Monday, June 22, 2009

Multiple Displays: The future of TV & gaming?

I’ve been running three monitors on my PC at work for a while now, and it’s been working great for me.  Multiple monitors works great for running business applications and/or doing software development; for example, I typically run my programming environment maximized on my primary monitor, run most the programming environment’s secondary windows (e.g. project file list, search results, list of compiler warnings/errors, etc.) on the second monitor, and the application’s UI or other reference material on the third monitor.  I’m able to see everything I need to see at once without shuffling windows around.

PC Games

As multiple monitors on PCs continue to gain more market penetration, it would be nice to see more PC games join business applications and take advantage of the potential availability of multiple displays.  A game’s main view of the game world could go on the primary monitor, and secondary information could go on a second monitor, freeing the entire screen area of the primary monitor to show the game world.  For example:

  • In MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, the display can become pretty “cluttered” with ability toolbars, party status display, mini-map/radar, active buffs/debuffs, and more.  All of that could (optionally) be moved onto a secondary monitor, freeing the entire area of the primary monitor to show the game world.
  • In RTS games such as the classic Starcraft, the selected unit(s) and their information, “order” buttons (move, attack, stop, etc.), and mini-map could be moved onto the second monitor.
  • In traditional RPGs, secondary data such as inventory screens, skill/spell lists, character statistics display, and so forth could be shown on the second monitor, again freeing the entire area of the primary monitor to show the game world at all times.

Console Games

It would also be nice if future console systems (i.e. successors of the current generation’s Wii, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3) would (optionally) support hook-up to multiple television sets in the future.  In addition to the getting the same benefits that would be realized by PC games, this might also help with situations where there are multiple players playing simultaneously on the same local console system. 

Today, local multiplayer is typically accomplished via split screen; in the future, one or more players’ view could be moved onto the second screen.  If a future Rock Band or Guitar Hero game supported the addition of a keyboard (piano) part or otherwise supported more players playing together beyond the 4 supported today, multiple TVs could help with the problem that would otherwise be encountered in trying to squeeze 5+ players’ parts onto the same screen!

Handheld Games

Obviously, the one gaming system that is way out ahead of the curve as far as multiple monitor support goes is the Nintendo DS.  With two screens built into the hardware, all games on the platform can be designed to fully take advantage of the availability of two screens. 

Although I don’t own a DS, I’ve had a chance to briefly borrow one owned by my nephews on a couple of occasions.  It is really cool in a game like Zelda to be able to see both the primary game world and the overhead map view (while in a dungeon) at all times.

TV - Sports

Multiple screen support would also be really cool in the future for TV – particularly for sports broadcasts.  In my case, I’m a big fan of Michigan Football.  Instead of watching games on just a single screen (where the display tends to focus in on the quarterback or whomever has the ball, to the exclusion of the rest of the field), it would be amazing to have a second screen showing what the downfield receivers are doing (or other action away from the ball appropriate to the play), and a third screen dedicated to showing real-time stats at all times.  The score and “ticker” could also be shown on the third screen, freeing the entire area of the main screen to show the game action.

Obviously, support for people watching the game on just a single TV (I’d likely be among them, at least for now!) would have to be maintained as well.  Perhaps an “all in one” game broadcast (essentially what we have today) could be carried on a particular channel; the “multiple screens” version of the game could be carried on a separate set of channels.

This kind of multiple screen support for sports broadcasts, particularly combined with support for single-TV viewers, would work out to quite a few channels being dedicated to sports broadcasts!  Still, with the proliferation of channels available even today via digital cable or satellite broadcasts, this kind of thing might be possible in the not-too-far future.

Put those old displays to use!

This would also give people something to do with “old” PC monitors and TVs as they gradually get replaced over time with HD versions: Put the old displays to good use as secondary information displays for games and TV!  One of the 3 monitors that I have at work is an old monitor that would be sitting on a shelf at home (or worse, in a landfill somewhere) if I didn’t have a use for it as the third monitor on my work machine.

So, PC game developers, console hardware companies, and sports broadcasters: Go forth and make it so.  :-)

Monday, June 01, 2009

PC Frequently Rebooting due to Power Supply Unit Issue

This past Saturday, I was having lunch with the family in the kitchen when I heard from the office the sound effect that my new PC plays after booting.  I thought that was odd (since no one was in there using the PC), but shrugged and figured that maybe the PC had rebooted itself due to some automatic update?  When I heard the same sound again a few minutes later, though – indicating a second reboot in the span of a few minutes, with no one sitting at the machine – I investigated.

As I worked on the PC, I found that it was rebooting itself every few minutes, at irregular intervals.  The PC had never done this before; aside from some heat-related bluescreen issues after I first put the PC together, the PC had been quite stable for the 6 months or so since it was built.  I had the reboot problem reproduce once while I was in the boot-time BIOS configuration utility, which proved the problem wasn’t a Windows issue.

Due to the intermittent nature of the problem, I initially suspected it might be caused by another overheating issue.  However, the BIOS configuration utility showed that the CPU was operating at a nice and cool (relatively speaking!) 40 degrees C or so. 

I also suspected a possible RAM issue – perhaps one of the four RAM modules had gone bad and was causing the reboots.  However, I tried removing two of the RAM modules at a time (with the machine powered off, of course); the spontaneous reboot reproduced with only modules #1 and 2 in the machine, and also with only modules 3 and 4 in the machine, which appeared to rule out a memory module issue.

Finally, though, I got “lucky” in my investigation.  After the machine rebooted itself twice in rapid succession, I manually toggled off the power switch at the back of the PC’s power supply unit (PSU) to keep the machine off while I (once again) manually inspected the machine’s hardware.  When I toggled the power supply unit switch back on, I got a surprise – a bright spark and a loud “POP” sound from within the power supply unit!  I immediately pulled the power cord out of the PC to prevent anything further from occurring with the PSU.

This seemed unlikely to be a coincidence.  If the PSU had indeed gone bad somehow, I could see that the behavior of the system rebooting (with no error message, except Windows complaining that it hadn’t been shut down properly at restart time) would be consistent with the system losing power momentarily, and then getting it back immediately afterwards.  I was fairly confident that the incoming power supply to the machine was OK, as I had the machine hooked up to power via a UPS (an uninterruptable power supply -- designed to ensure a consistent flow of power, even in the event of a power failure).

I replaced the apparently faulty power supply unit with a spare that my father-in-law Doug had on hand (thanks Dad K.!) – and that resolved the issue!  The machine has been running since Saturday afternoon with no problems.  So the intermittent spontaneous reboot problem had been caused by a faulty power supply unit. 

I wrote “BAD” on the faulty PSU and threw it away.  I also ordered a modern 500W PSU with integrated PCI-Express and 8-pin CPU connectors to replace the one I’m borrowing from my father-in-law.

The lesson learned here for me is not to cheap out on buying a PSU when building a new PC!  When selecting a case and power supply for this machine, I’d mostly paid attention to cases, and had just accepted the included power supply that came with the case – for the PSU, I had only really looked at the raw wattage on the PSU (450W).  The PSU had turned out to be an older/cheaper model with no PCIe connection, and only one SCSI drive connection.  For this PC, with reasonably demanding power requirements (including a GeForce 9800 PCIe video card), the lower-end power supply that came with the case apparently just wasn’t sufficient over the long term.

In the future when building PCs, I’ll most likely opt for purchasing the case and power supply unit separately, and will certainly pay more attention to the detailed specs of the PSU to ensure that it is likely to be sufficient for the needs of the system I’m building!