Note 35: The State of the LazerChickens

I can quit at any time. Right?

I spent a large part of the evening yesterday watching Biden’s (not a) State of the Union address. I figured it would be interesting to see how he thought his last 100 days went and what was on the agenda for the nation moving forward. Throughout the speech, my mind kept on inserting “C’mon guys!” before a bunch of his sentences, so in my own head at least, he’s C’mon Biden to me now.

The second thought that I had about the speech echoed architect Daniel Burnham’s famous maxim:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.

While it will be interesting to witness to what extent the programs Biden proposed survive the legislative sausage-making process, I can’t fault the guy for using the two years of legislative control that his party enjoys to go for broke. I’m personally not a fan at all of the price tag, but given how the mainstream GOP’s in the process of going full populist itself (read: right-wing cultural and economic socialism), all I can hope for at this point is that the Modern Monetary Theory guys aren’t as cuckoo as they sound.

Hooked on VR

Something interesting happened over the past couple of months. After a months-long period of playing VR intermittently, the equation flipped and I was suddenly engaged, and started to wonder if I was getting too into it.

[Insert record scratch sound here…]

To recap, about a year ago, I purchased an Oculus Quest headset as something to explore during the pandemic. For those not following the VR market, the Quest is a standalone battery-powered headset sold by Facebook. My first experience with the Quest was sufficiently entertaining and engaging that I doubled-down on it and purchased a number of accessories, including prescription lenses for the unit. (Without the prescription lenses, folks wearing glasses have to place the headset over their glasses, which isn’t comfortable for long.)

Now, keep in mind that the computational power of the Quest is roughly that of a high-end Android phone. (It is actually an Android portable device, but that’s not relevant here.) Consequently, there was a notable gap between what could run on the portable headset and what higher-end PC-tethered VR rigs could do. On the portable Quest, you had access to smaller experiences, such as The Room VR: A Dark Matter:

On the PC-side of the fence, headsets like the Valve Index would typically be connected to a PC with a beefy graphics card and you could run games like Half-Life: Alyx:

A lot more things could happen simultaneously and the environments could be much more ambitious due to the beefier processors on PCs, compared to the self-contained Quest. During this period, I had a good time with the Quest, and completed a number of the titles on the platform. Unfortunately, my play sessions were often cut short by a warm headset that became uncomfortable to keep wearing after an hour or so. (Which is a bummer for folks looking to replicate the movie theater experience in VR.)

At the time, I had also started playing Elite Dangerous on the Xbox and was having a great time exploring the galaxy. Unfortunately, late in the summer, some (still unresolved) incompatibility was introduced in the game and my network setup that prevented me from playing. It was around this time that I began looking into the Oculus Link capability that Facebook included with the Quest.

Oculus Link is a feature that allows me to connect my headset to a PC to play PC VR games, like Half-Life: Alyx. In this setup, a fully-featured headset with its own software and operating system becomes essentially a dumb display for a PC. I spent several weeks researching this feature and eventually decided to purchase a dedicated gaming laptop for VR games. I landed on an HP Omen 15” gaming laptop with an Nvidia RTX 2060 graphics card for VR gaming. I took the laptop home, installed a VPN client (thereby addressing the latent network issues preventing me from playing Elite on the Xbox) and fired up the game in the VR headset.

The initial experience was interesting, but was roughly a 4 out of 10 on an engagement scale. I think part of that was because I was essentially starting over on the PC. (There’s no cross-play between platforms for Elite.) I’d play the game once every couple of weeks or so, and my engagement would bump up a bit more each time I went out to explore the game some more. I scouted alien ruins to improve my hyperspace jump range, unlocked a few engineers, and set off in the fall out to the outer reaches of the Milky Way to visit a ghost ship. It was still a “I’ll play once every couple of weeks” kind of thing.

Over my stay-cation last month, I resolved to spend some more time in VR and that’s when I became “hooked”. I don’t know if this is the same for other folks, but when I’m reading a new book, playing a new game, or attempting to do something entertaining, I’m always waiting for the “hook” to catch me where I’m sufficiently engaged that I can’t wait to get back into whatever hooked me. (The “hook” leads to Flow.) And if something doesn’t hook me, about half the time, I end up abandoning it, not wanting to slog through to whatever diamond is waiting for me once I break through. (Sometimes, I’ll revisit the property with a fresh perspective, as I’m likely to do this year with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, which have failed to grab my interest at least three distinct times over the past 20 years.)

So, for the past month, I’ve been “hooked” on Elite in VR and I’ve been asking the question of whether I’ve gotten into it too much for my own good. Before we get to that, let’s make a couple of observations:

  • Elite seems to be working for me in VR because I have a dedicated chair for it that serves as my cockpit. I primarily play the game with an Xbox controller, which spared me from having to re-learn the controls and is something I can hold in my lap while playing. Unlike games like Myst, I don’t end up fighting the physical space I occupy while trying to do stuff in VR.

  • The “hot forehead” situation seems to have vanished in recent months. I don’t know if this is me becoming accustomed to the headset or the unit running cooler when it’s serving as a dumb display, but I don’t run into the sweaty hour milestone any more.

  • I’ve been making a more conscious effort to learn all the “little skills” that I glossed over when playing the game on the Xbox. For example, there’s a component of your ship called an Automatic Docking Computer. You can use this to automatically park your craft in starports and launch from outposts into space. I’ve intentionally stopped using that unit (actually removing it from all of my ships), because the game’s much more engaging the more control that you personally take. If you’ve driven any amount of time, it’s like the difference between “driving stick” and using an automatic transmission.

  • Rather than jetting off to see the galaxy, I’ve also been focusing more on combat-oriented gameplay, from the meta-game to upgrade my ships to make them competitive to developing the skills as a bounty hunting or mercenary pilot. That’s a lot of fun.

  • Despite the many more credits and higher rank I have on my Xbox account, entry-level PC VR is superior to flat 4K when it comes to this game. I should be more frustrated that I can’t play my first pilot anymore, but the biggest frustration in the new setup is my lack of ability to take good screenshots in VR.

  • My engagement in Elite hasn’t translated over into similar VR games like Star Wars: Squadrons and The Outer Wilds. Part of this may be a function of getting over Elite’s notorious steep learning curve. Once you’re “flying stick” in Elite, other experiences feel like stepping down from NASCAR to Mario Kart.

At this point, left to my own devices and with no work deadlines, it would be entirely possible for me jump into the game and stay there. I’ve managed to assemble a personal fleet of ships for a variety of tasks (the titular LazerChickens) and could find any number of things to keep me busy. I have to be very careful to keep track of time, given that I can’t count the number of times it feels like I’ve been playing for an hour, only to find out that I’ve been playing 3 or 4 times that duration. It has me Asking Questions, which led to this week’s Note.

I’m making a conscious effort to cut back, but I’m not quite sure I’ll end up spending less time in VR. While learning to be a competent space pilot does nothing to advance my career or prospects, I figure that I can subtly redirect my being hooked on Elite in a slightly more productive direction:

Now, I’m not saying that this will actually teach me how to fly a plane, but I also imagine that there’s quite a bit that I can absorb just enjoying myself in the simulator. I sometimes get nostalgic for places I’ve lived or visited, and it’ll be quite interesting to replace me spending hours panning and zooming in Google Maps to hop in a virtual plane and explore them that way. It also gives me a good way to revisit interesting things that I see as a plane passenger by allowing me to hop in a plane of my own and retrace my path (in real-time with other actual planes).

The major question that I have to answer before swapping my space wings for something a bit more Earth-bound is whether last year’s laptop is up to the task of running this newer simulator. So, stay tuned.

Book report

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (★★★★★): This is a beautiful sci-fi family drama told from the perspective of Klara, an AF (artificial friend), that a broken family purchases to both provide company and support for Josie, a daughter who is slowly dying from the after effects of genetic modifications that segregate the surrounding society into Haves (“the lifted”) and the Have-Nots (“the unlifted”). While the story is set in a fascinating milieu, Ishiguro only engages in world-building to the extent it supports the story of Klara, Josie, and the friends and family members in their orbit. It’s a nice and tightly-focused story and it had me reaching out to local theatre friends to see if anyone’s looked into adapting this story to for the stage.

In terms of my overall reading goal, I remain on schedule (32 of 101).

Interesting reads and watches

What Do You Call a Bunch of Black Holes: A Crush? A Scream? (New York Times)

Telescopes Unite in Unprecedented Observations of Famous Black Hole (Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

Betelgeuse going Critical (astrobites)

They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War (Wired)

Perseverance rover just made oxygen on Mars (CNN)

These People Love to Collect Radioactive Glass. Are They Nuts? (Collectors Weekly)

How the GOP Absorbed Far-Right Extremists (The Bulwark)

NASA’s bold bet on Starship for the Moon may change spaceflight forever (Ars Technica)

Elite Dangerous pilot completes record-breaking 85,000 light year voyage without a fuel scoop (PC Gamer)

Michael Collins, who piloted the Apollo 11 command module, has died (Ars Technica)

Why Utah’s conservatism is better (The Economist)

The weather in Chicago may be good enough that I may skip VR this weekend for plain ole R (reality). I’ve been a poor gardener these past few weeks and this may finally be the weekend where I get things back on track. That said, I can’t garden when it’s dark, and there are always rogue CMDRs that need to be taught the lesson that it’s not cool to kill miners and newbies.