Helping his seven-year-old daughter Romy set up the Nintendo Switch she got for Christmas, Paul Cliff managed to get himself hooked on Animal Crossing. “I’ve somehow played over 600 hours on it since January,” says Paul, 56, of the life simulation game where villagers carry out daily activities such as gardening, furniture arrangement and gathering fruits.
“I love the collecting in it, it’s so gentle and oddly rewarding,” he says, recalling an afternoon spent fishing together when Romy finally caught the Stringfish she’d been trying to catch for ages. “She couldn’t wait to show me. We’ve been amazed at each other’s achievements and creativity. I’ve found it an immersive and relaxing experience. I love my wee island, it’s a wonderful escape from what’s going on outside our four walls.”
While gaming was already expanding well before Covid-19 upended normal life and confined many to their homes, its popularity soared this pandemic. Ofcom found 62% of UK adults played some form of video game in 2020, and research from GlobalWebIndexfound the 55-64 age group was the fastest-growing market, rising by almost a third (32%) since 2018. With gaming increasingly counted as “family time”, it also uncovered the rise of gaming parents and grandparents, affectionately coined OAGs.
“Video games have been an important source of help for many during these difficult periods of restricted movement,” says Prof James Newman, a video games and gaming culture academic. Part of the pleasure comes from being in the world of the game, whether that’s the reassuringly mundane daily routines in Animal Crossing providing continuity in such uncertain times, or being able to roam free in vast open worlds at a time of limited access to real-world spaces.
But as well as providing much-needed fun, stimulation and escape from the isolation and monotony of the past year, video games have helped connect friends, families and people of all ages across the world, Newman says.
“What we’re seeing a lot is parents and grandparents being taught by their children and grandchildren to keep in touch, and this gathering around a common interest creates quality inter-generational interactions and connections, even at a distance,” says Dr Lynn Love, a lecturer in computer arts at Abertay University.
Video games can have manifold benefits for older people, including boosting cognitive and problem-solving skills, she adds, and the pandemic has opened up new audiences to different kinds of games. “Many are finding video games aren’t what they thought they were, and are seeing that there are different types of games they can connect with. It also seems to be giving many a new lease of life.”
Jane Boon developed her new hobby after her son moved home from university last March and she asked him to teach her how to play. “I’d always thought it looked fun and it was something we could do together during lockdown,” says the 62-year-old. “I was useless but I persevered,” she says of her first try at action-adventure game Hollow Knight. Before long, she was playing through the game entirely by herself and kept playing on her son’s old Xbox when he went back to uni.
She loves the sense of achievement it gives her, from the sheer joy of single-handedly killing a major boss in Hollow Knight, to de-stressing with a long game of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. “It’s taught me that I can do new things and not give up,” she says. “It’s very easy when you’re older to start to assume you can’t learn new things and it’s not true.”
John Reed, 74, agrees, having found his skills as a chess player highly transferable to his new addiction, Call of Duty: Warzone solos. He’s so far gained five outright victories in the first-person shooter game. “It’s gained me enormous kudos with my grandsons,” Reed says. “And it’s nice to think that all these highly rated players are being taken out by a grandpa in his dressing gown.”
Playing games with her children and grandchildren made the third lockdown “far easier” for 66-year-old Julie Mason. Chatting on FaceTime while they played the cooking simulation game Overcooked and the strategic maze-based game Bomberman helped them enjoy much-needed family time when they couldn’t see each other. Now even her husband, always “a very reluctant gamer”, plays Dr. Mario with her every day. “It took him a while to be confident but he’s pretty competent on it now – not as good as me though haha!” Mason says.
Playing Minecraft with their grownup children also kept Angela and Bernhard Heidemann, 55 and 57, sane during lockdown. The sandbox construction game helped keep them connected as a family, giving them shared experiences, adventures, and even life events – they held a virtual graduation ceremony for their son last summer, building their own graduation hall, a virtual certificate, and a restaurant and nightclub for the afterparty. “We’re now thoroughly hooked,” says Angela.
The pandemic has shown a thirst for different types of experiences, particularly with the level of customisation in games such as Animal Crossing and Minecraft, says Love, who believes the upward trend is here to stay and that people will continue to fit video games into life beyond the pandemic.
Karen Davis*, 59, found the freedom of open-world games such as Skyrim, Fallout and Oblivion hugely comforting. From Pembrokeshire, Davis hasn’t seen a city since 2019, and the Dishonored series became her favourite because of its urban setting and appropriately dystopian storyline. Every day she’s spent hours immersed in difficulty settings, skill sets and character attributes, but with life moving closer to something like normal, will she have time for her lockdown hobby? “I’ve just bought The Witcher and Red Dead Redemption,” she says. “So this isn’t over.”
In March 2020, a new app suddenly arrived on the block. It was called Clubhouse and described as a “social audio” app that enabled its users to have real-time conversations in virtual “rooms” that could accommodate groups large and small. For a time in that disrupted, locked-down spring, Clubhouse was what Michael Lewis used to call the “New New Thing”. “The moment we saw it,” burbled Andrew Chen of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, “we were deeply excited. We believe Clubhouse will be a meaningful addition to the world, one that increases empathy and provides new ways for people to talk to each other (at a time when we need it more than ever).”
The app could not have come at a better time for social media, he continued. “It reinvents the category in all the right ways, from the content consumption experience to the way people engage each other, while giving power to its creators.” His firm put $12m of its (investors’) money behind Chen’s fantasies and followed up a year later with an investment that put a valuation of $1bn on Clubhouse, which would have made it one of the “unicorns” so prized by the Silicon Valley crowd.
This endorsement by an ostensibly serious venture capital firm undoubtedly helped to boost the hype about Clubhouse, but the main drivers – snobbery and elitism – had little to do with funding. In the beginning, for example, the app was only available for the iPhone (the BMW of the smartphone market) and membership was by invitation only. If you were lucky enough to be invited, then you could pass on an invitation to one friend. A generous colleague of mine extended hers to me and I went about signing up, until I discovered that the app unconditionally demanded access to all the contacts on my phone, whereupon I deleted it, as did my embarrassed colleague some time later.
Other invitees were more accommodating, though, and for a time Clubhouse grew like crazy. It had 600,000 registered users by December 2020 and 8.1m downloads by February 2021. In April 2021, Twitter approached it with a view to acquiring it for $4bn, but nothing came of that. And sometime after that the air began to leak out of the Clubhouse balloon. After months in which much of the chatter was about (and on) the platform, we somehow moved to a point where nobody talks about it any more. Yet Clubhouse still exists, has 10 million users and has raised more than $10m from investors. But now, in a move that smacks of desperation, it’s allowing its US users to share a link to a “live” room that enables non-members to listen in (but not to talk). And the web is alive with pieces trying to explain Clubhouse’s decline.
So what happened? A conjunction of lots of different things, probably. The most important was that vaccination programmes led to an easing of the Covid lockdowns. People who were no longer having to work from home were out and about again, talking to friends and colleagues in person. But other factors were at work too. For example, the decision to open the app to Android users in May 2021 somewhat dented the iPhone “exclusivity” that drove growth in 2020.
And, as always happens when user-generated content balloons online, abusive and unpleasant conversations proliferated. Many of the virtual rooms turned out not to be about discourse but celebrity-puffing or scamming.
As one critic put it: “So many rooms that advertise themselves as hosting big celebrities and names in the worlds of business and entertainment … turn out to be scammers … impersonating celebrities or giving a vague Ted Talk about entrepreneurship from random people who have never … set foot in the industry. Other rooms are often cover-ups for scam businesses.
“A big issue on the app were rooms that claimed to invite people with startup ideas to share with their peers and exchange advice and strategies. The rooms’ hosts would then buy the domain names these startups were looking for and sell them back to them at much higher prices to make a profit.” Clubhouse rooms became, wrote another critic, “like a late-night talkshow where celebrities come together and speak about their family, achievements, passions and plans”.
So how should we view the Clubhouse story? In the long view of history, the app might look like a shooting star, an object of brief wonder that briefly mesmerised a world afflicted with tech-induced attention-deficit disorder. A more prosaic, but possible more realistic, view is that it was just a tech solution looking for a social problem to “solve”. In other words, a typical product of Silicon Valley.
AI software capable of mapping tumor tissue more accurately to help surgeons treat and shrink prostate cancer using a laser-powered needle will soon be tested in real patients during clinical trials.
The National Cancer Institute estimated that approximately 12.6 percent of men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer at some point in their life. The risk for developing the disease rises over time for men over the age of 50. It’s one of the most curable forms of cancer, considering most cases are caught in the early stages due to regular screening tests.
Treatment for prostate cancer varies depending on the severity of the disease. Patients can undergo hormone therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery to remove tissue. Avenda Health, a medical startup founded in 2017, is developing a new type of treatment that is less invasive. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an investigational device exemption (IDE) to the company’s invention this week, meaning it can now be used in a clinical study.
Patients will need to have an MRI scan and a targeted fusion biopsy performed first. The data is processed by Avenda’s AI algorithms in its iQuest software to map where the cancerous cells are located within the prostate. Next, the computer vision-aided model will simulate where best to insert FocalPoint, a probe armed with a laser, to help surgeons treat the patient’s tumor. The heat from the laser gently heats the cancerous cells and kills them with goal of shrinking and removing the whole tumor.
MRI images where cancer is mapped using iQuest software before and after treatment. Image Credit: Avenda Health
“Historically, prostate cancer treatments of surgery or radiation impacts critical structures like the urethra and nerves which control sexual and urinary function,” Avenda’s CEO and co-founder Shyam Natarajan told The Register. “Our focal laser ablation system, FocalPoint, which is powered by our AI-driven cancer margin software, iQuest, specifically targets tumor tissue and avoids healthy tissue. This means patients no longer lose control over these functions that are so common with traditional treatments, so quality of life is significantly improved.”
The treatment is only effective for men diagnosed with intermediate risk of prostate cancer, a classification that describes tumors being confined within the prostate only. Patients are considered high risk in cases where the cancer has spread beyond the prostate.
“This is one of the benefits of the iQuest software. Not only can it map the cancer, but it also provides decision support for the physician as they determine the best course of treatment for an individual patient. Not every patient is going to be eligible for focal therapy, and it is important for the physician to distinguish between good focal therapy candidates and not. iQuest provides useful insights for that decision making process,” Natarajan said.
Avenda received FDA clearance for its FocalPoint device in 2020. The IDE approval brings the company one step closer to bringing their product to market after clinical trial testing, Brittany Berry-Pusey, co-founder and COO of Avenda, said in a statement.
“This clinical trial will play a key role in advancing our breakthrough technology to improve prostate cancer care. With no new FDA approvals for the treatment of localized prostate cancer in more than four decades, we look forward to working alongside our clinical sites to collect the data necessary to bring iQuest and FocalPoint to market and into the patient care environment.”
Natarajan told us the company was aiming to begin clinical trials in 2023. ®
Yesterday (11 August), the department’s Rewards for Justice programme shared an alleged photo of an associate of the ransomware gang. The department said on Twitter that it is “trying to put a name to the face” and believes the individual is the hacker known as “Target”.
A request for information by the Rewards for Justice programme. Image: US Department of State/Rewards for Justice
Conti, also known as Wizard Spider, has been linked to a group believed to be based near St Petersburg, Russia. The US has labelled it a “Russian government-linked ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS) group”.
The group’s malware is believed to be responsible for more than 1,000 ransomware operations targeting critical infrastructure around the world, from law enforcement agencies to emergency medical services and dispatch centres.
In May 2021, the Conti group was behind the HSE ransomware incident that saw more than 80pc of the IT infrastructure of healthcare services across Ireland impacted. It was said to be the most serious cyberattack ever to hit the State’s critical infrastructure.
The US Department of State previously said the Conti ransomware variant is the “costliest strain of ransomware” ever documented. The FBI estimates that, as of January 2022, there had been more than 1,000 victims of attacks associated with Conti ransomware, with victim payouts exceeding $150m.
When Russia began its invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the Conti group declared its allegiance to the Russian government. Shortly after, a Ukrainian researcher took the cybersecurity world by storm after publishing more than 60,000 internal messages of the ransomware gang.
Raj Samani, chief scientist at cybersecurity firm Rapid7, said the latest reward offer is just “the tip of the iceberg as enforcement agencies make “considerable strides” through public-private collaboration to hold cybercriminals to account.
“Announcing a reward and revealing the details of Conti members sends a message to would-be criminals that cybercrime is anything but risk-free,” said Samani.
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