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Microsoft-backed start-up eyes kid gamer market

When I was a kid, my mom would drop me off at the library so I could “study.” I would sneak to the basement of the library and play “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” on the library’s computer. It turns out I was studying, fooled into playing an educational video game.

Kids love video games, so why not make them fun and educational? That’s the idea behind a Seattle-based start-up, partially funded by Microsoft, called Sabi Inc., which is releasing a new game called “ItzaBitza.”

The reading and drawing game is targeted at children four years and older. It features a technology developed by Microsoft’s research division called “Living Ink,” which allows children to draw objects, such as a house or a tree, that come to life and interact with the game’s characters.

As part of the game, children embark on various “quests,” which force the players to read on-screen instructions. If a child gets stuck on a word, they can roll the mouse over the letters to pronounce the words out loud.

Sabi has a healthy level of appreciation for what it’s done:

“The same way Sesame Street was groundbreaking for TV, that’s how I would look at this,” said Co-Founder and Chief Executive Margaret Johnson, a former Microsoft employee. “It’s the time for an update to the get to the type of gaming that kids are doing today.”

Microsoft looks past Vista at Windows 7

Microsoft finally lifted the curtain on Windows 7 to an enthusiastic audience of developers at the company’s Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles.

Here are some details that didn’t make it into our story.

    Touch – It’s probably the most eye-catching new feature. You can use your finger to click on different programs, scroll through documents, flick to and from various Web pages and sift through photos. It’s also multi-touch — so feel free to use both hands. HomeGroup – Who likes setting up home networks? This feature finds and connects all Windows 7 computers on your home network. If you have one computer that holds all your music but want to play songs on a separate PC, HomeGroup lets you play music on any computer in your network regardless of whether the music is actually on that machine’s hard drive. It also lets all the computers on the network easily share printers without having to install drivers on each machine. New Taskbar – Any open window on the taskbar presents a quick snapshot of what is open. If you hover over those snapshots, it will provide a full screen preview. Also, anything on the taskbar can be moved and “pinned” to specific locations.

(Photo: Reuters/Fred Prouser)

Is PC the new black? Ask Microsoft

im-a-pc.jpgLook out nerdy-cool Apple guy, the empire is striking back. And it’s got Eva Longoria Parker, Tony Parker, Pharrell Williams and Deepak Chopra on its side.

Microsoft is launching (another) new commercial campaign Thursday night. It takes aim at Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” campaign that has portrayed personal computers running Windows as clunky and uncool.

The commercial starts with a real-life Windows engineer who looks eerily similar to John Hodgman (the comedian who plays the role of “PC” in Apple’s commercials), saying “I’m a PC and I’ve been made into a stereotype.” After that is a montage of celebs and normal folk, saying “I’m a PC.”   Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, along with the aforementioned celebrities, makes an appearance in the ad.

From weird to weirder, Microsoft has Gates do the robot

The first Jerry Seinfeld/Bill Gates commercial that debuted last week got a reception about as warm as the one received by the product it was supposed to be promoting: Windows Vista. For those who missed the 2007 debut of Vista, the answer is not very.

Now there are two more commercials in the series and they are two more 90-second head-scratcher. The basic plot line: Bill and Jerry live with a family to get in touch with “real people.” High jinks ensue, leading to Gates doing the robot. The sequels are sure to draw as much criticism as the original, but they may also achieve their intended goal: get people talking about Microsoft again.

The ad campaign — created by agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky — is part of Microsoft’s $300 million effort to try to improve the image of Windows and hit back at Apple, which has effectively portrayed Windows as clunky and out-of-touch with its Mac vs. PC commercials.

Microsoft’s new “Synth”-esizer stiches together photos

(Update – adds video of Photosynth demo)

If you’re snap-happy with your digital camera, Microsoft thinks it has the Web site for you. Microsoft Photosynth is a new, free photo service that stiches together pictures (preferably lots of them) of a place or a thing to create a 360-degree visual experience. You can zoom in and out smoothly, pan left and right, up and over.

Here’s the description of how Photosynth works from the Microsoft press release.

“Photosynth analyzes each photo for similarities to the others, and uses that data to estimate where a photo was taken. It then re-creates the environment and uses that as a canvas on which to display the photos.”

“Resident Evil 5″ ups the action — and the violence

It’s the third day of E3. The press conferences are finished and we are finally getting to spend some quality time with some of the most buzzed about games of the coming year.

Video games reporter Kemp Powers stopped by the Capcom booth and shot and slashed his way through one of the most impressive games of the show, “Resident Evil 5.” (Video below)

The follow-up to the 2005 hit “Resident Evil 4″ on the Nintendo GameCube, Sony Playstation 2 and Wii, this new game is the first offering in the survival horror series for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s Playstation 3. It’s due for a worldwide release on March 13, 2009.

Skaters, time to ride … the Wii

Electronic Arts is taking its popular “Skate” game to another level with the introduction of “Skate It” made exclusively for Nintendo’s Wii and DS.

“Skate It” follows a similar storyline as its predecessor, but it gets players off the couch and onto their Wii Fit Balance Boards. A player’s body weight on the balance board controls their turns and jumps on the skateboard.e3-july-15-038.JPG

If you’re a skateboarder or snowboarder, don’t be too confident. The game’s not as easy as it looks as our reporter Jennifer Martinez (not pictured)  found out when she got off to a rocky (and embarrassing) start to the game.

Let’s Hear It for the Girls!

imagine-screenshots.jpgOur video games reporter Kemp Powers went to today’s Ubisoft press conference, which featured the usual array of gun play and sword fighting fans expected from the French video game publisher.

The company, however, saved some of its most enthusiastic chest-bumping for an update on its “Games for Girls” brand strategy.

Tony Key, Ubisoft’s senior vice president of sales and marketing laid out the impressive data; in the first three months of 2008, sales in the division aimed at “tween,” or pre-teen, girls grew 63 percent. Six of the top ten third party titles on the Nintendo DS are games targeted to the tween set.

Wii can jam too!

It was Nintendo’s turn to play a little music. Following on the heels of popular music genre games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, Nintendo showed off Wii Music at its E3 press conference.  Here’s a quick video — shot by our video games reporter Kemp Powers — of Nintendo executives, including legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto , playing the Mario theme song. (Hint: Miyamoto is the short Japanese man.)

The reception for the game was mixed.  The game does let you simulate more than 60 different instruments and it does seem easy to use. However, no one keeps score and you can’t play out of tune because the game picks-up motions to play the melody. The complaint seems to be that it is too basic and simple. (To be fair, many people said that about the Wii when it came out.)

One of my colleagues may have said it best. Guitar Hero and Rock Band makes you feel like a rock star. This game makes you look like you are in a high school marching band.

Finally, a little more on Spore

spore.jpgElectronic Arts provided a glimpse at “Spore,” a much-hyped game where players begin with their own basic microbe and customize their creature to weather environmental conditions and population changes on Earth. Reuters video game reporter Jennifer Martinez gives us the story from the news conference. 

During the  company’s E3 press conference, EA showed a brief trailer of the game and set a release date, Sept. 7, for the latest title from legendary game creator Will Wright, known for creating “SimCity” and “The Sims.”

EA has invested $80 million, according to one analyst, into making ”Spore,” which was inspired by Wright’s love of science and his favorite toy as a child, a chemistry set.