Category: thoughts

Cloud Computing – The influence of nature in computer games

It’s been an extremely rainy weekend. Apparently in Sweden, people have been advised to stay indoors, due to the high velocity winds and torrential flooding that can occur in these conditions. Here in southern Finland, we experienced relatively mild weather, yet still more rain in one day than has been received in the last few months. The European athletic championships begin this week, and a lot of youth groups are being sponsored to take part in a variety of small competitions. When the rain calmed down, and the sun began to break through the clouds, this sudden burst of athletic inspiration drove me to go for a walk.

Notice how the clouds are layered, creating a three-dimensional perception of depth

You notice a lot of things when you walk in the aftermath of a storm. The most particular thing that caught my attention was the clouds. Not their shape, or their size, nor their names that we should all remember from high school geography, yet don’t. But the speed they were travelling at. Or more particularly, the apparent difference in speed between various clouds. I say apparent, because in reality, the clouds could have been moving at the same speed. Yet due to differences in distance, the eye perceives the closer clouds to be moving faster, and the further clouds to be moving more slowly.

The clouds appeared to be structured as a three-dimensional layer. Immediately I was reminded of the 1980’s and early 1990’s era of parallax scrolling, or as I like to call it, the original cloud computing. I will not get into a technical description of parallax scrolling, simply because there is not one method of achieving its effect; differences between computer system architecture in the 1980’s meant that even the same game being ported to two different systems may have required a change in coding simply to apply the parallax scrolling. However, the general idea is that two-dimensional game can look three-dimensional simply by having the background move at a different speed than the foreground. Take Super Mario Brothers for example. The original game (8-bit, NES) did not have parallax scrolling. If you watch the game in action, notice how the clouds in the background simply move back or forward at the same speed as the foreground. There is no perception of depth, and so simply a two-dimensional experience.

Now take a look at Super Mario World, released on the SNES (16-bit). Even in the opening sequence, you can immediately see the difference. Although still a two-dimensional game, the background features such as the clouds are moving at a slower speed than the foreground objects. This parallax scrolling now gives the world of Mario a three-dimensional twist.

This effect has been used in a countless number of games (as well as in television animations since the 1940’s). From the humble beginnings in a game called Moon Patrol (1982), to famous 16-bit era games such as the Sonic series. In fact, even today, this technique is being used, albeit more often on websites rather than in games. Take a look at this New Zealand tourism website, using parallax scrolling to achieve a 3D illusion http://www.newzealand.com/us/.

From my example of the clouds, it is obvious that parallax scrolling exists in nature, and as clouds are one of the more common background images used in games in a parallax capacity, I think it is safe to assume that the natural 3D formations of cloud layers have been an influence on the development of three-dimensional game programming techniques.

“Dark Forest”, the most memorable level in a game from my childhood

There are many examples throughout gaming history that highlight the importance of nature; how it can be used as a technique to create atmospheric environments for the gamer to manipulate. I remember distinctly a game I used to play when I was a child. It was released on a variety of platforms, the definitive version perhaps being on the Acorn Archimedes. In Twinworld, you play the role of a  young man travelling on an adventure through a variety of lands, growing older, and fighting monsters on the way. All in all, a standard adventure game (if you read my previous article on interactive fiction, you will know where adventure games originated!), with a few interesting perks. One of these was the atmosphere. Unlike many other platformer games of this era, such as the Mario series, Twinworld was set in a fantasy but realistic world. There were no random floating boxes, no pipes to jump down, no unexplainable moving platforms. Instead, there were caves, trees, wild birds from the trees who would attack you. It was the nature in this game that makes it memorable for me. Any time I enter a forest today, I am reminded of the years I spent exploring the “dark forest” in Twinworld.

The huge achievements in graphical technology in the last few years has resulted in a lot of visually spectacular games. One prime example would be the latest in the Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim. As with the previous games in this series, there are two styles of gameplay. One is to complete the main quest, and as many side-quests as possible, and the second is to explore the world, and effectively live in it as a fantasy character. In Morrowind for example, I spent a great deal of time collecting various plants from around the land, with the objective of bringing them to my home laboratory and using any alchemy “recipes” I could find in various books I came across, create a variety of potions. A fun concept, extremely well designed, and at the roots of it, completely derived from our natural environment. Skyrim in particular has a following of gamers who simply want to produce the greatest graphics possible with their computer systems, and explore this fake, but convincingly natural world. For example, here is a video entitled “Skyrim Beauty”, simply produced to demonstrate the countryside of this imaginary land.

There are many other aspects of nature that have found their place in computer game culture, far too many to go into here. From the  concept of sunrise and sunset dictating times and schedules (more advanced text adventure games featured time, the Elder Scrolls series features prominent sunsets resulting in the populations going to sleep), to audio effects being directly recorded from the outdoors to provide a convincing atmosphere in what would otherwise be an unconvincing world.

Without our experiences of the outdoors, and our observations of the natural world around us, technology today, especially in the world of computer games, would be vastly different. While the term “cloud computing” is now used to describe the idea of hosting data remotely, let us remember the real clouds, for it is they who have helped create the virtual worlds we love.

Why do people smile?

In the “old days”, people didn’t smile for the camera

I was sitting in “Café Esplanad” in Helsinki, Finland. Drinking a cappuccino and eating a huge doughnut, it was a fantastic day. One of those days where the sun is shining and the city takes to the streets to enjoy the pleasures of walking, yet is still cold enough to drive hundreds of people into the local cafe’s and bars, to enjoy hot cups of tea and warm plates of whatever delights have been discovered in the harbor earlier in the morning.

Finland is one of these places that seems quite paradoxical. On one hand, it famously has the greatest education system in the world, and is constantly ranked in the very top of “standards of living” lists and “happiness indexes”. On the other hand, you would think the place is a walking abattoir; it is hard to find somewhere else where the people look so depressed. As I was sitting sipping on my Italian beverage and observing the premises from my table perched on a high platform by the staircase, I noticed how it was getting increasingly busy. It got to the point where people would enter the cafe and order their food and drinks immediately, without realising that there were in fact no available tables to bring their trays to and sit down. Eventually this led to the situation where depressed looking Finnish mothers and their families were standing in queues, awaiting for the slightest sign of movement from the guests, before jumping on the opportunity to snatch a table.

It was fun to observe. The anger in a woman’s face when she thought she had a table, yet discovered it was just a man standing up to bring his baby for a walk, was quite amusing. People become agitated in these situations, and eventually, the desire to sit in the warmth of a cafe to escape the breezy outdoors turns into the desire to beat everyone else in the race to secure a seat. This was when I noticed an Asian man, in the cafe by himself. He was standing behind the hordes of angry women with a tray, waiting patiently for a table. As the queue got larger, he must have realised that it was never possible to get a table for himself, as the number of small tables was vastly outnumbered by the number of larger family-sized tables. So he walked around the bar, effectively creating a new queue for himself, and somehow managed to cut in front of the main contingent.

I took a bite of my doughnut, wondering what he would do next. Suddenly, without warning, he swiftly moved into position, and expertly secured a position at a single table. Who was at this table before him? Nobody knows, yet this man seized the opportunity, and put his jacket on the back of the chair. The thing that caught my attention is something that really stood out in this cafe. There must have been over 100 people in this one room, yet what I noticed was the huge smile that appeared on this mans face as he sat down. Crows feet appeared by his eyes; his teeth gleamed in the air. But what surprised me was that this fantastic smile was not directed to the crowd. It was not intended for the public to see. He appeared to be smiling to himself, almost laughing at the satisfaction of getting a seat. It made me wonder, why exactly do we smile? It is obviously a natural thing, as everyone loves seeing a baby smile. But what is the purpose of it?

Physically, a smile is a simple thing. The zygomatic major muscle, located between the cheekbones and the corners of the mouth, and the orbicularis oculi muscle, located at the eye socket, are stimulated by the facial nerve.  What does this result in? The corners of the mouth are pulled upwards, and the area around the eye socket contracts. Gleaming teeth and crows feet around the eyes. Exactly what the Asian man in the cafe had. This is a “genuine” smile. It’s called a Duchenne smile, named after the French physician Guillaume Duchenne. It is the smile that we as humans recognise as pure, genuine, positive emotion. Duchenne performed research on facial expressions using electric currents… of course, it was difficult to find volunteers for this procedure, and so this smile research was aptly performed on the decapitated victims of the French guillotine.

A smile of fear?

Everyone is familiar with the cliched air-hostess smile. Made famous by Pan American World Airlines, we have come to recognise this is a symbol of American “service with a smile”. The air hostesses do not (normally) present us with a genuine Duchenne smile. With the amount of botox they sport these days, it is probably impossible for them to perform a perfect Duchenne smile anyway. If their smile is therefore not genuine, why is it done? What is the purpose of imitating a natural human emotion? This leads me to believe that the feeling of their business leaders, the suits who decided that “service with a smile” is the way forward, is that a smile is an indicator to other people. A smile is a message. A way of communicating the idea that, “hey, I am not a threat to you”.

If this is the case, why did the Asian man in the cafe smile so genuinely? It was a perfect example of a Duchenne smile, it could not be any more evident. Yet he was smiling to the table, smiling to himself, smiling with his back turned to the majority of the observing population. Most psychological studies believe that a smile is indeed a method of social interaction. There have been theories covering everything, from signifying altruism and attraction, to extending life expectancy (See the 2010 Wayne State University research project examining  baseball card photos of Major League players from 1952. From the smiles in the pictures, they could predict when each player died).

One theory “widely accepted” by biologists, is that in evolutionary theory, the smile developed from the “fear grin” of apes. When threatened by a predator, monkeys would clench their teeth to give the impression that they are harmless. Could it be possible that if we combine this theory with the social communication theories, we have a solution for the Asian man in the cafe? The tension of waiting in a queue, surrounded by competition. The prospect of getting a seat, only to have it taken by someone else. The cafe scenario could easily be looked at as any war scenario amongst our animal ancestors. The man may have had a primal instinct of fear. A fear that he consciously could not feel, yet deep down inside, it existed.

He finally got his seat. With the years of evolution that have resulted in smiles becoming a social messaging tool, combined with the “fear grin” of our ancient ancestors, there was only one thing he could do. Was it fear on the inside? Was it a naturally activated social display just in case someone was watching? Whatever the reason, he had to take off his coat, get prepared to sit down, and let his facial muscles do all the work. He had one thing to do, and that was to smile.