idea," said Anderson County sheriff Paul White.

"But by the same token, now that people are using it for bad things, we have to weigh the odds. The bad things that could happen are not worth the good things that happen out of it. And if you weigh the odds, it looks like we will have to shut it down."

Anderson County authorities believe the practice is likely the only one in the country. The Anderson County site had logged more than 8.8 million Web hits as of Tuesday.

Until three years ago, Maricopa County, Ariz., also operated an Internet jail camera system. There, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was forced to shut down the live jail feed after inmates sued, claiming their rights were being abused.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 sided with the inmates, ruling the system amounted to "humiliation." The U.S. Supreme Court announced two months ago that it had refused to hear Arpaio's appeal.

Arpaio settled and the county paid more than $60,000 in legal fees, plus $500 to each of 11 inmates who sued.

Anderson County's public defender Tom Marshall said he had not heard of any complaints from inmates who have been incarcerated in Anderson County's jail.

Information from: The Tennessean,

Monday, November 19, 2007

Phone thief repents after 21 text messages

A Chinese thief has returned a mobile phone and thousands of yuan he stole from a woman after she sent him 21 touching text messages, Xinhua news agency said on Monday.

Pan Aiying, a teacher in the eastern province of Shandong, had her bag containing her mobile phone, bank cards and 4,900 yuan ($630) snatched by a man riding a motorcycle as she cycled home on Friday, Xinhua said, citing the Qilu Evening News.

Pan first thought of calling the police but she decided to try to persuade the young man to return her bag.

She called her lost phone with her colleague's cell phone but was disconnected. Then she began sending text messages.

"I'm Pan Aiying, a teacher from Wutou Middle School. You must be going through a difficult time. If so, I will not blame you," wrote Pan in her first text message which did not get a response.

"Keep the 4,900 yuan if you really need it, but please return the other things to me. You are still young. To err is human. Correcting your mistakes is more important than anything," Pan wrote.

She gave up hope of seeing her possessions again after sending 21 text messages without a reply.

But on her way out on Sunday morning, she stumbled over a package that had been left in her courtyard only to discover it was her stolen bag. Nothing had been taken.

"Dear Pan: I'm sorry. I made a mistake. Please forgive me," a letter inside said.

"You are so tolerant even though I stole from you. I'll correct my ways and be an upright person."

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Online Games Help Sick Kids To Cope With Their Illnesses

Serious illness such as cancer, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia can be frightening and confusing for children, but the Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation wants to help educate today's tech-savvy kids about these diseases in a way that appeals to them: through the Internet.

With almost a third of online gamers under age 18, it's no surprise that most children turn to their computer screens for entertainment. So Starlight tapped into this growing interest, and this summer it made eight of its games available free online to help children who suffer from serious diseases educate themselves in a fun and interesting way.

The digital games, which were developed in 2001 but were not available on CD-ROM until now, provide school-age kids with "basic disease concepts, pain management and coping techniques and skills for communicating pain to adults," according to the foundation, a non-profit organization that provides support to seriously ill children and their families.

The Starlight offerings are just the latest in a string of interactive games that are designed to help children come to grips with disorders that grip their bodies.

According to the Children's Technology Review, almost 100 games aimed at educating kids about their health and wellness have moved onto the interactive virtual gaming scene since 1994, and many of them can be accessed free online.

•Ben's Game, which is offered in nine languages from the Make-A-Wish Foundation's San Francisco Bay Area chapter, allows kids to destroy mutated cancer cells to help visualize beating their diseases. The game offers three levels of difficulty, and players can customize their own protagonist. Ben's Game can be found at

•The Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation website features six games and other interactive tools such as blogs and sound mixers to help children with dyslexia connect with other learning-disabled children and learn to manage their disorders.

•At, Mystery of the Rash Outbreak, based on the 2001 animated movie Osmosis Jones, takes players inside the human body in the role of a white blood cell detective on a mission to stop an infectious rash.

Joan Ford, Starlight's vice president of strategic initiatives, says online trivia games such as Starlight's The Sickle Cell Slime-O-Rama Game and Uncovering the Mysteries of Bone Marrow make it easy for children to understand their diseases.

Slime-O-Rama, for example, uses colorful graphics and questions to test players on their knowledge of sickle cell disease, a chronic blood disorder that alters the shape of red blood cells, causing pain and tissue damage. The interactive game doles out advice such as how to deal with pain episodes, how many glasses of water to drink a day and why the disease is not contagious.

Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review, which provides product reviews for child-oriented interactive media, calls the Starlight games "a terrific poster child for how to use the Web to help children understand specific (health) conditions."

Says Ford, "Kids love the interactivity, getting information in a format they like using as opposed to reading a pamphlet."

The online format also allows the foundation to update the content of the games with the latest medical information. And with the wide reach of the Internet, the Starlight foundation can touch more children who have serious diseases. Ford says more than 25 other websites provide links to the Starlight games.

"It's good for kids to have direct knowledge about what affects them," says Osbia Jones, program coordinator for the South Central Pennsylvania Sickle Cell Council, which distributes Starlight's Slime-O-Rama to its members. "It's a way to be self-actuating and begin the process of taking control of their health early."

Buckleitner says interactive video games are effective learning tools because they allow children to feel empowered.

But the games, which Buckleitner calls "images on glass," are removed from real-life experience, which goes against one of the fundamental aspects of learning, especially for children, he says. Health professionals caution that online games should be just one of many tools parents use to help their children deal with a serious illness.

Donald Schifrin, communications chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that although the field of educational Internet games is "blossoming," parents shouldn't turn to interactive games as a substitute for face-to-face psychological support.

"(Online games) are part of the healing process for youngsters but shouldn't be the only pursuit. There is more progress when the entire family is involved in the therapeutic process," Schifrin says.

Tonya Hodge, 42, whose son Jaylen, 12, has sickle cell disease, says she started playing Slime-O-Rama about a year ago on CD-ROM, but now that the game is online, she likes to play it more often to refresh her memory about Jaylen's condition.

"(The game) helps me understand," Hodge says. "I like to see if I know what I'm talking about."

Jaylen says he plays Slime-O-Rama every once in a while and believes the online games have helped him understand his disease better. He even seems to have it out for Slime-O-Rama's host. What's his favorite part? "When you get to slime him!"

Copyright © 2006 USA TODAY

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Netflix Delivers Movies to the PC

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 15 — Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, lists more than five dozen personalities whose obituaries were published prematurely. Someone may want to add Netflix to that list.

The impending death of the company, with its online system for renting DVDs delivered by mail, was predicted late in 2002, when Wal-Mart said it would enter the business; again last year, when Apple and Amazon announced movie-downloading services; and again last week, after the introduction of a series of products and services intended to bring Internet video to television sets.

But Wal-Mart left the online rental business in 2005 and now refers customers to Netflix. Meanwhile, none of the movie-downloading services have gained much traction with consumers, the notion of taking Internet video content to TV sets remains a work in progress, and Netflix keeps signing up new customers at a fast clip. It was expected to end 2006 with 6.3 million subscribers and nearly $1 billion in revenue, or about 12 percent of the $8.4 billion annual DVD rental market.

"We've gotten used to it," Netflix's chief executive, Reed Hastings, said of the doomsday predictions. But Mr. Hastings also said he understood why questions about his business kept coming up. "Because DVD is not a hundred-year format, people wonder what will Netflix's second act be."

On Tuesday, Mr. Hastings will begin to answer that question. Netflix is introducing a service to deliver movies and television shows directly to users' PCs, not as downloads but as streaming video, which is not retained in computer memory. The service, which is free to Netflix subscribers, is meant to give the company a toehold in the embryonic world of Internet movie distribution.

But having a second act to talk about is not likely to end questions about Netflix's future. Netflix shares dropped 6.3 percent on Friday to $22.71 after a JPMorgan Securities analyst downgraded the stock, citing increased competition. They are down more than 12 percent since Jan. 1. And the company said last year that the service would cost it about $40 million in 2007, an outlook that has not sat well with some investors.

"There's clearly a strong demand for watching movies," said Brian Pitz, an analyst with Banc of America Securities. "But the company's earnings are going to be more negatively impacted," said Mr. Pitz, who has a sell recommendation on Netflix shares.

Netflix is also entering a more crowded market that includes not only the likes of Apple and Amazon, but also MovieLink, CinemaNow and video-on-demand services offered by cable companies. And while Netflix's DVD rental business has thrived in part because of the company's superior logistics, that competitive edge will not mean much in the world of digital distribution.

Still, Mr. Hastings said Netflix has a product that compares well with those of his competitors. He particularly emphasized Netflix's business model — free to subscribers — and its focus on instant gratification.

Last week, Mr. Hastings demonstrated the system at Netflix's headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif. On a laptop PC, he pulled up a Netflix Web page where some titles displayed a "Play" button in addition to the company's familiar "Add" button, which adds movies to a subscriber's queue for mailing. Within a few seconds of hitting the "Play" button, the opening credits of "The World's Fastest Indian" began rolling. The service uses streaming technology that Netflix built on top of Microsoft software.

First-time users of the service must download a special piece of software, which, if all goes well, also takes only a few seconds. (When a reporter tried the system at home, however, the process stalled because of a mismatch between the version of Microsoft's antipiracy software expected by the Netflix viewer and the one loaded in the PC, and it took about 15 minutes to fix the problem with the help of a customer-support specialist. A Netflix spokesman said the problem was known, but occurred only rarely.)

Like most other electronic distribution services, Netflix's system will work initially only with a limited catalog — about 1,000 movies and television shows, only a tiny fraction of the more than 70,000 titles that Netflix offers for rent. It offers titles from NBC Universal, Sony Pictures, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Warner Brothers and others.

The service, which will be introduced over six months, works only on recent versions of Windows and Internet Explorer. Over time, Mr. Hastings hopes to expand the catalog of titles and make the service available on other hardware and software combinations, including set-top boxes, television screens and portable devices.

The bulk of Netflix's subscribers, who pay $18 a month and are allowed to keep three movies at home at all times, will receive 18 hours of free watching every month. Those with cheaper plans will have fewer free hours and those with premium services will receive more.

By comparison, typical movie rentals cost $3 to $4 on Amazon, and $3 to $5 on MovieLink, though special promotions are available. Mr. Hastings said he chose the instant delivery afforded by streaming technology over downloads, which can take a while, because it would encourage subscribers to use the system to browse the catalog and discover new movies. If they do not like a movie, they can stop it and will be charged only for the minutes they actually watched.

Yet even as he touts the benefits of his own service, Mr. Hastings does not believe that electronic distribution, be it through downloads or streaming services, is ready for prime time.

"The market is microscopic," Mr. Hastings said. "DVD is going to be a very big market for a very long time."

In the case of online movies, two forces, one technological and one commercial, are keeping the market from developing more quickly. On the technological front, it is still difficult to deliver various Internet video formats to a TV screen. And on the commercial front, movie studios are leery of piracy and, more important, are fearful of cannibalizing their existing distribution businesses.

Frances Manfredi, senior vice president for cable distribution at NBC Universal, said her company wanted to provide video content "where consumers want it, when they want it, how they want it." But, she added, "we really recognize that the traditional distribution businesses of cable and syndication are our primary businesses, certainly with respect to revenue generation."

Ms. Manfredi said the agreement with Netflix, which includes classic TV shows like "Kojak" and "Columbo," as well as more recent ones like "The Office," and "Law & Order Special Victims Unit," and some 350 movies including "The Motorcycle Diaries," would deliver new revenue without hurting existing businesses.

Some analysts believe the hurdles to mass digital distribution will not disappear any time soon. And if Mr. Hastings is right about the staying power of DVDs, his biggest challenge in the short term is likely to come from a business that appeared to be in freefall until recently: Blockbuster.

Facing competition from Netflix, and from growing DVD sales at big-box retailers, Blockbuster shares began a steady slide in late 2003, from more than $22 to a low of $3.20 in March last year. In 2005, the company eliminated late fees — an irritant to many customers, and the issue that had prompted Mr. Hastings to found Netflix. The move cost Blockbuster hundreds of millions in revenue.

But Blockbuster's own online rental service, introduced in 2004, has finally taken off.

With aggressive promotion of a new service called Total Access, which costs the same as Netflix's service for three movies, and allows subscribers to exchange movies in stores, Blockbuster has added a staggering 700,000 subscribers since Nov. 1. After the company announced that it ended 2006 with 2.2 million subscribers, Blockbuster shares now stand at $6.43, up from $5.48 at the beginning of the year.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see our online subscribers double by the end of 2007," John F. Antioco, the chief executive of Blockbuster, said. Mr. Antioco said Blockbuster was planning to offer a digital distribution service later this year. "We have everything that Netflix has, plus the immediate gratification of never having to wait for a movie."

It is unclear whether Blockbuster's growth has been at the expense of Netflix, though a first glimpse into that may be offered next week, when Netflix reports fourth-quarter earnings.

The two companies are fighting not just in the marketplace. Netflix has sued Blockbuster, accusing it of patent infringement, and Blockbuster has countersued Netflix, alleging antitrust violations.

Mr. Hastings played down the competition. "We have a lot of room to grow," he said, adding that he expects Blockbuster's online business to grow as well. "Our relative execution will determine what the share split is" between Netflix and Blockbuster, he added.

In the meantime, he said, Netflix's digital delivery service represents insurance against technological obsolescence, and against more predictions of Netflix's demise.

"We have seen so many Silicon Valley companies follow a single generation of computing," Mr. Hastings said. "Investors are rightfully scared of single-model companies."


Saturday, November 10, 2007

YouTube Banned In Brasil

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Telecommunications companies in Brazil began blocking access to YouTube on Monday after a Brazilian model sued to get the popular video sharing service to remove footage of her having sex from its Web site.

Last week, a court in Sao Paulo state ordered phone companies that provide Internet service in Brazil to block YouTube until it removed the video.

Daniela Cicarelli, a model and ex-wife of football star Ronaldo, and her boyfriend, Renato Malzoni Filho, sued YouTube and demanded $116,00 in damages for each day the video, which apparently showed them having sex on a Spanish beach, remained on the Web site.

Anyone can post video on YouTube, a unit of Internet search engine Google Inc.

The case dragged on for several months before they filed a third lawsuit in December requesting that YouTube be shut down as long as the video is available to users.

Brasil Telecom said it had blocked Brazilians from seeing the YouTube site. The sex video had been the most widely viewed in Latin America's biggest country for days.

Embratel Participacoes, Brazil's leading long distance telephone company, said it was analysing the technical details of the legal ruling with a view to complying.

Spain's Telefonica said it would obey the court's ruling.

Neither Google, nor the lawyer for Cicarelli and Malzoni Filho were immediately available for comment.

© Reuters 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, November 5, 2007

PC makers to discuss batteries standards

Dell Inc. and Apple Computer Inc., which recalled nearly 6 million notebook batteries between them this month, are among PC makers planning to meet next month to discuss setting design and safety standards for lithium-ion batteries used in portable electronic devices.

The batteries were blamed in rare fires that prompted this month's recalls, the largest electronic recalls involving federal product-safety officials.

Dell and Apple belong to an electronics-industry trade group that sets standards for many electronics components.

The group's critical-parts committee will meet Sept. 13 in San Jose, Calif. Sony Corp (NYSE:SNE - news)., which made the recalled batteries, has not indicated whether it will attend.

Kim Sterling, a spokeswoman for the trade group IPC, said Monday that the meeting had been scheduled before Dell's Aug. 14 recall of 4.1 million notebook batteries and Apple's recall 10 days later of 1.8 million batteries.

A Dell executive, John Grosso, leads the IPC's critical-components committee.

"Without a doubt, standardization can and will address the issue of operation and safety called into question by the use of lithium ion batteries," Grosso said in a statement issued by the organization. "While the committee had identified lithium ion batteries as the next product for standardization, we are going to accelerate our activities now."

During production of the Sony batteries, made by a unit in Japan, tiny metal shards got into cells and under some circumstances caused the batteries to short-circuit and even catch fire.


Thursday, November 1, 2007

Avid gamers, entrepreneurs line up for PlayStation 3

People camp out as they wait in line for a chance to buy Sony's new PlayStation 3 console yesterday at the Best Buy store in Mohegan Lake.

Avid gamers battled the masses and the laws of supply and demand last night for the privilege of spending hundreds of dollars for Sony's new PlayStation 3, which goes on sale today.

"This is out of control," Yonkers police Lt. Andrew Lane said late last night after managers of Circuit City at the Cross County Shopping Center called police twice to have several people removed from store property outside. Some would-be patrons tried to hide in a garage and stairwells at the shopping center, police said.

At the Best Buy in Yonkers, 27 people were camped out on lawn chairs under tents they bought at nearby sporting goods stores. They planned to wait until 7 a.m. today, when the store would hand out tickets to the first 27 people in line, who could then purchase one unit each when the store opened at 8 a.m.

First in line were three employees of Throgs Neck Games in the Bronx, who arrived about noon Tuesday. Store owner Israel Sanchez said he paid his workers "double what they would usually make" to wait in line, and he and his wife periodically stopped by to provide food, drinks and "moral support."

When it came time to buy the games, he planned to fork over the money for the units, which would cost $646 each with tax, he calculated.

Sanchez's strategy: "I'm probably going to hang on to them and wait for the rush to end," he said. "If you go on eBay now, you're going to get $1,400 or $1,500 for it. But if you wait until Christmastime, that's when you're going to get ridiculous prices, like $4,000 to $5,000."

He said he also planned to provide a commission to his sales manager, Clay Chapman, 21, of Throgs Neck.

"I didn't sleep in the cold for nothing," Chapman said. "And the rain - Oh, my God! ... people throwing eggs at us and stuff. It's been nasty. A lot of people are jealous."

Robert Vaughan, 20, of Yonkers also planned to sell his unit.

"I'm going to sell it to go on spring break," he said, adding that he hoped to go to Acapulco.

But his friend Eric Weiss, 20, also of Yonkers, a neuroscience major at Vassar College, home working for the semester, had every intention of using it himself.

"We decided we wanted to play PlayStation 3, and the only way to play it is to get it," said Vaughan, who was shielding himself from the rain under a (plastic) Twister mat until his friend bought a tent from Sports Authority.

He said he has an Xbox, but is ready to switch to PlayStation.

"I liked the Xbox for 'Halo.' I have a wall full of 'Halo' toys," he said. "But I'm ready to move on to 'Resistance: Fall of Man' and finding new games."

He said the PlayStation would also have clearer DVD viewing. "It's got Blue Ray DVD, and I like watching movies as clear as possible."

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said the store in downtown White Plains only had six units even though the stores had advertised that they would have 10.

"Due to manufacturer allocations, the majority of retailers received limited quantities," Restivo said.

Store employees told the people waiting outside that the first six would receive coupons at 6:30 a.m. to purchase the units when the store opened at 7 a.m., and that the next four would get rain checks. In addition, the store informed the city's police department why the people were camped out in front of the store.

In Cortlandt, meanwhile, three dozen people camped outside two outlets for two nights for the rights to a limited number of PS3s.

What drove the 48-hour passion was a mix of pleasure and profit.

The Wal-Mart planned to open at 7 a.m. today to sell its first PlayStation 3 to the first person in line, 17-year-old Shaun Gallagher of Poughkeepsie, who had moneymaking in mind. He plans to sell his PS3 to the highest bidder on eBay. He figures he'll get up to $6,000.

In the other camp, where Best Buy planned to open at 8 a.m. today and sell its first PS3 to the first person in line, 17-year-old Joe Aviles of Ossining, it's all about the game.

"I'm going to play it," he said. "I can't wait."

In all, Best Buy expected to sell 26 of the prized PS3s to as many people in line today.

It was unclear how many PlayStations would be sold at Wal-Mart, where the line was locked at 10 people since yesterday.

The lines started Wednesday afternoon outside the two stores at the Cortlandt Town Center on Route 6.

The camps got a little competitive.

The people in line outside Wal-Mart walked across the parking lot at 4 a.m. yesterday and asked the folks in line outside Best Buy if they wanted to play football.

"Who wants to play football at 4 o'clock in the morning?" asked Jason Carrow, 28, of Putnam Valley. The Best Buy crowd was grouped in tents, watching DVD players that were rigged to car batteries. The Wal-Mart guys played football anyway.

Unlike other areas of the country, where fights broke out waiting for the release of Microsoft's Xbox 360 last year, there was a clear code of courtesy in Cortlandt.

"We are civil enough to accept the fact that there are 26 of us here," said Jason Carrow, 28, of Putnam Valley. "We know who number one is and we know who number 26 is. If somebody has to go to the bathroom, how are you going to cut somebody in line?"

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Why Battle of the Consoles was more than just business

Today is Boxing Day and you are spending the morning reading the paper instead of braving the crowds at an electronics superstore, so presumably a) you found everything you were hoping for under the tree, or b) your children did, or c) you found a way to opt out of this year's orgy of videogame consumerism. Congratulations to you.

Opting out of videogame consumerism is tough most years, but in 2006 it was nearly impossible. This was the year when the young Xbox 360 finally began showing up in stores in significant quantities, and it was the year when the PlayStation 3 and the Wii made their public debuts. Ever since the eruption of hype that was the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show in Los Angeles in May, the Battle of the Consoles was the videogame story of the year.

Here's the funny thing. a business story about a horserace for market share – in the entertainment section. Sorry about that. In fact, we spent nearly the entire year talking about whether the PS3 would win, or whether the Xbox 360 would win, or whether the Wii put Nintendo back in first place. Why?

"It's a high-interest category. It's like having a favourite flavour of soft drink," says Ron Bertram, Nintendo of Canada's vice-president and general manager. "Gamers invest lots of hours playing. They have strong opinions."

"I was a gamer long before I worked in the industry," says Matt Levitan, marketing and PR manager for PlayStation Canada. "First I was an Atari guy and then I was a (Sega) Genesis guy. That's what makes our industry so unique: people are passionate. It's easy to get carried away."

Yes, it is easy to get carried away. But you are not allowed to find that sort of talk interesting unless you hold stock in one of the console makers, and even if you do, you are still not allowed unless you know the material and marketing costs behind each machine.

Seriously, you are not allowed. Three large electronics companies have game machines for sale. Chances are very slim that any of them is headed for bankruptcy. So what if we forget about the market-share horserace for a while, and instead talk about what happened in gaming itself in 2006?

Well, many new games arrived in stores. A few were inspired. Several were good. Many of them were boring and stupid. Unforgivably many were sequels. That much has been standard every year for more than a decade.

So, okay, maybe games themselves are no place to go looking for trends. Maybe the horserace really was the story of the year. But why should you care about who wins the fight for market share?

"Market share is important," says Jason Anderson, head of marketing for Xbox Canada, "because that kind of critical mass affords us the ability to offer great exclusive games."

An exclusive game is one that is available for one machine but not for the others. Halo is an exclusive, and so are all the Mario titles, so is Gran Turismo.

A really great exclusive is called a "system seller," because its appeal is powerful enough to make gamers buy a $300-plus machine they would have otherwise ignored, just for the privilege of a 12-hour play experience.

So, to paraphrase Anderson, market share is important because if you have it, you can persuade a hot game developer to make titles exclusively for your system, which will give you a library that persuades more people to buy your system. It is a virtuous circle, at least as far as a console maker is concerned. It also makes the horserace more important than you might think.

This holiday season, each of the three console makers insisted it was above the horserace. Microsoft told us the Xbox 360, with its global install base of nearly 10 million machines, already had an unstoppable lead. Sony said the PlayStation 3, with its built-in high-definition Blu-ray movie player, would be the centre of digital entertainment in the networked home and far more than just a game player. Nintendo said it was bowing out of high-tech competition and would instead concentrate on selling the Wii to the majority of the population that currently believes videogames are for weenies.

Most of that was insincere. All three horses are galloping as fast as they can.

Nintendo's Bertram: "Our strategy is to compete in the existing gamer market. But also to expand that market."

Sony's Levitan: "First and foremost, the PS3 has to be a games player. You never want to alienate the gamer."

Microsoft's Anderson: "For the consumer who only buys one (console), our goal is to be that one."

Behind the counter at Game Shack in the Atrium on Bay, Luigi Vaccaro has the perspective of someone who has seen many races like this one, and is still interested. He currently owns an Xbox 360 and a Wii.

"I'm into shooters and I like to play online (on the 360)," he says. "The Wii is almost like virtual reality. In Rayman, you have to throw a cow by swinging the remote around above your head." He says he hasn't yet found a reason to buy a PS3. Still: "I have to try everything. I'm one of those spenders who can't stop.

"Back then, it was Nintendo versus Sega. Today it's the same. I'll just be happy if neither Nintendo nor Sony goes bankrupt."

The key thing here, and what makes the horserace important, is that each console maker has a point of view: a brand image that informs everything it does. The Xbox 360 is good at high-definition pictures and it does play DVDs, but its real selling point is online play. The PS3 is a beast of a computer and will probably boast the best visuals of this generation, along with the smartest virtual enemies. The Wii is a party machine that works best with eight friends and a keg.

The console that winds up leading the pack will make its parent company rich, certainly, but it will also have the power to shape gaming at large. A win for the 360 will mean a win for online play and trash-talking into a headset at opponents half a continent away.

A win for the Wii will mean smaller development budgets and fewer titles that appeal to the hardcore and more titles about swinging cows over your head.

A win for the PS3 will be a win for the status quo: gaming as a largely solitary activity that pits players against ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence.

The horserace mattered because everybody talked about it, sure. But it really mattered because all that chatter was really a conversation about the future of the medium. The creative (and maybe even artistic) choices game developers will make over the next five years hang on it. Maybe it's okay if you couldn't help picking a side.

Toronto Star

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

GPS Shoes

MIAMI -- Isaac Daniel wants to put a chip in your sole.

He has developed a sneaker that includes a global positioning system tracking device that will help locate the wearer in case of an emergency.

The Miami-area engineer said he started thinking about such a GPS system when his 8-year-old son was mistakenly reported missing from school in 2002.

It turned to be just a case of miscommunication.

Now, his Quantum Satellite Technology sneaker is ready for market. But staying found doesn't come cheap.

The sneakers cost more than $325 a pair.

The 24-hour monitoring system is another $20 a month.

Right now, the GPS sneaks are only offered in adult sizes, but a kids' version should be available this summer.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Five Steps to Get Yahoo Back on Track

Yahoo also has to find ways to make money from all those social services it has been buying and creating. Not least, it has to figure out how to recapture its lost buzz.

How to do all that? Sought or not, these are some of the suggestions that helpful people in the know are putting forward for Semel to chew on:

1. Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

Yes, that means on three fronts. For one, Yahoo's home page has become woefully cluttered with everything from long lists of services to Lending Tree ads jammed into a top corner. A redesign rolled out in May helped, but didn't go far enough. One former Yahoo design manager told BusinessWeek way back in 2005 that "you can't immediately tell why Yahoo is the best at anything." Another noted that the home page "suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen." That's in stark contrast to Google's ultra-simple front page, which has helped it become the search engine of choice at a time when search advertising is where it's at.

Yahoo's home page is a direct reflection of criticisms that the company tries to do too much—and that's why the company needs to simplify not just its look but the array of services themselves. "It needs to shed some businesses," suggests former search vice-president Ali Diab, now cofounder and co-president of ActiveMaps, a Los Angeles startup. He wonders whether Yahoo's getting a benefit from the likes of Yahoo Pets and Yahoo Health, and thinks they should be spiked, just as Google recently ended its Answers service.

To corral all those services into more coherent offerings, Yahoo needs to simplify its own organization, too. That's just what Semel aims to accomplish with his reorganization of the company into three groups. But it will take strong leadership in each group to dissolve the so-called matrix organization of overlapping responsibilities that many current and former Yahoos think has slowed decision-making. Right now, says a former Yahoo executive, "There's a huge overhead on each project, and nobody really owns each product."

2. Get New Blood, or At Least a Transfusion

Sue Decker, the chief financial officer who's taking over the new advertiser and publisher group, gets universal kudos for her openness and smarts, but it's unclear whether she has the operational expertise and advertising savvy that's needed.

Semel appears to recognize that Yahoo needs some outside perspective on its problems. He's searching for a new exec, probably from outside, to head the new audience group, responsible for Yahoo's many services. Good thing, since former Warner Brothers executive Semel hasn't been able to turn many of Yahoo's legion media properties into must-visit venues like News Corp.'s MySpace or Google's YouTube.

"They want to bring in someone with a new perspective," says Ellen Siminoff, CEO of search marketing firm Efficient Frontier. This person's first job: Figure out what Yahoo really is—portal, digital life utility, Media 2.0, whatever—and focus everything on fulfilling that vision.

3. Set the Nerds Free

Creating a separate technology group, as Semel announced, is a start. Merrill Lynch analyst Justin Post, who has a buy on the stock, wrote in a report that "the elevated status of the Technology Group underscores management's commitment to improving product innovation." But that's not enough. Chief Technology Officer Farzad Nazem is a 10-year veteran who keeps the site running smoothly but is criticized by some former Yahoo techies for a top-down organization that discourages creativity.

Indeed, some of Yahoo's more important new technology, such as the Flickr photo-sharing site and the social Web bookmarking site, were acquisitions. Their success so far in injecting their social DNA into Yahoo is promising but incomplete. Giving techies even freer rein clearly has paid off big-time for Google. It's a good bet that plenty of tech folks have fire in their bellies and just want the chance to realize their dreams.

4. Get Panama Out

But don't stop there. Project Panama, intended to revamp Yahoo's advertising system to make it easier for advertisers and publishers to target ads, is months late and still won't be fully operational until at least early 2007. As Google keeps charging ahead, Yahoo can't afford any more delays as search continues to lead growth in online advertising. "At the end of the day, everything depends on Panama," says Siminoff. "Panama needs to work."

Even if it does help Yahoo approach Google, though, that won't be sufficient to return Yahoo to its former glory. Yahoo's key strength remains its dominance of display advertising on the Web, and it must find ways to offer advertisers a unique proposition that includes that edge. "It's really about taking search to the next level—merging brand advertising with search," says Charlene Li, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Google can't do that. Marketers want to be able to target people with different intents," not merely people who are typing in search terms.

5. Enough with the Manifestos

It's widely assumed that Senior Vice-President Brad Garlinghouse's scathing memo on what Yahoo needs to do, known as the Peanut Butter Manifesto, precipitated the shakeup. Maybe, maybe not. But while many people inside and outside Yahoo think he spoke the truth, many others think the leaked memo was a destructive power play that offered few useful suggestions.

What might work better: the return to more public prominence of Yahoo co-founders Jerry Yang and David Filo. It's not as if they haven't been busy on strategy and product development behind the scenes. But as longtime software developer Dave Winer notes on his well-read blog, "What Yahoo may need is someone who can speak for them, who can give an exciting speech, who can lead all the external forces, and internal ones too. What they may be missing is an eloquent founder-type who, when people need to settle a difference, can come in and make the choice." If ever this company needed its chief yahoos to step up, it's now.


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Friday, September 28, 2007

Google Get Subpoena

NEW YORK, (Reuters) — News Corp. studio Twentieth Century Fox subpoenaed Google's YouTube video service to learn who uploaded pirated copies of episodes of television shows 24 and The Simpsons, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

The subpoena, filed Jan. 18, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, asks YouTube to hand over information to identify the subscriber so Fox can stop the infringement, the Journal reported.

The four-episode season premiere of thriller show 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland, appeared on the site ahead of its TV broadcast, and 12 episodes of The Simpsons were being distributed on YouTube by a subscriber called "ECOtotal," the subpoena's declaration said, according to the paper.

Fox said it officially notified YouTube about the episodes and requested immediate removal or to disable access to the service, the Journal said.

News about the subpoena filed surfaced on the blog, Google Watch.

The same group of episodes were uploaded under the username of Jorge Romero on the video site LiveDigital, to which Fox also issued a subpoena, the paper said.

A spokesman for LiveDigital told the Journal that the material was taken down right away.

Google and Fox officials were not immediately available for comment.

Copyright 2007 Reuters Limited.

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

How To Make $200,000 A Year, Cutting Geeks Hair

Dena Kaufel

Silicon Valley's technology workers may be among the most likely to succeed, but they aren't usually voted best tressed.

Dena Kaufel, the 43-year-old founder of Onsite Haircuts, recognized the root of the problem - "Not everyone wants to take two hours out of his workday to drive to a salon" - and responded.

Kaufel and her staff drive a pair of Winnebagos outfitted as traveling beauty salons, complete with barber chairs, mirrors and sinks, to 11 company parking lots throughout the area.

Customers schedule same-day $18 cuts at, a service created with the help of an engineer who came in for a trim.

With stops at Google, eBay, and Yahoo, Onsite saw revenues increase 800 percent, to about $200,000, this year.

The company also bought a third Winnebago, demonstrating its ability to grow alongside its clients' employers (and their hair).

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Saturday, September 8, 2007

eBay to ban virtual items acquired from online games

One of the newest developments in massively multiplayer online games is the sale of virtual goods. Players who have spent hours working for and accumulating items may wish to sell them for real-world money. Outside of in-game avenues, one of the more popular ways to sell ones in-game currency, items, property and characters is to list on eBay. But according to what the popular auction site had to say, sales of virtual items will soon be disallowed.

Speaking with Slashdot, Hani Durzy of eBay explained that future auctions for virtual goods from online games would be delisted "for the overall health of the marketplace." Durzy points to eBay's existing policy for selling digitally delivered goods and items: "The seller must be the owner of the underlying intellectual property, or authorized to distribute it by the intellectual property owner."

eBay may be concerned about potential legal ramifications if a games publisher becomes unhappy that a third party is profiting intellectual property that it does not own. Sales of virtual goods are still currently permitted on eBay, but according to Durzy, the company will begin to delist such auctions in about one month's time.

"Any policy decision we make...has to do with...basically a good buyer experience and good seller experience on the site," said eBay spokesman Hani Durzy to CNET. "We want people to continue to come back, and we want people to have good user experiences on the site."

The policy on virtual goods, however, will not apply to Second Life, which eBay has exempted from its ban. Second Life publisher Linden Lab has tried to make it clear on multiple occasions that its product is not a game, at least not in the same sense of that The World of Warcraft is.

"If someone participates in Second Life and wants to sell something they own, we are not at this point proactively pulling those listings off the site," Durzy said. "We think there is an open question about whether Second Life should be regarded as a game."

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Books On Demand

(FSB Magazine) -- Buying a book could become as easy as buying a pack of gum. After several years in development, the Espresso - a $50,000 vending machine with a conceivably infinite library - is nearly consumer-ready and will debut in ten to 25 libraries and bookstores in 2007. The New York Public Library is scheduled to receive its machine in February.

The company behind the Espresso is called On Demand Books, founded by legendary book editor Jason Epstein, 78, and Dane Neller, 56, but the technology was developed six years ago by Jeff Marsh, who is a technology advisor for New York City-based ODB (

The machine can print, align, mill, glue and bind two books simultaneously in less than seven minutes, including full-color laminated covers. It prints in any language and will even accommodate right-to-left texts by putting the spine on the right. The upper page limit is 550 pages, though by tweaking the page thickness and type size, you could get a copy of War and Peace (albeit tough to read) if you wanted.

Neller says that future versions of the machine will accommodate longer works with fewer hassles. Prices for the finished product will vary depending on locations, but the production cost is about a penny per page.

Some 2.5 million books are now available - about one million in English and no longer under copyright protection. On Demand accesses the volumes through Google and the Open Content Alliance, among other sources. Neller predicts that within about five years On Demand Books will be able to reproduce every volume ever printed.

Epstein says that the larger obstacles are consumer preference - the machine can't make you a latte - and convincing skeptics in the industry. But some early adopters are already sold on the idea.

Niko Pfund, a publisher at Oxford University Press, says the evolution away from traditional bookstores is only natural. "For hundreds of years the industry was unchanged," Pfund says. "Then audio came out. Now it's time for digital."

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Apple facing iTunes, iPod lawsuit

A lawsuit claims that Apple Computer Inc. has created an illegal monopoly by linking iTunes music and video sales to its iPod players.

The company says the suit, filed in July, centres on Apple's use of a copy-protection system that prevents iTunes music and video from playing on rival devices. As well, songs bought elsewhere aren't easy to play on iPods.

The plaintiff, which the company did not divulge, is seeking unspecified damages. On Dec. 20, the court denied Apple's motion to dismiss the complaint.

It marks the latest in a series of problems facing Apple.

The online iTunes Music Store had a breakdown on Dec. 26 after the site experienced soaring downloads after Christmas. Consumers were faced with error messages and long delays.

Apple officials still can't explain why some people experienced 20-minute delays to download a song. The situation was corrected by Dec. 29

Apple commands about 75 per cent of the market for downloaded music, but analysts predict rival services will start to eat up Apple's portion of the market in 2007.

Separately, Apple is facing a securities lawsuit accusing the company and some of its current and former employees of improperly backdating stock-option grants, failing to properly account for them and making false financial statements.

The manipulation itself isn't illegal, but securities laws require companies to disclose the practice in its accounting and settle any charges that may result.

The company initiated an inquiry, and its audit and finance committee cleared CEO Steve Jobs of misconduct and said he did not benefit from the grants.

Apple says its internal review has been handed over to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California, and that it has responded to their "informal requests" for documents and additional information.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The New Amazing Mirror

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, does this outfit make me look good, bad, fat or tall?

A New York-based designer has come up with a mirror equipped with infrared technology that sends a live video feed to any cell phone, e-mail account or personal digital assistant device selected by a shopper.

Christopher Enright, chief technology officer for digital design company IconNicholson, said putting these mirrors outside store fitting rooms meant women could go shopping with their friends -- remotely.

"She could be in Paris, your mom, watching you try on your wedding dress (while you are in New York)," Enright told Reuters Tuesday as he unveiled the interactive mirror at a retail trade show.

Using the interactive mirror, a shopper's friends can then text message back with comments about the outfit.

Shoppers can also use touch screens on the three-paneled mirror to choose matching shoes or accessories, Enright said.

The left-hand panel has a touch screen that allows a customer to select a different outfit from a database, and then see how it looks on her in the center mirror without physically putting the garment on.

The right-hand panel has a screen offering more information about other shoes or accessories the shopper also might like.

Enright said teenagers were already using their cell phones to send pictures to their friends when they were out shopping.

"This is ... adding technology to something we already do," Enright said.

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

O Brave New World That Has Such Gamers in It

This week it's likely that thousands of people cut school, called in sick and otherwise turned away from the real world so they could be among the first adventurers to traverse the Dark Portal and battle the demons of the Burning Legion in the broken world of Outland.

Call it the World of Warcraft effect. This is what happens when Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of World of Warcraft, the top online computer game with more than eight million paying subscribers, releases the game's first retail expansion set.

The Burning Crusade, as the set is titled, went on sale at midnight Tuesday. For people who don't play online games, it can be a little difficult to describe the freakout many gamers experience as they try to explore and conquer the new content. Imagine the convergence of rabid fans if, say, Luciano Pavarotti were to star in a long-hyped live remake of "Star Trek" at Carnegie Hall, with special appearances by Tom Cruise and Kiefer Sutherland.

It's a bit like that, except for people who mostly don't read People, care about Jack Bauer or subscribe to the Met.

I'm one of them, which is why I spent 24 almost consecutive hours at my computer playing and why I will be playing the game for most of the next couple of weeks as I write an online serial review and travelogue through the most successful virtual world in, well, the world.

The reason World of Warcraft has become such a cash factory (the game has attracted more than eight million subscribers, most of whom pay about $15 a month to play) is that it delivers an overall entertainment experience that goes far beyond what one might expect from a mere game.

For example, in the new addition, as soon as you cross through the mystical Dark Portal and into the new continent Outland, you are immediately confronted with an epic battle taking place on the gate's steps between the grotesque Burning Legion and the heroic defenders of peace and justice.

It is an effect meant to impress that the player is merely part of a much larger, more important story. It is the same device used in the opening scenes of war films like "Saving Private Ryan" to viscerally establish the broader context before narrowing to focus on a much smaller-scale human drama.

Of course in an online role-playing game like World of Warcraft the biggest and most central draw for most players is in exploring that virtual world and making one's character more powerful.

The two concepts — exploration and growth — go together. In W.O.W., as in most such games, characters begin life as a weakling at what is called Level 1. And since W.O.W.'s debut in late 2004, characters have been capped at Level 60.

After two years of players champing at the bit to advance, Burning Crusade has raised the cap to Level 70 and opened seven new high-level zones for players to explore, complete quests and defeat monsters.

The fun part is that on each server, or copy of the game world, thousands of other players — humans and orcs, wizards and rogues, druids and warlocks — are trying to do the same thing. What naturally emerges, at least among some players, is a race, or land-rush, mentality. There is a whole new continent to explore, all this new power to attain; who will see and experience it first?

And so at midnight Tuesday the starter's gun went off. Around 5:45 a.m., after completing most of the available quests in the first zone, called Hellfire Peninsula, I became the second player on my server to reach Level 61, around 20 minutes after another gamer in my guild. I moved west to the moody, slightly creepy bogland zone called Zangarmarsh and became my server's first Level 62er just before noon.

By then I was receiving dozens of private messages in the game every hour from players I had never met who could see that my guildmate and I were out front: "OMG how did you level so fast?," "Hey you must have a lot of gold, can I have some?" and of course "You guys are huge nerds." (Yes, and proud ones, I might add.) The chatter only increased after I became the first on my server to reach Level 65 early yesterday morning.

In addition to bragging rights there is a very practical reason for wanting to stay in front of the pack in a situation like this. Only by maintaining a lead does one gets to experience the world in an almost pristine state. As I moved into lush Terokkar Forest Wednesday, there was almost no one else there, creating a blissful sense of exploration akin to hiking into Yosemite well before the tourists arrive. In a week Terokkar will be packed full of the equivalent of tour buses and noisy R.V.'s.

As I continue to explore I will share my impressions and progress. After I reach Level 70 I hope to loop back and explore some of Burning Crusade's other new features, like the new alternate starting areas for low-level characters.


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