606 – Cloudy Horizons

clip_image002As the Holiday Season starts to loom (though some retailers’ tasteful décor has been in the aisles since late August), technology fans’ thoughts turn to Black Friday and the inevitable gift flinging that follows. The Global Pandemic™ and its spin-off, The Supply Chain Nightmare®, has dealt a shortage of what uninformed pundits refer to as “computer chips” amongst many other issues.

This means that even if big ships weren’t in the wrong place and there was anyone left to drive the containerloads of toot they ordinarily carry, the actual goods themselves might be in shorter supply than expected. All sorts of consumer electronics from gadgets to motor cars have been affected by shortfall in capacity at silicon fabs.

If you haven’t got your planned-for Xbox Series X console yet, then good luck in finding any in stock – there are numerous twitter accounts and stock scraping websites out there which might help, assuming you don’t want to get scalped on eBay. Maybe you’ll need to stick with what you have already and just wait until 2022 to get the top spec console, or settle for a Series S in the meantime.

Good news for all Xbox console gamers, though – the latest release in the mammoth Forza series has arrived.

Originally a racing simulation franchise to rival the PlayStation’s Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport appealed to driving sim types, but Forza Horizon – a more arcade-style driving game which has you hooning around an open world in all kinds of exotic cars – has reached a far wider audience. Set in Mexico (or a fictionalized variant thereof), FH5 has hit the ground running with over 1 million gamers already.

Forza Horizon 5 is available for PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series S / X. Already available on Xbox Game Pass, it can be downloaded free with the right subscription, though it might take a while to complete the installation…

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If you can’t wait to play it (or you just fancy a quick try without spending all day installing it), why not run it from the cloud instead?

clip_image006The smoothness of the graphics probably won’t be quite as good as having it locally, but with Game Pass Ultimate you can try the streaming experience which has been in beta for a while now. Cloud Gaming is available on Apple, Android and Windows devices.

Simply plug in an Xbox controller via USB or connect via Bluetooth, and your device will be the front end to the game which is actually running in an Azure datacenter, on one of many Xbox Series X blades.

Even modest spec PCs like the original Surface Go can cut a credible job for a little Friday night entertainment.

604 – Empire and Pass

clip_image002The Xbox console is nearly 20 years old. Launched at Toys R Us (remember them?) in NYC in mid-November 2001, the first generation console (originally referred to as the “DirectX Box” after the PC graphics technology) later made its way to Japan and Europe in early 2002.

The companion Xbox Live gaming service arrived in 2002, and set the high-bar for online and multi-player gaming services alongside the original console and its online and multi-player-enabled games. The Xbox Live Gold service was threatened with a price increase earlier this year, though that was quickly walked back; commentary at the time was that Microsoft was trying to make XBL Gold less attractive in order to push people to using the newer and more comprehensive (also, more expensive) Xbox Game Pass offering.

Game Pass Ultimate is a superset of Xbox Live Gold – and includes access to lots of games as part of the subscription, akin to getting movies through a Netflix subscription rather than buying or renting individual titles. In January 2021, Microsoft said there were 18 million Game Pass subscribers, with the number likely to be a good bit higher now. Different Game Pass levels are aimed at PC games fans or Xbox games, or both – starting at £1 for a month’s trial, up to £10.99 a month for the full kahuna, which includes XBL Gold and both PC & console games.

This week sees the launch of the latest edition of one of the biggest PC games from the 1990s; Age of Empires. Originally released in 1997, the civilization-building strategy game was hugely popular and kept growing through community-provided expansion packs and “mods”, despite sporadic attention from Microsoft directly. If you played the original, you’ll probably remember the Priest who could turn an enemy into a friend, or recall losing hours being absorbed in the minutiae of building farms, training soldiers and waging war on your neighbours.

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Well, the franchise is being rebooted, in a clear signal that the PC is still considered a major gaming platform. Leading the 20-year celebration of Xbox with a flurry of both PC and console game launches, is Age of Empires IV.

The new release has a variety of clip_image005campaigns from the Roman Empire to Moscow, Mongolia and Genghis Khan to Joan of Arc. If you’ve already got a Game Pass, and If you fancy whiling away some of the weekend stuck in the past, you’d be well advised to start the installation soon – it can take a very long time to download and install. Wololo!

547 – I Stream a stream

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Popular subscriptions services which deliver on-demand content, rather than recording or otherwise acquiring it in advance, are killing off CD and DVD sales. Every generation sees a new technology upset the old – the 1980s MTV video vs the 1970s “taping from the radio” for example.

Streaming technology has risen with the availability of high-speed, low-latency internet access, allowing users to play on-demand – rather than watch or listen at the time a broadcaster decides – and is wiping out the need to record live TV to watch later, maybe even obsoleting the concept of broadcast TV.

Perhaps the next vanguard is the gaming industry – as Microsoft and Sony get ready to launch next-generation consoles, buying a disc-based game to install and play will soon feel as old-hat as going to Blockbuster to rent a VHS for the night. Streaming games on-demand as part of a subscription service may be norm, rather than buying and owning a title outright. The console isn’t the only destination, though – streaming to mobiles is on the way.

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Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers will soon be able to start using “Project xCloud(the code name, now simply known as “cloud gaming”) services, which basically run Xbox games in Azure, and stream the video & audio down to a mobile device, initially an Android phone or tablet, but also supporting Windows PCs in time. There was a plan to allow cloud gaming to work on iOS too, but that has been scuttled – Apple says no. Maybe something to do with the App Store revenue stream, though the company made some blah-blah about the store being all about a curated quality of applications. Of course it is.

Back in the workplace, streaming takes a different form, from virtualizing and delivering applications on-demand to running whole desktops somewhere else and displaying the output on a remote screen, not unlike the old mainframe/terminal model. And of course, there’s streaming of other types of media besides applications.

clip_image006Many users will first encounter Microsoft Stream, the secure enterprise video service, if they’re using Teams and see a meeting has been recorded – usually, when the organizer hits the button, a link to the recorded video will be dropped into the chat window of the meeting.

If you miss that, or weren’t at the meetinclip_image008g in the first place but want to catch up, try going to microsoftstream.com and search, either by the name of the meeting, or by looking under People for the  name of the organizer where you’ll see all of their content. If you’re recording a load of meetings yourself (like a training series, or a monthly team call) then it might be worth creating a channel and adding those recordings to make it easier for people to see related content.

Unfortunately, you won’t get paid millions of dollars and given tons of free stuff but you might get some sort of corporate kudos and recognition.

clip_image010Stream is ultimately replacing the earlier Office 365 Video service, though isn’t yet fully feature compatible: see a comparison of the two, here.

It’s not just for storing recordings of meetings in the hope that people who couldn’t be bothered to turn up the first time will somehow tune in to watch the re-run; you can create new content and upload that for your colleagues to view, too.

You could use the Record a Slide Show feature in PowerPoint, to make an (editable) recording of you giving a presentation and publishing it, or if you’re just looking to do something quick and easy (up to 15 minutes in duration), you can even kick off a screen-recording (with audio and video) from the Stream site directly.

clip_image012clip_image014When you publish your video to Stream, it’s worth making sure you’re making it visible – depending on how you’re set up, it may be limited. Go into My Content and look for the coloured icon showing the permissions. Click on the pencil icon to the left, to edit the video properties, including setting the permissions or adding it to a channel. For more about managing permissions on Stream, see here.

clip_image016One thing to note, is that if you have remote participants in a Teams meeting – customers, partners etc – then they won’t be able to see the recording you make; the Stream service is limited to your own organization, as defined by the Azure Active Directory that’s used to authenticate you. If you need to be able to share the video with others (making sure you’re not breaking any rules, obvs), then you may be able to download just an MP4 video file – none of the other metadata, captions, transcriptions etc that you get with Stream, it’ll just be the main video – and at least make that available separately.

Maybe record it to a VHS tape and post it to them?

546 – Flying back to Chicago

clip_image002Many visitors to Microsoft UK’s TVP campus over the years will have been in the auditorium for some kind of event. When the first three buildings at TVP first opened in September 1997, they each had different themes for their meeting room names – B1 had inventors (like Babbage, Turing etc), B2 were local place names (Henley, Bisham and so on) and B3 had old Microsoft code names, like Hermes, Olympus, Xenon, Memphis (whatever happened to that guy?) and the biggest room got the biggest code name of them all: Chicago.

clip_image004Yes, just over 25 years ago, the largest product launch Microsoft had ever done – following the widest beta program to date – took place, and Windows 95 was released. Listen to some of the background history on the run up to Win95 with Raymond Chen, (who’s been involved with Windows pretty much his whole career) on the Windows Insider podcast. Raymond even got his name on the Win95 Easter Egg.

clip_image006Windows 95 really was a big deal in a whole lot of ways – it made computers easy enough for even ordinary people to use (leaving aside the holy wars of Mac vs PC – remember that in 1995, Apple was in a very different place from where the Mac went in the second Jobs era). An advertising blitz got the message across that this new Windows was different – you could connect to the internet with MSN, and do all sorts of other stuff, powered by the Stones’ Start Me Up and a Jay Leno-run glitz launch with some groovy dancers.

The IT gutter press had a field day with the choice of launch music – rumoured to have cost $millions, though according to Windows Weekly’s Paul Thurrot, instead of “you make a grown man cry”, Win95 could have been launched to the “end of the world”

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A more recent product launch has its roots even further back, though – Flight Simulator has been brought up to date, having been largely on the shelf for 13 years. The very first PC release was in 1982, initially as a port from an Apple II version, and done to showcase the power of 3D graphics, and the last major update was in 2007.

The new version is quite a different spectacle – using AI in Azure and Bing mapping to render the world at large, reviews are glowing – a spectacular technical achievement and a deeply inspiring experience, filled with glorious possibilities.Real-time weather makes for some extremely impressive photos – like Hurricane Laura.

Flight Simulator 2020 is huge. Think, 100+Gb download – and you’ll need a meaty PC to run it, though a version is on its way for Xbox. So, set aside a long time to download it…

The Standard Edition is available to buy from the Microsoft Store or to play as part of the Xbox Game Pass, along with a variety of other PC games.

Flight Simulator is already the most-played game using the Game Pass system on PC – with over 1 million players over the last few weeks, racking up over a billion miles – the equivalent of flying around the world 40,000 times.

Finally, a link back to Chicago – in early versions of Flight Simulator, the default airport was Meigs Field at Chicago, a single-runway downtown airport on an artificial peninsula on Lake Michigan. Flight Simulator 2004 was both the last version to run on Windows 95/98, and was the last to feature Meigs Field after that airport was suddenly closed in 2003. Here it is, in the latest version – good luck landing there.

The Mayor at the time sent in bulldozers during the night to incapacitate the runway, against FAA law, rather than go through the time consuming and costly process of closing the airport through normal channels. Politicians, eh?

The process of testing Halo3

I came across a fascinating article on Wired which looks into some of the processes that Bungie, the developers of the Halo game series for Xbox and Xbox360, have been using to test the latest iteration, Halo 3.

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Thousands of hours of testing with ordinary game players has been recorded, and the footage synchronised so the developers can replay what was on the screen, what the player’s face looked like, and what buttons were being pressed, at any point. They even record details of where and how quickly the players are getting killed, so they can figure out if some bits of the game are just too hard.

There have been a series of test waves of Halo3, some of which were for MS and Bungie employees only, and one public beta phase. The public beta was itself unprecedented in scale – over 800,000 users, racking up 12 million hours of online play. Do the maths, and that’s about 1,400 years of continuous play…

The internal only tests have been kept necessarily confidential (“It is not cool to talk about the alpha” was a common warning to anyone who thought about leaking screenshots or info). The final phase of testing is underway and the game is said to be very nearly complete.

I’m not going to mention any more about how the game looks, sounds, plays – except to say that you’ll all be able to find out just how awesome it is, on the 26th September (in Europe – the US gets it on the 25th). Might as well book the 27th and 28th off as holidays already 🙂