TIME Environment

The 5 Worst Invasive Species in the Florida Everglades

A most wanted list for alien pests in the Sunshine State

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As I write in a cover story in TIME this week, invasive species are a growing threat around the U.S. And there’s no place quite as thoroughly invaded as Florida:

“We are ground zero for the impacts of invasive species,” says Doria Gordon, director of conservation science for the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) . “And our invaders are very good at finding new habitats.”

Often those habitats are in or around the Everglades, that vast “river of grass” that covers much of South Florida. Half of the original Everglades has been developed for farming or housing, and the sprawling wetland has been carved up by more than 1,400 miles (2,250 km) of canals and levees that divert water for South Florida’s 5.8 million people. That mix of suburbs and wilderness makes the Everglades an invasive free-for-all.

But which invasive species pose the biggest threats to the Everglades? Check out the video above

 

TIME Environment

How to Catch a Python, in Five (Sort of) Easy Steps

The inelegant art of hunting an invasive snake

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“Fear is a natural reaction.” That’s what the dangerous-animal expert Jeff Fobb told me stood in the backyard of his house in Homestead, Florida, waiting to tangle with a Burmese python. Fobb was right—even though Burmese pythons don’t really pose a threat to human beings, there’s something about the way a snake slithers, the way the muscles under the sheen of its scales ripple, that seems to strike a bell in the human amgydala. Almost as scary: the fact that there may be tens of thousands of invasive pythons slithering around the state of Florida.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to catch a python—provided you can find it. Here’s how:

TIME Environment

The Volunteer Army Hunting Florida’s Invasive Pythons

Finding an invasive python in the wild is difficult, which is why you need a volunteer army

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As I write in TIME’s cover story this week, Burmese pythons invaded Florida years ago, and they’ve thrived in the warm tropical climate. There may be tens of thousands of pythons slithering around south Florida, but the truth is that no one really knows. That’s because when they don’t want to be found—which is most of the time—Burmese pythons are all but impossible to locate. At a 2013 state-sponsored hunt, nearly 1,600 participants found and captured just 68 pythons. “For every one snake you’ll find, you can walk by at least 99 without seeing them,” says Michael Dorcas, a snake expert at Davidson College.

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Just ask experts like Jeff Fobb, a dangerous-animal specialist with Miami Dade County Fire Rescue department. Fobb helps train volunteers for the Python Patrol, an initiative begun by the Nature Conservancy and now run by the state of Florida. Training as many people as possible improves the chances of actually capturing a python when one is found. But it’s not always easy, as this video shows.

To see the full cover story click here: Invasive Species Coming to a Habitat Near You

TIME Video Games

Virtual Reality and Eye Tracking: Sony’s Vision of the Future

Sony envisions a future where virtual reality is king

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After Nintendo’s “smash hit” Wii, Sony realized that raw horsepower wasn’t necessarily the be all, end all for a video game console. Jump to the beginning of 2013, when Playstation formed Magic Lab: a special R&D arm at PlayStation tasked with dreaming up the next generation of gaming experiences.

“We had the concept in 2012 for this group which would use technology to really explore new experiences,” said Richard Marks, Director of PlayStation’s Magic Lab. “We really focused a lot on technology in the past, and [now] we really want to focus more on the new experiences that technology enables. One of the things that we believe strongly in is actually prototyping things; we call it: experiencing engineering.”

Since joining Sony, Richard Marks has been responsible for the development of Sony’s PlayStation Eye, PlayStation Move controllers and now Sony’s foray into virtual reality: Project Morpheus, a wraparound headset designed to work with the company’s PlayStation 4 games console. The headset’s revelation came in tandem with Facebook’s high-stakes maneuver to put virtual reality on the map for non-gamers per its recent $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift.

So far, Sony’s touted Morpheus to game designers at shows like the Game Developers Conference and E3 to drum up development interest (though the technology’s still far from a commercial product — it currently has no release date). Morpheus’ display still has a few issues, too: there’s a stutter effect on some demonstrations caused by high latency, and Morpheus’ Field of View (FOV) doesn’t cover everyone’s vision completely. The technology also has various critics predicting that it lacks a mass market appeal. But then again Morpheus is only a prototype, as are the various Oculus Rift iterations.

“There’s a trade-off. There’s a fixed amount of resolution. So you can either give that to a really wide field of view or you can make [the resolution] feel higher, but the [field of view] narrower. We’re trying to get a good balance of that. Right now we’re still working on the issue of the display. Right now we have a great prototype system for our developers … [but] for the commercial system, we’re still working on that.”

And as a prototype, Project Morpheus is an amazing portal into what VR could look like for the future. The technology is so electrifying that creators and entrepreneurs outside the games industry are seeing VR’s potential, which is why Facebook put up the cash in the first place. For instance, currently Sir David Attenborough is creating a VR nature documentary, companies are looking into how VR can impact education and Hollywood is looking into virtual reality movies.

Whether VR will succeed as a mass market product or not remains to be seen; in the meantime, PlayStation’s Magic Lab is tinkering with its notion of what the future of gaming might look like.

During the launch of the PlayStation 4 in November 2013, Marks and fellow Magic Lab researcher Eric Larsen were demoing their eye tracking or “gaze tracking” technology. “A lot of different people are looking at how to track your eyes. Our focus is more on, if you can track your eyes, what do you do with it?” Marks said.

The technology has a lot of potential applications, like as a targeting assistant for shooter games, as Marks and Larsen demonstrated with the game Infamous: Second Son. One of the more interesting applications Marks noted is the ability to pick up on subtle, non-verbal communication cues. “Where someone is looking conveys a lot of information about what the person is interested in, what they intend to do, and it’s a very unconscious thing that people do,” Larsen said.

In the demonstration, the player interacts with a computer store merchant who’s trying to sell the player different products. The eye gazing technology detects what products the player is looking at and uses that information to decide what products to pitch the player. “You can make the characters smarter because they kind of react in a way that is more intelligent because they know what you’re looking at,” Marks adds.

On top of that, Magic Lab is also looking into biometrics, partnering with UC San Francisco to research brain waves as a feedback mechanism for how a game affects players.

Magic Lab, like Google X — responsible for the creation of Google Glass and Google’s Driverless Car — seems to be Sony’s take on “experiencing engineering” without the red-tape. Whether Magic Lab will create products with the same hype factor as Google X’s ideas is anyone’s guess, but if Morpheus is any indication, Marks and his team are off to a promising start.

MORE: What Gaming Industry Professionals Think of Virtual Reality:

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Video Games

6 Interns’ Amazing Journey to Make a PlayStation Game

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In front of thousands of spectators, six recent college graduates debuted their first game during PlayStation’s lavish, high-spectacle E3 presentation. The small independent team, named Pixelopous, was on stage rubbing shoulders with industry professionals showcasing their multi-million dollar projects to the world. Not only that, but their game, Entwined, came as a complete surprise to the thousands of spectators at the press conference; a true testament to secrecy in an industry plagued with insider leaks.

“So [for] all of us, [it's] our first game after college … and to announce a launch at the same time as E3 is such a dream come true for us,” Entwined designer Jing Li said.

But where did this secretive game come from in the first place?

Sony has built a reputation for itself as always looking out for the little guys, and Entwined is just the latest example of that philosophy. The game and the Pixelopus studio are both products of Sony’s PlayStation incubation program; an initiative that looks to foster young talent in the gaming industry. The program started in 2006 when Allan Becker, now head of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios Japan, struck up a relationship between Sony’s Santa Monica studio and the University of Southern California. That endeavor lead to the creation of ThatGameCompany, the studio responsible for Flower, a title that many critics cite to argue that gaming is an art form.

Jump forward six years to the budding game program at Carnegie Mellon University, of which Sony is a sponsor. The sharpest students from that first graduating class were brought on as interns in Sony’s San Mateo Studio in California. Three months later, six of them were hired and formed the Pixelopous team responsible for Entwined.

As a group in Sony’s incubation program, the Pixelopus team received unprecedented access to professional support and were given considerable freedom to dream up something fresh and new.

“We would have never dreamed up Entwined,” said Scott Rohde, PlayStation’s head of product development. “This came out of a group that hasn’t been working on third-person action adventure games for the last eight years. It’s a fresh perspective.”

Sony then added two industry veterans to the Pixelopus team, art director Jeff Sangalli and Creative Director Dominic Robilliard, to give the team’s dreams a sense of direction.

Now that Entwined has released on the PlayStation 4, the Pixelopus team will begin working on their next project while remaining in the incubation program.

“We’ll probably go back to prototyping, see what sticks around with us … and then make that into a full game,” Entwined Programmer Jitesh Mulchandani said.

The San Mateo incubation program is just one of the many that PlayStation is setting up around the world. Sony opened up an a program in Singapore in 2007, and now it’s also doing the same in Latin America. All of this is a part of Sony’s larger goal to be the center of a gaming community that extends beyond the big Triple-A titles. So expect to be surprised by more incubation projects in the future from teams across the world.

TIME Video Games

Now You Can Be ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’: Evolve Inside Scoop

Gamers can finally understand what Frankenstein's creation felt as the angry and armed mob hunted it down

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Developer Turtle Rock, Creator of Left 4 Dead, will soon launch a new multiplayer experience, Evolve. The game is set in a futuristic frontier-like galaxy, where Humanity has colonized a planet called Shear. That’s when the monsters come in. A group of hunters are enlisted as a last ditch effort to save the planet’s colonists. On paper Evolve is a simple concept — four player-controlled hunters versus one player-controlled monster — but from this simple idea for a gaming mechanic, something novel and complex has been created.

“Even prior to creating Left 4 Dead, Turtle Rock Studios was keenly interested in the idea of a team of players fighting a giant boss battle, but with the boss being controlled by another player,” said Michael J. Boccieri, Senior Producer at 2K. “Compared to a standard boss battle, this 4v1 multiplayer results in unique gameplay every single match due to the human mind controlling the monster, so no match ever plays out the same way…[Turtle Rock] then drew inspiration from other mediums including film, comic books, literature and more, which was a core driving component to a lot of the aesthetics that make Evolve what it is today.”

The notion of playing as the monster in a game isn’t new, but never before have developers embraced the idea of giving players control quite like this. In Shelly’s Frankenstein (as well as its film adaptations), Frankenstein’s creation is always on the defensive, despite its impressive power. The creature, misunderstood and unmoored, is hunted by an angry village mob, which views it as an implicit threat. But in games, players haven’t really experienced the persecuted monster’s point of view.

Though developers have occasional embraced a “monster” as a narrative’s lead, but those instances are few and far between. In these cases, the game is usually constructed in either two ways:

1) The monster is the protagonist in an anti-hero role, who is tasked with fighting a worse evil, or it is empowered by the developers to hunt and slay others. This can be seen in titles such as Altered Beast, Splatterhouse, Overlord, Demon’s Crest, Alien Vs Predator 2, and more.

2) The monster is just a stock character in a gameplay centric title within either the Fighting or Sidescrollling genres, like Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee or Rampage World Tour.

In all of these titles the developers empower the player to be on the offensive, hunting and killing with minimal regard for the protagonist’s life beyond the threat of restarting a level. Players are rarely, if ever, given an experience where they can inhabit the mind of a monster who is being hunted by an an overwhelming force. That’s where Evolve steps in.

During this year’s E3 gaming expo, the game’s publisher 2K gave TIME the opportunity to competitively play the game. I took control of a monster named Kraken. During my match, I finally understood what Frankenstein’s creation felt like as the angry and armed mob hunted it down. Because Evolve a strategic competitive multiplayer title, I was able to feel the fear of being hunted. At the onset of each match the monster is weak and vulnerable. I was forced to avoid confrontation and scavenge on local wildlife, and in doing so, I could “evolve” (three evolutionary stages in total). With each subsequent evolution I was granted more abilities, and gained the strength necessary to push back my attackers.

“Certainly when you start a match as the monster at Stage One, you are underpowered compared to the hunter team; a savvy hunter team knows this, and will attempt to corral, contain and destroy the monster as quickly as possible,” said Boccieri. “Much as Frankenstein’s creation comes into his own over the course of the novel, so too does the monster player over the course of a match as they feed on the wildlife and evolve, growing more and more powerful. By Stage Two the monster is equal to the hunters, and by the time the monster reaches Stage Three, the hunters actually become the hunted. It’s an interesting parallel to the plot of the novel — by the time we are at the ice flows at the novel’s conclusion, we wonder whether Dr. Frankenstein is hunting the monster, or he himself is the hunted?”

But in those early moments of the game, I was overwhelmed by paranoia. Every move and action I made could be used by the hunters to track me down: my footsteps, birds that had been startled or dead animal carcasses my character left behind. Each time I stopped to eat wildlife, I feared that just beyond my field of vision — the hunters lay in waiting. And that is what’s so unique about Evolve. That perspective flop that gamers rarely have the opportunity to enjoy.

TIME Video Games

The Hollywood Cinematographer Has a New Job Path: Video Games

Lights. Camera. Press start.

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Video game developer Ready at Dawn has been working on The Order 1886 since 2010, and it’s tentatively scheduled for a 2015 release. The Order drops players into an alternate Victorian-Era reality torn apart by a vicious war between mankind and a subset of humans: the “Half-breeds.” The game recasts the familiar humanity versus ‘other’ story with a steampunk twist, though what sets this game apart is the development team’s film-style ambitions.

“We wanted to show gamers what the next-generation of gaming would be like,” said Ru Weerasuriya, the CEO and Creative Director at Ready at Dawn. “So, for us, it not only meant cool gameplay, but it also meant that we needed to build a new experience. And what we’ve done with this game is what we coin as filmic … We’ve used [techniques] that are very movie-like … to build the game.”

Film has had over a century to develop as an art-form, while video games have had a mere four decades. Early filmmakers and film theorists experimented to understand the psychology of editing and the subconscious effects of cinematography. Take Lev Kuleshov’s famous experiments with the “cutaway,” for instance (as seen below). In the 1920s, Kuleshov alternated various shots of objects (a bowl of soup, a baby doll), and intercut them with the same shot of an emotionless actor’s face. Each time audiences believed that the actor’s emotional expression had changed, even though it hadn’t. Now, video game designers are looking to build off these pre-existing film techniques to slash the medium’s maturation time in half.

It’s no secret that video games have always aspired to be similar to film. We’ve seen games add complex narratives to gameplay mechanics, the addition of long and intricate GGI driven cutscenes, and the implementation of Hollywood motion capture to bring actors like Ellen Page and Kevin Spacey to life inside games. The Order, however, looks to experiment with an aspect of motion pictures that is much more subtle and impactful: Cinematography.

“We decided to replicate the attributes of physical lenses used in photography and cinematography in our game engine, such as a lens’ specific depth of field or focus,” Weerasuriya said. “This also meant that we had to recreate the “imperfections” found in physical lenses that we often take for granted. Lens curvature, chromatic aberration, vignette and lens dirt are just a few examples. In games, we often have the tendency to see everything through a perfect window, which is very much unlike what people have been accustomed to seeing in other visual media through the lens of a camera.”

If the final product is anything like the demonstrations shown by developer Ready at Dawn at E3, then this could be another pivotal step in the medium’s maturity. Many video games have been a sterile CGI representation of life, but by borrowing from the art of cinematography the medium can begin aspiring to be more.

Cinematography is all about the art of subconscious manipulation and subversion. By design, audiences are meant to be oblivious to the techniques that are manipulating them to feel sad, angry, or excited during a film. The audience may feel that the antagonist is powerful, without realizing that it is the camera’s upward angle, the telephoto lens implemented by the cinematographer, and the red splash of light on the character’s shoulders put there that made them feel as such. The Order 1886 is delving into this art of subconscious manipulation in hopes of providing a more realistic experience.

“The strange thing is that although many people might not be able to pinpoint the technicalities of everything they see through a regular lens, once we remove the attributes and imperfections that make a certain shot feel ‘real,’ they will automatically know that something is off with the shot,” Weerasuriya said. “Replicating the correct glass and the imperfections that come with it, as well as the lighting and other film techniques we use, are what make our visuals feel familiar and grounded in reality.​”

Realism is not the intent of all video games, of course. Gamers and critics alike have expressed worries that bringing Hollywood aesthetics to games can be confining, criticizing the use of passive cinematic cutscenes in an interactive medium. The development team claims this isn’t The Order’s filmic ambitions, however. Cutscenes actually flow smoothly between exposition and gameplay without jarring shifts from one graphically polished reality, to another that looks visually mismatched. With any luck, The Order’s cinematic roots will make for a more consistent experience — one that doesn’t periodically jolt you out of the game world.

For more of the inside scoop with Ready at Dawn’s CEO and Creative Director Ru Weerasuriya, check out the video above.

TIME e3 2014

The New Alien Is Exactly What Horror Should Be Like

Calling all Horror Junkies: Your new fix is not on the silver-screen, but rather under the thumb of a joystick.

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Fans of the original Alien might be jaded by news of alien game tie-ins: since 1982 there have been over 30 Alien video games on everything from the Commodore 64 to the current generation of gaming consoles. SEGA’s last adaptation, Alien: Colonial Marines, was released just a year ago to poor reviews. The game was filled with bugs, and failed to capture the terror of the original film.

Despite all of that, SEGA’s next release, Alien: Isolation, is of a different breed then its predecessors. Rather than relying on the worn genre of the first-person shooter, this Alien is pure survival-horror. Set 15 years after the first movie you take control of the protagonist Amanda Ripley, who uses her wits to survive to against just one Xenomorph.

The most visceral horror, whether it be a motion picture or interactive entertainment, is subtle and uses different techniques to put the player at unease. Based on SEGA’s E3 demos, the game’s developers seem to understand this.

“Sometimes a huge part of horror is actually not being able to see to see the thing that is hunting you,” lead designer, Gary Napper, said.

With any luck, we’ll finally have an Alien game worth playing when Alien: Isolation releases on October 7th. Though, fans of the franchise have all the right to continue staying skeptical. For more of the inside scoop on the game from Lead Designer Gary Napper, check out the video above.

TIME

Re-Live the French Revolution: Assassin’s Creed – Unity the Inside Scoop

Try not to lose your head, Assassin's Creed Unity puts players in the midst of revolutionary France.

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Assassins’s Creed is the Da Vinci Code for video games; steeped in mystery, lush with the tales of secret societies, and fueled by a search for mysterious artifacts. On October 28th, 2014, the world of Assassin’s Creed is coming out with another piece to the puzzle of its long and tangled alternate universe: Assassin’s Creed – Unity. Set during the French Revolution in the late 1700′s you take control of the character Arno Dorian, following his journey from a child to becoming another instrument of war in a centuries long battle between the Templars and the Assassins.

This latest entry in the franchise was designed completely from the ground up for the current generation of consoles, unlike the last iteration Assassin’s Creed – Black Flag, which was a multi-generational title. That means that this game won’t be limited by the horsepower of 9-year-old consoles – It’s truly ‘Next-gen.’ For more of the inside scoop, watch the video above.

TIME e3 2014

Activision’s Eric Hirshberg Explains Why His Company Is Disruptive

CEO Eric Hirshberg sat down with TIME at E3 to discuss how Activision has grown since he arrived four years ago and what's next on its gaming lineup

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Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg is at ease in the spotlight, four years after leaving ad company Deutsch LA to fill then-resigning Activision CEO Mike Griffith’s shoes. Hirshberg’s arrival at one of the largest publishers in the gaming industry came on the heels of sudden departures and legal brouhaha between Activision and esteemed members of its rainmaking Infinity Ward Call of Duty development studio. Many at the time worried Call of Duty, absent two of its studio founders and dozens of others, was in deep franchise-threatening trouble.

But since then, Activision—founded in 1979 by a bunch of ex-Atari programmers and responsible for some of the industry’s most recognized games—has grown by leaps and bounds, its stock price more than doubling since Hirshberg started. The Call of Duty series alone has become one of the top 10 game franchises with more than 120 million units sold worldwide, and the Skylanders toy-game series surpassed the $2 billion sales mark earlier this year, moving 175 million tiny plastic figurines (and seven games, with an eighth due this October) since launching just over two years ago.

At the end of the summer, Activision will ship one of 2014′s most anticipated games, Destiny, from the makers of Halo. Bungie’s sci-fi multiplayer-angled opus will ship for last- as well as current-generation consoles on Sept. 9. In early May, Reuters reported that the development and marketing expenditures for Destiny alone would top $500 million—another Hollywood-stomping record. If Hirshberg has his way, the returns (he’s anticipating revenue in the billions) will dwarf that investment.

Suggest that the company’s stifling its competition or leaning too heavily on safe moneymaking bets, and Hirshberg will claim otherwise. He may have a point: Of the company’s top three tentpole games at E3 2014—Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Skylanders: Trap Team and Destiny—one of those franchises didn’t exist three years ago and the other has yet to appear on stage.

For more on Activision’s lineup, take a look at the video above.

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