Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thoughts from a new VR player

We got a Vive for Christmas. Here are a few scattered thoughts about the current state of virtual reality after a week of play.
  • As I've gotten older, I've noticed I'm getting much more prone to motion sickness in games -- I just can’t handle very long sessions of shooters like Wolfenstein and Serious Sam without frequent breaks.However, I was surprised to discover that VR games mostly don’t make me sick.
  • This is because VR developers have mostly figured out that motion sickness comes from motion. That is, it’s bad to have your visual sense tell you that you’re moving around, while your inner ear tells you you’re standing still. To address this, VR games either mostly take place in a single location, or handle movement very cautiously.
  • For example, “I Expect You To Die” is a spy game with comedy elements, which contrives a bunch of situations where you are trying to escape a bunch of death traps sitting in a chair. One level has you trying to drive a car out a plane. Another has you trying to communicate with a contact from a hijacked train. Another seats you behind a desk in a supervillain’s lair, hunting for hidden information.
  • For another example, there’s Serious Sam: The Last Hope. I love Serious Sam titles, and they’ve traditionally been fast paced run and gun shooters with ridiculous waves of constant enemies. But TLH is basically a shooting gallery. They dump you in an environment like an ancient temple or a canyon, and you pick a weapon to wield in each hand. Enemies charge at you or fire projectiles that can be shot down, so you just stand in this virtual space and try to hit things before they kill you.
  • For games and environments that require you to explore, a typical strategy is to let you point at places on the floor and press a button to teleport there. When a game does allow free movement, there is often a “comfort mode” available, which restricts your vision to a very small tunnel until you stop moving.
  • This is all very cool and clever. It feels really neat to be surrounded by a massive 3D environment and feel like you’re in a video game. However, it’s also a tiny bit disappointing that it’s not like scenes from “Ready Player One” for instance, where you’re just moving around like a regular person. You can’t actually go anywhere without bumping into walls.
  • One of the other really fun aspects of VR is when a game makes you do fiddly things with your body or your handheld controllers. I Expect You To Die puts you in situations where you have to play around with switches and levers, lets you levitate things telekinetically, and sometimes makes you duck and throw things. In Serious Sam, Besides letting you dual wield and aim shotguns and rocket launchers -- which is already super cool -- there’s also a sniper rifle that you actually hold up to your eye with two hands, an exploding bow and arrow that you have to draw back, and a sword that blasts laser waves when you swing it. Superhot lets you physically dodge bullets in slow motion, and punch enemies. That’s all awesome.
  • Besides games, there’s a whole lot of support for other interesting environments. YouTube has a VR section with videos frequently filmed by people who have a 360 degree camera. Google Earth VR is downright awe inspiring -- you can hover over a mountain, or see the whole Earth as a giant map in your face, with horizons above and below you. It’s fun to turn comfort mode OFF and actually pretend to fly around like Superman. But again, that motion sickness is a constant threat.
  • Also, some “games” are just brief, mildly interactive experiences, which is still quite entertaining. There’s nothing quite like getting personally murdered by the huge looming face of GLaDOS from Portal, or waving a light around a dimly lit area full of creepy knick knacks.
  • The main downsides are that the headset can get super sweaty after a lot of use, and games that make you stand around waving your arms can leave you feeling a little strained and sore. Come to think of it, I should really hunt for games that actually make you get exercise, because hey, may as well roll with it.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Most Trusted

I'm writing up a new intro for a "fake news" talk I'm giving in San Antonio last week. Two of my main interests are politics and online technologies. It's always fascinated me how news in general has become decentralized, and also custom tailored to the people watching it.

One of my earliest memories of being aware of news media was seeing Walter Cronkite on TV. I was reading about Cronkite's career, and I kept seeing he was called "The Most Trusted Man in America." That seems like an awfully lofty title to me, so I looked into that and found that it was based on an actual national survey, where people were asked who they trust the most. Cronkite won handily, in at least a couple of different years -- there was a poll in 1974 and another 1985. Admittedly, the number of options in the polls were somewhat limited, but still, the narrative of Cronkite as "most trusted" has persisted.

And I thought that was odd, because the question "Who is the most trusted person in America?" doesn't seem to even have any clear meaning in 2017. Back then, there were three major networks which ran nightly news; today we have thousands of websites that people follow and curate based on how much the sites say things they like to hear.

Still, I looked into this further, and found that a similar survey was done in 2013, and boy, are the results revealing. The most trusted man in America is... Tom Hanks.

Second is Sandra Bullock. From there the list goes:

3. Denzel Washington
4. Meryl Streep
5. Maya Angelou
6. Steven Spielberg
7. Bill Gates
8. Alex Trebek
9. Melinda Gates
10. Julia Roberts

So obviously a bunch of things jump out from these results. Five of the top ten are actors. One is a director, one is a game show host. The first person on the list who is not an actor is Maya Angelou, who is a lovely and interesting person, is primarily known in the public consciousness as a poet, so she's still sort of in the "entertainment" category. So that's eight out of ten who are entertainers, with Bill and Melinda Gates presumably being trusted at least as much for their charitable foundation as for Bill's history as a software magnate.

There's something weirdly, ironically interesting about a list of "the most trusted people in America" being more than 50% composed of people (if we include Spielberg) who make pretend stories for a living. (That's not an insult. I love movies, and I respect actors and directors. I just don't primarily think of them as people to go to for advice and information.)

Nobody who investigates or reports news is anywhere to be seen on the top ten. I know some people would conclude this means that journalists are inherently untrustworthy, but I think that's a little oversimplistic. Instead I'd point out say that that the way people get their information in an extremely fractured way now. As individual, you may trust or listen to one set of voices, but no matter who those might be, there are almost certainly a lot of people who actively, aggressively dislike them and think they are the biggest liars on the planet.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Quick check-in on my life

Hey folks. I don't know if anyone still follows this blog, but it's something that's been on my mind every once in a while this year.

When I look at the final few posts of the blog, it seems a little embarrassing. Like a lot of people, I wrote a number of confident posts pointing out that Donald Trump couldn't possibly win the election, because he's unpopular and terrible. I was in good company, but I was incredibly, comically wrong, and just writing a post to acknowledge that fact that is a big hurdle that I've taken this long to get to.

No, I didn't die of embarrassment or scurry off to a cave to disappear from society. It's just that the fact that this blog still exists, and what to use it for, didn't wind up being a terribly high priority for me.

The election sucked, but also at the end of last year, I got hit in the face with a lot of stuff to deal with at once. My work became significantly more challenging -- I've been writing back end software to build up the Fireside Gatherings website, and it's a real beast. My career is actually going quite well. It's been nine years since I completed my Master's degree, and it took me a long time to settle in to a permanent job, but I've been working for Blizzard for three years now. It's a fantastic company, and I've grown a lot as a software engineer. But the downside is, the more I've focused on work, the less energy I've had to sit down and do things like writing long posts.

On another front, I'm in my second year as president of the Atheist Community of Austin. It's pretty far from a full time job, but it's stressful enough to contribute to the same lack of desire to write posts. It's not a position I went after, but once I was in, I wanted to take some serious steps towards making the organization financially solid, improve donations and build up the TV show that I've been involved with for the past 17 years.

Also, my son Ben is now 15 years old. He's starting his sophomore year of high school, and he's learning to drive. I've always found parenting very rewarding, although raising a teenager is every bit as challenging as I've heard.

When I send personal email, I have a signature line to the various online places where I post stuff. That includes this blog. My main purpose in writing a new post was to make sure that I have a clear acknowledgement that I made mistakes in predicting last year's political outcome, although I still believe in the basic principles behind what I said. Trump was a dangerously ignorant and unqualified candidate, and as a president those qualities have made him even more dangerous. He was unpopular then, and he's unpopular now, but the people who do like him are very dedicated, and that's a reality we have to face in this country.

But also, I've noticed that I'm spread pretty thin in terms of online presence. Blogging doesn't hold the prominent place that it used to in our worldwide discourse; most people have moved on to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and I'm no exception. I guess a lot of the time I scratch my writing itch by tossing off a quick witticism or comment on a news in a few paragraphs. Beyond that, as a regular host/cohost of The Atheist Experience and The Non-Prophets, I have lots of opportunity to trot out my opinions on some topics, and reach a pretty broad audience. None of that feels exactly the same as when I used to blog regularly, but again, I have a more limited supply of attention to devote to those things than I used to.

I've also been doing a number of talks in various places, to Secular Student Alliance groups and local atheist organizations. Next week I'm giving a talk on "Skepticism and Fake News" in San Antonio. I am thinking about writing a new brief introduction, and it occurred to me that I could post it on the blog to solidify my thoughts.

So I have a few purposes in writing this post now. First, I just want to pop in and say, sorry about not blogging much all year, but I'm still alive and well and things are generally fine for me. Second, I just want to clear out some of the cobwebs and own up to my past mistakes. And finally, I want to leave this as a reminder to post some new thoughts about fake news, which I have generally been doing before a live audience, so it's a good idea to have a written record of some of those thoughts.

Until next time! ... Even if it turns out that next time takes another year or two.