June 23rd, 2004


Still Thinking Aloud

Yesterday was spent almost exclusively in the company of Mr Handy. I went to university with Handy about, err, a long time ago. He was a student over from America for a few terms. My first attempt at further education was not a scholastic success, but I had fond memories of Handy and was glad when he tracked me down over that new fangled interweb thing.

We talked a lot. At the moment my mind is a little sleep scrambled to find the thread to about twelve hours of conversation, but it's all stored up there somewhere. Handy is over with his girlfriend Kim for a friend's wedding in Bath. Well, that's what they say, but it became pretty obvious this was just a pretext as they're clearly here to try and buy as many codeine-rich over-the-counter medicines as they can. Handy was ripping through boxes of Feminax all afternoon like they were going out of style. It was getting ugly by the time Kim turned up, he'd turned the restaurant table into some sort of primitive lab. He was crushing Solpadeine and Paramol in the ashtray and then dissolving the powder in a pricey Sauternes and straining the resulting mixture through a table napkin. It was hard enough to negotiate your chopsticks across the table towards a particular delicacy without one of Handy's candle-blackened wine glasses getting in the way. No! Not that! He'd cry out, indicating some foul smelling brown tar that he'd managed to gather on the side of his plate. Kim sat there glazy-eyed for much of the evening, mumbling about how much she was looking forward to getting back to NYC. She missed being able to get a quality spanking in our fair city. I hope they've cleaned up their act by time I head to the East Coast later this year.


I had a very good time. Just not the one above, thankfully. Unfortunately, I won't have another chance to see them before they return to America, but I wish them a wonderful time for the rest of their stay. Maybe the rain will ease up and the pigeons won't remember Handy's previous acts of barbarism during the mid-80s.

I can't imagine it will alienate visitors too much if I return to a tech thread. One other thing that I remembered during my reading of the Raskin interview was the prediction of a video game magazine back in the late 80s. This was around the time that CD-Roms first made their appearance on home consoles. The article in the magazine was making some predictions for the future. There must some maxim about technological predictions, that at least 75% of it must prove to be entirely mistaken. The advent of the CD-Rom seemed like the sparkling future of gaming. We'd have the seamless integration of movie-quality footage in the environment. Games would look that good. Well, although CDs certainly enabled programmers to include much larger amounts of data, the access speeds of the early drives meant that games became evermore interrupted with whir and clunk sounds as unnecessary cut-scenes and pre-rendered backgrounds were loading up. In some ways, the CD-Rom was the end of the previous memory economy.

Back in the pioneering days of the computers like the Commodore-64, Spectrum, Vic-20 and so on (MSX!), the amount of memory available was extremely limited. There were distinct advantages to this. The games had to be coded with this lack of space in mind, but an individual could manage all aspects of this themselves, although having a few mates would certainly help. This was closer to an auteur style of game making. These days programming houses are top-heavy Hollywood film crews and each aspect of the production is farmed off to different sub-groups. The development of game engines, rather than the constant need to reinvent the wheel to try and cram in just a little more into the space available, make many games the same game. There's not such a problem with memory now, it's more to do with how fast you can render all these visual elements. Games can look and sound fantastic, but they don't really play any better. Games, similarly to computers, don't have to worry too much memory something takes up. It's how fast they can deal with it. It's entirely bogus maths, but when you think what people did with 16K (not even the size of a small Word document), you wonder what happened to this economy of architecture, the increase of memory doesn't seem proportional to the increase in pleasure. Back then, if you'd told the magazine of the speeds and memory we have now, they would have imagined some ecstatic future world of unlimited possibility. I reckon that if a moratorium was established on computer development, we could still gain incredible increases just by people having to go back and rethink how wasteful they have been with all this space. Memory is cheap, you don't need to work out old school fancy origami folds to compress it down to its smallest, and faster, size.

The prediction that stuck in my mind was that in the future, we would not need incredible powerful computers at the domestic end. All you would need is a machine capable of negotiating the flow of data from a computer located elsewhere. You'd be a home tapping back miniscule joystick responses. I remember they thought a Z80 would be good enough for the home unit. Err... But what happened to this approach? Given the growth of high-speed connections, server storage and wireless technologoy [sic! A good blog title, I reckon], it seems eminently plausible now. Did I miss something?

Of course, another thing that they were very into was virtual reality, which you hear very little about now. Perhaps it won't pick up again until you can directly input signals into the brain. Dunno. But, similarly to what I wrote yesterday, it's the nature of the gaming interface that frustrates me. True, with practice you can overcome some of the limitation, but once more the flatness of it annoys me. Is there some reason that controllers that enable a fuller interaction with all dimensions in the environment haven't been developed? Possibly the learning curve. You'd be like a child learning to walk, rather than the drunken fool that I ressemble when playing most games. You'd throw the controller down after five minutes. Forget it...

My other bugbear with games is the issue of interaction with characters. It sucks. Around the time of the magazine I remember (wtf, am I writing my memoirs or something?!?) that we'd needed to start producing a database of the world across time. So if you were programming a game and you wanted Xian in the Tang dynasty or 1930's Chicago, that would be pre-made. Of course, you could adjust the feel and look of it, but the basic design would be there already. This is something of practical use that historians could do. Rather than using text to describe how something occurred, you would build a virtual model in which that process was evident. It wouldn't necessarily solve controversial issues, but it would be a new means of representing history. You could even have competing theories, say of the Meiji Renovation or Boer War, operating concurrently in the same environment. Mmm, it would be good to see history embracing new means of argument and discussion outside of text. I'd like to see some aspects of historiography be more readily adopting such new methods. No sign yet.

One problem with this modelling, and much else in the gaming world, is the lack of credible linguistic interaction. Do you say a) Stephenson, you're a loser and your ideas are piffle, b) Let me give you £100 pounds to invest in this curious apparatus, c) Attack. There's no reason why you couldn't build a similar database of personal reflections, stories, incident and so on to enhance gameplay. We all have these things. This is another thing that historians could do. Of course, characters telling you their life stories too often might drive people up the wall. But why not have it as an option in all games? I liked Vice City, but if I played it linked to something somewhere else, why couldn't it have lead me into some Elmore Leonard riff? An incident I might have encountered in any other game set in 80's Miami. Let's get all this data of human creation uploaded and create a differing way of preserving memory as well as creating something that could be used to imagine any other number of possibilities. I leave the hassle of linguistic interaction to The Professor. That's the real hard nut.

But gamers don't necessarily want such open-ended architecture, but I don't see why with the growth of online gaming that such things could not be an option for most games set in some sort of historical reality. One day you could meet yourself in some form.

This is sort of how I thought back in the late 80s.