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Gaming in colour: uncovering video games’ black pioneers | Games

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In the 1970s, in the fledgling days of the video games industry, an engineer named Gerald “Jerry” Lawson designed one of the earliest game consoles, the Channel F, and also led the team that invented the game cartridge, a defining innovation in how games were made and sold. His son, Andersen Lawson, recalls that he was often working on gaming projects in the garage of their family home in Santa Clara, California. “There have been conversations recently about the struggles he might have had that were related to his colour,” he says. “Was it difficult [for him]? Yes, I’m quite certain. But I never heard any grumblings from him. And I’m also certain that he earned his respect … My father was a person of colour and I think that would inspire young people today to jump in and help move the industry along.”

Black people, and especially black women, are still underrepresented in the video games industry. The Independent Game Developers’ Association records that only 2% of US game developers identify as black; in the UK, meanwhile, according to UKIE’s 2020 census of the entire industry, 10% of its workers are black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). But black innovators such as Jerry Lawson have been present and influential since the earliest days of the video games industry – and there is not enough recognition for their achievements.

Jerry Lawson after retirement.
Jerry Lawson after retirement. Photograph: Courtesy the Lawson family

Lawson was featured in Netflix’s High Score documentary series on the history of video games last year. Born in New York in 1940, he developed a strong interest in electronics during his youth, when he often fixed his neighbours’ small appliances as a hobby. This influenced his decision to become an engineer, and after moving to California, he became a member of Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club, a hobbyist collective that included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak among its members. It was his work as an engineer at San Jose-based Fairchild Semiconductor, though, that was truly pioneering. As a side project, he created a coin-op arcade game called Demolition Derby, and as a result he was approached by his bosses to become the lead engineer in the company’s new gaming division. He died from complications of diabetes in 2011, aged 70.

After moving on from Fairchild in 1980, Lawson founded Video Soft, which created games for the Atari 2600. The games were never publicly released, however, and following the notorious North American video game crash of 1983, he shut up shop in 1984 and worked as a consulting engineer thereafter. “Another company had the idea for the console but it was Fairchild that commercialised it,” says Andersen Lawson. “My dad was the person responsible for putting the team together … and they were able to achieve something that has been long since forgotten.”

Lawson’s Demolition Derby arcade game.
Lawson’s Demolition Derby arcade game. Photograph: ArcadeImages/Alamy

New York-born Ed Smith, meanwhile, is a retired engineer who helped develop APF Electronics’ Imagination Machine, a hybrid console and home computer system. Companies such as APF expanded into gaming in the 70s and early 80s, providing opportunities for talented engineers. “As a black person, it was more about having the opportunity to be gainfully employed, no matter what area of work I was doing,” Smith tells me. “I had a child at a young age and the biggest thing for me was to get a good job. Luckily, I got into the field of technology and that was the point from which everything else just flowed.”

As well as engineering, his work on the machine included developing schematic diagrams and game testing. Smith’s innovative work at APF was deeply influential to future generations, but the company itself did not withstand the video game crash. “I thought our game would be one of many in the marketplace for years to come… my expectations were that I would be in the industry for the long term; the reality was that after the market tanked, I had to go and work in other areas,” he says.

Eventually, Smith found long-term work in tech sales and retired about two years ago to focus on writing Imagine That!, a book about his life. It recounts his struggles as a young black man in 1960s America. “We had our share of things that caused us to go out and to protest at that time. And it was pretty much the same things that we’re dealing with today – which is unfortunate,” he adds.

Muriel Tramis.
Happy creativity … Muriel Tramis. Photograph: Coktel Vision

A third black innovator from the early days of the video games industry is Muriel Tramis, who is considered to be the first black female video game designer. She lives in France but grew up on the Caribbean island of Martinique, in the Lesser Antilles, and began her career as an engineer, programming military drones. She first made her mark on video games while working at French developer Coktel Vision, which she joined in 1986.

Tramis says that this was her happiest time, professionally speaking. “I had found a way to combine IT and literary creativity,” she told the Guardian. “My editor entrusted me with the project management of his adventure games because my engineering training allowed me to understand the technical aspects of development, programming of interactions, and integration of images and sound. He was of Armenian origin and probably for this reason, was very open-minded to diversity.”

Méwilo, the 1987 Atari game that Tramis wrote and directed in collaboration with writer Patrick Chamoiseau, drew on Martinique’s rich history. She says: “When I wanted to create my first script, I wanted it to be in the style of a historical novel. It’s natural that I was inspired by the island’s history, because it was unknown, or poorly known, to the rest of the world and had all the ingredients to create intrigue, drama and mystery. The history of the Antilles is part of the history of France, but this region has known the pain of slavery and colonisation. This is the origin of many traumas which are visible in Creole society and mixed societies in general.”

Tramis left Coktel Vision in 2003, but thinks fondly of her time there. “I liked the period so much that after a detour through virtual reality applied to urban planning, I am about to create my own video game development studio,” she says. “About 30 years after my first game, I am working on a future story.” Her upcoming game features black heroes and shows how skin-colour prejudice is the origin of present-day discrimination.

Tramis’s game Méwilo, 1987, from French developer Coktel Vision.
Tramis’s game Méwilo, 1987, from French developer Coktel Vision. Photograph: Coktel Vision

She was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2018 and says it was an honour not just for herself but for her friends, family, her country and the “sisters” across the world, whom she hopes to inspire. Tramis is keen to encourage more women into technology and science, given the skills shortage in Europe: if women represent 50% of digital users, “they must also be 50% of designers, engineers and technicians”.

Though names like Lawson, Smith and Tramis do sometimes show up in video game history books, the contributions of many other black people in the fledgling days of the industry have gone entirely uncredited. “It parallels what we know about black women’s participation in the space program,” says TreaAndrea Russworm, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, who discusses black women’s contribution to games in her article Replaying Video Game History as a Mixtape of Black Feminist Thought (co-written with fellow black female academic Samantha Blackmon). “The book and film Hidden Figures has made it very obvious to us now that black women were there, but they weren’t headliners: they weren’t the astronauts, but they were the human computers, the labour force that was essential to the program, and they worked for many years unrecognised.

“At the Strong Museum [the US National Museum of Play], where they have archives on Midway and Atari, you can flip through their company newsletters, and you’ll come across photos of black women … they sometimes have a title or a caption saying who they were. But a lot of times, they don’t.”

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Virtual contact worse than no contact for over-60s in lockdown, says study | Coronavirus

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Virtual contact during the pandemic made many over-60s feel lonelier and more depressed than no contact at all, new research has found.

Many older people stayed in touch with family and friends during lockdown using the phone, video calls, and other forms of virtual contact. Zoom choirs, online book clubs and virtual bedtime stories with grandchildren helped many stave off isolation.

But the study, among the first to comparatively assess social interactions across households and mental wellbeing during the pandemic, found many older people experienced a greater increase in loneliness and long-term mental health disorders as a result of the switch to online socialising than those who spent the pandemic on their own.

“We were surprised by the finding that an older person who had only virtual contact during lockdown experienced greater loneliness and negative mental health impacts than an older person who had no contact with other people at all,” said Dr Yang Hu of Lancaster University, who co-wrote the report, published on Monday in Frontiers in Sociology.

“We were expecting that a virtual contact was better than total isolation but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for older people,” he added.

The problem, said Hu, was that older people unfamiliar with technology found it stressful to learn how to use it. But even those who were familiar with technology often found the extensive use of the medium over lockdown so stressful that it was more damaging to their mental health than simply coping with isolation and loneliness.

“Extensive exposure to digital means of communication can also cause burnout. The results are very consistent,” said Hu, who collected data from 5,148 people aged 60 or over in the UK and 1,391 in the US – both before and during the pandemic.

“It’s not only loneliness that was made worse by virtual contact, but general mental health: these people were more depressed, more isolated and felt more unhappy as a direct result of their use of virtual contact,” he said.

The report, Covid-19, Inter-household Contact and Mental Wellbeing Among Older Adults in the US and the UK, analysed national data from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council-funded Understanding Society Covid-19 survey and the US Health and Retirement Study.

Hu said more emphasis needed to be placed on safe ways to have face-to-face contact in future emergencies. There must also, he added, be a drive to bolster the digital capacity of the older age groups.

“We need to have disaster preparedness,” he said. “We need to equip older people with the digital capacity to be able to use technology for the next time a disaster like this comes around.”

The findings outlined the limitations of a digital-only future and the promise of a digitally enhanced future in response to population ageing in the longer term, added Hu.

“Policymakers and practitioners need to take measures to pre-empt and mitigate the potential unintended implications of household-centred pandemic responses for mental wellbeing,” he said.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, welcomed the report. “We know the virtual environment can exacerbate those feelings of not actually being there with loved ones in person,” she said.

“It’s essential therefore that government makes preventing and tackling loneliness a top policy priority, backed up with adequate funding.

“It’s not over the top to point out that in the worst cases, loneliness can kill in the sense that it undermines resilience to health threats of many kinds, as well as leading to older people in the twilight of their lives losing all hope, so they lack a reason to carry on.”

Patrick Vernon, associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, said he saw many examples of older people using technology to stay connected in “really positive ways”.

But he was also doubtful: “We know that even for those who are online, lack of skills and confidence can prevent people from using the internet in the ways that they’d like to.”

Previous research by the Centre for Ageing Better found that since the pandemic, there had been significant increases in the use of digital technology among those aged 50-70 years who were already online.

But there are still 3 million people across the UK who are offline, with a significant digital divide affecting low-income households. Twenty-seven per cent of people aged 50-70 with an annual household income under £25,000 were offline before the pandemic.

Vernon said: “Our research has found that some people who were offline found it difficult to connect with family, friends and neighbours during the pandemic – and even those who were online said technology didn’t compensate for missing out on physical social interactions.”

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For a true display of wealth, dab printer ink behind your ears instead of Chanel No. 5 • The Register

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Printer ink continues to rank as one of the most expensive liquids around with a litre of the home office essential costing the same as a very high-end bottle of bubbly or an oak-aged Cognac.

Consumer advocate Which? has found that ink bought from printer manufactures can be up to 286 per cent more expensive than third-party alternatives.

Dipping its nib in one inkwell before delicately wiping off the excess on some blotting paper, Which? found that a multipack of colour ink (cyan, magenta, yellow) for the WorkForce WF-7210DTW printer costs £75.49 from Epson.

“This works out at an astonishing £2,410 a litre – or £1,369 for a pint,” said Which?.

The consumer outfit also reported that since the Epson printer also requires a separate Epson black cartridge for £31.99, it takes the combined cost of replacement inks for the Workforce printer to a wallet-busting £107.98.

On the other hand, if people ditched the brand and opted for a full set of black and colour inks from a reputable third-party supplier, it would cost just £10.99 – less than a tenth of the price.

Printing has become essential for plenty of workers holed up at home during the pandemic. The survey by Which? of 10,000 consumers found 54 per cent use their printer at least once a week. Which? said it estimates an inkjet cartridge would need to be replaced three times a year.

The report discovered tactics used by the big vendors to promote the use of “approved”, “original”, and “guaranteed” ink supplies.

It found Epson devices, for example, flagging up a “non-genuine ink detected” message on its LCD screen when using a non-Epson cartridge, and HP printers are actively blocking customers from using non-HP supplies.

Adam French, a consumer rights champion at Which?, reckons this situation is simply unacceptable.

“Printer ink shouldn’t cost more than a bottle of high-end Champagne or Chanel No. 5,” said French. “We’ve found that there are lots of third-party products that are outperforming their branded counterparts at a fraction of the cost.”

In a rallying call to consumers he said that third-party ink should be a personal choice and not “dictated by the make of your printer.”

“Which? will continue to make consumers aware of the staggering cost differences between own-brand and third-party inks and give people the information they need to buy the best ink for their printer,” he said.

Which is exactly what the Consumers Association said almost 20 years ago when it reported that printer ink cost around £1,700 a litre. Then – as now – the Consumer Association advised consumers to steer clear of brand-name printer cartridges and pick cheaper alternatives instead.

The survey by Which? found that 16 third party brands beat the big brands in terms of ink prices.

Epson wasn’t the only printer biz to be singled out for sky-high ink prices. Canon, and HP were fingered too.

For its part, Epson said customers “should be offered choice… to meet their printing needs” and listed a number of options including its EcoTank systems and a monthly Ink Subscription service.

And in a nod to anyone looking to save money by using a third party, Epson said: “Finally, as non-genuine inks are not designed or tested by Epson we cannot guarantee that these inks will not damage the printer. Whilst Epson does not prevent the use of non-Epson inks, we believe that it is reasonable, indeed responsible, that a warning is displayed as any damage caused by the use of the inks may invalidate the warranty.”

As part of its investigation, Which? found that some HP printers use a system called “dynamic security” which recognises cartridges that use non-HP chips and stops them from working.

HP has tried to battle against third party ink makers trying to capture supplies sales by overhauling the model of its printer business: by shifting to ink tanks printers that come pre-loaded with supplies for an estimated timeframe; or by selling the printer hardware for more upfront and allowing biz customers or consumers to buy the supplies they want.

In response to Which?, HP said it “offers quality, sustainable and secure print supplies with a range of options for customers to choose from, including HP Instant Ink – a convenient printing subscription service with over 9 million users that can save UK customers up to 70 per cent on ink costs, with ink plans starting at £0.99 per month.”

Reg readers may remember the kerfuffle around HP’s Instant Ink. The free plan was reinstated, sort of. For existing customers.

Over at Canon, a spokesperson said third-party ink products can work with its printers, but the “technology inside is designed to function correctly with our genuine inks which are formulated specifically to work with Canon technology.”

“Customers are encouraged to use genuine inks to ensure the longevity of their printer, and also to ensure that their final prints are of a standard we deem Canon quality. In addition, the use of third party inks invalidates the warranty of the printer.”

With almost four in ten (39 per cent) people saying that they do not use third-party cartridges because of fears that they might not work with their printer, it might go some way to explain why more than half (56 per cent) of the consumers quizzed said they persist with using potentially pricey original-branded cartridges despite cheaper alternatives being available. ®

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Repligen to create 130 new jobs in Waterford site expansion

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The project adds to the 74 people already employed at the Artesyn Biosolutions facility acquired by Repligen in 2020.

Repligen Corporation is undertaking an expansion of its Waterford site which will see 130 new jobs created, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar, TD, has announced.

The life sciences company is building a new 3,000 sq m facility which will be a centre of excellence for single-use consumable products used in bioprocessing applications. The site currently hosts a 1,000 sq m facility employing 74 people, which was established by Ireland’s Artesyn Biosolutions before that company was acquired by Repligen last November.

Repligen Corporation is a multinational that produces bioprocessing products for use in the pharmaceutical manufacturing process. Headquartered in Massachusetts, the company has sites across the United States and in Estonia, France, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, as well as here in Ireland.

According to the company, the new building will be certified silver on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system from the US Green Building Council. The consumable products manufactured there will be used in filtration and chromatography systems during the production of vaccines and other biopharmaceutical products.

Commenting on the announcement, Varadkar said: “This is excellent news from Repligen with the creation of 130 new jobs in Waterford. It comes on foot of a major jobs announcement by Bausch and Lomb. Waterford is on the move as a centre for jobs and investment.

“I wish the team the very best with their expansion plans.”

James Bylund, senior vice-president at Repligen, added: “We are thrilled to continue the collaboration with the Irish Government and the IDA that was initiated by the Artesyn team. This build-out is an important step in expanding our capacity and establishing dual manufacturing sites for key single-use consumable products used in manufacture of biological drugs.

“With its LEED Silver designation, the facility is closely aligned with our commitment to responsible growth and sustainability.”

Dr Jonathan Downey, managing director at the Waterford facility, said: “Having delivered beyond our commitment in 2019 to bring new jobs to the region through our development of high-end manufacturing capabilities, we are energised and excited about our integration with Repligen and this next phase of growth.

“In addition to our expansion of Artesyn products, and the transfer of manufacturing of certain of Repligen’s current products to our Irish operations, we expect to be utilising the Irish sites to advance additional research, development and innovation programs.”

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