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‘Sonic Mania’ is a wonderful balance of nostalgia and novelty

If you’ve played Sonic the Hedgehog on your phone, Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 in the last half-dozen years, you have Christian Whitehead to thank. In 2009, he created an unofficial proof of concept iPhone port of Sonic CD using a custom-built game engine — a project that eventually led to Sega hiring him to officially port Sonic CD, Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 to modern platforms. This week, the fruits of that partnership reached a new high point in Sonic Mania, an all-new 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog platformer that sees the mascot return to his glory days.

That might sound a bit overzealous, but it’s written with honesty. There’s a stigma attached to Sonic the Hedgehog games; a pattern of expectation and disappointment that’s become so ingrained in the series’ community that it’s known as the “Sonic Cycle.” The cycle is mostly an old joke, but there’s a grain of truth to it: Sonic games are typically announced with a lot of fanfare but often fall flat after launchh. Whitehead’s modernized remakes, however, are rare exceptions — and Sonic Mania builds on everything that makes those ports great.

Sonic Mania works for the same reason Whitehead’s updated Sonic the Hedgehog ports work: It understands and accurately re-creates the delicate balance of speed, acceleration and momentum that defined the series’ early games. In Mania, Sonic, Knuckles and Tails jump, run, dash and move exactly as they did in Sega’s classic platformers. Sonic Mania feels right in a way that a mainline Sonic game hasn’t since 1994.

Again, that’s no surprise, considering it was created by a team that made a name for itself in modernizing Sonic’s original adventures — but this faithful re-creation of the original game’s physics serves as a foundation for an experience that both celebrates and adds to the history of the franchise’s classic games.

Mania overlays that excellent base gameplay with gorgeous sprite work that outstretches the limitations of its 16-bit inspiration. It’s still nostalgically pixelated, but the game uses a much broader palette of color, lending the game’s characters, backgrounds and power-ups subtly detailed highlights.

That’s the crux of the Sonic Mania experience — a careful merging of the old and the new. On a visceral level, it looks and feels like a classic Sonic the Hedgehog game, but it delivers an experience that’s just beyond your nostalgic expectations. Here’s a familiar-looking hero but with smooth, nuanced animation that lends his character more charm than you expected. Here’s the gameplay you loved in the ’90s but with new abilities and gimmicks to keep it fresh. Even the game’s levels adhere to this philosophy: Most of Sonic Mania’s stages are throwbacks to older games, but all of them are more than what they seem.

Take the game’s first level — after a brief story sequence seemingly throws Sonic back in time, Sonic Mania starts out just like the franchise’s very first game: in Green Hill Zone. The first half of the level looks like a dead ringer for mascot’s first adventure, but as you play on, it becomes obvious that it’s different. The zone now has new divergent paths that climb into the sky or go deep underground, and the entire stage is bigger, longer and more complicated. Instead of a simple goal post at the end of the level, there’s a new mini-boss to defeat.

The difficulty curve of classic gaming is alive and well in Sonic Mania, too. Losing all your lives can be punishing — fail to beat a boss at the end of a two-level zone, for instance, and you’ll have to play through both levels again before taking on the stage’s big baddie. The game gives you unlimited continues, but it can be frustrating to be set back two levels when you’re trying to figure out how to beat the game’s last epic boss fight.

This clever mix of old and new elements makes Sonic Mania a new adventure in familiar trappings. Classic levels are draped in nostalgia — but after the first half of each, the retro stages tend to expand into almost completely new levels. The first act of Chemical Plant Zone might build upon the design offered in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, but act two mixes things up by introducing new obstacles and challenges. These remixed classic stages set the tone for the game’s all-original levels: By the time the player reaches Studiopolis, everything just feels natural.

The game offers tons of variety, too. New sphere-collecting challenges in the style of Sonic 3 can be accessed at every checkpoint, and Mania’s new Chaos Emerald special stage plays like a mash-up of F-Zero, Super Mario Kart and a bonus level from Sonic the Hedgehog 2. If you need a break from the game’s core platforming, there are plenty of options.

On its own, classic Sonic physics and good level design would be enough to make Sonic Mania good, but what makes it special is the reverence for all things Hedgehog. Throughout Mania, you’ll find nods to the series’ legacy. You might stumble across a reference to the Game Gear’s Triple Trouble or a sly nod to Sonic the Fighters. The game even pays tribute to Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, a bizarre Sonic the Hedgehog-themed port of Puyo Puyo.

It’s a fantastic classic Sonic experience, but the game does have some rough edges. At one point, I was told that I’d unlocked the Super Peel Out dash from Sonic CD and the Insta-Shield from Sonic 3 & Knuckles — but I could never figure out how to use either move in-game. There’s no clear list in the game’s menu to see what you unlocked, either. I was also a bit let down by the game’s visual filter settings. The default “clean” mode looks fine, but after seeing the more robust color-bleeding effects of the CRT modes in The Disney Afternoon Collection and the NES Classic Edition, simple scanline filters just aren’t that impressive anymore. Maybe I’m spoiled.

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If you haven’t played a Sonic the Hedgehog game since 1994, Sonic Mania is exactly the game you’ve been waiting for. Everything about it feels like a natural extension of what Sonic was in the 16-bit era. It’s a nostalgia cash-in, sure — but that’s just the bait to reel you in. The hook to Sonic Mania isn’t its retro style, it’s the game’s excellent level design, catchy music and addictive platforming.


Fighting Mewtwo in ‘Pokémon Go’ is invite-only

Mewtwo finally made an appearance in Pokémon Go today in Japan. The legendary pocket monster helped show off the new Exclusive Raid Battle system in Japan, and soon will be making its way to domestic shores.

How those work doesn’t sound too different from existing Raid Battles, but you’ll need to get an invite. Meaning, if you want to snatch the psychic-type creature for yourself, you’ll first have to complete a raid, defeat its boss and then head to the Gym where the Exclusive battle will happen.

“The invitations will include advance warning of when the Exclusive Raid will take place, giving them ample time to coordinate with other Trainers before taking on the powerful Raid Boss,” developer Niantic writes.

Our colleagues at Engadget Japan say that once you defeat Mewtwo, capturing him isn’t all that difficult, either.

Mewtwo is just the start, as other legendary creatures will start appearing over the next few weeks. Speaking of, Niantic is adding Articuno, Lugia, Moltres and Zapdos to raid battles from August 14th through the end of the month. Happy hunting!

Source: Niantic, Engadget Japan (translated)


Researchers use AI to monitor hospital staff hygiene

Hospital-acquired infections are a pesky problem and around one in 25 hospital patients have at least one healthcare-associated illness at any given time. To combat this issue, a research team based at Stanford University turned to depth cameras and computer vision to observe activity on hospital wards — a system that could be used to track hygienic practices of hospital staff and visitors in order to spot behaviors that might contribute to the spread of infection. The work is being presented at the Machine Learning in Healthcare Conference later this week.

The researchers placed depth cameras in various places — in hallways, patient rooms and around hand sanitizing dispensers — across two different hospital wards. Video was collected over the course of one very busy hour in the hospital and 80 percent of the video was used to train tracking algorithms while the other 20 percent was used to test the algorithms post-training.

During that hour, 170 people entered patient rooms but only 30 were found to follow correct hand hygiene protocol. And when using video images to determine those compliance rates, the computer vision algorithms were about 75 percent as accurate as humans making those classifications from watching the video playback. However, compared to observations made by people in the hospital wards covertly recording hand sanitation practices on the ground, the algorithms were more accurate.

According to New Scientist, the researchers are now planning to outfit three hospitals for an entire year to see how the technology and the observations it reports impact infection rates. As this method improves, it could be used for much more than just monitoring hand hygiene. Alexandre Alahi, one of the study’s authors told New Scientist, “We can’t afford to have a doctor in a room 24/7, but we could afford an AI doctor every room, and every corridor too, leaving humans to do the most important jobs.”

Via: New Scientist

Source: Arxiv


CNN will livestream the solar eclipse in 360-degree 4K

The total solar eclipse is just a week away in the US, and unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know that this is an experience you simply cannot miss. But if you don’t live in the eclipse path and can’t travel for it (or waited until too late to make your plans), there a few options for livestreaming the event. Today, CNN revealed its plans for the eclipse: a 360-degree live stream from multiple locations along the eclipse’s path.

The event will start at 1 PM ET on next Monday, August 21st, and features a live show called “CNN’s Eclipse of the Century” starring astronaut Mark Kelly, along with CNN’s Space and Science correspondent Rachel Crane. The really interesting part of this announcement, though, is the breadth of the broadcast. It will use multiple 4K, 360-degree cameras placed along the eclipse’s path, from Oregon to South Carolina, allowing viewers to see multiple eclipse events virtually.

Viewers all around the world will be able to tune into this 4K event at and CNN’s mobile apps. Additionally, the livestream will be available in VR with Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus and Oculus Rift via Oculus Video. Finally, the entire thing will be streamed on CNN’s Facebook page thanks to Facebook Live 360.


NYC is getting a huge new VR conference this fall

In addition to an upcoming virtual reality hub at NYU, New York City will also host its first VR-focused convention later this year. The NYVR Expo, which will take place at the Javits Center from October 26th through 28th, aims to be the biggest virtual reality conference on the East Coast. It’ll be a place for both newcomers and existing VR professionals to explore what’s next in the burgeoning medium. And since the NYVR Expo will run alongside the PhotoPlus Expo at Javits, it will have easy reach to a wide audience of media enthusiasts.

According to Emerald Expositions, which organizes both shows, the new event came about after it noticed that PhotoPlus Expo attendees were increasingly interested in VR. While they considered creating a small virtual reality pavilion as part of the existing show, according to senior vice president John McGeary, the company realized that it made more sense to start a completely new conferences. Together, both the NYVR Expo and PhotoPlus Expo are expected to gather around 20,000 attendees.

As you’d expect, the virtual reality conference will show off how the technology can be used in a variety of sectors, including healthcare, education and entertainment. It’ll also take advantage of NYC’s unique position as a melting pot for a variety of industries.

“In the growing list of VR events on the West Coast and elsewhere, New York stands apart as a place where business gets done,” said Hugh Seaton, CEO of of Aquinas Training and co-producer of the event. “It’s where things get bought, clients have products, and a lot of brands and media companies are present.”

Additionally, the NYVR Expo will also host an Incubator Zone, which will show off 20 startups who are using VR and AR in exceptional ways. That portion of the event will be organized by the NYC Media Lab, who are also putting together NYU’s upcoming VR hub. As for partners, the conference currently has HTC Vive, Microsoft and Facebook 360 aboard, as well as a slew of other VR companies. The Glimpse Group, which organizes the NYVR Meetup (the world’s second-largest VR gathering), will also help organize the event.

While existing conventions like VRLA and the Augmented World Expo have had a major head start, there’s still room for the NYVR Expo to succeed. In addition to the established media community, there are already plenty of intriguing VR studios in the area, several of which were featured at Tribeca this year. And since it’s running for several days, it has room to go deeper than the VR 20/20 Summit in NYC, which lasts only one day.

[Photo credit: The Glimpse Group]


Pixel art RPG ‘Songbringer’ arrives on PS4 September 5th

Fans of retro games have been looking forward to Songbringer, a pixelated sci-fi RPG, for awhile now. Today, PlayStation announced the game’s release date: You’ll be able to play Songbringer on your PS4 on September 5th.

The game is from the one-man studio Wizard Fu and is the brainchild of Nathanael Weiss. It’s described as a love letter to the RPGs of old. Players control Roq, who travels to different planets on his spaceship. One day, he wakes up on a strange planet with his robot companion Jib at his side (Jib is playable by a local second controller). He has to figure out why he’s on this planet, and in the process, he manages to awaken an evil ancient army.

Songbringer features real-time combat, powerups, online leaderboards and item crafting. If you’ve been itching to play an old-school RPG, it sounds like this game is just the ticket.

Source: PlayStation Blog


Snag a mediocre selfie with Pikachu using Snapchat’s latest Lens

For those of you who’ve just been dying to get a selfie with Pikachu, I have good news. For a short time, Snapchat has a Pikachu Lens available that gives your face that coveted Pikachu makeover — its iconic ears and button nose, really big eyes and bright, rosy cheeks. When you open your mouth, Pikachu shows up on screen with you while making very Pikachu noises, and then your face explodes with lightning.

The quality isn’t great and neither you or Pikachu are going to look stellar, but the Lens is available now. It won’t be around forever, so Snap while you can.

Source: Pokemon


A break from Twitter showed me how broken it is

J.G. Ballard’s High Rise is a novel in which the residents of an opulent apartment block abandon the outside world. The building offers every amenity possible, from a supermarket through to a bank and, work aside, there’s little reason to leave. A series of incidents turns the block’s occupants into savages who spend their days raping and murdering their fellow inhabitants. And yet, although the front door is right there, nobody wants to walk through it and escape to civilization.

Four decades later, and the world that Ballard predicted is here, it just doesn’t take place in a tower block. Instead, 328 million people across the world spend their days plugged into Twitter, which becomes more of a nightmare every day. From a simple way to express pithy thoughts with your friends, it has mutated into a vehicle for psychic violence and unending hostility. Which may explain why more than a million Americans have quit the service in the last three months.

I am (probably) Engadget’s most prolific Twitterer, spending hours on the site each day and tweeting incessantly. I justify my overuse because it is the “people’s news network,” and we need to remain informed right now, because there is a lot going on. After all, the US, UK, Russia, North Korea and China are ruled by despots who are actively leading us toward global war. Companies are destroying the fabric of our society, our civil rights, and our planet, in service of a fatter quarterly profit. Not to mention the annual game of avoiding Game of Thrones spoilers and shit-talking live sporting events with everyone else.

Cold, Blue Turkey


I decided to take a week-long break from the platform to see if, like all those other quitters, life is happier on the other side. The day before had been a fruitful one, with a handful of my digital bon mots earning a flurry of likes and retweets. I don’t doubt that every time I see Twitter validate my work, a miniscule hit of dopamine floods my brain. The delivery method may differ, but social media can be as addictive as hell.

It’s a lesson that I’d learn just ten minutes after making my resolution as, without thinking, my mouse hand clicked the desktop shortcut for Twitter. I am such an obsessive user of the site that even the process for accessing it had been consigned to muscle memory. It took real self-control, and some degree of itchiness, to get past the initial stages of withdrawal across the first day. It was only because I had the crutch that is Facebook, my least favorite social network, that I could get on at all.

I normally have Twitter’s web client open during work, both for newsgathering and as a necessary reward during the day. Then, I’ll check the site during bathroom breaks and while I’m trying to put my baby girl to sleep in the late evening. Losing it suddenly meant that I had to concentrate on the human interactions around me, as well as get things done around the house. The first thing I found was that I had a lot more free time available in my day.

Not the people’s news network

For a site that professes to keep you connected to what’s going on, Twitter does a terrible job of keeping you informed. It’s easy to trick yourself into believing that you’re getting the best version of the news, with experts in their field sharing things you’d never see in a newspaper. And, there are plenty of smart, erudite folks whose opinions I trust because I know they are legitimately clever people.

But, equally, I’m not above nodding along with a 100-tweet thread written by someone who describes themselves as a national security expert. It’s all too easy to assume that whoever retweeted them into my feed has made the effort to ensure that what they’re sharing is legitimate. Because I’m certainly not looking too hard at the author of these tweets, even though we should all be actively guarding our media consumption.

And here’s the thing, my media consumption has gone up by an order of magnitude when I’ve been away from Twitter. It’s just that I’m getting the facts from The Guardian, New York (and London) Times, Telegraph, FiveThirtyEight and Vox. The measured and even tone of those publications is a breath of fresh air if you’ve been listening to the neurotic commentary that rolls past in Twitter’s bottomless feed.

Twitter is the enemy of calm

I spent way too much money last night but fuck it we’re all gonna die in a nuclear war soon

— DJ B2B (@taylvr) August 12, 2017

As much as we like to deny it, humans are herd animals with a herd mentality that can be sent into hysteria far easier than we think. The day I returned to the site, it was full of folks panicking that we were about to die in a nuclear holocaust. It could happen, for sure, but pissing and moaning about it on the internet won’t do much about it beyond making everyone unnecessarily stressed. Rather than indulge, I closed the site and went about my day.

We know that social media has an uncomfortable relationship with our mental health, with addictive loops keeping us glued to our screens. But addiction is not the only issue we face, as Instagram has also been lambasted for being harmful to people’s mental health. Services like this amplify anxieties about body image, lifestyle, wealth, and many other facets of our lives that we choose to broadcast.

Then there’s the paralytic effect of this constant barrage of stress that means you feel as if you are incapable of doing anything. Twitter and Facebook have, perhaps unwittingly, become agents of the status quo — as you spend your days flapping online instead of changing things. If I was an evil billionaire looking to suppress dissent against my adopted political cause, I’d write the social media companies a big check.

Spending any time away from that Ballardian madness however and you start to notice changes in your own psyche. I was more effective, more decisive, and I had more time in my day — because Twitter is designed to suck away the minutes in your hand. My head was clearer, my sleep seemed to be sweeter and frankly, I could swear that I was happier without its nagging presence in my psyche.

Coming Back

My seven-day absence from Twitter has ended, and yet I’m not back to using it anywhere near as frequently as I used to. When you’ve been away from something long enough you’re suddenly able to see the flaws in a way you couldn’t up close. I don’t feel as constantly panicked as I did before, and I feel more effective in the time that I have each day.

If there’s an easy way to explain this, it’s like the ex-smoker visiting their office’s smoking room to catch up with the daily gossip. The fug, before which you were immune, now chokes your throat and blinds your eyes and you resolve not to visit too frequently. You can go back every now and again, much like you can do many things in moderation, but not as your one source of connection with your coworkers. Because whatever benefit you get, the amount of poison you need to inhale to justify it is simply too damn much.


VW’s first ID electric car for the US may be a crossover

Are you champing at the bit waiting for Volkswagen’s ID electric cars to hit the market? You might not want to be picky about the choice of body style. Sources speaking to our Autoblog colleagues say that the while the regular, hatchback-style EV will launch first, it won’t reach the US — at least, not initially. Instead, the ID Crozz would be the first of the lineup on American shores, arriving in late 2020 or in 2021. It’s not clear why VW would make this move, but it’s likely to accommodate a recent American taste for crossovers and target an EV audience that has gone relatively untapped. The Bolt is really more of a hatchback despite Chevy’s marketing, and the Tesla Model X is both closer to a pure SUV and priced well beyond the budget of most drivers.

As for the Microbus-inspired ID Buzz? That hasn’t been cleared for production, but it might stand a chance. While the original Microbus concept was unlikely to ever hit the streets because of its one-off platform, the Buzz might make it because it shares the same underpinnings as other ID models. The uncertainty could lead to a prolonged wait, however. A finished Buzz might not be ready until closer to 2025.

Even the 2020 window is a long way off, so we wouldn’t count on everything panning out no matter how accurate the insiders might be. However, the plans at least make sense. The regular ID is clearly aimed at drivers who would otherwise buy the Golf, which is considerably more popular in Europe than it is in the States. Also, the Crozz may be an ideal EV for a large-scale American launch. Its dual-motor all-wheel drive, far stronger 302HP output and relatively realistic design could help it sell in volume to Americans concerned that EVs might not handle snow and rough back roads.

Source: Autoblog


HomePod Supplies Limited at Launch, but Foxconn Coming on Board in 2018 to Increase Production

Inventec Appliances has been a rumored supplier for Apple’s HomePod smart speaker since before the device was announced at WWDC in June, and now the manufacturer has indicated that supplies for HomePod might be limited at launch, in line with most Apple product launches (via Nikkei).

The news came from Inventec Appliances president David Ho during a press conference today. Although his comments never specifically mentioned “HomePod,” the estimated time frame given for the release of the product — late in 2017 — and its description as a high-profile “smart home device,” suggest it to be Apple’s upcoming speaker. At WWDC, Apple confirmed that the HomePod would launch sometime in December.

Now, Ho has stated that the HomePod’s contribution to the company’s revenue for this year will be “fairly limited” — which is expected given the device is launching so late in the year — with optimistic improvements to profit gained from HomePod sales predicted for early 2018. One analyst speculated that the number of HomePod units shipped in December 2017 will be around 500,000.

“We will finally ship the smart home device this year, but its contribution will be fairly limited and hopefully that will improve next year,” Inventec Appliances President David Ho told analysts and reporters during an earnings conference.

“Inventec Appliances will likely only ship some 500,000 units of HomePod this year, and the device’s contribution to the group’s revenue will be less than 1%,” said Arthur Liao, an analyst at Taipei-based Fubon Securities.

In 2018, Apple will look to open up HomePod manufacturing to more than just Inventec Appliances, according to one of Nikkei’s sources, who stated that Apple is planning to add Foxconn into the HomePod supply chain next year. This will result in Inventec Appliances and Foxconn receiving a “split” of HomePod orders and boosting production for the smart home speaker, following the limited initial launch.

Inventec Appliance’s total smart home and connected devices shipments are expected to grow to between 70 and 75 million units by the end of 2017, but company officials didn’t specifically break down the numbers related to the Apple products it makes.

In addition to HomePod, Inventec Appliances also manufactures Apple’s AirPods, which have been particularly difficult for many users to purchase since the wireless earphones launched last December. Earlier in August, the estimated shipping date for AirPods finally lowered to four weeks from six weeks, which had been the shipping estimate for the previous eight months.

Related Roundup: HomePod
Tags: Foxconn,
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