Month: July 2019

Analogue’s Mega Sg is the Sega Genesis Mini alternative for the discerning retro gaming fan

The official Sega Genesis Mini is coming in September and hopes to capitalize on some of the retro gaming hype that turned the Super Nintendo and NES Mini Classic editions into best-sellers. But there’s already a modern piece of hardware out there capable of playing Sega Genesis games on your HDTV — plus Mega Drive, Master System and Sega CD, too.

The Analogue Mega Sg is the third in a series of reference-quality, FPGA-based retro consoles from Analogue, a company that prides itself on accuracy in old-school gaming. It provides unparalleled, non-emulated gameplay with zero lag and full 1080p output to work with your HD or even 4K TV in a way no other old-school gaming hardware can.

For $189.99 (which is just about double the asking price of the Sega Genesis Mini), you get the console itself, an included Master System cartridge adapter, an HDMI cable and a USB cable for power supply (plus a USB plug, though, depending on your TV, you might be able to power it directly). The package also includes a silicon pad should you want to use it with original Sega CD hardware, which plugs into the bottom of the SG hardware just like it did with the original Genesis. It includes two ports that support original wired Genesis controllers, or you can also opt to pick up an 8bitdo M30 wireless Genesis controller and adapter, which retails for $24.99.

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Like the Nt mini did for NES, and the Super Nt did for SNES before it, the Mega Sg really delivers when it comes to performance. Games look amazing on my 4K LG OLED television, and I can choose from a variety of video output settings to tune it to my liking, including adding simulated retro scaliness and more to make it look more like your memory of playing on an old CRT television.

Sound is likewise excellent — those opening notes of Ecco the Dolphin sounded fantastic rendered in 48KHz 16-bit stereo coming out of my Sonos sound system. Likewise, Sonic’s weird buzzsaw razor whine came through exactly as remembered, but definitely in higher definition than anything that actually played out of my old TV speakers as a kid.

Even if you don’t have a pile of original Sega cartridges sitting around ready to play (though I bet you do if you’re interested in this piece of kit), the Mega Sg has something to offer: On board, you get a digital copy of the unreleased Sega Genesis game “Hardcore,” which was nearly complete in 1994 but which went unreleased. It’s been finished and renamed “Ultracore,” and you can run it from the console’s main menu as soon as you plug it in and fire it up.

Analogue plans to add more capabilities to the Mega Sg in the future, with cartridge adapters that will allow it to run Mark III, Game Gear, Sega MyCard, SG-1000 and SC-3000 games, too. These will all be supported by the FPGA Analogue designed for the Mega Sg, too, so they’ll also be running natively, not emulated, for a true recreation of the original gaming experience.

Analogue Mega Sg 8

If you’re really into classic games, and care a lot about accuracy, this is definitely the best way to play Sega games on modern TVs — and it’s also just super fun.

‘Death Saves’ D&D Streetwear: Interview With Designer Damian Higgins

‘Death Saves’ was back at SDCC 2019. (Photo Credit: Via Death Saves / Twitter)

One of the more exciting moments of last year’s San Diego Comic-Con for Dungeons & Dragons fans was the debut of a dope, new clothing line called Death Saves. Founded by actor Joe Manganiello and designer Damian Higgins, the brand brings an approach to fantasy and roleplaying fandom gear that draws heavily from streetwear and heavy metal. Their first drop was full of instant sellouts and the brand has spent the last year steadily building both its fanbase and inventory.

While the brand’s “birthday” was technically back in May, their reappearance at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con feels like an apt anniversary marker. To commemorate a year of Death Saves, Geek.com sat down with head designer Damian Higgins to talk about the influence of streetwear on Death Saves, the company’s origins, and what the future holds in store for it.

Geek.com: Let’s start from the beginning: tell us the story of how Death Saves came to be.

DAMIAN HIGGINS: Death Saves came to fruition back in February 2018. I was walking down the street in Brooklyn in the rain and got a text from Joe. He told me he’d just acquired the official license from Wizards to create and sell D&D merch and wanted to know if I wanted to work on a design with him. So my brain started going and I started googling what’s out here in this D&D fantasy market. Turns out most of it is kinda Facebook algorithm-generated garbage, just super poorly designed and made. The coolest shirts that were available featured scans of old books and modules but nothing original. So I thought man, we should really go hard on this and blow it up. A friend of mine named Maurice used to be the creative director of a streetwear company called Mishka and I reached out to try to get him on board because neither of us had much of a background in building a streetwear brand from the ground up. Plus he’s a crazy talented designer and I thought it’d be cool for us to work together. So Maurice and I came up with a dek and showed it to Joe.

Geek.com: Was the brand called Death Saves at this point?

DH: Actually the original name for it was gonna be INVENTORY, but we decided it was too bland of a name. We thought we needed a spicier name, so I probably came up with like, 200 different ideas for names. Some of them were 1981 RPG Club, Death Wizards, and right before we decided on Death Saves we were gonna go with Vision Of Doom. But like, right at high noon Joe decided we should go with something else. We ended up with Death Saves, which has grown on me a ton and I think is ultimately perfect for the brand but I’ve used Vision Of Doom as a tag on like, tee shirts, and Instagram captions a ton.

So this is all back in February of 2018. We started realizing that we’d stumbled on a concept that hadn’t been tapped in the market. Nobody was doing fantasy metal streetwear with good graphic design. With Joe’s background as a hardcore fantasy nerd and me being so nerdy about this stuff too, I knew our stuff would come from a pure place rather than some bandwagon-jumping aesthetic. We try to have a backstory for every design — a lot of thought goes into everything we do and there are a ton of easter eggs throughout the designs. There’s always a story going on in the design. We don’t want to phone anything in.

We did a sort of soft-launch at D&D Live: Stream of Many Eyes in May of 2018, just getting the gear seen and getting people to post about it on Instagram, get some hype built. That’s kinda how it started and we’ve been running it for a year. The doors are really starting to open. Since then Maurice has left the company to do his own thing and now it’s just me and Joe.

 

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WEEKEND MATINEE #eyeball #visionofdoom 👁💀🎥

A post shared by DEATH SAVES (@deathsaves) on Jul 27, 2019 at 11:49am PDT

Geek.com: The streetwear angle this brand has taken has always been super interesting. What aspects of streetwear and sneaker culture did you guys make an effort to bring into Death Saves?

DH: Joe’s huge into streetwear and sneakers and I follow it pretty decently. What I noticed is that any time anyone tried to do something with a fantasy or heavy metal angle it always came off as pretty phoned-in and not particularly “designed.” It always felt like a wasted opportunity but regardless any time I saw it I was like, “I need to have that.” because it didn’t really exist. So when I work on designs for Death Saves I’m never just trying to make it look like a metal band tee shirt. I’m thinking about placement of graphics and unique type, the things that I really value in streetwear. Graphic design perspectives aren’t always really applied to metal tee shirts or anything and that’s the kind of thing that I like in streetwear — the graphic design is always cool, the typography is always really cool.

 

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DEATH SAVES – ORCUS – “Since the inception of DEATH SAVES I’d had my heart set on a collaboration with Dungeons & Dragons in which I could update the Demon Prince ORCUS but the artist I wanted to bring him to life was always too busy… BUT lucky for us, famed Metal artist SAWBLADE freed up his schedule to collaborate on this absolutely insane piece that I hope becomes the defining image of the Prince of the Undead and Lord and Master of the 333rd layer of the Abyss for decades to come…And for those that don’t know, The Book of Vile Darkness describes Orcus as “a massive, bloated demon prince—bloated on spite, bile, and contempt.” The book goes on to say that “Orcus is no longer content to grow old and fat on the larva in his castle. He focuses his anger and hate on the absolute destruction of his enemies and the spread of woe and havoc among mortals. Truly a demon reborn, Orcus is more terrible and dangerous than ever.” The book refers to him appearing as an archetypical demon, in fact, his description notes that “when commoners think of demons, they most likely think of some terrible picture of Orcus that they once saw somewhere.” His black, skull-tipped rod serves as his symbol. Orcus actually despises the undead, using them without thought or consideration, but despises the living as well, and hates all things except for achieving personal power and spreading misery and destruction”. And now that power can be yours with official DEATH SAVES x DUNGEONS & DRAGONS – ORCUS shirts, posters, & phone cases available NOW at: DEATH-SAVES.com” – @joemanganiello

A post shared by DEATH SAVES (@deathsaves) on Jun 6, 2019 at 2:19pm PDT

Geek.com: Yeah, it’s very noticeable. There’s a lot of palpable intent behind a lot of the designs, from placement of type and logos to easter eggs.

DH: Yeah, totally. I don’t wanna phone in designs or just commission a piece of art. There has to be a little more going on there. I love design and I want to take all of my inspirations and filter it into Death Saves so it looks thoughtful and appealing to people who are into graphic design. I think it helps separate us from anything that might be similar. We apply different perspectives to what we do.

Geek.com: A definite highlight from the first year of Death Saves has been the Frazetta collab. How did you guys go about making that happen?

DH: Joe and I are huge Frazetta fans from way back when we were adolescents. We follow Frazetta Girls on social media and I think Joe and her chatted online a bit. Joe had the idea pretty early on that it would be pretty cool to do something with them, so it then fell upon me and Maurice to find a way to represent his artwork on merch. You can’t really modify his art – we wanted to something cool that wasn’t just putting his painting on a shirt. I had this idea based on an old ‘70s paperback to put this little text block, almost like a card in a museum underneath a painting, and that was one of the elements we brought in and applied across the collection. From there it was cutting out images or background, just whichever we wanted to focus on – like, the werewolf one is from the first issue of CREEPY #1 so Maurice wrote “Death Saves” in the CREEPY font so it’s like we’re representing the original use of that image from that story.

Geek.com: Because of how successful the collaboration has been can we expect further collaborations with other brands, artists, whatever, in the future?

DH: Definitely. We have a lot of irons in the fire right now that I can’t talk about at length but yeah, there’s definitely more on the horizon. We would work with anyone whose work that we like. There’s this company called ARDUIN – back in the ‘80s they made a lot of supplements you could use with D&D and other gaming systems. Their aesthetic is really raw, old school stuff and I really want to do something with them, but the guy who ran it passed away. I’ve been trying to get in touch with them via letters in the mail because it looks like that’s the only way to contact them, but yeah, I’d love to do a collection of their stuff. It looks like a bunch of old never-before-seen D&D illustrations.

Geek.com: It sounds like it’s already totally up your alley.

DH: Yeah, it’s like how I run our Instagram. I love referencing and finding all of these obscure, weird things that I maybe haven’t even heard of. I love digging up those references.

Geek.com: The Death Saves Instagram is actually pretty interesting, now that you mention it. Aside from talking about merch drops and sales, it almost seems to function more as a mood board.

DH: Oh yeah, a hundred percent. It’s a mood board. I follow different streetwear companies who will post like, an image that references something they’re into but that’s it. Half the time it’s posted without explanation. I kinda wanted to do that but in a way that wasn’t just like hey, check out the cover of Player’s Handbook. So we were just like hey, let’s have everything say “Death Saves.” And on one hand I can flex my semi-mediocre photoshop skills but on the other, we’re referencing it in a way that’s clever and funny. I thought it’d be a more interesting way to post our inspirations and things we think are cool. Plus it gives me the opportunity to keep digging through references and uncovering things, discovering thinks I didn’t even know about.

 

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RING GAME 2019

A post shared by Ð E S Ŧ R O Y E R (@dieselboy) on May 17, 2019 at 3:28pm PDT

Geek.com: What are you most proud of after a year of Death Saves?

DH: I really love our Death Knight design. I feel that that design with the text at the bottom, the design itself, really hits all the notes for me, for what I want every design to look like. It’s kind of a metal thing, there’s design stuff, cool typography. All the notes are being hit. But I do also really love our Death Knight ring. The guy who did it, Jeff Thomas, he did an incredible job. I’m a big rock jewelry collector and I’m obsessive about anything I’m into. If I’m into it I go all the way down the rabbit hole and I did just that with skull ring manufacturers. And I gotta say, as someone who’s seen pretty much all of it, our Death Knight ring is as good as it gets. It’s better than 99% of anything out there. The fact that I was involved in it is a source of pride for me.

More on Geek.com:

Siri recordings ‘regularly’ sent to Apple contractors for analysis, claims whistleblower

Apple has joined the dubious company of Google and Amazon in secretly sharing with contractors audio recordings of its users, confirming the practice to The Guardian after a whistleblower brought it to the outlet. The person said that Siri queries are routinely sent to human listeners for closer analysis, something not disclosed in Apple’s privacy policy.

The recordings are reportedly not associated with an Apple ID, but can be several seconds long, include content of a personal nature and are paired with other revealing data, like location, app data and contact details.

Like the other companies, Apple says this data is collected and analyzed by humans to improve its services, and that all analysis is done in a secure facility by workers bound by confidentiality agreements. And like the other companies, Apple failed to say that it does this until forced to.

Apple told The Guardian that less than 1% of daily queries are sent, cold comfort when the company is also constantly talking up the volume of Siri queries. Hundreds of millions of devices use the feature regularly, making a conservative estimate of a fraction of 1% rise quickly into the hundreds of thousands.

This “small portion” of Siri requests is apparently randomly chosen, and as the whistleblower notes, it includes “countless instances of recordings featuring private discussions between doctors and patients, business deals, seemingly criminal dealings, sexual encounters and so on.”

Some of these activations of Siri will have been accidental, which is one of the things listeners are trained to listen for and identify. Accidentally recorded queries can be many seconds long and contain a great deal of personal information, even if it is not directly tied to a digital identity.

Only in the last month has it come out that Google likewise sends clips to be analyzed, and that Amazon, which we knew recorded Alexa queries, retains that audio indefinitely.

Apple’s privacy policy states regarding non-personal information (under which Siri queries would fall):

We may collect and store details of how you use our services, including search queries. This information may be used to improve the relevancy of results provided by our services. Except in limited instances to ensure quality of our services over the Internet, such information will not be associated with your IP address.

It’s conceivable that the phrase “search queries” is inclusive of recordings of search queries. And it does say that it shares some data with third parties. But nowhere is it stated simply that questions you ask your phone may be recorded and shared with a stranger. Nor is there any way for users to opt out of this practice.

Given Apple’s focus on privacy and transparency, this seems like a major, and obviously a deliberate, oversight. I’ve contacted Apple for more details and will update this post when I hear back.

How Microsoft turns an obsession with detail into micron-optimized keyboards

Nestled among the many indistinguishable buildings of Microsoft’s Redmond campus, a multi-disciplinary team sharing an attention to detail that borders on fanatical is designing a keyboard… again and again and again. And one more time for good measure. Their dogged and ever-evolving dedication to “human factors” shows the amount of work that goes into making any piece of hardware truly ergonomic.

Microsoft may be known primarily for its software and services, but cast your mind back a bit and you’ll find a series of hardware advances that have redefined their respective categories.

The original Natural Keyboard was the first split-key, ergonomic keyboard, the fundamentals of which have only ever been slightly improved upon.

The Intellimouse Optical not only made the first truly popular leap away from ball-based mice, but did so in such a way that its shape and buttons still make its descendants among the best all-purpose mice on the market.

Remember me?

Although the Zune is remembered more for being a colossal boondoggle than a great music player, it was very much the latter, and I still use and marvel at the usability of my Zune HD. Yes, seriously. (Microsoft, open source the software!)

More recently, the Surface series of convertible notebooks have made bold and welcome changes to a form factor that had stagnated in the wake of Apple’s influential mid-2000s MacBook Pro designs.

Microsoft is still making hardware, of course, and in fact it has doubled down on its ability to do so with a revamped hardware lab filled with dedicated, extremely detail-oriented people who are given the tools they need to get as weird as they want — as long as it makes something better.

You don’t get something like this by aping the competition.

First, a disclosure: I may as well say at the outset that this piece was done essentially at the invitation (but not direction) of Microsoft, which offered the opportunity to visit their hardware labs in Building 87 and meet the team. I’d actually been there before a few times, but it had always been off-record and rather sanitized.

Knowing how interesting I’d found the place before, I decided I wanted to take part and share it at the risk of seeming promotional. They call this sort of thing “access journalism,” but the second part is kind of a stretch. I really just think this stuff is really cool, and companies seldom expose their design processes in the open like this. Microsoft obviously isn’t the only company to have hardware labs and facilities like this, but they’ve been in the game for a long time and have an interesting and almost too detailed process they’ve decided to be open about.

Although I spoke with perhaps a dozen Microsoft Devices people during the tour (which was still rigidly structured), only two were permitted to be on record: Edie Adams, chief ergonomist, and Yi-Min Huang, principal design and experience lead. But the other folks in the labs were very obliging in answering questions and happy to talk about their work. I was genuinely surprised and pleased to find people occupying niches so suited to their specialties and inclinations.

Generally speaking, the work I got to see fell into three general spaces: the Human Factors Lab, focused on very exacting measurements of people themselves and how they interact with a piece of hardware; the anechoic chamber, where the sound of devices is obsessively analyzed and adjusted; and the Advanced Prototype Center, where devices and materials can go from idea to reality in minutes or hours.

The science of anthropometry

microsoft building87 7100095Inside the Human Factors lab, human thumbs litter the table. No, it isn’t a torture chamber — not for humans, anyway. Here the company puts its hardware to the test by measuring how human beings use it, recording not just simple metrics like words per minute on a keyboard, but high-speed stereo footage that analyzes how the skin of the hand stretches when it reaches for a mouse button, down to a fraction of a millimeter.

The trend here, as elsewhere in the design process and labs, is that you can’t count out anything as a factor that increases or decreases comfort; the little things really do make a difference, and sometimes the microscopic ones.

“Feats of engineering heroics are great,” said Adams, “but they have to meet a human need. We try to cover the physical, cognitive and emotional interactions with our products.”

(Perhaps you take this, as I did, as — in addition to a statement of purpose — a veiled reference to a certain other company whose keyboards have been in the news for other reasons. Of this later.)

The lab is a space perhaps comparable to a medium-sized restaurant, with enough room for a dozen or so people to work in the various sub-spaces set aside for different highly specific measurements. Various models of body parts have been set out on work surfaces, I suspect for my benefit.

microsoft building87 7100099Among them are that set of thumbs, in little cases looking like oversized lipsticks, each with a disturbing surprise inside. These are all cast from real people, ranging from the small thumb of a child to a monster that, should it have started a war with mine, I would surrender unconditionally.

Next door is a collection of ears, not only rendered in extreme detail but with different materials simulating a variety of rigidities. Some people have soft ears, you know. And next door to those is a variety of noses, eyes and temples, each representing a different facial structure or interpupillary distance.

This menagerie of parts represents not just a continuum of sizes but a variety of backgrounds and ages. All of them come into play when creating and testing a new piece of hardware.

microsoft building87 7100104 1“We want to make sure that we have a diverse population we can draw on when we develop our products,” said Adams. When you distribute globally it is embarrassing to find that some group or another, with wider-set eyes or smaller hands, finds your product difficult to use. Inclusivity is a many-faceted gem; indeed, it has as many facets as you are willing to cut. (The Xbox Adaptive Controller, for instance, is a new and welcome one.)

In one corner stands an enormous pod that looks like Darth Vader should emerge from it. This chamber, equipped with 36 DSLR cameras, produces an unforgivingly exact reproduction of one’s head. I didn’t do it myself, but many on the team had; in fact, one eyes-and-nose combo belonged to Adams. The fellow you see pictured below also works in the lab; that was the first such 3D portrait they took with the rig.

With this they can quickly and easily scan in dozens or hundreds of heads, collecting metrics on all manner of physiognomical features and creating an enviable database of both average and outlier heads. My head is big, if you want to know, and my hand was on the upper range too. But well within a couple standard deviations.

So much for static study — getting reads on the landscape of humanity, as it were. Anthropometry, they call it. But there are dynamic elements as well, some of which they collect in the lab, some elsewhere.

“When we’re evaluating keyboards, we have people come into the lab. We try to put them in the most neutral position possible,” explained Adams.

It should be explained that by neutral, she means specifically with regard to the neutral positions of the joints in the body, which have certain minima and maxima it is well to observe. How can you get a good read on how easy it is to type on a given keyboard if the chair and desk the tester is sitting at are uncomfortable?

Here as elsewhere the team strives to collect both objective data and subjective data; people will say they think a keyboard, or mouse, or headset is too this or too that, but not knowing the jargon they can’t get more specific. By listening to subjective evaluations and simultaneously looking at objective measurements, you can align the two and discover practical measures to take.

microsoft building87 7100096One such objective measure involved motion capture beads attached to the hand while an electromyographic bracelet tracks the activation of muscles in the arm. Imagine, if you will, a person whose typing appears normal and of uniform speed — but in reality they are putting more force on their middle fingers than the others because of the shape of the keys or rest. They might not be able to tell you they’re doing so, though it will lead to uneven hand fatigue, but this combo of tools could reveal the fact.

“We also look at a range of locations,” added Huang. “Typing on a couch is very different from typing on a desk.”

One case, such as a wireless Surface keyboard, might require more of what Huang called “lapability,” (sp?) while the other perhaps needs to accommodate a different posture and can abandon lapability altogether.

A final measurement technique that is quite new to my knowledge involves a pair of high-resolution, high-speed black and white cameras that can be focused narrowly on a region of the body. They’re on the right, below, with colors and arrows representing motion vectors.

microsoft building87 7100106

A display showing various anthropometric measurements.

These produce a very detailed depth map by closely tracking the features of the skin; one little patch might move farther than the other when a person puts on a headset, suggesting it’s stretching the skin on the temple more than it is on the forehead. The team said they can see movements as small as 10 microns, or micrometers (therefore you see that my headline was only light hyperbole).

You might be thinking that this is overkill. And in a way it most certainly is. But it is also true that by looking closer they can make the small changes that cause a keyboard to be comfortable for five hours rather than four, or to reduce error rates or wrist pain by noticeable amounts — features you can’t really even put on the box, but which make a difference in the long run. The returns may diminish, but we’re not so far along the asymptote approaching perfection that there’s no point to making further improvements.

The quietest place in the world

microsoft building87 7100109Down the hall from the Human Factors lab is the quietest place in the world. That’s not a colloquial exaggeration — the main anechoic chamber in Building 87 at Microsoft is in the record books as the quietest place on Earth, with an official ambient noise rating of negative 20.3 decibels.

You enter the room through a series of heavy doors and the quietness, though a void, feels like a physical medium that you pass into. And so it is, in fact — a near-total lack of vibrations in the air that feels as solid as the nested concrete boxes inside which the chamber rests.

I’ve been in here a couple of times before, and Hundraj Gopal, the jovial and highly expert proprietor of quietude here, skips the usual tales of Guinness coming to test it and so on. Instead we talk about the value of sound to the consumer, though they may not even realize they do value it.

Naturally if you’re going to make a keyboard, you’re going to want to control how it sounds. But this is a surprisingly complex process, especially if, like the team at Microsoft, you’re really going to town on the details.

The sounds of consumer products are very deliberately designed, they explained. The sound your car door makes when it shuts gives a sense of security — being sealed in when you’re entering, and being securely shut out when you’re leaving it. It’s the same for a laptop — you don’t want to hear a clank when you close it, or a scraping noise when you open it. These are the kinds of things that set apart “premium” devices (and cars, and controllers, and furniture, etc.) and they do not come about by accident.

microsoft building87 7100113Keyboards are no exception. And part of designing the sound is understanding that there’s more to it than loudness or even tone. Some sounds just sound louder, though they may not register as high in decibels. And some sounds are just more annoying, though they might be quiet. The study and understanding of this is what’s known as psychoacoustics.

There are known patterns to pursue, certain combinations of sounds that are near-universally liked or disliked, but you can’t rely on that kind of thing when you’re, say, building a new keyboard from the ground up. And obviously when you create a new machine like the Surface and its family they need new keyboards, not something off the shelf. So this is a process that has to be done from scratch over and over.

As part of designing the keyboard — and keep in mind, this is in tandem with the human factors mentioned above and the rapid prototyping we’ll touch on below — the device has to come into the anechoic chamber and have a variety of tests performed.

microsoft building87 7100116

A standard head model used to simulate how humans might hear certain sounds. The team gave it a bit of a makeover.

These tests can be painstakingly objective, like a robotic arm pressing each key one by one while a high-end microphone records the sound in perfect fidelity and analysts pore over the spectrogram. But they can also be highly subjective: They bring in trained listeners — “golden ears” — to give their expert opinions, but also have the “gen pop” everyday users try the keyboards while experiencing calibrated ambient noise recorded in coffee shops and offices. One click sound may be lost in the broad-spectrum hubbub in a crowded cafe but annoying when it’s across the desk from you.

This feedback goes both directions, to human factors and prototyping, and they iterate and bring it back for more. This progresses sometimes through multiple phases of hardware, such as the keyswitch assembly alone; the keys built into their metal enclosure; the keys in the final near-shipping product before they finalize the keytop material, and so on.

Indeed, it seems like the process really could go on forever if someone didn’t stop them from refining the design further.

“It’s amazing that we ever ship a product,” quipped Adams. They can probably thank the Advanced Prototype Center for that.

Rapid turnaround is fair play

If you’re going to be obsessive about the details of the devices you’re designing, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have to send off a CAD file to some factory somewhere, wait a few days for it to come back, then inspect for quality, send a revised file, and so on. So Microsoft (and of course other hardware makers of any size) now use rapid prototyping to turn designs around in hours rather than days or weeks.

This wasn’t always possible, even with the best equipment. 3D printing has come a long way over the last decade, and continues to advance, but not long ago there was a huge difference between a printed prototype and the hardware that a user would actually hold.

microsoft building87 7100128Multi-axis CNC mills have been around for longer, but they’re slower and more difficult to operate. And subtractive manufacturing (i.e. taking a block and whittling it down to a mouse) is inefficient and has certain limitations as far as the structures it can create.

Of course, you could carve it yourself out of wood or soap, but that’s a bit old-fashioned.

So when Building 87 was redesigned from the ground up some years back, it was loaded with the latest and greatest of both additive and subtractive rapid manufacturing methods, and the state of the art has been continually rolling through ever since. Even as I passed through they were installing some new machines (desk-sized things that had slots for both extrusion materials and ordinary printer ink cartridges, a fact that for some reason I found hilarious).

The additive machines are in constant use as designers and engineers propose new device shapes and styles that sound great in theory but must be tested in person. Having a bunch of these things, each able to produce multiple items per print, lets you for instance test out a thumb scoop on a mouse with 16 slightly different widths. Maybe you take those over to Human Factors and see which can be eliminated for over-stressing a joint, then compare comfort on the surviving six and move on to a new iteration. That could all take place over a day or two.

microsoft building87 7100092

Ever wonder what an Xbox controller feels like to a child? Just print a giant one in the lab.

Softer materials have become increasingly important as designers have found that they can be integrated into products from the start. For instance, a wrist wrest for a new keyboard might have foam padding built in.

But how much foam is too much, or too little? As with the 3D printers, flat materials like foam and cloth can be customized and systematically tested as well. Using a machine called a skiver, foam can be split into thicknesses only half a millimeter apart. It doesn’t sound like much — and it isn’t — but when you’re creating an object that will be handled for hours at a time by the sensitive hands of humans, the difference can be subtle but substantial.

For more heavy-duty prototyping of things that need to be made out of metal — hinges, laptop frames and so on — there is bank after bank of five-axis CNC machines, lathes and more exotic tools, like a system that performs extremely precise cuts using a charged wire.

[gallery ids="1860698,1860699"]

The engineers operating these things work collaboratively with the designers and researchers, and it was important to the people I talked to that this wasn’t a “here, print this” situation. A true collaboration has input from both sides, and that is what seems to be happening here. Someone inspecting a 3D model for printability before popping it into the five-axis might say to the designer, you know, these pieces could fit together more closely if we did so-and-so, and it would actually add strength to the assembly. (Can you tell I’m not an engineer?) Making stuff, and making stuff better, is a passion among the crew, and that’s a fundamentally creative drive.

Making fresh hells for keyboards

If any keyboard has dominated the headlines for the last year or so, it’s been Apple’s ill-fated butterfly switch keyboard on the latest MacBook Pros. While being in my opinion quite unpleasant to type on, they appeared to fail at an astonishing rate judging by the proportion of users I saw personally reporting problems, and are quite expensive to replace. How, I wondered, did a company with Apple’s design resources create such a dog?

microsoft building87 7100129

Here’s a piece of hardware you won’t break any time soon.

I mentioned the subject to the group toward the end of the tour but, predictably and understandably, it wasn’t really something they wanted to talk about. But a short time later I spoke with one of the people in charge of Microsoft’s reliability managers. They too demurred on the topic of Apple’s failures, opting instead to describe at length the measures Microsoft takes to ensure that their own keyboards don’t suffer a similar fate.

The philosophy is essentially to simulate everything about the expected three to five-year life of the keyboard. I’ve seen the “torture chambers” where devices are beaten on by robots (I’ve seen these personally, years ago — they’re brutal), but there’s more to it than that. Keyboards are everyday objects, and they face everyday threats; so that’s what the team tests, with things falling into three general categories:

Environmental: This includes cycling the temperature from very low to very high, exposing the keyboard to dust and UV. This differs for each product, as some will obviously be used outside more than others. Does it break? Does it discolor? Where does the dust go?

Mechanical: Every keyboard undergoes key tests to make sure that keys can withstand however many million presses without failing. But that’s not the only thing that keyboards undergo. They get dropped and things get dropped on them, of course, or left upside-down, or have their keys pressed and held at weird angles. All these things are tested, and when a keyboard fails because of a test they don’t have, they add it.

Chemical: I found this very interesting. The team now has more than 30 chemicals that it exposes its hardware to, including: lotion, Coke, coffee, chips, mustard, ketchup and Clorox. The team is constantly adding to the list as new chemicals enter frequent usage or new markets open up. Hospitals, for instance, need to test a variety of harsh disinfectants that an ordinary home wouldn’t have. (Note: Burt’s Bees is apparently bad news for keyboards.)

Testing is ongoing, with new batches being evaluated continuously as time allows.

To be honest, it’s hard to imagine that Apple’s disappointing keyboard actually underwent this kind of testing, or if it did, that it was modified to survive it. The number and severity of problems I’ve heard of with them suggest the “feats of engineering heroics” of which Adams spoke, but directed singlemindedly in the direction of compactness. Perhaps more torture chambers are required at Apple HQ.

7 factors and the unfactorable

All the above are more tools for executing a design and not for creating one to begin with. That’s a whole other kettle of fish, and one not so easily described.

Adams told me: “When computers were on every desk the same way, it was okay to only have one or two kinds of keyboard. But now that there are so many kinds of computing, it’s okay to have a choice. What kind of work do you do? Where do you do it? I mean, what do we all type on now? Phones. So it’s entirely context dependent.”

microsoft building87 7100120

Is this the right curve? Or should it be six millimeters higher? Let’s try both.

Yet even in the great variety of all possible keyboards there are metrics that must be considered if that keyboard is to succeed in its role. The team boiled it down to seven critical points:

  • Key travel: How far a key goes until it bottoms out. Neither shallow nor deep is necessarily good, but serve different purposes.
  • Key spacing: Distance between the center of one key and the next. How far can you differ from “full-size” before it becomes uncomfortable?
  • Key pitch: On many keyboards the keys do not all “face” the same direction, but are subtly pointed toward the home row, because that’s the direction from which your fingers hit them. How much is too much? How little is too little?
  • Key dish: The shape of the keytop limits your fingers’ motion, captures them when they travel or return and provides a comfortable home — if it’s done right.
  • Key texture: Too slick and fingers will slide off. Too rough and it’ll be uncomfortable. Can it be fabric? Textured plastic? Metal?
  • Key sound: As described above, the sound indicates a number of things and has to be carefully engineered.
  • Force to fire: How much actual force does it take to drive a given key to its actuation point? Keep in mind this can and perhaps should differ from key to key.

In addition to these core concepts there are many secondary ones that pop up for consideration: Wobble, or the amount a key moves laterally (yes, this is deliberate), snap ratio, involving the feedback from actuation. Drop angle, off-axis actuation, key gap for chiclet boards… and of course the inevitable switch debate.

Keyboard switches, the actual mechanism under the key, have become a major sub-industry as many companies started making their own at the expiration of a few important patents. Hence there’s been a proliferation of new key switches with a variety of aspects, especially on the mechanical side. Microsoft does make mechanical keyboards, and scissor-switch keyboards, and membrane as well, and perhaps even some more exotic ones (though the original touch-sensitive Surface cover keyboard was a bit of a flop).

“When we look at switches, whether it’s for a mouse, QWERTY, or other keys, we think about what they’re for,” said Adams. “We’re not going to say we’re scissor switch all the time or something — we have all kinds. It’s about durability, reliability, cost, supply and so on. And the sound and tactile experience is so important.”

As for the shape itself, there is generally the divided Natural style, the flat full style and the flat chiclet style. But with design trends, new materials, new devices and changes to people and desk styles (you better believe a standing desk needs a different keyboard than a sitting one), it’s a new challenge every time.

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They collected a menagerie of keyboards and prototypes in various stages of experimentation. Some were obviously never meant for real use — one had the keys pitched so far that it was like a little cave for the home row. Another was an experiment in how much a design could be shrunk until it was no longer usable. A handful showed different curves à la Natural — which is the right one? Although you can theorize, the only way to be sure is to lay hands on it. So tell rapid prototyping to make variants 1-10, then send them over to Human Factors and text the stress and posture resulting from each one.

“Sure, we know the gable slope should be between 10-15 degrees and blah blah blah,” said Adams, who is actually on the patent for the original Natural Keyboard, and so is about as familiar as you can get with the design. “But what else? What is it we’re trying to do, and how are we achieving that through engineering? It’s super fun bringing all we know about the human body and bringing that into the industrial design.”

Although the comparison is rather grandiose, I was reminded of an orchestra — but not in full swing. Rather, in the minutes before a symphony begins, and all the players are tuning their instruments. It’s a cacophony in a way, but they are all tuning toward a certain key, and the din gradually makes its way to a pleasant sort of hum. So it is that a group of specialists all tending their sciences and creeping toward greater precision seem to cohere a product out of the ether that is human-centric in all its parts.

What to Stream on Netflix This Weekend

‘Another Life’ (Photo Credit: James Dittiger / Netflix)

It’s finally the weekend, which means it’s time to binge-watch some documentaries, TV shows, and films on Netflix. With so many good options available, deciding what to stream can be tough. To help you get started, we’ve picked the top eight flicks to see on Netflix from July 26 to July 28. Data hacks, alien warfare, and new beginnings will keep you glued to your screen from today to Sunday.

The Great Hack

The Great Hack, a documentary about Cambridge Analytica, explores the dark side of social media and how this data company came into the spotlight during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Stream it Here

Inglourious Basterds

During World War II, a Jewish cinema owner is forced to host a Nazi premiere in the thriller Inglourious Basterds. Except, his plan might be thwarted by a group of American soldiers, also known as the Basterds (led by the one and only Brad Pitt), who aim to kill their enemies at the event.

Stream it Here

Another Life

When a massive alien artifact lands on our planet, a woman leads an interstellar mission to make contact with extraterrestrials in the sci-fi series Another Life. Tracking the source of the object won’t be easy though, considering there are many unknown dangers in space.

Stream it Here

Boi

A young car driver becomes entangled in a mysterious operation in the film Boi. When he escorts a pair of clients in Barcelona, Spain, he realizes that their strange quest could come with some life-threatening consequences.

Stream it Here

Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black is in its seventh season, and Piper Chapman is freed from prison and tries to get her life back together. Unfortunately, some of her other inmates are still behind bars, so it will be interesting to see how their paths will work out for Orange Is the New Black’s final episodes.

Stream it Here

Girls With Balls

Girls With Balls is a horror-meets-comedy flick about a women’s volleyball team and how their members must survive creepy hunters when they get lost in the woods. Get ready for some major serves, because the squad is willing to fight the perpetrators off one match at a time.

Stream it Here

The Exception 

The Exception is heartbreaking and sad, but it’s a great film if you’re craving a drama-meets-romance kind of binge-watching session: In the movie, a Nazi officer is charged with protecting an exiled king from spies, however, he starts a secret affair with a maid who might complicate his side on the war.

Stream it Here

The Son

A painter takes a negative spiral in the psychological thriller The Son: When Lorenzo, an artist, becomes fearful that his wife is trying to hide their newborn baby from him, he starts to become paranoid and put his life in danger to protect his offspring.

Stream it Here

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Watch: ‘Undead’ Chicken Breast Appears to Crawl Off Restaurant Plate

A raw piece of chicken reportedly “came to life” and crawled off a plate in a viral video on Facebook. (Photo Credit: Rie Prettyredbone Phillips / Facebook)

A raw “zombie” chicken appears to have crawled off a restaurant plate in a viral video and people are freaked out over the nauseating footage.

The video, which was taken at an unknown dining establishment, has received 11 million views and 54,000 comments on Facebook so far, the New York Post reported. It’s likely that the raw piece of chicken was supposed to be cooked, since it was placed next to a small grill. The person filming the footage can be heard screaming in the background, as the “undead” meat appeared to have come back to life.

 

There wasn’t an explanation for the moving piece of poultry, however, Facebook users’ comments suggested that the chicken’s movements were caused by nerve endings that were still alive. It’s possible that this meat was very fresh, since this doesn’t typically occur if the meat has been refrigerated or frozen for a long time.

Other Facebook users were creeped out by the meat and expressed how they wouldn’t eat a meal if it appeared alive.

“What the hell is that and why is it moving,” a Facebook user wrote in response to the video.

“I don’t know but it’s making me not want any meat except a little fish or chicken wings!!! That sh*t scary to me,” another user replied.

Someone else commented, “Don’t you just hate it when you have to chase your food round the room?”

This isn’t the first freaky food incident that has gone viral online: In May, an octopus latched onto a vlogger’s face when she tried to eat it alive. The animal eventually let go of her face, however, she was crying after spotting a cut on her face from the animal’s “fight” response.

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Sonos and Ikea’s Symfonisk wireless speakers are a symphony of sound and design

Sonos and Ikea’s Symfonisk collaboration took a lot of people by surprise when it was announced earlier this year, but the match up is less unlikely than it might appear at first glance. Ikea’s entire mission has been delivering practical, quality design concepts at price points that are more broadly accessible – and that’s exactly what it’s done with its collaboration with Sonos, albeit with sound instead of furniture. The new $99 Symfonisk WiFi bookshelf speaker, and the new $179 Symfonisk table lamp with WiFi speaker both deliver the excellent performance and sound quality that’s expected from the Sonos brand, in beguilingly practical everyday designs created by Ikea.

Symfonisk bookshelf speaker

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 10The descriptor “bookshelf speaker” in this case means more than it usually does – Ikea has designed these to either blend seamlessly in with hour actual book collection on existing shelf units, or to actually act as shelves themselves, using a simple add-on accessory kit that includes a flush wall mount and a rubber matt to protect its top surface while holding your gear (up to 6.6 lbs). They can also rail-mount on Ikea’s kitchen rail products for convenient kitchen installation, or they have rubberized pads on both the bottom and side surfaces for either horizontal or vertical surface mounting. Each speaker has two channels for cables to exit both vertically and horizontally for flush mounting, and there’s an Ethernet port on each and a cable in the box for hardwired connections to your home network.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 12At $99, they’re the new most affordable way to get into the Sonos system, undercutting the Play:1 by $50. Leaving aside their utility as free-floating shelves (with a decent 12″ x 6″ surface area, likely suitable for bedside tables for many), they’re a perfect introduction to the Sonos ecosystem for anyone who’s felt that Sonos hardware is too expensive. And they’re almost tailor-made to act as rear speakers in a Sonos surround sound home theater configuration. I paired mine with my existing Sonos Beam sounder and Sonos Sub, and they delivered to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Symfonisk bookshelves and the Play:1 operating in that capacity.

That said, you do notice a difference between the Symfonisk bookshelf and the Play:1, or the Sonos One, when it comes to sound quality when they’re used on their own as individual or stereo-paired speakers. The bookshelf speakers contain entirely new internal speaker designs, since the form factor is nothing like any existing Sonos hardware on the market, and that means you end up with a different sound profile vs. the more squat, rotund Sonos One and Play:1.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 7To my ears, the Symfonisk bookshelf speaker sounds slightly worse when compared to the Sonos One and Play:1. This is not that surprising – those Sonos speakers are more expensive, for one, and they really out punch their weight class when it comes to overall sound quality. And even if the Symfonisk shelves are not quite up to par, they’re still excellent sounding wireless speakers for their price – without a doubt I would opt to pick these up in place of Play:1s for parts of my house where I don’t need the built-in Alexa or Google Assistant of the Sonos One, but want high-fidelity sound. In stereo pair configuration, the difference is even less noticeable.

The Symonisk shelf speaker design seems mostly focused on practicality, but it’s a good looking speaker (available in both black, as tested, and white). The rectangular box look is a bit harder to integrate as flexibly with your decor when compared to the Sonos One, in my opinion, but on the other hand there are some settings where the Symfonisk shelf fits far more seamlessly, like when wall mounted behind a couch to act as rears, or when acting as bookend on an existing bookshelf. The fabric speaker grill is removable, and you can expect Sonos to look at aesthetic updates to potentially change the look in future, too.

Because these are wireless speakers, there’s another aspect of performance that’s important: connectivity. Symfonisk’s speakers (both these and the table lamp, which I’ll talk more about later on) worked flawlessly during my multiple days of testing in this regard, with zero drop-outs that I noticed when it came to music playback, and flawless integration with my existing Sonos network of speakers. I’m also likely one of Sonos’ outlier customers in terms of the number of speakers I’m using – I have 14 active currently, including the Symfonisk speakers, all operating fully wireless and without the included Ethernet connection, and wireless playback has been rock solid during tests of this new Ikea line.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 8Set up is also a breeze, whether you’re new to Sonos or an existing user, and is handled via the Sonos app (Ikea will also eventually add it to its own smart home control software, the company tells me, and you’ll be able to control it from both). Once added to your app, you can also use them via Alexa or Google Assistant if you have those linked to your Sonos system, and they show up as AirPlay 2 speaker for iOS and macOS users, too.

Symfonisk table lamp speaker

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 4Like the bookshelf speaker, the Symfonisk table lamp is incredibly easy to setup and manage using the Sonos app, and works with Alexa/Google Assistant and AirPlay 2. It was also outstanding in terms of performance with wireless connection and working with other speakers, and you can use Sonos’ TruePlay sound tuning feature to ensure that it provides the right sound profile for your space with a quick adjustment process using your phone’s microphone (this also works with the shelf speakers, by the way, and I recommend it for any Sonos equipment).

The table lamp really impresses in two ways, including sound quality and – this might seem obvious – by virtue of it also being a great lamp as well as a speaker. The base of the lamp is where the speaker resides, and it’s wrapped in a removable fabric cover that looks great from afar and up close. The shade is a single piece of handcrafted opaque glass, which provides a very pleasant glow when lit from within, and which uses a bayonet mount to lock into place.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 13This mount and shade choice are not just about looks – Sonos and Ikea evaluated different options and found that this was easily the best when it came to minimizing reverb and rattle for a lamp that’s also capable of outputting a lot of high-volume sound. The choice appears to have been the good one – in testing, I never noticed anything that suggested there was anything rattling or shaking around as a result of even loud music being played through the Symfonisk lamp speaker.

As mentioned, the looks benefit from this design decision, too. This table lamp at first struck me as maybe a bit too modern in photos, but in situ it looks great and is easily now a favorite item among my overall home decor. I do have a few small complaints, like that the large dial on the side is actually a simple on/off switch, rather than a dimmer or a volume knob like I assumed it would be. The controls are on the front of the saucer-like base instead, which is a clever way to make the lamp look less like a gadget and more like furniture.

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 14The light itself supports bulbs with E12-style threaded connectors and a max of 7 watts of energy consumption, which are more commonly seen in chandeliers. Ikea sent over one of its Tradfri smart bulbs, with wireless connectivity and adjustable white spectrum temperature control. It’s the perfect complement to the lamp, and I was even able to quickly connect it to my existing Philips Hue hub for control without an Ikea smart bridge. With a smart bulb, the Symfonisk speaker lamp offers voice-control for both the lightning and the speaker component.

Where the Symfonisk shelf speaker differs from its Sonos brethren a bit in sound profile, the Symfonisk lamp speaker is surprisingly similar to the Play:1 ($149) and Sonos One ($199) and sits right in between both at $179. The internals are largely leveraged from those devices, according to Sonos, which makes sense given its industrial design is also basically a somewhat squat cylinder. Regardless of how, the result is terrific – it’s a lamp that’s actually a fantastic speaker, and you can definitely pull a trick at parties of asking guests to try to figure out the source of your high-quality, room filling sound if you pick one or more of these up. As rears, they blend away seamlessly with the decor, solving the age-old problem of having to choose between quality surround sound and having a living room that doesn’t look like a Hi-Fi audio shop.

The Symfonisk lamp is big, however – it’s about two inches taller than a Sonos One without the shade, and wider both in terms of the base and the saucer-like bottom. The look, while appealing to me, also isn’t necessarily for everyone (though there are black and white versions depending on your preference) so that might be another reason to opt for other offerings in the Sonos line vs. this one. But this particular light/Sonos speaker combo is unique in the market, and definitely a strong value proposition.

Bottom line

Ikea Sonos Symfonisk 3With the Symfonisk line, Ikea and Sonos have really pulled off something fairly amazing – creating practical, smart decor that’s also great audio equipment. It’s a blending of two worlds that results in very few compromises, and stands as a true example of what’s possible when two companies with a focus on human-centric design get together and really focus on establishing a partnership that’s much deeper than two names on a label.

Sonos and Ikea’s team-up isn’t just a limited collection, either – it’s a long-term partnership, so you can expect more from both down the road. For now, however, the Symfonisk bookshelf and Symfonisk table lamp speakers go on sale starting August 1 at Ikea.com and Ikea’s stores, and are very good options if you’re in the market for a smart speaker.

Hands-On: ‘Oninaki’ Is an Emotional Action RPG Experience


Tokyo RPG Factory has a reputation for creating modern-day role-playing games that capture the spirit of the genre’s classics. Its latest title continues this tradition. Last week, I got to check out a preview of Oninaki. Like I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear before it, Oninaki is a visually arresting game containing tried-and-true RPG mechanics. It’s also surprisingly emotional and resonant.

Oninaki’s main theme focuses on the cycle of reincarnation. You play as a Watcher, whose job is to ensure the spirits of the deceased move on to the afterlife. Helping to fulfill this task are creatures called Daemons, who provide the game’s version of Jobs (think Final Fantasy). Throughout the journey, the Watcher must enter a spirit world called the Veil and destroy dangerous creatures. As the game progresses, the Watcher unravels the mysteries of the world and learns the meaning of life and death.

The demo I played consisted of two parts. The first half was the opening of the game. You see the main character as a young boy who loses both of his parents. He cannot grieve for them as doing so will prevent them from resurrecting. When the boy grows, he decides to become a Watcher and help spirits move on. From the jump, Oninaki doesn’t pull any emotional punches. Don’t let the cute graphics fool you, this game will tear at your heart.

After the short intro, I launched into the game proper. My first task was helping the spirit of a lost spirit boy see his living parents one final time. Accomplishing this wasn’t easy since I had to contend with a field of monsters and solve a number of puzzles.

Oninaki is an action RPG. Those used to hack-n-slash titles will feel at home with its basic controls. Sword attacks feel tight and responsive. There is no dodge button, but most enemies telegraph their attacks, giving you time to move out of the way. The game has no qualms with throwing multiple bad guys at you. The overhead isometric camera ensures you see everything happening around you.

Daemons help to spice up combat. These spirits allow the character to unleash devastating special attacks. The first Daemon in my arsenal gave me a forward-thrusting sword attack that dealt massive damage. There is a cooldown period every time you use one of these attacks. This prevents players from spamming the same move. It also adds strategy to engagements since it’s best to save specials for the most dangerous opponents.

Each Daemon provides players with new weapons which in turn change up combat. I found a Daemon that let me whack foes with a giant hammer. The hammer dealt greater damage than the long sword but it took longer to use the heavier weapon. This Daemon’s special attack caused meteors to fall from the sky. Though cool, I wasn’t a big fan of this Daemon since the hammer attacks were too slow and got me killed during a boss fight. But if you’re a fan of slow but hard-hitting weapons, you’ll no doubt dig it.

One interesting gameplay aspect is the ability to enter a secondary world called the Veil. It is a dark, twisted version of the living world, only populated with more monsters. You’ll have to switch back and forth between the living world and the Veil to progress. There were a couple of instances where I had to solve puzzles in one world to open up paths in the another. This particular mechanic is something I haven’t seen since the days of Soul Reaver. Going into the Veil is pretty awesome because of how otherworldly the environment is.

After wading through a sea of monsters, I finally made it to the home of the spirit boy. It turned out the reason he had not passed on was that his parents still grieved for him. I won’t spoil what happened, but the ending of this quest came as a complete shock. This simple(ish) mission showed Oninaki isn’t afraid to go to dark places. I’m curious to see how others will react to this specific scene since it is very unexpected.

The second portion of the demo was Battle Mode. Players unlock this after completing the main story. As the name implies, it is a giant zone where you beat the hell out of endless waves of monsters. I had access to four Daemons in Battle Mode. This gave me a good feel for what players will have at their disposal later in the game. The two new Daemons allowed me to use a spear or a scythe and I was able to use four special attacks with each weapon. As before, using a special ability initiated a cooldown period. However, with so many specials at my disposal, I could use multiple attacks while others recharged. If you strategize it correctly, you can continuously unleash special attacks. This aspect alone has me curious to see how insane combat will get and what combinations one can pull off.

Oninaki is graphically similar to I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear. Like its predecessors, the game has a decidedly anime visual quality. The characters and monsters all share traits you’d find in the medium. I’d say the main graphical difference between Oninaki and its predecessors lies with the muted color palette. Oninaki is a game about death and reincarnation so its fitting it has an almost “dead” color theme. With that said, the graphics pop out of the screen and are very eye-pleasing. If you’re playing it in handheld mode on Switch, I think you’ll appreciate it even more.

I am a fan of both I Am Setsuna and Lost Sphear so Oninaki easily won me over. It feels simultaneously familiar and unique. The combat is solid and I like the ability to swap fighting styles mid-battle. My session lasted an hour but I enjoyed the experience and want to play more. If you’re a fan of Tokyo RPG Factory and/or Japanese Role-Playing games, Oninaki is worth keeping an eye on when it lands on PC, PS4, and Nintendo Switch on August 22.

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Toy Tuesday: The Most Authentic World War II Toys


This week sees the release of Wolfenstein: Youngblood, the latest installment in the long-running FPS franchise that is set in a demented version of World War II where the Nazis have developed all kinds of insane super-technology. Thankfully that didn’t happen in our universe, but the conflict was responsible for some incredible leaps in human innovation on both sides, for better or for worse. Once you’ve finished the game, why not re-enact the last war where the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad with these incredible WWII toys.

M24 Chaffee Tank Model

M24 Chaffee Tank Model

Machines of war were the deciding factor in so many WWII battles – infantry just couldn’t match up to the tanks and planes on either side, and getting armor into position could tip a conflict real quick. The Allies had a number of solid rides, but the M24 light tank was the ultimate evolution of the concept. Introduced towards the end of the war, the M24 didn’t even see conflict in some areas but was deployed well into the 1960s around the world. This high-quality diecast metal and plastic model is built to 1:32 scale and comes pre-assembled to fend off Axis forces on your toy shelf.

Get it at Amazon

1/6 Scale 442nd Regimental Combat Team Figure

1/6 Scale 442nd Regimental Combat Team Figure

The treatment of United States citizens of Japanese origin during World War II is one of the most shameful actions taken by the Allies, but that didn’t stop brave Japanese-Americans from fighting for the country that did them wrong. The 442nd was comprised of Japanese American draftees from Hawaii and went into combat in May of 1944. Despite their short time in the field, the 442nd became one of the most decorated units in the U.S. military for their bravery and ability. This detailed 1/6 scale figure depicts a fictional member of the team, “Yoshi Oshimo,” in full regalia with tons of articulation and accessories.

Get it at Amazon

Aircraft Carrier With Six WWII Planes

Aircraft Carrier With Six WWII Planes

When you’re fighting on a global scale, the old rules just don’t apply. One of the key advantages in World War II was mobility – the side that could get its forces where they needed to be quickly and safely almost always had a leg up. Japan deployed the first aircraft carriers in the early 1920s, and by World War II they were a key part of military strategy. This carrier measures 2 and a half feet long and comes with a half dozen die-cast metal replicas of a variety of WWII era planes, so you can dogfight to your heart’s content.

Get it at Amazon

Willys Jeep With Trailer

Willys Jeep With Trailer

One of the most popular military vehicles of all time, the Willys MB entered production in 1941 and were churned out in tremendous numbers for the Allies during World War II. Over half a million of them were made, making up a quarter of all non-combat vehicles. The Jeep was iconic on the European front, replacing horses as a way to transport manpower and small equipment as well as providing support in dozens of other ways. This ridiculously detailed replica from the folks at AUTOart weighs in at over two pounds with tons of diecast metal, steerable wheels and other features.

Get it at Amazon

Zero Model Kit

Zero Model Kit

The Japanese A6M Zero was one of the most feared fighters in the sky, both for its performance and the dogged aggression of its pilots. Introduced early in the war, its maneuverability and range made it a true threat, as evidenced by its 12-1 kill ratio in dogfights. As the Allies improved their air capabilities, the Zero became less of a threat but was also adapted to kamikaze missions. This plastic model kit from the legends at Revell is full of quality detailing, including a seated pilot figure, rotating prop and center drop tank.

Get it at Amazon

Elite Force British Commando Unit Figure

Elite Force British Commando Unit Figure

Warfare is always changing, and with the scope of World War II creating engagements across the Continent, the Allies knew they needed to adapt. In 1940, Churchill ordered the formation of a unit that could conduct small-scale raids in Axis-occupied territory and escape intact. They carried out numerous missions that helped turn the tide of the war. One of the most notably units was the 2nd, which saw them assault the docks at St. Nazaire during Operation Chariot and put the port out of commission. This Elite Force figure has period-accurate real cloth uniforming and weaponry and is heavily poseable.

Get it at Amazon

Remote Controlled King Tiger Tank

Remote Controlled King Tiger Tank

The Tiger II or “King Tiger” was one of Germany’s most terrifying military vehicles, a deceptively agile heavy tank that sported four to seven inches of armor plating. Deployed late in the war, they made an impact at the Battle of Ardennes and in Hungary, taking out Allied units with ease despite some mechanical problems. If you want to cut one of these bad boys loose, this remote-controlled model from Heng Long is where it’s at. With seven-way movement and powerful gripping treads that let it climb inclines up to 45 degrees, you can line up the perfect shot from its 320-degree swivel cannon that blasts Airsoft rounds with a smoke effect. Very cool.

Get it at Amazon

Ultimate Soldier Fallshirmjager Figure

Ultimate Soldier Fallshirmjager Figure

The German Fallshirmjager were the premiere paratroopers of the Axis forces, known as the “Green Devils” by Americans due to their ferocity in staging attacks from the air. This ultra-accurate figure from Ultimate Soldier depicts one as he’d go into action during the Gran Sasso raid, when the Germans swooped in to pull Benito Mussolini’s fat from the fire after he was replaced by the King. The raid was a daring one, involving paratroopers jumping from gliders into the Apennine Mountains. Figure comes with all sorts of stuff —parachute, grenades, rifle, flare gun, webbed helmet and tons more. He’s ready to make the big jump to rescue one of the biggest pieces of trash in human history.

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E-Flite Spitfire Mk XIV

E-Flite Spitfire Mk XIV

The only British fighter produced continually throughout the war, the Spitfire was one of the most dependable air units the Allies had to deploy. After the Battle of Britain, its low attrition rate led it to become a key part of the RAF’s strategy. If you’ve always wanted to take one of these babies up into the air yourself, E-Flite has the answer. Measuring 50 inches from nose to tail and constructed from lightweight but durable Z-foam material, this isn’t an RC plane for newbies but pros praise the smooth handling and responsive flap action.

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Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition

Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition

One of the most successful and influential wargames ever, Avalon Hill’s Axis & Allies (originally designed by Larry Harris) lets players take command of the major powers on both sides of the conflict and try to lead them to military victory by capturing key strategic cities. Resource management plays a heavy role, and a full game can take as long as six hours to grind through. Nobody ever said war was easy. This anniversary edition features the largest A&A board ever made, along with over 650 plastic miniatures, 14 dice and more. Think you could do better than Churchill and Stalin? Here’s your chance to prove it.

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U-Boat Type VIIC Model Kit

U-Boat Type VIIC Model Kit

In the early stages of the war, the Germans had the undisputed tactical advantage on the water due to their advanced submarine programs. The dreaded U-Boats could attack from out of nowhere, sinking ships and then disappearing beneath the waves to avoid reprisal. It wasn’t until the end of 1943 that the Allies were able to mount effective countermeasures against them. One of the most common and dependable subs in the Axis fleet, the Type VIIC was seen all over the world. This huge and detailed model from ARKMODEL measures over three feet long and can be adapted to serve as the housing for a remote control engine if you want to get serious, which we know you do.

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