Tuesday, December 12, 2017

First Impressions: Playstation VR Skyrim Bundle

For a limited time, you can get the Playstation VR Skyrim Bundle for $334.89. My brother got me one as a late birthday present. This is the bundle to get, because unlike other SKUs, it includes the second generation VR headset, which features HDR passthrough for the day when I get a HDR-capable TV. The move controllers are also improved over the ones I got for the PS3, since they take a microUSB charging port instead of the older mini USB model. It also comes with a camera.

When I built my PC this summer, my initial thinking was that I'd eventually get a VR capable GPU and then run VR through the PC. This didn't pan out, because the cryptomining craze has driven GPU prices beyond what I'm willing to pay. Furthermore, recent announcements (such as for the Fallout 4 VR) now specify that the minimum system requirements are such that you'll need at least a GTX 1070 to run them, with the GTX 1080 as the recommended requirement. The price of such video cards is such that you can buy a PS4, and the PSVR for almost the price of just the GPU alone. And of course, things being the way they are, the requirements will keep ratcheting up. By contrast, the PS4 is a stable platform and content released for it will not require better hardware until the PS5 shows up.

I bought a few games in addition to Skyrim, so I'd have an interesting collection of content to play. All of them cost around $10 or so during the black friday season. And the nice thing about buying discs is that you can resell them if the content isn't what you want. I picked up VR Worlds and Eagle Flight. My Playstation Plus subscription also gave me RIGs and Rush of Blood.

VR Worlds was surprisingly fun, with London Heist being the centerpiece. I think I finally realized how my reaction to a VR goggle was different when I started dodging bullets and flinching. I wonder if that goes away with exposure, but definitely felt different from watching a video. Rush of Blood was surprisingly hard, but also gave me a great sensation of actually being in a roller coaster. While the graphics are definitely dialed back from what the PS4 is capable of when displaying on a regular TV, it's definitely "good enough" for presence.

Eagle Flight was surprisingly disappointing. I felt less like flying than like operating a remote drone. That's because the UI is in conflict with the game design. The UI wants you to turn your head, but the idiot game designers at Ubisoft decided that the game would be more fun if the challenges required you to make tight turns. Because to do so would hurt your neck, they encourage you to tilt your head instead of turning your head to make turns, which is unnatural and difficult to train yourself to do, and results in you not feeling like you're a bird in the sky.

Rush of Blood was fun, but too intense to play in more than short bursts. Skyrim looks like an ultra-long RPG and will take me a while to get around to doing.

I also found the page on the best free apps on PSVR. Both my wife and Bowen enjoyed Invasion (also viewable as a youtube video), the Spiderman: Homecoming experience, and Alumette. What's very apparent with these VR videos is that if something comes within reach, human beings wearing VR goggles will want to try to touch it. Which means that the best true VR experiences are games using the move controllers, not VR videos. There's also apparently a ton of VR videos on YouTube, so lots of free content.

The PSVR social screen is also great. You can have a conversation with the VR user and comment on what they're seeing, since what they're seeing is also projected to the TV, etc. (And as a parent you can monitor your little kid's VR use, not that Bowen's allowed very much of it)

Regardless, the device, while expensive, seems to have a lot of content that's available fairly cheaply, and is surprisingly comfortable to wear and use. If you already have a PS4, picking this up is far cheaper than even buying the cheapest GPU + VR headset available for the PC platform. Clearly this is the way to go, until GPU supply catches up with the apparent infinite demand generated by cryptomining.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Review: Runaways: The Complete Collection

The only reason I own a tablet is to read comic books on it. For everything else, my phone or my Kindle is a far better device. One of the best apps on the tablet is Hoopla, which lets you check out comics from the library (limited to 3 a month) and read them. The UI is just as good as the Kindle/Comixology app, and  you can't beat the price.

Runaways: The Complete Collection (which you can checkout as 3 books from Hoopla) is a comic set in the Marvel Universe. In it, a bunch of teens discover that their parents are evil. Not just the evil you regularly expect parents to do, but real-life supervillains intent on destroying the world. The teens discover that their heritage means that they have powers (what a shock), and then set out to right the wrongs their parents intent to wreak upon the world.

The art is transparent, nothing fancy. The characters a good, if a little stereotyped (though the plot twists are pretty great, and not as predictable as I expected), and like a good dungeon master, the story provides a good explanation of why the other superheroes in the Marvel universe aren't taking care of this.

Even better, the book completes an entire arc, rather than dragging on and on without resolving the teens' relationships with their parents. But the whole thing was so well done that I went ahead and started placing holds on the paper copies of the following books in the series from the library. That makes this one of the few good comics I've read in recent  years. Recommended.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Review: Uncharted - The Lost Legacy

The Uncharted series of video games are pretty much movies with a choose-your-own-action-sequence game mechanic. Uncharted: The Last Legacy doesn't deviate from the series' charter, and was originally conceived as downloadable content for Uncharted 4, but turned into a game.

As with Uncharted 4, the graphics and art direction is gorgeous. The run time is about 10 hours, but features perfect pacing, switching from traversal to exploration to the usual gun fights, feels like  a much shorter game, which is a very good sign. You're never tired from overuse of any of the game mechanics, and no, Nathan Drake never shows up as part of the game.

The story is basically that of a buddy movie, with female protagonists instead of male ones. Yes, the game passes the Bechdel test. The plot is rather thin, with a MacGuffin, the usual action set pieces (which are fun to watch and play), and a large open-world-style exploration area. The puzzles are usually no challenge, but even if they were, the game detects your level of frustration and lets you skip those.

Lots of game critics complain about game length being short. I don't. A short game length means that I'll actually get to play the game to the end. That's a feature, not a bug. As such, this game comes highly recommended as one of the few games I actually finished this year.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Review: Sky Force Anniversary (PS3,PS4,PS Vita)

We got Sky Force Anniversary as part of the PS Plus subscription. It ticked all the nostalgia boxes that I had growing up playing vertical shoot them ups. You have an upgradeable ship with parts you can buy, and lots of things to shoot at.

The repeated play model requires that you replay levels to earn medals and make progress, and by the time I was done I was pretty sick of the game, but the game itself was well done, and I was surprised to learn that it started as a  smartphone game as there was no onerous in-app purchasing, loot  boxes, etc.

The game has cross-save, meaning you can pick it up on the PS4, PS Vita, or PS3, and save games automatically carry over from system to system, which is a great feature and was ultimately what made it possible for us to finish the game on long plane flights, etc. It also has couch co-op, which makes many levels that are too hard for a single player a lot easier. Too few games have all these features.

Recommended.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

First Impressions: EOS M5 and EF 50mm/1.8 STM

I wasn't actively looking to replace our EOS M3. But Canon was blowing out refurbished EOS M5s that included an adapter and several accessories (including a body jacket and several straps) for just over $600, as well as a 50mm/1.8 STM for $85, so I picked up the camera as a birthday gift for my wife, selling the old EOS M3 and my old 50mm/1.8 II on eBay for about $350 or so after fees, making it a relatively cheap upgrade. Since the battery is compatible with the older M3,

The big draw is the electronic viewfinder, which is a great tool for when it's too bright to use the LCD screen. The latency is high enough that it's noticeably not as good as an optical viewfinder in DSLRs, but hey, that's why this thing is tiny and the DSLRs are huge.

The autofocus is significantly quicker than the M3, though not so good that there aren't missed shots, and the occasional hunting in low light conditions. Together with the 50mm/1.8 STM, however, this thing takes amazing portraits very beautiful background blurring:
In fact, my wife likes it so much that most of the time she shoots with just the 50mm/1.8 STM, ignoring the 22mm/2 and the 11-22mm zoom. In practice, we'll probably travel with just the 22mm/2 and the 50mm/1.8 and only bring the zooms when we're not constrained by weight.
For landscapes, the camera's not too shabby either, and works well even when backlit. My only wish is for Canon to integrate GPS in the camera (today that has to be done using a smartphone app and the camera's bluetooth connection, but I can't remember to do that).

I wouldn't pay the near $1000 retail price asked by Canon, but for the price we paid (especially since we had all the existing Canon kit, and the upgrade was painless by selling on eBay), it was a good deal. Recommended.

Monday, December 04, 2017

2017 Puerto Vallarta

We visited Puerto Vallarta over thanksgiving break.

This was Bowen's first chance to try his new Snorkel Mask and adjustable fins in open water. We got him a snorkel mask because he'd forgotten how to use a regular snorkel, and had bitten off the bite valve on the snorkel he had anyway, which meant that I'd have to buy a new device anyway. Snorkel masks are useless for diving since you can't equalize (can't pinch the nose through that hard plastic), but realistically, he wasn't going to dive deep enough to do that anyway. Unfortunately, the snorkeling wasn't actually all that great: compared to the Carribean, the water is murky, though there's plenty of wildlife, the cold water meant that Bowen got cold in about 15 minutes, and so missed the sightings of the giant manta rays that I got while diving.
We tried ziplining at the Los Veranos Zipline tour. Bowen liked it so much that we did it twice, once on Xiaoqin's birthday.

There were beautiful sunsets and lots of great food, but Boen got an unwanted souvenir: while sliding down the waterslide at a hotel he cut his chin on a decorative fake rock, so he ended up getting 2 stitches on his chin. But he's still able to eat ice cream and doesn't seem too distressed.
We spent lots of time in the swimming pool, and there, Bowen finally learned to duck dive in a swim suit! All in all, nice but not better than a sailing trip in the Carribean or cycling tour anywhere, but you knew I'd say that. I probably wouldn't repeat.

Friday, December 01, 2017

2018 Book Reviews

Non-fiction
Graphic Novels

Review: A Mind at Play - How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age

A Mind at Play is a biography of Claude Shannon. When I was an intern at Bellcore, his name was often spoken of in reverence, as the person who invented and developed information theory, which the book does a good job of explaining as well as it does the life of Claude Shannon.

The thesis of the book, which is that Shannon uniquely approached the development and engineering of technology as "fun" rather than work, however, doesn't seem to hold. What I got out of the book was that Shannon was cultivated and mentored by various established scientists (including Vannevar Bush), who appreciated his talent. The "fun" part was that Shannon pursued various other hobbies (including juggling and uni-cycling) rather than just the work he was famous for.

It is true that Shannon has long been neglected compared to other luminaries of his age. This book goes a long way towards correcting that. As such it is recommended reading.