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KoolTools

Volume Number: 21 (2005)
Issue Number: 7
Column Tag: Programming

KoolTools

by Michael R. Harvey

Game Controllers

Some Different Ways To Kill The Creatures

The keyboard and mouse. Your basic gear for getting the bad guys, the bosses, and cartoon thingies that burst into clouds of flowers and hearts in their death throes. It works. Quite well, actually. But, every now and again, it's just not enough. Sometimes, you just want to feel like you're eight, and spending your allowance at the local arcade, but do it on your 30" wide screen Cinema Display. Or you'd like to mop up that level full of demons using your game console controller, if only you could plug it in. Well, wish no more.

X-Arcade

So, like I mentioned above, every once in a while, I long for the simple days of dropping quarters into a really big boxes, and blasting long lines of pixilated aliens for about 2.5 minutes before getting myself blasted three times in quick succession. Okay, so maybe not all that often, but it does happen. I got one of those little gadgets for Christmas that plugs into the TV, and it was great. But, it didn't control the way I remember. Well, take a look at this. (See Picture.)


Pictured above is the X-Arcade dual control. There is also a single control version. Oh, my. It's like they went to the scrap heap, yanked the control boards off every old Asteroids machine they could find, polished them, and shipped them off to their customers. In actuality, that's not far off. The X-Arcade folks have built what is, really, the console from any arcade video game you played as a kid. The joy stick's feel is genuine. The buttons are dead on. The box is built out of the same materials as the real thing. It's brilliant. It looks and feels exactly like the real thing.

It is designed to play the old arcade games. MacMAME is all ready to play with it, which is quite nice. Load it up, get some ROM's, and you're in business. X-Arcade's web site has links to some legal ways to get games to play with it. However, the one thing that drove me nuts was that the buttons were all the same. I ended up taping labels next to the buttons in order to know what I was doing. Color coding them, or numbering or lettering them would have been a very nice idea.

http://www.x-arcade.com/mac/

Nyko AirFlo EX

"Dad! Come get this boss for me! I can't! Pleeeeeaaaaasssssseeee!?" Yeah, I know, you've heard it, too. You then trudge up the stair, only to be handed this slimy, wet thing with bits of who knows what snack dripping off it because your spawn is midway through a weekend long game finishing marathon. Ick doesn't quite cover it. Well, thank goodness for Nyko. They've got out what is essentially a standard PlayStation style controller, USB, that's got one thing most other controllers don't have. Air conditioning. Think on it. The AirFlo EX has a built in fan that runs air through the handles, and out the vented holes of the thing. Outstanding. Grip it for hours on end, and you won't have a bit of sweat on the controller. The feel is very like that of a PlayStation controller, except for a few things. One, the grip is knobbed, making it hold better. Also, in order to fit the fan in, and leave enough room to move air through it, it's rather bigger that the standard sized controller. It actually a bit more comfortable for bigger hands, but small kid's hands (referenced above) may find it a bit much over time. My only other gripe is the same one I had for the X-Arcade. The lack of labeling on the buttons. I know they can't put the proper PS2 colors and shapes on the button (copyright and all that), but does make it a little more difficult.


The drivers for it are rather nice. It's clean, works as you'd expect, and runs under Tiger. 'Nuff said.

www.nyko.com

By Michael R. Harvey




Final Cut Express HD

By Sam Crutsinger

I was sitting in the audience at Macworld when Steve Jobs announced iMovieHD. I've gotta tell ya, at the time you could have heard a pin drop. I turned to my buddy and whispered, "High-Def? I don't even work with high-def and I'm a professional video guy! What's my mom going to do with HD?!?" It was one of those moments when Apple had jumped so far ahead of us all that we couldn't make out the taillights any more.

Since that day, HD has been picking up so much momentum that you can't pick up a newspaper or watch TV without seeing something that's selling HD-ready features. Granted, the cameras are still a bit pricy, but the prices are coming down fast. For example, Sony's offerings have gone from $20,000 to $3,500 with their HDR-FX1, and as I'm writing this, they just announced the HDR-HC1, a $2,000 addition to their HandyCam lineup that makes things even more interesting.

Now let's say that you drop the cash on one of those cameras and iMovie isn't going to keep up with your creative needs, but you're not really needing the full capabilities of Final Cut Pro 5. That's where Final Cut Express HD (FCE) fills the void. Final Cut Express HD is version 3 of Apple's mid-level editing package. This $299 software package will do about 80-90% of what people do with Final Cut Pro for 1/3rd of the cost. As for the rest of the FCP's features, most users won't really ever think to look for them unless they're moving into the professional arena.

For starters, don't let the HD freak you out. Personally, I still don't own an HD camera of my own (although I have a couple I can borrow in a pinch) and odds are you don't either. Think of FCE's High Definition ability like that optical jack on today's stereos. If you use it, you get this incredible surround sound quality, but if you just use the same old analog white and red (left/right) cables that you've used for decades, you still get good sound, just not "WOAH NELLY" surround sound. FCE works just fine with the MiniDV footage we've all come to know and love. When you find yourself with an HD camera, you'll get a much better picture than you're used to, but you'll import it, edit it, and display it pretty much the same way you have with standard definition television. It'll just take a little longer for some of the filters to render.

The typical FCE user will be buying the software because iMovie leaves them unfulfilled. With that in mind, Apple's made it seamless to open up your iMovie projects in FCE. All you have to do is hit ?-O to open a project, then select your iMovie file. You'll find yourself looking at all the work you've already done in iMovie, but now you can take it to the next level with FCE. Any video transitions you used in iMovie will also show up in the timeline, but they will come in as separate, rendered video clips instead of transitions. Many iMovie transitions don't have FCE counterparts, so if your artistic vision requires the use of disintegrate, you'll have to work in both programs.


Figure 1: The FCE HD interface

Importing footage is a cakewalk, as long as you're not mixing formats. If your project is an HDV format project, FCE will ignore your NTSC-DV format deck or camera, and tell you that it can't find the HDV deck, which can be a bit confusing. Essentially, FCE is built to work with one format and then stick to it. You can mix HD and SD footage in the same project, but you'll have to import the footage using 2 different projects first, one for SD and one for HD.

Most of the editorial features are virtually identical to FCP, so if you're familiar with the Pro version, you'll take to Express like a duck to water. The iMovie to FCE converts will be gaining an incredible amount of control over their video from what they're used to. They'll also be getting an equally incredible number of new buttons and menus and tabs. Be prepared for a learning curve, but trust me, once you learn how to use all the features of FCE, you'll be armed with abilities we only dreamed of back in the old edit bays of the 20th century, well, prior to 1990 or so at any rate. Not only that, but if you master FCE, then you'll have the technical skills to be a professional video editor. I'm not saying you'll be any good, but you'll technically know how to do the work. (I know how to work a paintbrush, but I ain't no VanGough.)

The key feature (pun intended) that's missing from FCE is key frames. When you see a logo drifting across the background, that's using key frames. You set a start location key frame and an end location key frame, and FCP will move the item from A to B. You can't do that with FCE. It's more than a little disconcerting for us FCP users at first because we're so used to seeing the key frame areas in many of the tabs. With FCE, you apply a setting, and live with it for the whole clip. Of course, you can overcome this somewhat by using dissolves between 2 versions of the same clip; for instance, dissolving from a desaturated clip to a normal clip will let you go from black and white to color over time, but you can't drift objects, or create a dramatic rack focus, or do the thousands of other obscure special effects that key frame tinkering can produce. If you're getting that fancy, pony up for FCP.

Probably the single biggest ability you get with FCE that you can't do with iMovie is the ability to work in layers. FCE will let you stack several layers of video on top of each other to make a complex video image. Have a look at the graphic in the SD vs. HD sidebar, and you'll see something I completely created in FCE. The pictures, the text, the red border, and the drop shadows are all from FCE. It makes a nice still, but it's more impressive when the video is playing.

FCE will let you work with pretty much anything that QuickTime can understand, so you can add TIFFs or JPGs to your movie, or you can use FCE to make a slide show movie. Unfortunately, you can't do that Ken Burns Effect stuff in FCE because of that pesky key frame thing. You can import a Ken Burns Effect iMovie into FCE, but the pictures will come in as rendered video clips instead of stills at that point, so you can't change their drifting properties any more.

Something that has FCE sitting on the fence is the use of time code. Time code is what video editors use to map out exactly what frames of video they want to use in a sequence. Each frame of video has it's own number based on Hours:Minutes:Seconds:Frames. FCE is a simplified version of FCP, so obviously it uses time code to keep track of everything, but it has nothing to do with the time code on your source tape. All DV camcorders record time code on the tape so you can find an exact frame of video by the numbers. FCE doesn't import that time code when it imports it's video. It edits by timer values instead. Every clip starts at 00:00:00:00 and counts up. It doesn't matter if it's the first clip on the tape or the last clip on the tape. They all start at zero. Because of this you can't produce Edit Decision Lists. You also can't import your footage at low resolution and then batch digitize it at high resolution later. If you're coming to FCE from iMovie, you won't really care. You can still get the job done just by looking at the picture, and picking what frame you want to start with just like you do in iMovie. If you're used to FCP, then you'll have to retrain your brain to get away from the numbers.

That last point bears repeating. Footage captured with FCE has no time code track at all. Learn from my mistake. You might think it would be fantastic to use the cheaper FCE for importing footage while you keep working on the more expensive FCP system, but don't do it! If you ever have to go back to redigitize the footage later, you'll realize that you can't. Professional projects need to stick with Final Cut Pro.

However, you can go the other way as far as I've been able to tell from my testing. FCE might leave you high and dry when it comes to importing footage, but it does a fine job of rendering timelines from FCP. Take this with a grain of salt, but it worked for me. If you have FCP and FCE both installed on your system, and you open an FCP project with FCE, you can let FCE render the timeline in the background while you keep plodding away in FCP in the foreground on another project. You'll need a fast computer, but for some of us, it's worth $299 to be able to render in the background so we can keep working. It even renders files that can't be created with FCE because of key frames or whatnot. That's very cool.

A few of the other things that fall into the pro area which aren't in FCE: Audio mixer, 3-way color corrector, video meters (waveform, vectorscope, etc.), time code generator/reader, Media Manager.

A few really cool things that are in FCE that I wasn't expecting to see:

Chroma Keyer & Color Keyer - for knocking out green screen backgrounds.

Basic 3D - lets you position objects at any angle to the video plane, but without key framing, you can't have an object rotate in space over time.

Image Stabilizer - takes minor shaking out of footage.

(In fact, almost all of the filters and transitions found in FCP are in FCE.)

SD & DV vs. HDTV & HDV

The television format we've all been watching since Ricky loved Lucy is now being called Standard Definition (or SD or SDTV). It only got that name after High Definition (or HD or HDTV) video came along. The difference mostly boils down to resolution. HD has 6x the picture resolution of SD, which means it eats up a lot more hard drive space. DV footage (3.6 MB/s) is compressed a little to make it more manageable. HDV footage (15 MB/s) on the other hand is pretty heavily compressed. Most of the time that compression will hold up pretty well, but if you find yourself at a New York fashion show with strobe lights popping all over the place and you move the camera around, you'll be able to see the codec choke on all the changing pixels as it puts ugly little boxes all over sweet, lovely Tiiu Kuik's face for a frame or two. (Are you catching on that I'm not being hypothetical about this scenario?) The moral of the story is to keep HDV away from images that border on berserk and it'll deliver damn fine pictures for the price. If you want perfect HD pictures, you're moving into the $60,000 camera ballpark. I think it's safe to say that most people will find a way to live with the limits of HDV.


Figure 2: Widescreen (16:9) SD vs. HD image size difference


Sam Crutsinger is the Media Kingpin of TackyShirt, a company dedicated to producing training videos that people actually want to watch.




Vendetta Online

By Michael R. Harvey

Vendetta Online is the three dimensional, massively multiplayer online version of Escape Velocity. Really. It is at least as much fun as any of the three EV games are, and it is absolutely beautiful to look at. Not only that, it's a blast to play. When you first join the universe, you can run through several training missions to get you up to speed, and prepared for operating there. You don't have to, though. You can jump right in, and figure it out as you go along. There's something to be said for going out with nothing, and killing things without having a clue as to why. Figuring out docking with space stations was an adventure, too. But, you'll get it figured out soon enough.


And, figuring it out really isn't all that hard. The controls are set up along the same lines as other games of similar type. You're using the keyboard mostly, although you can use the mouse, or a joy stick. I found that going from the keyboard to the mouse was a bit more trouble than it was worth, except during combat.

The basic message to take away form this is that this game is all kinds if fun to play, incorporating elements of first person shooter, space shoot-em-up, role playing, and strategy gaming into this online fun house.

So, how do you come by it? Well, start here: www.vendetta-online.com. From here, you can find out more about the game, as well as the community. From here, you can also download the game itself, which weighs in at around 112 MB. You also have the option to buy a boxed copy, for around $10, and that includes a few extras, like a poster of the universe, and a booklet explaining the history.

Well, then, what about paying for playing? From the above mentioned web site, you can create an account, and get yourself a free trial of the game. Then, if it hooks you, which it just might, you're out $9.99 a month when you subscribe on a month by month basis. Sign up for longer terms, and the price drops, down to about $6.67 on a 24 month subscription. That is a great price, especially compared to other MMORPG.

Keep one thing in mind when deciding if it's worth it. The Vendetta universe is not static. The guys at Guild Software are continuously working on the game, expanding the place with more adventures to take on, and places to visit. That strikes me as extra cool.

Give it a go. You've got nothing to lose, and I bet you'll find it's great fun. And, if you're into them, this MMORPG is just about the best deal out there. It doesn't hurt that it's quite a good game, to boot.


By Michael R. Harvey




Point-and-Click Astronomy With A Mac

Use Starry Night, A Mac, And A Homemade Cable To See The Universe

By Aaron Adams

Starry Night Pro is a fantastic piece of software for the astronomically curious, as well as the advanced amateur. It seems capable of doing practically anything, and the further you climb up the learning curve, the more really cool stuff it can do. The scope (pun?) of this software is so enormous that writing a proper comprehensive review would be a daunting task, so instead, this article will concentrate on one of Starry Night's functions that many observers can use and appreciate: Telescope control.

Equipment

For a number of years, telescope manufacturers, such as Meade and Celestron, have sold telescopes with computers and drive motors that can be controlled from either a handheld unit included with the telescope, or via external computer. The included handheld units provide adequate control ability, including catalogs of thousands of stars, deep sky objects, all eight other planets, and the moon. Computer control, however, enables a user to view a map of the sky from a custom location, and point-and-click to select targets. Is M57, the Ring Nebula, on tonight's observing schedule? Point, click, and have a sip of coffee while your telescope slews to the proper location. Use the computer to zoom in tight on the map to look for other faint fuzzies, and then slew again to a new extra-galactic treat. It's simple, it's geeky, and it's just plain cool.

Starry Night has the built in ability to talk to several kinds of telescopes. The telescope available for this review was a Meade LX200 12-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, acquired new in 1997. Newer or older telescopes may have different capabilities or requirements, so interpret the content of this article appropriately.

The perfect computer to act as the controller in this scenario is, of course, a portable Mac! Any of Apple's thin, light, power-conscious notebooks with a G4 processor should provide enough horsepower to handle the myriad of calculations that Starry Night must perform every second to pinpoint celestial objects, and the light-up keyboard of a recent-model PowerBook is a blessing for those typing under the pitch black skies that make astronomy worthwhile. However, there's one catch: The communications port on the telescope doesn't match any of the communications ports on a Mac, or most other modern laptops for that matter, so an inexpensive cable has to built in order to get these two devices talking.

Cable Construction

At the telescope's end of things, a type of connector called an RJ12 is needed. An RJ12 is a connector nearly identical to the connector at the end of a phone cable, except instead of having four conductors, it has six. A pair of RJ12 connectors crimped onto the ends of a common phone cable will serve as the primary wire carrying signals between the Mac and the telescope. At the Mac's end, a USB port is the most appropriate way to connect a telescope. This requires an adapter called the Keyspan High Speed USB Serial Adapter to turn the Mac's USB port into a DB9 serial port. The Keyspan adapter is available at http://www.keyspan.com and sells for approximately $30. A third adapter is required to connect the DB9 on the Keyspan with the RJ12 coming from the telescope. That adapter is called, appropriately, an RJ12 to DB9 adapter, and it's available at any local electronics supply store for around $2. Be sure to purchase the kind that is not preassembled because custom wiring will be required to complete the cable.

Wiring the cable correctly isn't difficult, although it does require some careful attention. Very good instructions, including a table of pin-outs and diagrams can be found at http://nineplanets.org/meade/cable.html, and a Google search will turn up other pages with instructions. Cable construction took about an hour, and required a wire cutter, a phone crimper to attach the RJ12 ends to the phone wire, and a bit of manual dexterity and patience for dealing with small conductors.

Under The Night Sky

Once the cable is built, pointing the telescope with Starry Night is simple. The telescope needs to be aligned, either polar or altazimuth, without being connected to the Mac, just as it would be aligned normally. Then plug each end of the cable into its respective port in each device. Start Starry Night, select the Telescope tab on the left side of the window, and press the connect button. Starry Night will display a status message indicating the connection was successful, and a pair of concentric circles representing the telescope's field of view will appear on Starry Night's map. Control-click on an object in the sky, scroll to the bottom of the pop-up menu and select Slew scope, and the telescope will begin moving to the selected destination.

The telescope's pointing accuracy will only be as good as the initial alignment, so extra care and time spent perfecting the telescope's orientation is worthwhile. If the telescope happens to get too far off course, Starry Night has a second option in the pop-up menu named Sync scope, which will synchronize the computer's field of view representation with the telescope's actual pointing location. Center a known object in the telescope, control-click that object on the map, select Sync scope, and everything is back on track.

Telescope control, along with other features such as real-time sky views, an observing log, detailed object information, and the ability to see any object from any point in space at any time, make Starry Night and a Mac powerful tools for the amateur astronomer.


By Aaron Adams






 
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