To the EMP and beyond

This weekend the EMP museum opened its new special exhibit, a massive collection of props and costumes from all of Star Trek. I highly recommend to all who find Star Trek interesting to go see it. It is a very different side of the Shows and movies, as with most props they all look very fake and plasticity close up, taking away a lot of the realism of the props and effects, but giving a scene of size and scale that is impossible to display in screen.

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Last week I received a very special package. A big box of futuristic technology. I have posted before about my use of the Oculus Rift DK2 VR headset, and one of my personal goals is to make my life as much like I was living in Star Trek as possible. I have now gotten another step closer to having my very own Holodeck with the arrival of my HTC Vive.


Hard to tell in this picture but its a very large box.

The box that arrived at my door was extremely large, much bigger than I was expecting. I became very glad that I had it delivered to my home address and not to the office as it would have been impossible to transport this on my bike. Inside the giant cardboard box was a slightly smaller, but still large, retail box of the Vive.


The Vive box next to the Oculus DK2 packaging


Well padded

The reason that this box is so large, almost 4 times larger than the box for the Oculus DK2, is because the Vive comes with a lot more hardware for Room-scale VR (remember this, there will be a quiz later). This is a huge leap over the old Oculus development kit.

The Vive is a virtual reality headset. Like the Oculus it is a computer display behind some lenses arranged with software so that the lenses warp the image on the screen to make it seem like they are googles to a computer generated world. The advancements since I got the Oculus almost two years ago are numerous. The biggest difference, on paper, is that the Vive has a much higher resolution screen, actually, the Vive has two higher resolution screens, one for each eye. This improves the picture quality a lot. The lenses are basically magnifying glasses held very close to the monitors and every pixel counts when you are looking at them up close. There are also improvements in the Lenses and the ergonomics over the Oculus, though the Vive is still a little heavier than the Oculus.

The real fun is comes with the other pieces in the box. The headset is very comparable to the Oculus Rift consumer version also released earlier this year, but its not too different from the old DK2 either. The real fun come with the addition of the controllers and the lighthouse stations.


The important bits (I added the GorillaPods)


A small aside, to explain some of the technology: For a good virtual experience the computer needs the most accurate data it can get to know where a users head is pointing every time the computer renders a frame. This information tells the computer which way you are facing and it renders the scene accordingly. This is what gives users the ability to turn their head and look around the environments and is the key thing that separates VR headsets from the TV googles in SkyMall catalogs that just project a 65″ screen in front of you no matter where you look. This tracking can be done with an accelerometer and gyroscope to determine which way the head is moving as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. The Oculus DK2 also came with a camera, which could track IR LEDs on the front of the headset to let users move their head from side to side, or to duck down or up, giving the headset another degree of tracking that is impossible to achieve without using an external reference point, the camera. This is referred to as positional tracking, the tracking of an objects position in 3D space relative to a known constant. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift uses the same technology as the development kit to track where the headset is pointing. The Vive however, does not need a camera pointing at the headset for positional tracking. It has a much more complicated, but much more fun system for positional tracking.


One of the lighthouses mounted to a lamp

The Vive set comes with two small black boxes, about three inches across with one side made of dark glass. When provided with power a little light inside them turns on to notify if they are working or not. What a human cannot see is that these boxes are shooting out a complicated pattern of infra-red lasers into the room. Each lighthouse has a rotating drum with a laser that fire with very exact timing. The Vive headset is mottled with light sensors which can detect an increase in infra-red light. By analyzing the timing differences of the lighthouses IR pulse on three or more of the sensors the headset can triangulate its position relative to the base station. This gives it positional tracking. This position tracking is, simply put, the opposite of what the Oculus has. The Oculus has ‘dumb’ lights on the headset and tracks them with a fixed camera, the Vive has ‘dumb’ laser pulses and tracks them with the headset. While this may seem like an arbitrary inversion it actually leads to some interesting technology.


Hello? Are you still there?

The odd looking doughnuts with handles that came in the box are the Vive’s controllers. Yes, it came with two controllers. Why would one need two controllers for one headset? Are they supporting multiple players somehow? Are these controllers so likely to get lost or break they they just sent two off the bat?


Had to add an extra beefy graphics card to power it all


Initial set up is a mess

There are two controllers because there is one for each hand! These are not just some boring old Xbox controllers, these are tracked controllers for interacting with virtual environments. All that positional tracking techno-babble is now becoming important. The beauty of the Vive system of having the sensors on the device being tracked is that it makes it easy to add more tracked objects. In this case these controllers position in 3D space is tracked as accurately as the headset is, making it possible to look down and see your hands, or reach out and touch the environment. Oculus doesn’t have that (yet).


Pulling a virtual bow

This is what make the Vive so compelling. It stops VR from being a passive experience and turns it into a much more active one. Also the tracking is good enough that you can stand up, and walk around the room. Remember I mentioned that this was Room-scale VR! This is another step closer to the holodeck, now I can summon a virtual world, look at it, walk around in it, and interact with it. All that is missing is smaller headsets, lighter controllers, smarter computers, force fields, and photons.

We have to back!


Updated my pebble to reflect that today is the day 30 years into the future where when Marty McFly is brought by Doc Brown to save his kids in Back to the Future II. Though we don’t have hover boards or self lacing shoes after today we can finally put to rest the Facebook posts every October falsely claiming that this is the year. This is the year!

What is this, a pie for ants?


A delicious beef and bacon pie.

Meat pies are a delicious price of culinary history that has not become as popular in the United States as it should. You can keep your sweet cherry or your tart apple pie, I’ll go for the savory beef and bacon pie.

I’ve had the Game of Thrones themed cook book “A Feast of Ice and Fire” for a while and been wanted to make one of the crowning dishes, the beef and bacon pie. Reading the recipe and review of those who had tried to make it unaltered I decided that the pie, while looking mouth watering good in pictures with it’s crispy bacon lattice, had some flaws. Firstly, those who had tried the recipe said that the cuts recommended by the book, brisket or shoulder, where still too tough even after the long cook time. While these cuts of meat are probably much more authentic, using ground beef with make this dish easier and make sure that they melt when the pie hits your mouth. The second problem, I was hungry. The pie in the book takes hours to prep and cook, and my stomach was asking to sup much sooner than that. The best way to shorten cook time: miniaturize the pies. Six little pies will have greater surface area and cook faster. In addition a smaller pie makes other aspects, like weaving the bacon lattice a lot easier.


PAX-imus Prime

As I’ve mentioned before this weekend was PAX Prime, the original Penny Arcade eXpo. Tickets for PAX sold out moths ago but I managed to get a Monday pass from fellow Tested reader at the meetup I attended Friday night. Excellent luck on my part, as I had tried to get a ticket through work contacts bu they were in too high of demand. With a ticket in hand I was able to experience PAX, my first big convention.

I was there on Monday which was probably the least busy day as most people have gotten their fill and are traveling home. That being said it was still a mad house. There were people everywhere and lines for games were dishearteningly long. I stayed on the main floor almost the entire day and, after waiting in line, got to play some cool games.

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Turtle Rock Studio’s Evolve was literally the center of PAX. Walking in you are greeted by their booth with a 17 foot tall statue of the monster Goliath. If that wasn’t enough to draw a crowd they highly anticipated game had its release date pushed back from this October to February, so many were eager to play this elusive game. I tried several times to get in line for Evolve but it was so popular the line was capped and lines to get in line were formed by fans and dispersed by enforcers. After wandering around the expo all morning I decided to commit and wait in line as long as I need to play this game. The enforcers by this point had started giving up and were letting the line get longer, so I was able to queue. The line wrapped around the booth and easily contained a few hundred people. Turtle Rock was running six games simultaneously to try to keep up, but it wasn’t enough the wait was still destined to be 2-3 hours.

Evolve is an asymmetrical multiplayer game; it pits four class based human hunters up against a ferocious monster in a cage match. The monster, controlled by a single player separated from the rest, is very powerful but not strong enough at the start of the game to take on the humans. The monster must run and hunt wildlife until it has fed enough to evolve and get string enough to confront the hunters. This asymmetrical aspect is what has most people so intrigued because it promises new and interesting game play. In Player vs. Player games balance is one the most important factors, and its extremely difficult to get perfect if there is asymmetrical game play. This is why I lined up for Evolve, I wanted to see how well its been done.

The asymmetrical aspect of the game also gave me an advantage in line; people had to play the game in group of five, four humans and a monster, and most people were there with groups of their friends. To let people play the game with the group of friends they brought along the booth coordinators were working very hard to sort everyone into groups of five without splitting any friends up. As I went to PAX by myself I was a sought after singleton. Because there was a group of four ahead in line I was able to skip a good portion of the line and join their team. Excellent luck for me, getting me to the game faster. This group need a monster to hunt and I was it.

I'm a Monster!

I’m a Monster!

I got to play one round of the game as the monster Goliath, though the recently reveled Kraken was also playable. Goliath is a damage tank with strong melee and short ranged attacks while the Kraken is more of a long ranged attack class. Playing as the monster is tough at first as the controls aren’t you regular FPS like the other characters. I decided to pick one attack, fire breath, and stick to that as much as I could; putting most of my upgrade and evolve points into it. The monster is very mobile, it runs faster than the hunters and is able to climb, though I didn’t get the hang of climbing. Knowing the basic mechanics of the game I took off running in a random direction, hopping I wasn’t running towards my death. The monster needs to eat to recharge shields and build up to evolve. I tried but it took me a few attempts before I realized that the wildlife needed to be attacked and killed before you can consume them. While I’m feeding the hunters found me, early confrontation do not bode well for the monster so after fling a few fireballs I got out of there as fast as I could. I had enough snacks and was ready for my first evolution. While evolving the monster has no shields and is paralyzed for a few seconds, so it is important to find a safe, secret place to do this. I traveled to the bottom of a ravine and tried to hide myself under a waterfall. I started the evolution process and as I was choosing my new perks I was found! This is my pitfall of the game, I was stuck in the evolution menu and I didn’t know how to exit to defend or run, and my help was dropping. Luckily I was able to flag down the attendant for out table and they were able to help me out. I spat a few fireballs and got out of there very quickly. After munching on a few more native fauna I noticed the hunters nearing, but they hadn’t noticed me yet, as I was on the other side of a hill. It was only a matter of time until they did so I launched a surprise attack. Even in my weakened state I managed to take out the medic, tracker and support hunters. It was down to the assault and I and we weren’t quitting. His health was low, but so was mine but we duked it out til the end, my end. I died and the hunters were victorious. putting down the controller and taking off the headset I realized that my heart was racing. The game had really gotten my adrenaline pumping. It was fantastic, well worth the wait.


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Another A-list game that I got to play was Sunset Overdrive and Xbox exclusive being developed by Insomniac Games. I got to play one round on one of the eight player maps. On the map there were strategic points that needed to be held against waves of zombies.The game art is beautiful whimsical. everything is exaggerated to the point of being a little cartoonish, which sets up the tone of the game to be a bit whimsical. similar to Titainfall this is a very fast shoot that has many vertical levels. In Sunset Overdrive the game play is all about grinding on rails, rooftops, and power lines. In the multiplayer mode the anound of grinding you have been doing acts as a score multiplier so to be #1 you have to do it. While this is to reward you for using a core mechanic of the game the grinding system is where I felt the game had most of its problems. The grindable surfaces are magnetic so if you are in position with a push of a button you are attached to the rail and automatically start moving. In my game play getting onto rails wasn’t always as easy, there is no way of knowing if you are close enough to a rail to attach so you think you are swinging out of danger but you accidentally swing into the enemy’s mouth. Once you are on the rails you move along with no input into speed or direction, your options are to reverse or jump off. This makes the third person shooter a rails shooter, which I am horrible at playing. Whilst on the rails you are above the map so it’s a good place to be, but because you a moving it hard to get a clean shot with a precision weapon. I would recommend sticking only to splash damage weapons in Sunset Overdrive if you can figure out the weapon switching interface.

Overall this game has both the potential and the marketing push to be the next big game on Xbox. I feel like because of its deviation from standard first person shooters that it takes a few rounds of game play to understand what’s going on, and as I only played once my experience was not representative of what playing it really is. I do feel that Insomniac Games could polish it a little more to make it easier to pick up and play.


Another game published by Microsoft Studios that I was glad to see made it to PAX is Age of Empires: Castle Siege. This is mostly Microsoft pimping out Age of Empire name recognition, but I really don’t know what else they would call it. Age of Empire Castle Siege looks and plays like a mobile game, but its available for PC as well as Windows phone. The reps told me it was playable with a mouse and keyboard but the idea was to play it on a touch screen like the Surface Pro 3. Looks like Microsoft’s getting good at eating their own dog food. The station had a bunch of Surface tablets set up and as it was set upstairs from the main floor it was not too crowded. The game demoed was a siege senario, although I believe you can also design fortifications. I was given a set number of units of varying types and was able to deploy them anywhere around the fortress, with these I was to raze as much of castle as possible in the 6 minutes given. The lack of economy management is the reason this is not a full Age of Empires game, but sieges are what those economies are for. The touch controls are very intuitive but not as precise as the classic mouse and keyboard. Even with only a few group of units on the map I found it very difficult to manage them all. I lost all my units around the five minute mark with only 50% of the fortifications destroyed I did not do too well.
This is a fun little mobile game that is way to pick up for a few minutes at a time while on the bus or waiting at the doctor’s office, this does not mean they are reviving the Age of Empires franchise. If they port this game to android I would buy it instantly but it seems its locked to Windows for now.

Those are the highlights from PAX, there was a lot else going on and many other games I got to watch and play. I enjoyed my self more than I expected just walking the floor, I look forward to next year when I’ll have the opportunity again.

Tea; Earl Grey, Cold!


Earl Grey Ice cream from Molly Moon’s. Amazingly the ice cream has the exact flavor of the tea. If Picard were ever stranded on a class H planet, I think this would be his first replicator request, though the hot fudge might be a little more Troi’s style.

Unicorns are native to Seattle

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This weekend held an exciting trip to Seattle’s famous EMP Museum and caught the end of their Myth & Magic Faire. The unicorns were brought out for the faire (and yes it was ‘faire’ not ‘fair’), but the museum was worth visiting without the special event. The Sci-Fi props exhibit had meek geeking out at every turn. I got to see Kirk’s captain chair and the uniform worn by Brent Spiner when he played Lt. Commander Data. They had Jack O’Neill’s famous sunglasses from Stargate Sg-1 and Ronon Dex’s mysterious blaster from Stargate Atlantis. Every plexiglass case had some cool wonder that I had seen in film or television. It was amazingly cool but also very disappointing. Seeing the props personally you can tell that they are just that, props. Kirk’s chair is obviously made from particle-board and painted matte grey, with the tan wood showing through chips in the paint. Its not the tritainium alloy that every fan hopes it to be. Seeing the props gives you a personal relation to you favorite Sci-Fi experiences, but you must go in ready to have some of the illusion spoiled.