Mac Pro early 2008 approaching the end of its useful life

My Mac Pro (Early 2008) I think is finally coming to the end of it’s useful life. Over 10 years since taking ownership I can’t complain. This 14Gb 8 core machines has served me well with only a few minor repairs along the way:

http://blog.creacog.co.uk/2009/12/10/macpro-early-2008-video-card-dies/

http://blog.creacog.co.uk/2011/02/28/apple-cinema-hd-23inch-dies-then-resurrects/

http://blog.creacog.co.uk/2012/09/09/mac-pro-wake-from-sleep-restarts-instead/

There is I think a hardware fault developing. It occasionally freezes. Mouse pointer still active, but nothing clickable and no keyboard interactions. Forum users suggest the video card is a likely culprit (https://discussions.apple.com/thread/5022785) and a good clean may fix it.

Mac OS  10.11 El Capitan is the last version of the system to support this hardware. Until now, most software has continued to run happily on that system, but I am starting to see El Capitan drop out of the support list for key software. Crucially today, Adobe CC updates drop support for Mac OS 10.11.

Creative Cloud upgrade needed

Can I hang on to see the iMacs expected to be released this or next month? Or do I part with a load of cash on a Mac Book Pro 2018? Or even consider PC if I want to get more into Oculus platforms? Unfortunately the old machine has no trade-in value – I remind myself in terms of total cost of ownership over the last 10 years or so, this has been the best value computer I have ever had. I can’t see any replacement coming close with so few options for upgrading/repairing memory or storage.

Common VR user experience issues

My experience so far is of 180 and 360 movies, some interactive movies and a couple of games. I am yet to experience any VR sickness. My background has involved a lot of software testing so I generally feel the need to write up anything that looks or feels wrong.  The following are the most common UX issues I encountered to date. I have used the Oculus browser a couple of times, but for the most part these are within the game apps or the media player apps.

Streaming artefacts

When using a slow internet connection (mine was at less than 7Mb/s at the time of writing) then a streaming 360 video will suffer the low resolution and compression artefacts. This gives a blurry and chunky edges to high contrast areas. While it is the same as you’d expect with a normal 2D movie, seeing the same within a stereoscopic movie seems to amplify the discomfort.  The only advice for the full quality is to download the file before playing if the player app allows this.

Objects (or people) too close to the camera

I have viewed a number of objects placed, or waved far too close to the camera. As an object get’s two close, it first becomes uncomfortable. At a certain point the stereoscopic view breaks down and double vision ensues making for a horrible experience. The production guidance I have found so far is that user comfort is based on objects being 0.75m to 3.5m away within the environment. Same applies to both video captured and 3d rendered.

People are smaller

I think in all of the acted video experiences I have watched, the view is smaller than real life which becomes apparent viewing people. They seem to be about 75% or maybe 66% of full size. At least they are consistent within Amaze, so some standard parameters are being used.

Rapid movement

A director of standard 2D video uses tricks such as depth of field and blurring to guide the viewer’s eye, and give the impression of smooth movement. Neither of these work in 3d video. The user moves their eye wherever they like, so everything must be in focus and sharp. This drives the need for higher frame rates. In any event, fast moving parts such as helicopter rotors appear to strobe rather than sweep.

Camera vertical position

In real life, I am of slightly over average height (6’1). Most of the experiences I have seen have placed the camera at the actor’s eye height, or lower. On normal video this seems not to be an issue, but in VR, especially where there is context of other people taller than the actor being filmed, it feels unnatural to me. Clearly this will be different for everyone and may just be an oddity of VR which cannot be overcome, but it can feel like I am crouching in an unnatural position through some of the video experiences.

Taking screenshots

Taking screen shots within Oculus Go leaves something to be desired. Currently requires the user to drop out of their experience, Choose Sharing > Take Photo from the navigation bar, then return to the experience and the snapshot will be taken 5 seconds from the time the take photo button was pressed. This doesn’t work for me at all in the missed spaceflight experience.

Another route is mirroring the screen using VLC to my Mac and taking the screen shot there. Unfortunately there is often some lag or degradation and it is difficult to have one eye on the mirror while keeping inside the experience.

The easiest method I have found so far is to use Sharing > Record Video, then use the Android File Transfer tool to pull the mp4 video from the device and pick the frame(s) I want to use later

How to set up mirroring is well described on Pixvana ( https://pixvana.com/sharing-your-oculus-go-screen-on-your-laptop/)

This year’s Oculus Connect (OC5) announced Casting for Oculus Go ( https://www.oculus.com/blog/oculus-go-at-oc5-even-more-to-watch-and-play/) . It will be interesting if and how that provides a better route to extract and share experiences.

Interactive VR experiences

Amaze: Redway manor

Amaze viewer app: https://www.oculus.com/experiences/go/1230799313655858/

A lot of the initial content with the amaze app seems to consist consists of dancers, pole dancers, and other young ladies demonstrating yoga and similar, along with some more vlogger style unusual experiences. Redway Manor however is more sophisticated.

The user experience is Point of View. Sometimes you are seeing through the eyes of the protagonist, other times you are fly on the wall. After each scene is acted, you are presented with interactive choices of who to speak to next, allowing for different routes through this story. The visual and sound quality is all good with hints of AR mixed into this VR world (as in the screen shot above). In some scenes, the actors not directly involved in the immediate action do have a challenge to behave naturally.

View a trailer over on YouTube: REDWAY MANOR | Official VR Trailer (AmazeVR)

Tomb raider

https://www.oculus.com/experiences/gear-vr/1759965414055326/

While the gameplay is linear, there are interactions required, and it is possible to fail. You are being chased, and take to take too long navigating or solving the puzzles and the Trinity soldiers will shoot at you. The laser pointer is replaced as the game progresses with a torch, climbing grapple or bow and arrow. Simple fun.

Dead and buried

https://www.oculus.com/experiences/go/1490394380970763/

Beautifully crafted, cartoonish 3D rendered stereoscopic western town. A haunted one. Your job is to survive the attacking ghouls by shooting them with your 6-shooter before they overwhelm you, or their snipers get you. Lots of interaction and I feel RSI coming on with the number of reloads I need to perform. This is the first VR to get my blood pressure up as the pressure to be accurate and reload in a short time builds.

The multiplayer choice puts you in a tournament of quick-draw duels with live opposition. I was justly taunted by some youth speaking another language as I lost abysmally. I need to be more accurate and faster on the draw and reload. It is incredibly satisfying to beat the other guy. Since your oculus name is displayed here, and the others are strangers, I really wish I had set a non-identifying username.

Linear VR experiences

These early experiences with my head in an Oculus Go have left me wanting more.  All of these are linear. That is, they are not interactive other than the ability to look around. They are all good introductions to 360° experiences. But leave you after a while wanting or needing more. There will be creative pressure on producers to come up with something different or have compelling story, as binocular 3D and 360° look around alone only hold gimmick value for a short time. After which there needs to be enough motivation to bother sticking your head in a VR headset.

The Missed Spaceflight

https://www.oculus.com/experiences/gear-vr/1231174300328686/

I hadn’t set up parental controls on the device, and so was careful to set up the start of the experience before handing over the headset. In my opinion, the easiest VR experience to share for any family, young and old. That’s a coverage from 10 through to 75 years and in each case it was their first experience with Oculus Go, and a very positive one.

I did find that the text titles at the start are placed too close to the viewpoint, making them unreadable. A few seconds later they are gone and the experience commences with superbly detailed rendering, audio and movement.  A very nice, smooth, impressive introductory 360° VR experience.

Face your fears – Stranger Things

https://www.oculus.com/experiences/gear-vr/1168200286607832/

A very nice example of a 360° rendered experience. There is no interaction, but the scenes are instantly recognisable to fans of the programme and coupled with the sound scaping there are plenty of jump scares. A certain member of my family who is a fan of Stranger Things didn’t sit through the whole of the experience for it being ‘too scary’.

Lego batman

https://samsungvr.com/view/sDrBlQe0peI

SamsungVR is one of the many media player apps designed to deliver 360° VR video. The Lego batman is a neat, entertaining and humorous experience with some excellent attention to detail.

Blade Runner 2049: Replicant Pursuit

https://www.oculus.com/experiences/go/1558723417494666/

Another very cool, short, simple 360° linear experience. There is initial interaction, to set the sound level, and decide on subtitles on or off. Subtitles are rendered when needed on a panel that follows head movement. Unusually the interaction is made not by the laser pointer, but by looking at the button to press and pressing the Go’s track pad. The 3D rendered environment is very clearly computer generated but the movement is super smooth, purposeful and not rushed. The rain is a nice touch. The sound scape brings you in, I found myself returning to watch the film again after this experience.

Summing up

I enjoyed this initial dip into VR and appreciate the huge amount of work that has gone into these to get the attention to detail and feel of the experiences right for each franchise. I’d happily consume more of the same. They do leave me craving more interaction. In fact, while these are all free to view, I would want something more when it comes to paid content. Technically I am assuming the main content of each are pre-rendered  with elements such as the subtitles in the blade runner example laid over the running video. I am looking forward to playing with the tools used to create some aspects of these and delving into the production processes.

Oculus Go – my first use

VR momentum is building and Facebook’s recent release and current heavy marketing of Oculus Go could and should succeed in bringing VR to a far wider audience. This is a relatively inexpensive self contained unit, requiring a mobile for initial setup then only wifi access to the internet. There is no dependence on external hardware such as a PS4, XBox, High power PC or wrapping a more expensive smartphone with cardboard and lenses. I was expecting some rough edges but the overall experience is pretty impressive.\

OculusGo boxed

Unboxing and first view

It is very neatly packaged and simple to set up. Strapping on the headset, I was impressed at how responsive the view is. There is no noticeable lag from head movement. Some visible banding did make it feel like sitting close to an old CRT, so it is possible to be distracted into viewing the pixels. Glancing around, rather than moving one’s head, results in a blur and a colour shift. Pointing your head at anything you want to look at brings it into focus, but that movement takes a little getting used to.

As someone who needs reading spectacles, this may be a complicating factor in the visual artefacts I described. I have the supplied spacer in place.

The controller (akin to a laser pointer) is impressive. This little AA powered grip, with trigger, touch surface, back button and oculus button is remarkably easy to use. It can be seen in-VR and calibration is quick and simple. – Just point forward, look forward and hold the Oculus button to centre the VR world in front of you.

 

First application installed – Netflix

OculusGo Netflix screen shot

The rendered lounge gave really good first impression of VR.  I felt myself reach for the remote and wondered why i couldn’t see my hand. It was painless to set up and connect to my Netflix account. The lounge is neat, and with lighting that dims as you interact with the TV.

But that’s it. I’m not sure of why I would use this to view standard 2d programming. The visual resolution is too low – far less than my conventional TV. Even away from home, I’d find conventional displays such as my laptop or mobile phone offer a far better and more controllable visual quality.

There are a number of UX issues with the app. One such is the swipe action of the controller being inverted from the normal when vertically scrolling through program thumbnails.

Second impression – Samsung VR and behind the scenes of Mission Impossible: Fallout

The first problem with the Samsung VR app is that it requires the user agree to an extremely long set of  terms and conditions. I wasn’t aware of  the swipe gesture on the controller at this stage, and it was impossible to advance through the text using the laser pointer and trigger. Even had i managed the swipe, from a UX point of view, this kind of document is next to impossible to consume in a VR environment such as this. It is necessary to agree to the terms and conditions to proceed.

Following, more red-tape. Permission requests to access to the Mic to record audio and to access  my library of content. I was only expecting to view a video, so I couldn’t understand why the application would be requesting those permissions. No context or explanation is given. They turn out to be optional. But only be hitting ‘deny’ do you find that out – i.e. the application continues to run. There is no obvious indication of what functionality may be lost by denying the app these permissions. So, in my mind there it is clear that UX is in the early stages of research for VR applications.

Once past all of these barriers, the view recorded by stereoscopic cameras anchored to hard points on helicopters recording Tom’s own stunt sequence present an excellent and exciting view. On my first viewing, my internet connection was particularly slow and the resulting compression artefacts detracted from the experience. Any distortion or ghosting around object edges seems far more prominent within a VR environment. The simple trick for crisp clear quality is to download and play back from local storage whenever possible – or subscribe to faster network access.

To be continued…

Summer 2018

A note to self, looking back on my last post to see what actually was achieved since.

Step 1 – “Get some tooling” – CHECK. Applied to ageing personal web stuff.

Step 2 – “Read up Jeff Patton’s User Story Mapping” – CHECK. The key catchphrases stand up no matter what: “Build the right product”, “Shared understanding” and adding my own twist “develop the greatest effect soonest”. Definitely worth a second read and reference.

Step 3 – “Play with Docker” – PARTIAL CHECK. Our lead developer has built an excellent Docker based infrastructure at work, bringing greater reliability and efficiency. My home kit isn’t compatible yet, so Vagrant will suffice until I update.

Steps 4 and 5 – We did set about using JIRA, Confluence and Bitbucket and bringing legacy projects to them

Moving on from my last employer, my next steps are to ensure I dedicate more time to:

  • Family
  • Exploring new tech – AR and VR of particular interest as it gains momentum as Oculus Go continues the process of bringing it mainstream
  • Gaining more product management experience
  • Photography – In camera, editing and restoration – creacog on Flickr
  • Tidy up this blog – so much has changed in the last 6 years

Then possibly freelance until finding the next permanent role.

New year 2018

Personally speaking, 2018 is going to be a year of getting at least some Agile and DevOps adopted at work.

Step 1 – Get some tooling… Kicked off with Vagrant and commenced updating the brain from my previous php5 use to 7. So far so good.

Step 2 – Read up Jeff Patton’s User Story Mapping- Which does seem to stand up to it’s strap-line: “Discover the whole story, build the right product”. From reading this, “Shared understanding” will be my new catchphrase for the year.

Step 3 – Have a play with Docker…. first problem… otherwise trusty old mid 2009 Mac Book Pro:

$ sysctl kern.hv_support
kern.hv_support: 0

So there’ll be no Docker practice on this machine.

Step 4 – Introduce work to some supporting tools: (JIRA, Confluence, Bitbucket)

Step 5 – Start using this stuff – Plenty of legacy work projects to migrate, and a couple of home projects.

This might be the excuse needed to justify updating my otherwise very long-lived Macs.

Long time no speak

Was 2012 really the last post from me?

In that time lots has happened in the world, especially the last few weeks! So far as this blog is concerned, I’ve been in permanent employment as a Digital Project Manager for about 4 years. So there’s neem a lot less time spent programming and nearly no time with Flash. Which, for the kind of projects I was using it for, is now truly dead. Of course niche requirements remain, and major sites still use it’s video capabilities, but much of the world is coming to the El Reg way of thinking of this and pretty much any other browser plugin.

In its place we have html5, the canvas and WebGL, ironically catching up to where flash was 4 years ago – but with a much worse language. Can’t help thinking how much more advanced browser interactivity would now be had ECMA Script 4 been adopted to advance javascript. Adobe AIR never really worked particularly well for me – especially on the phone I got for the purpose of testing. So despite investing a huge amount of time and cash in ActionScript development, it will be a rare day those skills are put to direct use in the future.

Looking back over the articles published, the one with the most traffic is the one that was most off-topic, and connected to the 1980’s tech of my teenage years: resurrected my tascam porta 05

Looking forward, since flash programming is mostly off the agenda, future subjects are likely to include:
* Photography
* Project Management
* Interactive media – websites, mobile apps, IoT etc
* General bits of tech that interests me

Mac Pro Wake from sleep, restarts instead

A couple of weeks ago my Mac Pro (Early 2008) started failing to wake properly from sleep – basically it would boot from scratch rather than awaken.

PRAM zapped and all the usual stuff you see written across various forum. Then at the point of installing a replacement backup battery, I noticed a bright red light on one of the RAM risers.

Cutting a long story short, one of the RAM modules has failed. Checking the system profile, 4Gb of installed RAM is missing. The mac has wisely ignored the failing bank of RAM, but it would have been nicer if it had also alerted me to the fact prior to looking inside.

End result: physically removed the modules on the failing bank and now sleep/wakeup works as normal again. Fingers crossed the memory supplier will replace the failing package on their lifetime warranty.

(Update: August 2018, I should have updated this at the time, but Crucial sent a replacement module very quickly and that has worked without fault ever since – the machine is still in regular use at time of writing)

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