Hello to my iMac 5K 2019

As previously noted, my trusty Mac Pro Early 2008 has been end of life for some time. It entered Apple’s vintage and obsolete products list back in 2015 and the last supported Mac OS version is 10.11.6 dates from 2016. Over it’s time, filled with had drives, memory upgrades and a replaced graphics card. Switching to SSD for the system drive in 2014 gave it a new spring of life. However over recent years, the application updates have been dropping backwards compatibility. After 12 years use, it is time to become current once more.

The iMac has been at “Don’t buy” status for some time on MacRumors, with the prospect of a 2020 iMac rumoured to have a substantial redesign. The 2019 MacBook Pro (or its expected 2020 update) having been much improved over the prior generation would have been an option, however the ‘Covid-19 lockdown‘ triggered the decision to act. With everyone home based, there is less reason pay a premium for a Mac Book Pro and having found a base configuration 2019 5K iMac on Apple’s Refurb store (≈£230 less than a non-refurb) seemed very good value in comparison.

iMac 5K 2019

Upgrading the memory to 24GB was quick and easy and inexpensive using the 16GB kit from Crucial and an inexpensive 2TB external drive serves as a TimeMachine backup drive.

The most painful part of the process was the time taken to encrypt the drives and to transfer data with the Migration assistant.  I now have a fast machine which doesn’t blow heat into the room. The 5K screen looks great compared to the 12 year old 23 inch cinema display.

Having skipped 4 major OS versions to Catalina 10.15.4, I expected a lot of change. The increase in security permissions checking was a little annoying at first – but less annoying than a compromised system. I was looking forward to Dark Mode, but sadly I found that I don’t like it. The white on black text is too high contrast for me, and presented with a heavier font weight – making differing text styles less readable. Further, the Mac OS X application windows rely on a shadow rather than border chrome to define the edges. These shadows are ineffective as visual when all the windows are dark, so it is back to light mode for me. Being able to run current versions of XCode, Photoshop, XD and others, and the much improved quality and speed of video playback on the 5K screen are more than worth cost of this machine.

I’ll be continuing with my trusty Matias Tactile Pro 2 (used daily since 2006). I’ve never understood why anyone would choose to use laptop-style keyboards with a desktop.

Getting Scrum onto my CV

I have worked in largely non-Agile, non-Scrum organisations. With my Product ambitions, ensuring my next role is Agile is something of a challenge. I have stacks of experience of handling the sort of problems that always arise in any event – mostly due to change management. My feeling is that in a Scrum environment, through its three pillars of Transparency, Inspection and Adaptation change should be immediately easier to handle, not harder.

I decided to certify. Being self-funded, the Scrum Alliance route was going to be out of my reach, so PSM via Scrum.org is my way to go. The prospect of having to pay to to re-sit the test is extra motivation for working to pass first time and there’s more to it than just reading the scrum guide a few times. My route:

On completion of the assessment, a report of your scores is returned with percentage achievements by focus areas (e.g. Product Value) with corresponding links to specific resources for improvement in those areas.

So, for me job Done for this one and on to the next.

PSM I

Awarded: Dec 13, 2019

In conclusion, the study and practice assessments were all valuable experience and leave me more determined than ever to work in an Agile, preferably Scrum environment going forwards.

Book donation to NMOC

An enjoyable trip to The National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, UK. Excellent presentations by the volunteers there explaining the history and operation of the codebreaking machinery including the BOMBE, Tunny, Heath Robinson and COLOSSUS. I’d very much recommend anyone visiting Bletchley Park walks the extra few paces to visit this separate museum in Block H.

BOMBE

There are working exhibits of so many of the computers important to computing in Britain, from mainframes through the explosion of personal computing from the late 70s.

A key purpose of the visit was to donate an old book and punched cards. I received these from a neighbour in 1986 while studying A-level computer science. The book dates from 1973 and relates to an ICL 1900 series Main Frame.  The ICL 2966 in the museum is far more recent but is running as a 1900 and gives a feel of the scale of the machinery then used.

It was interesting to read, some 46 years since it was written. I am reminded of a time when it was unusual for people to encounter, let alone own or carry, any computing device.

Introduction to computer systems
Technical Publication 4955 International Computers Limited 1972
Reprinted 1973

Agility before Agile

Having spent the last 6 years or so, mostly project managing things digital, web and mobile we selectively adopted some artefacts and ceremonies from Kanban and Scrum. However neither the organisation nor clients were ready to fully adopt Agile culture.

Meanwhile Agile has found its way beyond tech’ into traditionally conservative organisations including banking.

There was agility before the Agile manifesto formally pulled it all together. As a Studio Manager in the late 1990s we had a few things right which map to Agile priorities:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

We certainly recognised and valued staff who could work in multi-function teams.  We sought designers with technical aptitude and developers with an creative flair to ensure some overlap in skill-sets (T-shaped capability). A core project team consisted of a designer, developer and account manager. Any of whom might be project lead, based on the nature of the project. i.e. a very creative project may well be lead by a designer, functionally complex projects lead by a developer and content driven projects typically by an account manager.

At that time,  laptops were rare and hot-desking impractical with each person’s workstation often highly customised, big and heavy.

We redesigned our studio and it’s furniture to facilitate quick and easy team flexibility. Instead of benches of workstations, we had specially designed furniture arranged in clusters of four. Within the cluster, the centre space was kept clear with computer screens were arranged to the outer edge ensuring team members can see each other, easily communicate and view each screen content with a slight turn. Workstations consisted of desktop computer and monitor both on top of a customised mobile pedestal. Changing teams was simply a matter of unplugging and wheeling the workstation to the next cluster.

Two clusters of 4, ready for workstations
Wine and beer for the opening of the new studio

I haven’t found an environment quite like it since. Of course, laptops and WIFI make the ‘wheelie-workstation’ less necessary. I remain proud of the work we did in that studio, my colleagues and the way we worked together.

Team ideas raise development opportunities

A video, demonstrating a positive development environment. As I shift my mindset to ‘Product’, it also shows significant investment in the team’s knowledge and instincts as a source of product development ideas, company wide and how that benefits all concerned.

  • Agile makes it possible: (from 2 minutes) Transforming to best practice and an agile development culture improved code quality and development flexibility
  • Hack sprint: (from 6 minutes)
    • Every 5th sprint is a ‘Hack Sprint’, ‘hack’ ideas are put forward, teams formed and concrete demo’s built
    • Demos are presented back and pitched for roadmap inclusion

How this approach contributes to a positive culture of continuous improvement is clear from the video; company, product and personal.

Baby steps: Trying out Unity development for Oculus Go

My aim was to get hold of Oculus Go, experience and understand current UX for that environment and see how easy (or not) it is to develop for.

  • I am not new to programming, but I have been hands off for a few years
  • I had never used Unity
  • I am new to VR/XR

Notes from my getting started experience over the last few weeks:

Mac Pro early 2008 approaching the end of its useful life

UPDATE: Within Safari, I disabled: Canvas accelerated drawing and full page accelerated drawing. Since then, there have been no further system freezes. (As per the message here: https://discussions.apple.com/message/31166261#message31166261 )

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 far too close to the camera. As an object get’s too 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.