Can’t See The Wood For The Trees


In a brief lateral move, I thought I’d talk about another subject close to my heart.. tech stuff. As I said previously, I like to consider myself an avid consumer not just in the software sense but of all of that lovely hardware too.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that as well as all of the advances in computing and consumer electronics, there’s been a corresponding increase in the rate at which we understand and adopt it all. Unless you’ve been living in Stevenage for the last 30 years its hard to avoid advances like mobile telephony, broadband and wireless connectivity, digital photography and other digital media like compressed audio and High-Definition video. The speed at which the internet has established itself is pretty astounding (some would say scary). It’s been the driving force behind numerous, significant cultural changes; in the way we live our very lives, from shopping to education, communication to recreation.

However, I’m not really writing about how wonderful it all is – when it works well, its fantastic. What amazes me (and therefore worthy of a few words of rant I feel) is how in this information saturated age, it’s still really really hard for people to have quick and easy access to any kind of reliable information resource to help demystify it all, and ultimately help them make the right choices.

Ok, I’m not talking about this readership specifically. But the majority. The general, tech-aware but not tech-savvy, consumer base. The vast people on whom the commercial success of such technologies lives or dies.

The reason for this article was chiefly down to a recent, sustained bout of what could best be described as (to put a fancy-shmancy title on it) A/V Lifestyle Consulting. Yes I know that sounds stupid but I guess its not too far off the mark and I’ll tell you why. I like to try and keep current with what’s out there and as a result found myself to be bit of a black hole, drawing every scrap of information into my dark heart 😉 As such, over the last few years I’ve been asked by countless people to put that info to use and help them with their A/V, gadget and computing purchases. Lately, my efforts have been focussed in helping Koff and Lady Koff drag themselves kicking and screaming into this brave new HD, Digital Media-Centric world. I say that but actually its been quite painless. What’s helped me help them is a clear idea of what they want to do..

..You’d be surprised though, at how many blank looks I get during the start of the whole advice giving process (and not because we’re dealing with tech-stuff here). You see over and above any direct advice I may give, my first response is to challenge the person asking to actually think a bit more about what it is they want to achieve, what restrictions they have and how much they want to pay. Its not unreasonable to say that these are pretty straightforward questions, but the failure of most people to define clearer requirements does make wading through all of the many possible solutions considerably harder. The usual outcome being, that people begin to perceive the whole purchasing process as far too complicated; further perpetuating the myth that its only for geeks 🙂

When we do get past that hurdle however, we’re still not out of the woods. You see we then hit the great brick wall of information ambiguity..

“..I want to buy something, I want to know what it does, what it can’t do and what alternative options I have available..”

It would be great if this kind of information existed in any kind of consistent abundance but no, life just isn’t that simple.

Lets start with the manufacturers themselves. As consumers we can’t rely on them. Period. They’re in the business of selling us product, but in their eyes the focus is squarely on marketing, NOT informing their customer base. They want to achieve sales through media saturation and brand awareness. Informing you about their products and what they do in any depth comes a dim, distant second.. Of course there’s also the very real possibility that reliable product information is deliberately obfuscated in a bid to hide shortcomings of the products themselves. Lets just assume however that “Product A” can adequately perform its intended function – but I need to know more about it. I’ve got a specific requirement and can’t say with any confidence that “Product A” ticks all of the boxes; certainly not when I’ve also got the choice of “Products B – Z” as well.

You know what I’m talking about, getting the skinny on basic details like say..

..Accurate and current specifications? Meaningful model numbers? Clearly delineated product-lines?

Having access to this kind of information isn’t too much to ask. Its the kind of data that anyone with an ounce of common sense would find useful in helping them make more informed decisions about their purchasing. Yet trying to extract details of this type from a CE manufacturer is almost as hard as getting Paris Hilton to say something intelligent. If you don’t know what I mean, try this as an exercise.. Go forth and find out about 40″ LCD televisions. Using our good old friend Google and a fairly common search term like 40″ LCD television brings back a whole bunch of links as you’d expect. First off, you get sponsored one for two manufacturers; both of them lead to flashy, but ultimately hollow marketing dross. Next, you get all the usual Google suspects like Kelkoo, Pricegrabber and Dealtime to name but a few. Amongst all of this only a single link on the first page of results takes you to an actual product information page; Sony UK in this case and amazingly enough it actually contains the kind of comparison information that I’ve been whinging about previously!! Score one point to Sony as this in itself is great, until you realise that in order to make the most informed purchasing decision possible, you really need to consider product lines from other vendors too. Of course, that’s not easy because no other manufacturers sites are listed until a full four pages later. Even then, its only one other company (Samsung) and their product page is a pale shadow of Sony’s.

“Ah ha!” You may say.. “That’s Google’s fault. Not the vendors'” and you’d be at least partially right. Without going into the fine mechanics of search engine logic – which is clearly being exploited to the advantage of sites as like Dealtime/Pricegrabber etc – its safe to say that despite the above issues, there are ways to improve the visibility of your product information if you want to. I reckon its quite telling, that when using the world’s première search engine to find details on a mainstream product like a 40″ LCD Television, only one vendor has made any kind of attempt to do such a thing. Disseminating useful product information to potential customers is clearly NOT a priority here..

Lets move on to the printed media next. To begin with, you can forget about 90% of the magazines on the shelves of your local WHSmith. Its fair comment to say that With the growth of the internet has come a decline in the perceived worth of information contained within printed periodicals. And with good reason too. Taking Consumer Electronics and gadgets for example, “market leading” publications such as T3 and Stuff are nothing more than glorified advertising pamphlets. They have to be to stay alive these days but that isn’t to say its a good thing. Its a world where advertisers and flashy Front! Cover! Exclusive! Headlines! are king, with journalistic accuracy and testing rigour as nothing more than the poor village idiots trapped in the stocks. Of course, due to the fast moving nature of information and in this example, the Consumer Electronics industry, print-based media is never going to be able to compete in terms of throughput. However, a well-researched informative reference piece is the same whether its delivered by browser, podcast or glossy magazine.

Ok, so this was always likely to be a lengthy article, but even I don’t have the patience or the fingers to begin de constructing just how poor both T3 and Stuff are at reliably informing the general public about products in such a complex and evolving market. I will say however, that whilst the publishers of those magazines would have you believe that flashy presentation and snappy info-nuggets are all you need to get by, information on A/V gear/gadgets/CE is not something you can neatly compress in such a way – not if its to have any intrinsic value to the end user. Add to that the fact that a LOT of their material is just plain inaccurate and you can see the scope of the problem..

..and there’s the rub..

Still, all is not quite lost in the paper and ink world yet. Thankfully there are some alternatives. We have magazines from the “Which..” and “What..” stable. These guys do a better job, occasionally approaching the kind of accessible relevant information today’s consumer needs. But, even these publications have succumbed to the limitations of the medium; supplementing their bread-and-butter printed articles with subscription-only (certainly in the case of Which) websites. Having seen the quality of these articles and in this age of Google and Wikipedia, I find it hard to accept any justification for the price they’re charging.

So what do we have left? Well not a lot in terms of reliable stock resources as a few searches on the net will show you. There are forums and enthusiast websites in addition to the web presence of some of the review magazines. Using a combination of these, the more persistent among you should be able to dig up reviews plus the odd comparative shoot-out with occasional success; but there’s a lot of product to cover, and clearly not enough resource to cover it all. You’d think that with the vast depth of knowledge the Internet contains, it would be a damn sight easier to find stuff out but frustratingly that isn’t the case (the 40″ LCD TV example above, is typical of the frustrating experience an end consumer would face when trying to do some basic digging around)

On the positive side, things are a damn sight better these days than it used to be. But it could be better still. I mean, its not like there aren’t ample opportunities these days. Websites are easier to manage than ever before. Thanks to all those content management tools, reviewers and product specialists should be free to lavish time and effort on creating good information. Manufacturers have the opportunity to re-inforce their marketing strategies through effective use of accurate product literature. Print based media should be using the net to enhance the quality and depth of their coverage, not as a substitute for it.

In this day and age, with the vast choice of products available, its even more crucial that us consumers are given every opportunity to buy the right products to fulfil our needs. The information should be coming to us, not the other way round. Good consumer technology shouldn’t be complicated. Its ironic that finding out about it is.

p.s As a side nugget.. Regarding all this HDTV hoo-hah; here’s something you may or may not have considered. The current consensus finally garnering more and more support is don’t bother with 1080p if you’re going to be viewing it on less than a 60″ screen. An insanely high percentage of people simply don’t have the vision to perceive any discernable difference so save yourself the cash; 720p is more than good enough.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

 By SledgeHAMMER

Welcome to the first of an irregular series of words by a long time friend of Koff’s.

..why am I here?

Well lets just say that he and I have been kicking around discussions for a long time. We like to talk, we like to pontificate and we sure like to rant.. Yup, we’ve shared plenty of meditations on life, love, whether Jeroen Tel really was a better musician than Rob Hubbard or how did Chris Butler become such a good C64 programmer after years of writing dreck. These nuggets and many more punctuate a friendship that goes back many, many, many years.

What makes it all so interesting, is that Koff and I are gamers at very different ends of the spectrum. He’s embroiled in it, lives it.. breathes it.. he’s spent years toiling away in the industry but enjoys the process and the results so deeply as to, well, take his work home with him (amongst other things!). Of course, sometimes it means he can’t see the wood for the woodchipper but that’s a tasty morsel for another time. Me? ..well I’d like to consider myself the complete consumer. Decades of experiencing and evaluating all that Koff and those like him see fit to lay before us… fried gold, diamonds in the rough and complete turds alike. I’ll admit that after all these years, its kinda cathartic to express some of this stuff by way of the humble written word, so I ask you to bear with me as I delve into a leftfield topic that many of us gamers take for granted.

“..And lo it came to pass, that gamers would learn to enjoy the pleasures of competition, co-operation and of social discourse with their fellow gamer. No longer confined to the solitary pursuit of perfection; they would go forth unto the world and share what they experienced in a joyous union of rapturous enlightenment..”

Yeah, right.. that’s not really the case at all is it? All things considered however, we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time.

Now apologies in advance to those obsessives out there who indulge in MMOGs but your particular drug of choice isn’t really going to get a look in here. Why? Because life just isn’t long enough to do it all justice – if justice is indeed the right word. 😉

So where to begin? Well, we know that in one crucial respect video gaming is no different from any other kind of recreational activity, particularly sport. It’s competitive. Extremely competitive. And why shouldn’t it be? Higher Scores, better lap times, unlockable characters? All of these things designed to enhance the entertainment, increase longevity by encouraging repeat play and competition. Of course a high score or a better lap time starts to lose its lustre if you’ve got no one to brag to right?

You see as our favourite pasttime properly entered the home, something happened. Solitary Computer gaming gained in dominance at the expense of the very arcades that helped to promote video gaming’s competitive nature to the wider world (and let’s face it, Games Master was pants!). Our interests began to turn inwards, causing us to lose interest in interacting with others on the game grid. Sure there were scores of home titles with two player modes that you and a friend could wreck your Competition Pros over; there’s no denying the important role the home computer revolution played in birthing today’s multi-billion dollar gaming industry either. But let’s be honest. Playing a rushed conversion of R-Type on your 14″ colour TV was never going to offer the same experience as traipsing to a packed amusement arcade with a pocket full of 10p coins; Waiting patiently for the chance to show a growing crowd just how good at Smash TV you really were.

Now if all of this sounds overly nostalgic that’s because it is. Unapologetically so in fact. Because only recently are we as a gaming culture begining to return to the sheer joie de vivre of that golden era. For example, ask yourselves why “retro gaming” has established itself as more than just a flash-in-the-pan fad. Yes, there’s money to be made in it but more importantly, we’re savvy enough to appreciate that its not solely about the games themselves, but that it might actually be about the game play instead. Emulators and replica JaMMA cabinets will never be able to recreate the past glory of a session down the Plashet Road Arcade, or late night jaunt to Southend’s many gaming pits. What those old games do for us however, is serve as a timely reminder that it should be about more than just sitting in a darkened room, limping through yet another chapter of [Insert nameless FPS/TPS/Sports Franchise here] hoping you’ll get to the save checkpoint in one piece. And what happens when you’re done? You get the pleasure of sitting through 20 minutes of end credits followed by the glorious reward of being given the same game to complete all over again on a harder difficulty. Oh, and a hollow empty feeling as you hunger for something else to entertain you.

Now on the surface that sounds not too dissimilar from previous generations of games, except with no high score to call your own and more importantly a no real culture based around the importance of scoring achievements any more. What were we left with?

You could further argue that in many respects, the last few generations of games I’m talking about don’t differ a great deal from those of the distant past (apart from, y’know, the obvious technological advances). Yes, once you’ve completed Pac-Man that’s it. Finito. Just like there’s not a lot to do once you’ve completed Devil May Cry 3. However the real distinction between the two actually lies in how we ended up being engaged with those games and the world around us.

Back in’t day, you had to go out to play something. You actually had to leave the house. And, whilst you were there, stuff usually happened to you beyond just the game itself. Without putting too fine a point on it try this for example. Liken what I’ve just said to the difference between being sitting home alone with nothing more for company than a four-pack of warm Carling, a Pot Noodle and a poorly censored hour of soft porn on the telly; versus going down to a lively pub with your mates, sinking several pints, pulling the cute blonde with the cavernous cleavage and taking her home for a night of hide the salami…

Being at home with all the mod cons, microwave dinners and Playboy Channel “On-Demand” might *seem* more advanced (better?) on the surface, but where does the real interaction come from? Option #2 is where its at (I’ll leave the lurid details of how it actually plays out to your own imagination..) 😉

So, is Multiplayer is the key..?

We’ve all heard stories of how Wolfenstein and Doom were a jolt in the arm for multiplayer, social, gaming; the birthplace of huge CounterStrike sessions, Unreal Tournaments and middleware tools like GameSpy. The impact is much much bigger than that. Similarly, the humble LAN party is most definitely the inspiration and the catalyst for what millions of gamers now enjoy in the form of XBox LIVE and PSN – except now, we can enjoy it without the arseache of having to lug a mini tower, bulky CRT and miles of CAT5 cabling to our friends’ place. By taking advantage of facilities such as these to start gaming online, it allows us to at once get closer to those older sociable days and in many ways take us beyond it.

But it doesn’t just stop there. Its no surprise that the wireless capabilities of both the DS and the PSP are constantly touted. Or in another example, the emergence of GPS location-based “real world” games building on early efforts such as GeoCaching. Both the public and the entertainment industry have come to (re)realise the importance of socially interactive gaming (And lets not forget all the parents groups who are now struggling to to use the old “Gaming makes you socially inept” argument)

It isn’t all altruistic sweetness and light unfortunately. There’s gold in them thar hills. Both the hardware and software Vendors want to sell us more stuff. Gaming, online or otherwise is a business after all and they want to milk it. The cynical amongst us will cite new trends such as micro-payments, Episodic and ancilliary DLC as an attempt to leverage even more revenue from an already saturated marketplace.. and they’re not wrong.

Still, we have to accept that its the price we now pay for our own earlier complacency and apathy. As a group on the whole, we’ve grown more impatient and perversely, acquired shorter attention spans. The constantly evolving content path provided by an online delivery model does at least go some way to addressing this thirst. But if we’re as smart as we think we are, we should appreciate that the real benefit from all this online malarky, is through the return of interactivity – not just between us and our games, but more importantly with each other.

..And as for the importance of bragging rights; whoever wants to believe that high-scores are still passée in this day and age is very very wrong. Two words.. Achievement Points..