Elite:Dangerous · Dec 14, 10:02 PM

On the topic of Elite:Dangerous – I’m very glad to say I was wrong. After so many promises, and then seeing Frontier struggle as a company, I didn’t think it would ever ship. I was quite wrong, and I have to say it looks very impressive. It is essentially Elite as I remember it, but freshened up for the modern day – a perfect update. As a result of my misplaced scepticism I didn’t back it or get the betas, so missed out on earlier builds, but the full game comes out this coming week, so I’m quite excited.

For those interested to see what 20 years can do to a video game, you can compare this video of ArcElite on the Acorn Archimedes (which to me is the definitive version from my childhood) with videos like this one and this one of the new Elite:Dangerous. I’m looking forward to spending some time playing Elite over the xmas holidays, and this version is online, so hopefully I’ll be able to find some of my friends out there too.

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Oculus Rift experiences · Dec 14, 02:06 PM

Last weekend my friend Nick took me and Laura to a strange purple office, and showed me the nice pyramid of playing cards he on his desk. Then we went to a beautiful old house by the edge of Lake Como, with lovely candelabra and trees in the garden. Finally, we went to an asteroid field, and then docked at a space station. All virtual of course, but also real, as what Nick was demonstrating to us was the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that is making it seem like VR is here, once again.

Nick guiding Laura through the Oculus Rift demos.

People of my age are probably quite cynical when it comes to VR. We remember in the early 90s Virtuality), a full VR gaming rig, made popular in the UK by the TV game show Cyberzone. It seemed back then VR was here, but for various reasons it never took off and fizzled out, and then we got all excited about this thing called the Internet and forgot about it. But having seen it back then, it’s still something that gets me excited about the possibilities, so having watched skeptically the rise of the Oculus Rift for a while, I finally begged Nick to let me have a go in his Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 (DK2), and he was gracious enough to provide us with a physical tour of virtual reality.

The Oculus Rift is a nice bit of hardware. You can imagine it as a pair of skiing goggles with an LCD screen strapped to the front; and indeed that’s what the early demo units where. The DK2 unit however is well built and feels solid. It’s not light, but for me it wasn’t too heavy either. Inside it has mobile phone LCD screen designed for 1920×1080, which is shared between both eyes, giving you 980×1080 per eye. Also in the unit are a bunch of hidden IR emitters, that are then tracked by a small sensor you clip to you screen, and it’s through this it can track your head position. You have to provide your own sound, or in our case Nick had a nice Turtle Beach headset.

So, what’s it like?

Firstly it’s a little disorientating, so I’m glad Nick started us off with some simple demos. You go into this virtual world that you see, but know isn’t real, and that first experience takes a few minutes to get used to. It really is confusing when you look down and fail to see your hands. You then spend the next few minutes bobbing your head trying to find anything that exhibits parallax to get the obvious 3D benefits. And here it really does deliver a solid feeling world.

From a technical standpoint there’s two main factors that you want for a VR headset to work well, the most of important one is low latency (or low lag as most people say). Put simply, if you move your head, you want the world to move with you with as little delay as possible. In the stock demos for DK2, the latency is effectively not noticeable. Objects in the demos seem totally solid, you move your head and they move (or rather don’t move) as you’d expect. The demos don’t have the highest of graphical fidelity, but they get this basic point across well: the world feels solid. The things you see really do feel like they’re anchored into position in the world. One of the criticisms of the first Rift dev kit (DK1) was that even with just 15 ms of delay between sampling your head orientation and delivering the picture to your eyes, it was still noticeable. For DK2 they’ve got that down to an effective 5 ms, by adding an extra rendering stage in which after they’ve drawn the picture, they sample where your head is now, and apply a little skew to try to correct for any change. It’s a noticeable improvement (to me at least); you can switch between the DK1 and DK2 modes and you can see a slight wobble with DK1 mode that is gone in DK2.

The second technical issue you want is visual fidelity too, aka screen resolution. Although 1980×1080 is a lot of pixels for a screen that is a few feet from your face, in the DK2 the pixels can be noticeable at times when a few inches from your face. I suspect they’re probably noticeable all the time but your brain fuzzes it out; things more than a few virtual feet away all seem fine, but when you look at things up close, you start to notice the pixels, presumably as they limit the virtual fidelity of nearby objects. This to me was the main technical let down of the Rift in its current form (which we should remember is still a development kit, not a shipping product).

Thus far in all my DK2 experience I’ve been stood still, gawping like an idiot at these virtual worlds. Next I tried walking, moving around the world using keyboard and mouse input like a first person shooter (FPS), and it was here my body decided it was really confused, and I got something akin to motion sickness. Your eyes have this very convincing input telling you that you’re by Lake Como in this house and that you’re walking up the stairs to look off the balcony, but your inner ear is saying your sat in a chair in Tooting not moving. I found this to be particularly unsettling, such that I ended up blurring my eyes whilst I moved from location to location, then revelling in the wonder of that particular spot, before repeating the process to move about. Thus it would appear that playing Skyrim (essentially a fell running simulator) with the Rift is not going to be my thing any time soon.

But before we decide this is a show stopper – not all immersive experiences require the viewer to be the source of movement. So long as the world moves about you rather than you in the world, it’s not a problem. Thankfully Nick had one of those, having saved the best demo to last: Elite: Dangerous. Elite, incase you’re not a child of the 80s, is a space faring simulator, where you pilot your spaceship along trade routes trying to either make an honest living or being a pirate attacking the others and evading the police. This new version is wonderfully detailed, as this screenshot of me playing it on a conventional screen shows:

Scene from Elite:Dangerous looking over an asteroid field from the cockpit of a Sidewinder

Now put that into VR, and you’re getting somewhere interesting. Nick started me off at the same position as in that picture above: in the pilot seat of a stationary spaceship floating in an asteroid field, and it was absolutely mesmerising. I could look all around me: before me where the controls, and left, right, up were slowly tumbling asteroids, and beyond them a wall of stars and the band of the Milky Way. With the headset on to mask out the sounds of an office in London, I was briefly there inside this vast vista; not watching someone else in that vista on a screen, I was for the first time truly there myself. The cabin of my spaceship was all there too: I could see the thermos flask strapped in to the right of my chair, I could stand up and see bits of my spaceship out of the canopy. Once sat back down, I fumbled and found the throttle and joystick Nick has, and as I moved them, my virtual hands moved, and I piloted the field, gawping some more, and adding healthily to Nick’s spaceship insurance premiums as I failed to spot all the asteroids.

Here, sat in deep space, there’s no problem with inner ear and eye disagreeing, it all feels very comfortable. I’ve never flown a spaceship, so my brain quite happily accepts the whizzing spaceship has no sense of motion (just like in Star Trek then, where they can accelerate beyond the speed of light and no one as much as spills their tea). It really is quite jaw dropping, but I do suspect I’m also getting waves of nostalgia here, as this was the first time I’ve played Elite since the early 90s.

The one thing that does hamper Elite is that lack of resolution. The menus in the cockpit of my spaceship are a little hard to read (though wonderfully 3D – I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see the iconic Elite scanner in real 3D). But there you can at least do one trick that I did naturally but didn’t expect to work – you can just move your head closer. Even in space people still need varifocals clearly.

The main sense of wonder though is that canopy and the view beyond. Being able to look not just forward, but any which way, changes things. The space station we docked in felt truly vast. I could look over my shoulder for things buzzing me. A totally new set on experiences in a video game, that make it so much bigger. Elite on my LCD monitor at home is still fun, but I know it’s not the Real Thing™, that there’s a much better experience out there to be had by those fortunate enough to have a stonking PC and an Oculus Rift.

Summing up – is VR here now, 20 years later? I don’t quite think the Rift is ready for the general public, but it’s a damned good approach. You need to find more than just Elite to compel it, and the resolution is just too low to make it a replacement for polarised glasses to watch 3D films at home. But assuming hype doesn’t overtake it, and it slowly continues to improve over the next couple of years, there’s definitely something there that should make an impact on the video game market if nothing else. I hope it’s successful, as it really is an amazing experience, of which I’d like to have more, rather than waiting another 20 years.

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Laura · Nov 29, 10:27 PM

Photograph Laura by Michael Dales on 500px

HL2 retrospective · Nov 17, 08:21 AM

Here’s a lovely retrospective on Half-Life 2 by Eurogamer, that if you like your video games on the story telling side, is worth a read. Covering why it’s long remembered and still borrowed from today, down to the smallest tricks:

One of the best uses of physics in the game is a minor but brilliant narrative trick – a Combine soldier hits a can to the floor and orders Freeman to pick it up. At once a powerful piece of world-building and an opportunity for the player to ‘take control’ of Freeman’s response, the sequence echoes throughout the genre to this day.

I generally found the linearity of HL2 very constraining compared to games like Halo, but as a mix of gameplay and immersive story telling, it definitely still holds its own ten years on.

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New worlds · Oct 26, 10:31 PM

Off exploring

Somehow the release of Minecraft 1.8 slipped past me – I guess that’s what happens when you get sucked into the world of modpacks that are usually a couple of releases behind. Anyway, to celebrate, we’ve set up a new private server today for friends, and started exploring.

If you fancy joining us, drop me a missive via email or other such channels, and I can add you to the white list. If you’ve not played before, well joining whilst we’re all working out what’s new is as good a time as any.

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The same old photo · Oct 26, 11:22 AM

Busted out my DSLR for the first time in a while yesterday. Took this photo, which is just muscle memory I suspect:

The same old photo

It was interesting to realise it’s not just myself that’s rusty when it comes to photographs, but also the way I process and distribute them is also quite rusty. Aperture, which Apple have already signalled isn’t long for this world, is already showing some obvious bugs when run under Yosemite, and Flickr, where I used to post photos, is in quite a sad state. The photo presentation formatting has changed considerably, which makes a mess of the framing on my old photos which was designed around Flickr’s old layout. Even worse, my attempt to log in was pretty much a full screen advert for some bank with a tiny login to one side, and given I pay for Flickr, I strongly object to this. I suspect I’ll be closing my Flickr account shortly, which is sad, as Flickr used to have a very good community.

Discussing with a friend, it looks like there’s no go to place for photos on the internet any more, at least for serious amateurs like ourselves. Flickr is now a mess, 500px never really seemed to take off, SmugMug’s layout never really suited trying to present photos such that they’re not surrounded by widgets. My friend has taken to just using his blog, and here I am doing the same, but then I miss the feedback from other photographers, which really helped me a lot during my 365.

This all ties back a bit to a common discussion at the Indie tech summit I went to earlier this year. A common theme there was trying to find a home for your content on the web, such that you could put it where others could access it (which mainly means with shared services), whilst at the same time you regain control over it (which mainly means with self owned services). There was some good ideas floating around, but it’ll be interesting to see if any of those make it to launch, and if they do, then whether they can succeed where services like identi.ca and diaspora failed.

Moving to Windows Phone · Sep 28, 01:28 PM

A couple of months ago I surprised both myself and quite a few of my friends by moving from iOS to Windows Phone running on a Nokia Lumia 930 for my daily device, and thought I’d write up some of my thoughts on it here.

Why change? Having consistently used iOS since the iPhone 3G (the oddly named second version of the iPhone), I decided it was time to try something different when I came around to replacing my iPhone 5. I’d held out until WWDC (Apple’s annual developer conference) to see what the next version of iOS held in store, but nothing from a user’s perspective seemed that new (at least for my typical usage). Don’t get me wrong, iOS is really good, and for the most part it just works, which as a user is fantastic, but as a technologist is a little bit dull. And it’s not just the phone OS that has stagnated, so have the applications I run on it. I’ve no idea if it’s me or the app store (or both), but I’ve found myself using the same ten or so apps for the last year, with nothing new to excite me about using my phone.

As an alternative I decided to go for something totally unknown – Windows Phone 8.1. I’d heard some good things about it, but had next to no experience of it (or indeed of Windows since I stopped working at Intel some eight years ago), so it seemed like a suitable technological adventure. And given that part of my aim was to compare it to my iPhone, I opted to buy the flagship Windows Phone phone at the time, the Lumia 930 (which, despite being their flagship phone, was actually cheaper than the equivalent iPhone, though still not cheap).

I’ve now lived with the phone for two months, and people keep asking my opinion on it, so here’s some thoughts on it to date: the good, the mixed, and the bad.

The good

Windows Phone generally seems quiet slick UI wise. It suffers from animation overdose a little (as does iOS these days) slowing down navigation a bit, but on the whole, I do like the start of day experience with the phone. I’ve been using the Live Lock Screen Beta app to have a nicely playful lock screen, and the live tiles on the home screen actually have grown on me quite a bit. Some of the tiles are a bit annoying, and thus I’m forced to minimise them to shut them up (e.g., Cortana wants to show news headlines which I’m not interested in). But having the weather, calendar, and so forth on the home screen is quite nice. It would be nice to be able to have some apps have big tiles and no animations, but overall I do like the live tiles, which I didn’t think I would.

There’s some lovely bits of joined up thinking in Windows Phone overall. I’m signed into Facebook on my phone, and it uses people’s profile pictures from Facebook for my address book, saving me from having no pictures for most people. I have Laura’s contact page as a tile on my phone screen, and it’ll display not just Laura’s profile picture, but show what she said today on Facebook too. It was just seamlessly pulled together, which is nice.

The build quality of the Lumia itself is great, and the screen size (4.7”) was a big hit with me instantly (this was before anyone knew that Apple would go this way with the iPhone 6). Even after a couple of days, going back to the iPhone 5 to fetch odd bits of data, I realised that I’d struggle to go back to a small screen size. The other bit of the hardware I like is the wireless charging. At the same time I got the phone I got a Wireless Charging Pillow, which is a bit gratuitous, but it’s a lovely convenience not having to fiddle with cables just to recharge it over night; when I go to bed, so does the Lumia.

The mixed

The obvious thing that puts people off moving to Windows Phone is that, given its overall lack of popularity, the low number of apps in the app store when compared to iOS and Android. However, I did my homework before I jumped, and knew that most the apps I used daily were on Windows Phone. Social media is well covered, with things like Instagram, FourSquare/Swarm, Facebook, Twitter all there. So is Spotify, which is how I listen to most my music these days. Runkeeper, which I used to track cycling on iOS, was not there, but the competing Runtastic service is, and I could easily migrate my data, so I did.

One of the things I used on my iPhone regularly was a wide range of photography applications. I don’t have the bandwidth currently to spend hours with my DSLR, Aperture, and Photoshop, so instead on the iPhone had built up an array of apps I used to try make my Instagram output unique. On Windows Phone there’s certainly less to chose from, but it’s not totally bereft of photo applications. At the moment I’m mostly relying on Photoshop Express, which is a solid basic editing tool, but I do miss apps for more advanced editing and modification. Still, was able to take, edit, and publish this photo on my phone, so it’s not too bad:

There’s only been one app where I’ve found no equivalent, and that’s an RSS reader that’ll work with my chosen RSS service, Feedbin. There’s quite a few that work with the more popular Feedly, but for now I’m using the built in browser to access Feedbin, but that’s not nearly as nice on a mobile device as Reeder on iOS.

The camera is another big draw to picking the Nokia device, as they’ve always had a very good reputation, and as I say, I use my mobile device as my primary camera these days. Unfortunately, here the iPhone does beat it. Although on paper the Nokia camera may be better, its just not as usable as the iPhone’s camera for everyday usage. The Nokia camera is slower to focus, and slower to start, so the iPhone is much better for that capturing a moment instantly use case. On the flip side you do tend to get a lot more detail with the Nokia camera, but the iPhone is good enough on that for the majority of people. The Nokia camera is far from bad, and I’ve take some pictures I’m really pleased with, but the iPhone camera is just much more usable overall.

The bad

My main gripe with Windows Phone to date is the email client. Out of the box it assumes that we’re living in 1998, and thus tries to use the network as little as possible, only caching the last seven days of email, and not downloading images. In 2014 this is not what I’d expect as the default on the top of the line smartphone. But even with those options set to something more sensible, the client is just a bit more rough that its iPhone equivalent. Apple have made it very easy to flick through your email at speed: reading this, deleting that, and so on. Getting through my email on Windows Phone is just much slower. To delete a single email requires a mode change, a select, and a confirm, with my fingers moving up and down the screen. on the iPhone it’s a simple swipe and tap in a single location. My hope is Maestro, which goes into Beta next week, will provide a nicer alternative.

With the app ecosystem it’s a similar complaint: it’s not the lack of apps that’s the problem, but the lack of quality in the apps that are there. Even some of the apps from famous names that have lovely iOS apps, their Windows Phone apps just feel like they just left it to the intern to knock up over the weekend. I’m hugely grateful that there’s anything from 1password on Windows Phone at all, but boy does their Windows Phone app aspire to be done by an intern. The only exception to this rule is the first party apps. For example, the Xbox Smart Glass app on Windows Phone is absolutely wonderful to use – and shows you that you can write awesome Windows Phone apps that will stand proud alongside apps on iOS in terms of features, ease of use, and aesthetics; it just seems other people aren’t willing to put in the effort.

A small thing: there’s no timer app built in, which to me is insane, and reduces the functionality of Cortana when compared to Siri by half (i.e., half the time I used Siri was to set a timer when cooking :).

Finally, there’s a few UI bits that just don’t sit right with me. Windows Phone phones have three hardware buttons below the screen, back, home, and search, and the functionality of the back button is context sensitive, thus at times confusing. Let’s use the mail application as an example. In normal use I’ll launch the mail app, see my inbox, and then drill down to a specific email, and press back to return to my inbox. That to me makes sense, and I’m happy. However, if I pick up my phone, see I have 8 mail notifications, and select the first email to read, back takes me to whatever I was doing before I looked at that notification, not as I anticipate to my inbox so I can see the other emails waiting for me.

Although the back button is simple to describe as a rule (takes you to the last screen you saw across all applications), because what it does is context sensitive it works against my muscle memory for how to navigate through applications. There is no alternative either: once in a mail via notification, I just simply can’t get to my other email without going out of mail and coming back in. I can see a certain design rational for this, but in practice it just is annoying, and now if I have mail notifications I tend to go and find the application to read them rather than clicking on the notification.

Summary

Overall, if you just want a phone that works all the time, I’m afraid I’d still recommend an iPhone over a Windows Phone; but I do enjoy using Windows Phone and am in no rush to give it up. As technologists it’s part of our job to understand all the alternatives, and this is a nice reminder of what life is like outside the iOS ecosystem (and I still have my iPad, which I’m in no rush to replace with a Surface :).

Window Phone is clearly still evolving as Microsoft try to up their game. Each update I get adds some great new bits and pieces to the underlying OS. I think the shame will be if Windows Phone never gets the app developers it deserves. I suspect there’s a small, but reasonable business out there for the first company that actually builds a suite of apps worthy of the platform underneath them.

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When the future arrives · Sep 21, 05:52 PM

Back at the turn of the year, I had the good fortune to test drive a Brammo Empulse R, the first electric motorbike that I’ve ridden that can hold a candle up to its petrol driven counterparts. Now some ten months later, I’m very fortunate to have one of my own:

Getting here hasn’t been easy, mostly due to the unfortunate demise of the electric vehicle distribution company I was buying the bike through. Thankfully with lots of help from Laura, and help from Brammo’s main European sales rep, a bike is now in my position, and I’m delighted.

Unfortunately, no review on living with it for a while. We essentially have had to import the bike ourselves, so it needs to be registered with the DVLA etc., so it’ll be another couple of weeks before I can get it on the road. But at least from here, with the bike in my possession, it’s easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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