Thunderbolt 3, eGPUs

(This is the first post in a planned series, focusing on various aspects of contemporary information and communication technologies.)

The contemporary computing is all about flow of information: be it a personal computer, a mainframe server, a mobile device or even an embedded system in a vehicle, for example, the computers of today are not isolated. Be it for better or worse, increasingly all things are integrated into world-wide networks of information and computation. This also means that the ports and interfaces for all that data transfer take even higher prominence and priority, than in the old days of more locally situated processing.

Thinking about transfer of data, some older generation computer users still might remember things like floppy disks or other magnetic media, that were used both for saving the work files, and often distributing and sharing that work with others. Later, optical disks, external hard drives, and USB flash drives superseded floppies, but a more fundamental shift was brought along by Internet, and “cloud-based” storage options. In some sense the development has meant that personal computing has returned to the historical roots of distributed computing in ARPANET and its motivation in sharing of computing resources. But regardless what kind of larger network infrastructure mediates the operations of user and the service provider, all that data still needs to flow around, somehow.

The key technologies for information and communication flows today appear to be largely wireless. The mobile phone and tablet communicate to the networks with wireless technologies, either WiFi (wireless local area networking) or cellular networks (GSM, 3G and their successors). However, all those wireless connections end up linking into wired backbone networks, that operate at much higher speeds and reliability standards, than the often flaky, local wireless connections. As data algorithms for coding, decoding and compression of data have evolved, it is possible to use wireless connections today to stream 4K Ultra HD video, or to play high speed multiplayer games online. However, in most cases, wired connections will provide lower latency (meaning more immediate response), better reliability from errors and higher speeds. And while there are efforts to bring wireless charging to mobile phones, for example, most of the information technology we use today still needs to be plugged into some kind of wire for charging its batteries, at least.

Thunderbolt 3 infographic, (c) Intel
Thunderbolt 3 infographic, (c) Intel

This is where new standards like USB-C and Thunderbolt come to the picture. Thunderbolt (currently Thunderbolt 3 is the most recent version) is a “hardware interface”, meaning it is a physical, electronics based system that allows two computing systems to exchange information. This is a different thing, though, from the actual physical connector: “USB Type C” is the full name of the most recent reincarnation of “Universal Serial Bus”, an industry standard of protocols, cables, and connectors that were originally released already in 1996. The introduction of original USB was a major step into the interoperability of electronics, as the earlier situation had been developing into a jungle of propriety, non-compatible connectors – and USB is a major success story, with several billion connectors (and cables) shipped every year. Somewhat confusingly, the physical, bi-directional connectors of USB-C can hide behind them many different kinds of electronics, so that some USB-C connectors comply with USB 3.1 mode (with data transfer speeds up to 10 Gbit/s in “USB 3.1 Gen 2” version) and some are implemented with Thunderbolt – and some support both.

USB-C and Thunderbolt have in certain sense achieved a considerable engineering marvel: with backward compatibility to older USB 2.0 mode devices, this one port and cable should be able to connect to multiple displays with 4K resolutions, external data storage devices (with up to 40 Gbit/s speeds), while also working as a power cable: with Thunderbolt support, a single USB-C type port can serve, or drain, up to 100 watts electric power – making it possible to remove separate power connectors, and share power bricks between phones, tablets, laptop computers and other devices. The small form factor Apple MacBook (“Retina”, 2015) is an example of this line of thinking. One downside for the user of this beautiful simplicity of a single port in the laptop is need for carrying various adapters to connect with anything outside of the brave new USB-C world. In an ideal situation, however, it would be a much simpler life if there would only be this one connector type to worry about, and it would be possible to use a single cable to dock any device to the network, gain access to large displays, storage drives, high speed networks, and even external graphics solutions.

The heterogeneity and historical layering of everyday technologies are complicating the landscape that electronics manufacturers would like to paint for us. As any student of history of science and technology can tell, even the most successful technologies did not replace the earlier ones immediately, and there has always been reasons why people have been opposing the adoption of new technologies. For USB-C and Thunderbolt, the process of wider adoption is clearly currently well underway, but there are also multiple factors that slow it down. The most typical peripheral does not yet come with USB-C, but rather with the older versions. Even in expensive, high end mobile phones, there are still multiple models that manufacturers ship with older USB connectors, rather than with the new USB-C ones.

A potentially more crucial issue for most regular users is that Thunderbolt 3 & USB-C is still relatively new and immature technology. The setup is also rather complex, and with its integration of DisplayPort (video), PCI Express (PCIe, data) and DC power into a single hardware interface it typically requires multiple manufacturers’ firmware and driver updates to work seamlessly together, for TB3 magic to start happening. An integrated systems provider such as Apple has best possibilities to make this work, as they control both hardware as well as software of their macOS computers. Apple is also, together with Intel, the developer of the original Thunderbolt, and the interface was first commercially made available in the 2011 version of MacBook Pro. However, today there is an explosion of various USB-C and Thunderbolt compatible devices coming to the market from multiple manufacturers, and the users are eager to explore the full potential of this new, high speed, interoperable wired ecosystem.

eGPU, or External Graphics Processing Unit, is a good example of this. There are entire hobbyist forums like eGPU.io website dedicated to the fine art of connecting a full powered, desktop graphics card to a laptop computer via fast lane connections – either Expresscard or Thunderbolt 3. The rationale for this is (apart from the sheer joy of tweaking) that in this manner, one can both have a slim ultrabook computer for daily use, with a long battery life, that is then capable of transforming into an impressive workstation or gaming machine, when plugged into an external enclosure that houses the power hungry graphics card (these TB3 boxes typically have full length PCIe slots for installing GPUs, different sets of connection ports, and a separate desktop PC style power supply).  VR (virtual reality) applications are one example of an area where current generation of laptops have problems: while there are e.g. Nvidia GeForce GTX 10 series (1060 etc.) equipped laptops available today, most of them are not thin and light for everyday mobile use, or, if they are, their battery life and/or fan noise present issues.

Razer, a American-Chinese computing hardware manufacturer is known as a pioneer in popularizing the field of eGPUs, with their introduction of Razer Blade Stealth ultrabook, which can be plugged with a TB3 cable into the Razer Core enclosure (sold separately), for utilizing powerful GPU cards that can be installed inside the Core unit. A popular use case for TB3/eGPU connections is for plugging a powerful external graphics card into a MacBook Pro, in order to make it into a more capable gaming machine. In practice, the early adopters have faced struggles with firmwares and drivers that do not provide direct support from either the macOS side, or from the eGPU unit for the Thunderbolt 3 implementation to actually work. (See e.g. https://egpu.io/akitio-node-review-the-state-of-thunderbolt-3-egpu/ .) However, more and more manufacturers have added support and modified their firmware updates, so the situation is already much better than a few months ago (see instructions at: https://egpu.io/setup-guide-external-graphics-card-mac/ .) In the area of PC laptops running Windows 10, the situation is comparable: a work in progress, with more software support slowly emerging. Still, it is easy to get lost in this, still evolving field. For example, Dell revealed in January that they had restricted the Thunderbolt 3 PCIe data lanes in their implementation of the premium XPS 15 notebook computer: rather than using full 4 lanes, XPS 15 had only 2 PCIe lanes connected in the TB3. There is e.g. this discussion in Reddit comparing the effects this has, in the typical case that eGPU is feeding image into an external display, rather than back to the internal display of the laptop computer (see: https://www.reddit.com/r/Dell/comments/5otmir/an_approximation_of_the_difference_between_x2_x4/). The effects are not that radical, but it is one of the technical details that the early users of eGPU setups have struggled with.

While fascinating from an engineering or hobbyist perspective, the situation of contemporary technologies for connecting the everyday devices is still far from perfect. In thousands of meeting rooms and presentation auditoriums every day, people fail to connect their computers, get anything into the screen, or get access to their presentation due to the failures of online connectivity. A universal, high speed wireless standard for sharing data and displaying video would no doubt be the best solution for all. Meanwhile, a reliable and flexible, high speed standard in wired connectivity would go a long way already. The future will show whether Thunderbolt 3 can reach that kind of ubiquitous support. The present situation is pretty mixed and messy at best.

Pokémon GO Plus: The challenge of casual pervasive gaming?

Pokémon GO Plus package contents.
Pokémon GO Plus package contents.

Our research projects have explored the directions of pervasive gaming and more general ludification trends in culture and society. One of the success stories of last year was Pokémon GO, the location-based mobile game by Niantic (a Google spin-off) and Pokémon Company. When winter came, the player numbers dropped: at least in Finnish winter is became practically impossible to play a smartphone outdoors game in below-freezing temperatures. Considering that, I have been interested in trying the Pokémon GO Plus accessory – it is a small bluetooth device with one button that you can wear, so that constant handling of smartphone is no longer needed.

Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.

Based on a couple of hours quick testing, this kind of add-on certainly has certain potential. It reduces (an already rather simple) game into its most basic elements: the buzz and colourful led signals when there is a familiar (green) or new (yellow) Pokémon creature nearby, ready for catching. Pressing the button will automatically try to capture the virtual critter: easy ones usually register as “captured” in a few seconds (rainbow-style multi-coloured led signal), more challenging ones might “flee” (red light). When one arrives next to a Pokéstop, there will be a blue light & buzz signal, and with a press of button one can quickly interact with the stop, and get all available items registered into ones inventory. This is actually much more convenient than the usual routine of clicking and swiping at stops, Pokémons and balls. When the “Plus” is active, the game app itself also keeps running in the background, registering walking distances also when the phone is locked. This is how the game should function in the first place, of course. It seems that it is also much easier to capture Pokémons with the “Plus” than without it (how fair this is to other gamers, is a subject of discussion, too).

Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.

The larger question that remains is, what “casual pervasive gaming” will become, in the long run. If this kind of devices show the direction, it might be that a casual, always-on game will be more like a “zero player game”: an automated simulated of gaming, where game server and game client keep on making steady progress in the game, while the human player is free to concentrate on other things. Maybe it is enough just to check the game progress at the end of the day, getting some kind of summary of what the automated, “surrogate player” had experienced, during the day?

Playing Pokémon GO with the “Plus” add-on is not quite there, though. There were moments today when the device was buzzing every few second, asking for its button to be pressed. I quickly collected a nice selection of random, low level Pokémon, but I also ran out of Poke Balls in a minute. Maybe the device is made for “Pokémon GO whales”: those players who use real money to buy an endless suppy of poke-balls, and who are happy to have this semi-automatic collecting practice going on, whole day, in order to grind their way towards higher levels?

The strategic element of choice is mostly missing while using the “Plus”. I have no specific knowledge which Pokémon I am trying to capture, and as the game is configured to use only the basic sort of Poke Ball automatically, any “Great”, or “Ultra” balls, for example, are not used, which means that any more challenging, high-level Pokémon will most likely be missed and flee. At the same time, the occasionall buzz of the device taps evokes the “play frame” of Pokémon GO – which relates to the “playful mindset” that we also have been researching – so it is easier to keep on having a contact with a pervasive gaming reality, while mostly concentrating on mundane, everyday things, like doing grocery shopping. Some of us are better at multitasking, but experiments like Pokémon GO Plus provide us with a better understanding on how to scale both the game-related information, as well as the in-game tasks and functionalities, so that they do not seriously interfere with the other daily activities, but rather support them in the manner we see preferable. At least for me, wearing the “Plus” made those winter walking trips a bit more interesting and motivating again today.

Todellisuutemme tulevaisuus? Nuorten filosofiatapahtuma 2017

[Talked in Finnish about the future of “real” and “virtual” in Helsinki today.] Osallistuin alustajana ja panelistina tänään Nuorten filosofiatapahtumaan. Oma esitykseni (ks. runko alla) pyrki virittelemään pohdintaa ja keskustelua siitä, mihin tulevaisuudessa voi mahdollisesti johtaa ne käynnissä olevat kehityskulut, missä “vaikuttavat mutta ei-materiaaliset” todellisuutta rakentavat kehykset ja kerrokset tulevat keskellemme, ja ohjaavat osaa ihmisistä ajattelemaan, aistimaan, tietämään ja toimimaan – mutta suuri osa väestöä toisaalta ei jaa samaa todellisuutta.

Aineettomien ideoiden vaikutus on perustava kaikkien meidän arkisessa elämässä, ja todellisuuden sosiaalinen rakentuminen muovaa jatkuvasti sitä keitä olemme ja miten ymmärrämme maailmamme. Tässä tilaisuudessa pohdinnan kohteena oli erityisesti uudenlaiset, potentiaalisesti keskenään ristiriitaiset, mutta samoihin tiloihin ja tilanteisiin levittäytyvät pelien, informaation ja sosiaalisen vuorovaikutuksen todellisuuskerrokset. Kuinka tasa-arvon, vallan, yksityisyyden, rahan/arvon, työn/vapaa-ajan ja maailman muuttamisen tai “eskapismin” kaltaiset kysymykset muotoillaan kenties uudelleen, kun nämä kehityskulut ottavat tulevina vuosina seuraavat askeleensa. Kuinka niihin on syytä varautua, millaista peli-, informaatio- ja medialukutaitoa täytyy vaalia ja kehittää että pahimmat uhkakuvat eivät toteutuisi? Kiitokset kaikille keskustelukumppaneille, paikalla oli poikkeuksellisen fiksua, kriittisesti ja laajakaarisesti ajattelevaa väkeä!

CFP: GamiFIN conference 2017, ext-dl: 31 January, 2017

CFP GamiFIN Conference 2017
Pori, Finland

http://gamifinconference.com
9th to 10th May 2017

Submissions due on:
EXTENDED DEADLINE 31th January, 2017

Selected contributions will be published in special issue of International journal of Serious Games

+ Open-access online conference proceedings (CEUR-WS)

* GamiFIN 2017 is proud and delighted to announce our confirmed keynote speakers, we do have a great combination of excellence around gamification: Dr. Sylvester Arnab, Reader in Game Science, Coventry University (UK), Dr. Sebastian Deterding, a senior research fellow at the Digital Creativity Labs, University of York (UK) and Dr. Juho Hamari, a Professor of Gamification at UCPori and a leading researcher at the Game Research Lab University of Tampere. Exciting lectures ahead concentrating on e.g. the current state of the art in the field of academic research on gamification, why gamification needs theory and how to transform ordinary tasks into extraordinary experiences. Be sure not to miss these key-talks next May in Pori, Finland!

We are pleased to invite you to GamiFIN conference, on 9th to 10th of May 2017 in Pori, Finland. GamiFIN is a meeting place where researchers, industry and experts present results from their latest work regarding gamification, technology, media and digital culture for the future society.

GamiFIN is a concept made up by University Consortium of Pori. GamiFIN brings together people not only from different fields of academia but also from different sectors such as companies and other institutions. GamiFIN is a great opportunity to present your novel and ground-breaking research results, benefit from the interaction with industry and practitioners and to get new ideas how to utilize gamificational approaches in research as well as in industrial level.

The GamiFIN conference features e.g. the following major themes:

  • Gamification, ludification, playfulness
  • Industry and gamification
  • Gamification of public events such as concerts, sports events etc.
  • Wellbeing and gamification
  • Sustainability, ecological solutions
  • Customer services gamification
  • Funification
  • Gamification of mathematics
  • Gamification of data collection
  • Gamification of research

CONFERENCE PUBLICATIONS

The authors of the selection of the best papers will be invited to publish their work as an article in a special issue of the International Journal of Serious Games.

All the papers accepted to the conference, will be sent for consideration in open-access CEUR Workshop Proceedings. CEUR-WS.org is a recognized ISSN publication series with ISSN 1613-0073. After acceptance, the proceedings will be published as a GamiFIN Conference 2017 volume. (In the Finnish classification of publication forums, CEUR-WS-proceedings are classified as Jufo 1)

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES 

There are two different tracks you can submit your proposals to:

1) academic and 2) industrial

In the academic track, the papers should contain 4 -6 pages, including the list of references. Papers are expected to contribute the field of gamification, based on the different themes of the conference. The contribution has to be original, novel, well written and scientifically ensure the validity of the presented results.

The industrial track serves the participating companies by offering demo sessions where current and on going work can be presented. Contributions concerning development, business cases, marketing, strategy, case studies, best practices and lessons learned etc. are welcomed. In industrial track, please submit 1-page position paper. All academic submissions will be peer-reviewed double blinded. The industrial submissions should include a short biography of the author / presenter, and description of their organization.

Extended deadline for submissions is 31th of January, 2017.

Retrospect, 2016, 2006, 1996, and beyond

I am not particularly good in remembering things, which makes annually returning cycles of breaks and opportunities for reflection challenging, yet also very useful.

Year 2016 was exceptionally burdersome year for many reasons, but among much sadness and strain, there were also many happy things, and quiet progress that is important, but that will most likely surface only later. If I’d have to name one thing, I would say that 2016 was the “Year of Pokémon GO”, as both in personal life as well as professionally, that single location based, social experience coloured much of the latter part of the year in particular.

Randomly sampling the past, in ten year intervals, in 2006, I notice from my records that I was making several public talks about ludic literacy. For example, in one publication I sketched six dimensions of skill sets that each build on top of each other: 1) fundamental ludic understanding (“this is play, game has rules”), 2) functional gaming skills (“this game works this way”), 3) strategic and meta levels of game skills (“this way of playing is interesting / makes sense for me”), 4) social ludic skills (“this is what makes playing fun for other, this is why these people want to play”), 5) creative and productive game play skills (“this game can be extended, or reimagined in these ways”), and 6) literacy related to media in general (“this game is produced to make money this way, its marketing and business strategies rely on this kinds of principles”. (I seem to have worked on a longer article on the topic, but the last draft of that was marked “version 0.5”, so I guess other worked ran over that one.)

In 1996, I was working on the manuscript of Koneihminen article anthology (The Man-Machine), which was a wide-ranging exploration into the multiple cultural roles that technology holds in our lives – as a living environment, as an integral element that extends as well as shapes, and limits our individual and social subjectivy and agency, as well as an evolving and chancing source of various aesthetic experiences. It is interesting to read about the reflections of technological ambivalence, and critiques of 1990s techno-romanticism today, when two decades have changed the landscape of technology into something considerably more pervasive, but also into something more banal. It is certainly true that in 1990s we were considerably more naive regarding the pace of cultural change, and what was really important and what not so, but looking around at turn of 2016/2017, much of both the utopian and dystopian elements of technological imagination are now reality. The more philosophical dimensions of technologically informed subjectivity would clearly benefit from a revisit, or two.

In 1986, I was early in my studies of comparative literature in the University of Tampere. Sadly, it seems that I do not have any digital notes saved from the time before 1991, due to the multiple changes in those years, one of the most important technical ones being the move from Commodore 64 to some early 286 PC that caused me losing my records. Only some backups coming from my Unix account from early 1990s has survived. The C64 floppy disks still just might be somewhere, but I have neither hardware or software to access them, any more. Digital amnesia? But I still remember for example typing rather long essays and seminar works on C64 “Sanatar” word processing software (AmerSoft, 1984) – and then using the same home computer at nights to play AD&D adventure “Pool of Radiance” (SSI, 1988), slowly, sometimes with painful failure rate, but endlessly fascinated. Long Finnish summer nights were filled with light and bird song, also in 3 or 4 am, when I remember holding a break in my upstairs student apartment, stepping outside of the Forgotten Realms for a while.

Remembering is good for us. I link below the slides that I prepared for “Personal gaming histories” course this fall – no commentary this time, but maybe the pictures also tell some stories. Times, they are a-changing.

(PS – these exercises remind us, how our lives do not equal to “life stories”, consistent, logical, progressive wholes. They just present us these constant challenges for sense making, always more or less retrospective.)

CFP: DiGRA 2017, Australia

Call for Participation DiGRA2017: The 10th Digital Games Research Association Conference

We are delighted to announce the Call for Participation for DiGRA 2017, to be held July 3-6 2017, at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia.

DiGRA 2017 will bring together a diverse international community of interdisciplinary researchers engaged in cutting edge research in the field of game studies. DiGRA 2017 is supported by Swinburne University of Technology, RMIT, The University of Sydney and The University of Melbourne. The conference welcomes submissions on a wide range of topics associated with studies of games and play.

For an expanded CFP see the conference website: www.digra2017.com.

Important Dates
– Submission date (workshops): 20 January 2017
– Acceptance/rejection notification (workshops): 27 January 2017
– Submission date (all submissions except workshops): 26 February 2017 (hard deadline)
– Acceptance/rejection notification (all submissions except workshops): 25 March 2017
– Camera ready: 15 April 2017 Conference dates: 3-6 July 2017

Submission Types
We welcome a range of contributions to DiGRA2017. These include, full papers, extended abstracts, panel and workshop proposals, doctorial consortium participation as well as proposals for events and other activities that fall outside the academic tradition.

Full papers will be peer-reviewed, published on the conference website and in the conference proceedings available on open-access through the DiGRA digital library.

All other submissions will be reviewed by the conference organization committee. These submissions will be published on the conference website, but will not be included in the conference proceedings published through the DiGRA library.

For an expanded CFP see the conference website: www.digra2017.com.

Suomen Pelimuseo, The Finnish Museum of Games

The Finnish Museum of Games (Suomen Pelimuseo) was open for the first time tonight; this event was only for the various partners who had made the museum possible, experts and makers, as well as to the important donators in the crowdfunding campaign. Pelimuseo is the first public organisation in Finland which has successfully run a crowdfunding effort to realise its goals: there were over 1100 people and organisations who took part (our UTA/SIS Game Research Lab was one).

This first look was exiting experience, and already convinced me that this museum will be a major success story. There is so much pent-up need for re-experiencing, reflecting and sharing of game culture, play histories and digital cultural heritage of the past decades that it is obvious this museum will have to face the positive problem of how to facilitate the requirements coming from its popularity. That is at least my feeling on the basis of this first evening, as a large crowd of game enthusiasts, parents with their kids, game designers, game scholars, game educators, historians, journalists, members of gaming subcultures of various kinds gathered together to celebrate and re-experience some of the formative elements from their personal pasts, as well as to meet for the first time some forgotten gems of digital, as well as analog (e.g. board game, rpg, larp) games of the past.

The Finnish Museum of Games will officially open its doors to audience in January 2017. It is located in Vapriikki museum centre, in Tampere. More at: https://suomenpelimuseo.fi/.