Episode One Hundred and One: Dangerous; Not Trying Is A Signal (2); What’s Mine; Laundry

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It’s 6:30pm on Thursday night and my nose is streaming and my eyes are itching because I don’t know, allergies. YouTube didn’t stream In The Night Garden to the Apple TV because I don’t know, spinning wheel of buffering. But hey, none of that really matters because I get to write about one of my favourite video games today.

1.0 Dangerous

Like a great many other Brits growing up in the 80s, one of my first experiences of a computer game was playing ELITE on a BBC micro. I’d come back to it a few years later buying an MS-DOS copy (having convinced my parents to let me spend hard earned pocket money on it – I can’t remember if we ordered it from Special Reserve or managed to pick up a retail box copy – either way, I remember seeing the old British Telecom logo on it, the T with the two dots) and as much of what was interesting about it was the manual and short story set in the universe, never mind the procedurally generated universe and the feeling of freedom.

I wouldn’t be able to get over never seeing the Thargoids[1], though. To this day – because I haven’t seen them with my own eyes – I still regard them as one might a myth or superstition – the kind of ghost that you might encounter one day in hyperspace.

So there was a genuine, tangible tingly feeling when I watched the Elite: Dangerous E3 trailer[3] and seeing such a realised version of what must’ve been in David Braben and Ian Bell’s minds when they first conceived of the docking sequence in the original game.

Stuff like this makes me excited. It feels like in so many ways, our grasp is catching up to our reach. In my mind, the other sequels – the Frontier series[4] – don’t really count because they felt like intermediate mud-stick-scratchings, attempts to build the platonic Elite that still had to make do with relatively crude technology. But this Elite at least in terms of visual depth (if you’ll excuse the Oculus pun) feels like it brings the universe to life.

For whatever reason, I never got around to backing the Kickstarter, and I’m not going to put down $150 for the early-access premium beta (yet another way in which gaming has changed since the 1980s) not least of which because it’s going to require me to set up a Windows install somewhere. But, damn. I have friends who have, who’ve gushed about how amazing it is. Elite is one of those rare examples, I think, where the original version was in as much a low-fidelity prototype: it was, visually, a sketch: rendered in stupendously bare and ambitious vector graphics, with a seed of a universe pre-computed and thrown in. So while it’s another example of a retro game receiving a reboot and a re-imagining, I don’t really see it as such: it’s not so much a *re*-imagining as, genuinely, feeling like what the original game was supposed to be. Certainly it looked that way in my imagination when I remember it.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elite_(video_game)

[2] http://wiki.alioth.net/index.php/Thargoids

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISR4ebdGlOk

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontier:_Elite_II and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frontier:_First_Encounters

2.0 Not Trying Is A Signal: Double The Animations Edition

So, if you hadn’t heard (and it’s entirely possible that you haven’t), Ubisoft, the videogame publisher and developer found itself suffering from an entirely self-inflicted wound when staff working on its forthcoming game Assassin’s Creed: Unity let slip that there would be no female playable characters in its multiplayer mode because it would, essentially “take too much time”, time that they didn’t have due to the restrictions and constraints of shipping a major triple-A game.

Some of the best reporting on this has been over at Rock Paper Shotgun[1], but in a rare moment of, well, unity, it feels like most of the “mainstream” videogame press are not only taking Ubisoft to account, but explaining to their audiences why this is a big deal and shouldn’t be tolerated.

The deal, as Rock Paper Shotgun accurately points out is that the initial reasons as to why there wouldn’t be any female playable characters in multiplayer mode – because of the animation would that would be required compared to all the other things that needed to be done, like finishing the game – was a weaselly one. And so what we have now is a company that prefaced the original Assassin’s Creed game with the text “Assassin’s Creed is developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs” in 2014 needing to explain why having a female playable characters was a low priority in one of their titles.

Now, this isn’t to say that Ubisoft are a misogynistic company. They aren’t: many of their games have had female playable characters. Some of them have even been good.

But the response here betrays a shift – one in which it was business as usual for development teams on triple-A game franchises to be (mostly) directed by men and made for other people like them. Games have always (mostly) had male protagonists. In its best and least offensive form, this is simply blindness: doing things the way they have always been done and not noticing that there hadn’t been a choice. Perhaps this is one of the most innocuous forms of sexism. Now, for whatever reason (but thankfully there is one), the very reasonable question of “hang on, why I can’t I play as a woman” is being raised of game developers.

This isn’t to say either that *all* games must have male and female playable options. But again (if I were to get on my empathy/sympathy hobby horse again), it illustrates the gap in understanding between people who’re used to the rhythm of making triple-A games and the changing marketplace. It turns out that women like playing them. It turns out that men who have reasonable (humane, even) attitudes towards gender relations like playing them too. And they see a distinct lopsidedness.

Whether Ubisoft (or any other organisation in the media space) likes it or not, whether their intentions were good or simply ignorance, at least this week in games, not trying has become a signal. Not having a good reason why half the world’s population isn’t represented in your game has become a signal that *you don’t care*, whether you care or not.

[1] http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2014/06/11/assassins-creed-unity-no-women/

3.0 What’s Mine

Can now also be yours if we’re talking (maybe?) about fair, reasonable and non-descriminatory licensing terms[1] now that Elon Musk has announced Tesla will not litigate against those using its patents “in good faith”[2].

Seeing as the devil is always in the details, I’m not quite sure what to read of Musk’s announcement.

Generally, the deal with patents (and apologies here for a lapsed lawyer intellectualpropertysplaining) is: the government wants you to invent stuff, so grants you a monopoly on that invention, provided you write it down so that *after* your monopoly expires, everyone else gets to {build on, copy} your invention.

The key here is that, if you want to, you’re always able to *license* the patent to someone else, which in this case means: hey, you can take advantage of this invention in this patent that’s protected for 20 years, and I promise not to sue you if you do things like a) pay me lots of money, b) or pay me just a little money, or c) even no money at all. You might throw extra things in like quality control because you don’t want someone saying they’re using your invention and then them misusing it and lots of small children dying. Because that would be bad.

So. It’s always been open to Tesla to licence their technology to other car companies (and indeed, they’ve done so). They could even licence that technology for free. Presumably now, they’re saying: hey, we promise not to sue you on the basis of a vague promise that if you use it for good things, ie. “in good faith” (nb: “good faith” to be defined by our lawyers at our discretion) and for good purposes. Presumably using Tesla tech to build giant battery powered hippy shooting lasers would not be a use in good faith.

We’ve seen this kind of thing before. Part of the whole mess that’s going on with Samsung and Apple was to do with whether Samsung had certain patents that went into specifications that should, because they were part of a specification that defined interoperability, have been licensed on a fair and non-discriminatory basis. You shouldn’t be able to use patents that are part of a shared specification to stop others from implementing that specification. That’s the whole point of interoperable specifications.

So. Who does Tesla want using these patents, and what do they want them to use them for?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reasonable_and_non-discriminatory_licensing

[2] http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you

4.0 Laundry

Our washing machine broke, so of course I found myself at Spin Laundry Lounge[1] on the receiving end of text messages[2] from washing machines telling me that our loads of laundry and diapers had been done (we cloth diaper and live in Portland. Deal with it). Laundry remains one of those things that I think, *by and large*, if you’re male, you don’t have to deal with a lot of the time because the traditional division of domestic labour has meant that it’s been seen as a woman’s job. There’s nothing particularly *hard* about doing laundry: but as with any task, if you’re not familiar with it, then it can seem difficult and frightening and suddenly you’re writing inappropriate and mildly verging on strongly sexist posts about garment care labels and taking your clothes home so that your mum can clean them.

So Spin Laundry Lounge: that particular Portland-ish combination of a {laundrette, laundromat, washateria} that has new shiny machines, eco-detergent that they make themselves, a bar with food and a rotating draft, fast wi-fi and ample plug sockets. You know, laundry, but *disrupted*. If it sounds like I’m being mean, I’m really not: they’re all very nice people there who seem focussed on providing a good, high quality service that’s comfortable and easy to use. What I am interested in is deconstructing it a bit.

I’m lucky (privileged) enough that I’ve never really used laundry spaces before, so this is all going to sound a bit like White Man Discovers Africa, Writes Back A Postcard, and if it *does* really sound like that then I’m terribly sorry (again with the White Colonial Man thing). But hey: you’ve got a comfortable, well-lit communal space that’s designed with lots of *space* in the aisles for you to have room for the inevitable IKEA blue bags and white plastic baskets, you have pinball machines upstairs, sofas for lounging on, change machines and attendants roaming the aisles to make sure you’re being helped if you need help.

The particular texting functionality was on the washing machines. They’d be hooked up to a payment system that would take credit card payments (equipped with paywave/RFID readers, too) as well as the traditional slot for quarters. Electrolux TMIS[3] would display on the washing machine during the beginning of the cycle that you could text a code to a phone number and it would let you know when the load was done.

Some things to note here:

  • there wasn’t a short code – it was just a regular phone number, but displayed in a user hostile way (ie a string of 10 digits, not grouped to aid memory)
  • you got a code that identified the washing machine. The ones that I saw were all variants of {F, K, N}01[1-9] and displayed in a font that meant you had to squint to see if it was a zero or a letter o-for-oscar
  • there was no confirmation to let you know your opting in for notifications had succeeded. ie you’d text F019 to the requisite number and you wouldn’t get a reply until 10 minutes before your load was done.
  • all of the communications from the washing machine was in ALL CAPS because washing machines are ROBOTS that talk in ALL CAPS. ie: ELECTROLUX TMIS: YOUR LAUNDRY WILL BE FINISHED IN: 10 MIN and ELECTROLUX TMIS: YOUR LAUNDRY IS NOW READY; PLEASE UNLOAD MACHINE which, you know, is a bit like a polite laundry Dalek.

And that was it, really.

Electrolux TMIS[3] is interesting because it’s at least three years old and it’s geared primarily toward professional laundry services. The language in the brochure is a bit clumsy, not knowing whether customers are the people operating self-service laundry outfits or the people using the machines. In any event, there are some use-cases like “check machine availability” but that’s countered by other slightly more opaque benefits to an end-user customer, like “error condition notification”.

All of this is against the backdrop, obviously, of stuff like Berg’s Cloudwash[4] and the idea that these machines have state that can be communicated in a bunch of different ways, to different people.

But, I suppose, this is the thing: we shouldn’t be surprised that TMIS exists, it’s only depressing that it exists in a b2b context, and not in a consumer, user-focussed way. Because you could arguably say that the interface borders on masochistic for laundry operators as well.

[1] http://www.spinlaundrylounge.com

[2] https://twitter.com/hondanhon/status/476911548393594880

[3] Electrolux TMIS and TMIS brochure (PDF) and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HD8xK5g5TN4

[4] http://bergcloud.com/case-studies/cloudwash/

It’s nearly Friday! That means you should send me notes!

Best,

Dan