Monthly Archives: October 2014

Digital Snow – Flush Magazine – 15

It’s starting to get towards winter, the clocks has fallen back so this months Flush Magazine, amongst other things, is all about snow, mountains, skiing and boarding. I just had something snow related to consider for my 14th article for the magazine. (That now sounds like a lot!)
I thought I should cover a bit go history, as usual. Some tech reminiscing. This time it was Hungry Horace goes skiing. Anyone else remember that ? 🙂
These sort of flashbacks to things that felt special or unusual then act a seed to zoom forward. This time I covered how snow has felt on screen in games and films through the years. From the simplistic to the “material point method for snow simulation” CGI research papers created by Disney in making films like Frozen.
I didn’t want to stick to pure virtual snow though but some other advances and where it could go in the near future to enhance our skiing experience. I did give a mention to SNOW the game as that looks mighty impressive and has some real potential IMHO.
Thanks to everyone writing for Flush Magazine, it’s great to have so many good articles to nestle in between on a cold winters night. Huge thanks to @tweetthefashion for such awesome production and editing and for still wanting me to write these journeys in history based futurism.
The full issue can be found below

I am zooming around on page 116 and the iOS version is here
All the past articles and links to them are here on the writing portfolio page
Right, where are my snow boots!

Oculus Rift – DK2 – Elite Dangerous – Breaking the Flow

Feeding Edge’s Oculus Rift DK2 (Development Kit version 2) arrived last week. I had an original Oculus Rift (Pre-Facebook buyout) form the Kickstarter campaign. It is amazing looking back and seen that I wrote about that in August 2013! How time flies!
The new DK2 is a big leap in technology, though it comes in a much less impressive cardboard box, rather than the foam filled attache case of the original one.

The new unit is smaller and lighter but boasts a huge increase in picture quality. There have been quite a few ergonomic tweaks too.

The placing of the wires to the unit are now in the centre top and the cable is fed over the top head strap so it doesn’t get in the way as much as the side dangling cable of the DK1.

The old control box form the DK1 is gone, this used to take all the connections and a power switch etc. It was often the first thing to fall on the floor as the cables got tangled up.
The eye pieces are noticeably bigger too, presumably to get all that extra resolution and field of view in.

Aside from the resolution of the screens the biggest change is the external tracking of the Rift’s position. DK1 knew you were turning and tipping but if you stepped or moved side to side it had no idea. DK2 comes with a sensor that need to be mounted and pointing at the rift. It can, with software that bothers to use it, tell if you are near of far right or left, up or down relative the the sensor. It is not a kinect, but it does give 3d space positioning.
My neighbours may glance up and see this tripod and thing it is facing out of the window, when in fact it is pointing at me!

Getting the rift running on the Mac was a doddle as usual. With no control box the connections are simply and HDMI for the display and two USB connections one for the camera device and one for the headset. The power lead runs into a tiny splitter block and a synch lead runs from that to the camera sensor.
It was more tricky getting it to run on windows 8.1. though. My HP laptop has 2 gfx cards and trying to persuade it to extend the display and put primary rendered graphics on the rift is a bit of a pain. I ended up with the primary display 90 turning itself 90 degrees and the secondary rift flipped 180 degrees in landscape. The demo/tuning application runs in direct mode so you don’t need any of this but lots of the other things rely on extended desktop. You can of course make rift your primary display but it is not then delivered a one image but a bit in the left eye and a bit in the right so it makes launching things difficult.
However after a bit of “well thats just windows isn’t it!” I sparked up the Elite Dangerous Beta. This had upgraded since the last time. Elite has a display on secondary option though this was not DK2 direct mode it was possible to make it work.
I was instantly blown away by the improvements to the visual resolution of DK2. My laptop managed to cope too with the environment and it may not be the best gaming rig in the world but it certainly worked. I launched out into space and got chills running down my spine with the sense of being there as the shadow of the cockpit struts moved across my field of view as I turned away from the star I was docked near. It is really really good. I mapped a button on the stick to re centre the rift view though as there was a slight drift. However 2 beta things and on windows 8.1 it was not a huge problem.
I flew around for a while taking in the scenery then got into a slight dogfight in space. Being able to pull tight turns but look up and backwards to spot the bad guy was really effective. However I did suffer a little from not being able to see my controls. Using a joystick with loads of buttons is great, but I did not realise how much I had relied on seeing button 7 ! So it did not take my adversary very long to break my ship down. In the previous beta of Elite the canopy would crack than the ship would blow and you ejected. The new version before the cracking I got sparks and smoke filling the cockpit. This was an incredible effect in the Rift. The combination of the sense of being there in the vastness of space, with the confinement of sitting in a smoking capsule is something I will remember as a key moment in my gaming and VR experiences. The rift makes sense in games like this as you probably would have a helmet on anyway. That is something a lot of games designers could consider. Rather than trying to pretend its not something you have on, embracing it and making it part of the game narrative.
I experienced a crash, in a typical windows style, whilst trying to dock as a space station. I can’t tell if it was the rift, the game or the machine that did it but at a key moment of concentration and full immersion the shock of being unplugged from the environment, to loose the cockpit and the space around me to be replaced by half of the windows desktop in each eye was horrendous. It seems the Rift and Elite where generating a different type of gaming Flow. I was not experiencing flow because the task had become automatic. I was concentrating on landing the ship in the right place. It required a lot of though. However, mentally I was experiencing sensory flow. I had stopped considering the medium as a barrier, or as anything other than real. For reality to be turned off with no warning created a mental jolt. Its a very strange feeling and one that took a few moments to analyse and think about. It shows the power of these imagination enhancers and our blended reality. I should be used to this stuff but it still hits me 🙂

Kano – Coding for Kids (of all ages!)

Recently my Kano arrived that I had backed a while ago on Kickstarter. Kano is a computer that you make yourself. When I backed this originally it looked like a good way to package up a Raspberry Pi computer to make it more human friendly. (The Pi is great but the original vanilla version were a lot of linux messing around to get working, that was of course early days).
Kano has packaged up a Raspberry Pi and provided a lovely collection of kit that allows you (or your kids) to get this small computer up and running.

The kit comes in a cardboard box, but it is a box with a flipped magnetic lid so it is more of a case really. The most striking piece is the orange wireless keyboard with built in track pad. This on its own is a great piece of kit. Small and very handy. It has a USB cable folded into the back of it, but this is just for charging it. It’s very nice indeed. My previous PI’s I used a full size wireless keyboard I had. It always seems wrong when the input device is soo much bigger than the device itself.
The instructions are written in two books one for assembly and one for getting coding. For this I tried to let predlet 2.0 just follow those himself to see how they worked.
I did help with a bit of clipping the case in but that was really just me itching to see all the elements.

After the build you are left with a Pi in a clear case (with some customisation panels) an attached speaker and several cables. HDMI for the TV and a a power lead. It comes with a ready prepared operating system on an SD card and with a wifi wireless dongle too.
We plugged into one of the gaming TV’s and away predlet 2.0 went. There was of course the obligatory patch, this took a little while but there were a set of screens to read about computing and how it all works.

As you can see, whilst you have the BIOS style boot screen initially after that it is all very slick looking and more like a computer they will have been used too. It is not all command line hacking.
The user creates a name and then an online account with Kano. This gives access to all sorts of things and a sort of scratch like repository of shared programming experiments. It is also very much like an xbox or playstation account. There is an avatar, customisable of course. There are also lots of points and badges for achievements using the system. This seems to work well to get past those initial possibly confusing stages.
Predlet 2.0 say the minecraft logo and wanted to dive straight into that. For once though I insisted he worked through the book as I wanted to see how it gelled with him.
The first task is a little unusual in that it asks the user to get an ASCII version of snake up and running via the command line. It then explains this basic game has lots of sets of parameters and being able to type –help etc on the CLI. This is a skill that is needed but this almost would lose a lot of kids right away. The achievements system does a lot to mitigate that. I grew up on CLI’s I still have to use them. Hitting them with this first of all to get the potentially boring bit out of the way makes sense too. I still was little disappointed by that bit but Predlet 2.0 battled on.

The remaining tasks involve diving into the visual programming Kano blocks. The example uses a version of pong and then gets the user to use the programming blocks to drag onto the workspace and change how things operate. The lessons are good and cover a range of techniques. This was certainly more fun. Kano blocks looks and acts like Scratch which is handy as Predlet 2.0 had some experience tinkering with that. It does also point out that you can see the Python code that blocks generates, this is a good thing as whilst CLI’s may not be great IMHO getting to real code is essential at some point. Visual composition has come a long way but having both views of the code is much more useful.
After pong we dived into the minecraft version. The Pi being a smaller machine means its not going to have the draw distance and world size of a PC or Xbox but it is instantly familiar to most kids.
The screen is split horizontally, almost like a two player game would be.
The top half is Minecraft, moving around building with individual blocks. The bottom of the screen is a Kano Block version of a console. Here the lessons show how code can be run to alter the world. Normally in Minecraft you build a block at a time. Predlet 2.0 was instantly amazed when he did a draw command and loop in Kano blocks that created a 20x20x20 block. One of the other examples creates a long think wall of stone and then a thinner wall of air inside generating an instant tunnel. That was powerful. Because of the scratch he had done and the hours of Minecraft on every platform predlet 2.0 had a bit of a eureka moment I think. This was the real level of understanding of the power of programming. I only got that at 14 when it suddenly dawned on me, but home machines were somewhat rarer.
Now we have a £99 kids friendly machine, something that was the aim of Raspberry PI but they could only go so far sorting out the hardware. Kano is a package and an experience. It does protect from some of the hacking needed, but that is its point. Get them in, let them play then they will learn to hack and code.
We spent about 3 hours straight on this, and I am looking forward to the next session we have. There are some instructions on using VNC and remote access into the device so that an ipad screen can be used.
This kit should be in every primary (and secondary school) right now!

Gastronomy Geekin’ – Heston style

Last night I was very fortunate to be able to go to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant in Bray to partake of the tasting menu. I was there as a guest with @elemming‘s work colleagues who had agreed to celebrate a particular milestone. I have been a fan of Heston’s work on TV and have watched everything he has done. It is because it is not simply cookery but science and art combined. He talks about food experiences in terms of memories that they evoke not just the taste. He pursues ideas on the transformation of food in the same way many makers and tech geeks combine things just to see what will happen. There is a lot of snobbery and pretentiousness in food and drink, yet somehow for me he cuts through that with that youthful enthusiasm and passion, making the complex simple.
I am not going to attempt to be a “food critic”, I was there and in the zone enjoying and absorbing it all, like all wonderful experiences there will be bits and pieces of meal that will surface in memories over time. There were at least 14 courses over the space of the 5 hours we were there which is a little above the brains 7 +-2 things to retain in short term memory!
The evening started with a wine list experience that was such a weighty tomb it looked like a spell book from Harry Potter. I was driving and have decided not to drink at least until after my Choi Kwang Do black belt grading, but I still enjoyed watching the choosing experiences. I also was very impressed with the depth of knowledge and detail the sommelier had. Thousands of bottles of wine and he almost knew the GPS coordinates of the individual grapes by heart. It is not a cheap night of food but the wine prices put anyone thinking they are a bit flash back in their place. The most expensive was £8000. That was not one for our table!
I had a fruit juice to drink but the process to create it and the addition of Chamomile to the blood peach extract that was not squeezed but teased from the fruit over several hours was an instant eye and taste bud opener. Yet it was rather nice!
The menu does a explain a little of what follows but does not indicate the depth of attention detail and distilling down of flavours and textures that just keep coming throughout the experience. It isn’t supposed to be a meal, it is an art gallery or a concert. The day after I am left with ringing taste buds the same way I am left with ringing ears after a really good music gig.

Having an aperitif that is foamed, flavoured egg white that is poached in a vat of steaming liquid nitrogen at your table is not only fun but amazing science in action. The resultant spoonful had already got me interested and fascinated. It was the start of a theme of textures and transformations. The poached meringue had a solid structure, yet melted and almost evaporated as you put it in your mouth.
There were a number of things that on stopping and admiring the work it was amazing how things had not just crumbled, melted or shifted on the plate. Or jelly like layers that were incredibly rich reductions that a tiny taste of filled your mouth with flavour.
The Mad Hatter’s tea party presents you with a gold watch style tea bad. The watch and its gold leaf dissolves in the the clear tea put releasing a rich stock. It is fancy Bisto, but the mechanics are fascinating.
The Hot & iced tea just before the main dessert was a trick that uses unusual ingredients to create a very strange effect. The glass of tea is presented and you are asked to drink it in the orientation that it is deliver in. As you sip the tea, the left side of your mouth is warm , the right side is cold. It uses a non starch Gel to make an almost runny liquid but one that retains its form so it does not flow into the opposing temperature side. It is rather like floating cream on an irish coffee but not in horizontal layers but vertical ones. Wonderful stuff!
The main dessert was called Botrytis Cinerea and it is where I finally buckled and took a photo. I was trying to not get obsessed with taking snaps of the food. There were people in the restaurant with SLR cameras pointed at each plate that arrives, but you can’t consider that rude or weird in a place that is there be a multi sensory experience. (There is also not specific dress code, just a come as comfortable attitude).
So this dessert

looks like a still life sculpture of a bunch of grapes. It is the name of a fungus that eats into grapes a grey mould. So this dessert looks like grapes that have gone mouldy? Yet this mould in nature has two sides to it. One side destroys but the other called “noble rot” enhances the sweetness of dessert wines. Obviously we were not eating the rot, well I don’t thing we were, but it led to a really amazing dish..
Each of the ‘grapes” was a complex combination or preparation. The large green one had a crisp shell, had runny caramel inside but was also peppered with space dust so crackled as you ate it. Some of the others that looked solid were in fact delicate sorbets and ice creams. The meringue one again was solid to the touch but instantly disappeared in a puff of flavour on the tongue.
Every dish had had elements like that. The tapioca transformed into sand (with microscopic sardines/krill added to it) and the crab/fish flavoured froth of the “sound of the sea”. (This dish comes with a large conch shell with an iPod hidden in it and earphones so you can listen to the sound of the sea whilst you eat your way through a beach scene of flotsam and jetsam)
It wasn’t all “tricks” though. The main course was an Anjou Pigeon, delicately cooked so that it had a rich flavour linked to a soft texture.
So yes it was good. we all enjoyed it immensely.
In someways I wish I had not seen the dishes on the TV before so the shock and surprise would have been greater, however in other ways this was like when we went to see BB King in concert. A legend of the blues. I had heard the songs before, even tried playing them but nothing beats the live experience and the event itself after you are already immersed in that world. Rehearsal, practice and simulation are are brilliant but they also need to lead up to the real thing too.