Why VR Matters

An array of hammers strike taut metal wires. A series of sounds are emitted that are unusually pleasing. The audience bursts into rapturous applause as the last of the notes decay into silence.

I’ve described, in somewhat mechanical terms the live performance of one of Chopin’s Etudes. If you’d never heard piano played before, never mind so exquisitely, no amount of words could prepare you for the artistry and emotional power conveyed by a live performance. Similarly, the biggest problem faced by VR proponents is conveying what it feels like to enjoy a finely tuned experience inside a Rift, Vive or PSVR head-mounted display. The only way for you to know what a beautiful instrument sounds like when played by a virtuoso is to experience it for yourself. The only way for you to make any judgment about VR is to put on a headset and experience something. I would hope that you would get to experience something crafted by someone who is really skilful with the medium, otherwise it’s going to be more painful than listening to a tyro bashing on a badly tuned piano while drunk.

Have you ever had a vivid dream? One that is so powerful that you can almost reach out and touch it when you wake up before its gossamer-like threads dissolve and reality barges in coldly? Or perhaps you’re one of those rare individuals who is capable of lucid dreaming? Well VR gives each and every one of those willing to don a VR headset that rare ability to lucid dream, to be in any reality we choose, and to fashion it while conscious.

For this fashioning to work, the experience will have to be “composed” if you will, by someone who understands the medium, or at the very least, respects it. It will be some considerable time before this new medium yields a language, a grammar, a set of conventions and best practices. Right know, it’s all up for grabs, it’s a precious time, pregnant with enormous potential.

The early days of a medium are often filled with naked attempts to translate old media to the new, some might call this skeuomorphism of sorts, perhaps there is a better word for it. Early TV shows were just radio shows with a camera, for example, but look at some of the best TV shows today and you’ll see just how far we’ve come.

We won’t know what VR is capable of until the old paradigms are shed and a new form, butterfly-like, totally at home in VR and importantly, impossible anywhere else emerges in all its impactful glory.

Video games have traditionally sacrificed emotional nuance for intensity. There is a danger that VR could host even greater emotional coarseness, with porn, horror and violence being given a unique and highly intimate platform in which to launch their assault on the senses of those after such extremes of experience. Without wishing to judge such content, my hope is that a new medium gives us as an industry the rare opportunity of introducing more nuance, more artistry, a more graduated emotional palette that could enrich and enlarge our lives in a way that has not been possible thus far. Novels after all, have yielded Jilly Cooper, but also Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

One of the reasons I left PlayStation was because I recognised this time as pivotal. I couldn’t stand by and not at least attempt to help shape the new medium in some way with my own limited contribution. If you knew there was going to be a total solar eclipse in your neighbourhood, a once in a lifetime opportunity, wouldn’t you at least try to take the day off work to witness it?

Chances like these just don’t come along often. There are some observers who suggest that VR could be the last medium. In its current form, that’s obviously risible, but this is just the beginning. I was there at the dawn of the video games industry in the early ’80s and yet this period feels even more exciting, even more groundbreaking and those of us lucky enough to be able to help define the early days have a huge burden of responsibility to future generations, not just of developers, but of players too. Will we choose the easy route or will we go for the harder, but ultimately more rewarding and enriching route?

MacBook Pro? No

Let me count the way my latest MacBook Pro is not suitable for professional use, but before I do that, you should know that I’ve been buying and recommending Macs since 2001. I’ve spent a fortune on them. I love them, but I only like my latest MacBook Pro (a 2016 model with the Radeon Pro 460). I write this with a heavy heart and a malfunctioning keyboard.  This is a story about unrequited hardware love.

Typing

The keyboard on my MBP has begun to fail, with the ‘b’ key sometimes giving me doubled characters and sometimes none.

The cursor keys are in that awful cluster configuration where the up and down arrow keys, the ones I use the most, have half the space they should have and consequently make it next to impossible to navigate using them. Not so much cluster as clusterfuck.

They also feel different to the other keys, less responsive, if that were possible.

This £2800 laptop has a distinctly unprofessional keyboard. It’s not a whole lot better than the membrane keyboard on the first computer I owned, the Atari 400 back in 1982. I wouldn’t be surprised if the travel was shorter than that on the rubber keyboard of the ZX Spectrum. I don’t mind the feel, but that’s not good enough for a £2800 laptop. I should adore the keyboard. It doesn’t need much more travel, but it does need it. I don’t expect a Matias Tactile Pro, but I could do with a Magic Keyboard and I’ll take the extra thickness in return for a usable primary input method.

Finally, where’s my damned Esc key? I go for that so often, and miss. Putting it on the Touch Bar was a stupid idea.

Touch Bar

Why? The only thing of any use is the TouchID sensor, but you don’t need a whole keyboard-level touch screen for that!

For a touch typist, if you’re going to have a touchable surface, it might as well be the screen. I don’t want to look at the keyboard, ever; I want to look at the screen. Looking down at that pointless strip that offers me no feedback when I interact with it and which has no delineated edges is an extra cognitive burden that I just don’t need and therefore, as a professional, never use, unless I’m forced to. You know that a design has failed when you’re forced into using it. The Touch Bar is Apple’s Clippy. An embarrassment.

Track Pad

It’s too big. I never use all of that space, and I keep accidentally triggering it with my wrists when I don’t want to. Why not give the keyboard some extra height so I can have some proper cursor keys and while you’re at it, make those keys tactile and replaceable? It’s not a Wacom for crying out loud.

Ports

I like USB Type C, I really do, but like many people with a MacBook Pro, I have a camera and like most decent cameras, it has an SD card slot, except that Apple saw fit to remove this slot. Professional photographers have used the MacBook Pro for as long as they’ve been made. Only now, they need an accursed dongle.

I’d understand and forgive this on a lesser machine, like one without the “Pro” moniker, but not having an SD card on this £2800 machine strikes me as totally stupid. Rather than use another expensive adapter, I just use the iMac, which makes that the professional machine, and this one just a designer’s wet dream.

Power supply

I have a professional laptop, but I can’t tell it’s charging unless I open the lid, gain entry and look at the tiny power indicator in the menu bar. Which genius thought this would be a Pro touch? I know it makes a sound when you plug it in; fine, genius, but what if I didn’t hear the sound? How do I tell when it’s fully charged? You took off the MagSafe, which was a genuinely useful innovation and gave us USB C charging — fine, but add a little adapter that has a charge indicator, and yes, if you must, charge for it, though you really shouldn’t if you want to call this a “Pro”.

While we’re on the subject of lights, I miss the glowing Apple logo at the back of the machine. Bring that back please. Why are you cutting costs on a £2800 machine?

Also, why don’t we get a power extension cable like we used to? Don’t know about you, but I find it hard to find power sockets near me all the time and this is just another tight move.

Battery Life

You claim five hours. I can offer you some more realistic benchmarks. Not five. Sometimes not four. It’s a Pro machine, right? Don’t go backwards then. Give me 8 hours or give me death.

Conclusion

If Apple wants to make a MacBook Pro, they should quit with the design fundamentalism on a machine costing £2800 (£2800 is a ton of money for an ordinary laptop, which apart from the display, this is) and quit with what seem like cost-cutting measures in the name of power efficiency. This machine is no doubt powerful. It never struggles with software, everything runs at a decent clip (when the power is plugged in) and it’s stable, but it’s not a Pro machine — just about any decent PC laptop at not much more than half the price of my MacBook Pro will give me “Pro” functionality.

I say make it faster, make the battery bigger, make the laptop slightly thicker, make the keyboard decent (heck just make it like the Magic Keyboard), get rid of the Touch Bar, make the display a 16” 4K HDR OLED, bring back some kind of MagSafe, bring the lit Apple logo back, bring back the SD card slot, add three USB 3 slots, make the trackpad smaller, beef up the GPU so that it can handle VR and games, and make it £4000. I’ll buy it. In the meantime, drop the price on this experiment and stop calling it a Pro. It doesn’t feel any more Pro than the standard MacBook.

It’s Gone!

That morning my hands were so swollen from a weekend of diabetes abuse that I couldn’t get my wedding ring on. So I put it on my little finger.

For many years, I’ve kept my life in reasonable order by ensuring that everything has a home. I know that when things aren’t put where they belong, they might as well be lost. Anyone who has an ad hoc computer filing system knows that once a file or folder is put somewhere “just for now” is likely never to find it again.

After I left my hotel room, I realised with rising panic that I didn’t have my wedding ring on. This wasn’t like the panic when I can’t find my phone charger, my phone, or even my insulin. This is the “miss your flight, but don’t go home until you’ve found it” panic.

So I started freaking out as I retraced my steps and headed back to my hotel room.

I’ve lost things before. My programming brain is really great at finding lost things. It’s like debugging. Once you get good at debugging, there are so many things you become good at. Debugging is what they call a “transferable skill”. You develop a belief that no matter how badly something is not working, or how deeply something is lost, by following a method, by being systematic, rational, diligent and relentless, what is broken can be fixed and what was lost can be found. But I recently lost some Altoids tins and couldn’t find them. It was the first time I’d lost something in decades that I couldn’t find. And this was my wedding ring. And a wedding ring is a lot smaller than an Altoids tin. Any cost I’d sink into finding this was going to be worth it.

Then moments after I had lost it, I had found it. I reasoned that because I was wearing it on an unusual finger, that it would have been more likely to slip off where my hand could catch on something and that would have been when I was packing my case. So I unpacked my case and there it was. I squeezed it with difficulty onto my correct finger and packed fast.

I learned two things.

1. Even when you think freaking out is justified, there is absolutely no sense in freaking out. Solutions present themselves as soon as you start to become rational. So even though my freak out only lasted a minute, it was only when I shifted to reason that a solution popped into view. I acted on it immediately and I was unusually, successful immediately.

2. I can pack a lot faster than I thought I could.

Remaster #25

Federico and I review some of the events of the year, including VR, Nintendo and updates to console hardware. I talk a little about my VR project and we also get a little philosophical.

Grab episode 25 of Remaster here.