To the EMP and beyond

This weekend the EMP museum opened its new special exhibit, a massive collection of props and costumes from all of Star Trek. I highly recommend to all who find Star Trek interesting to go see it. It is a very different side of the Shows and movies, as with most props they all look very fake and plasticity close up, taking away a lot of the realism of the props and effects, but giving a scene of size and scale that is impossible to display in screen.

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End of an Era

I am a little late to the party, as most people have already seen Marvel’s latest movie Captain America: Civil WarJust a few years ago I would have been in line to see the first IMAX showing of any of the Marvel movies, but now I feel no excitement when a new one comes. It is an event that happens now three times a year. I have waited a few weeks since opening weekend (which starts Thursday afternoons now? that’s cheating) and I did not splurge for an IMAX ticket, just a screening at Seattle’s Cinerama. I was sadly disappointed with the film, not because it was considerable worse then all the other Marvel movies, but because now that the excitement has worn off, Marvel movies are husks of their potential, milked like the cash cow they are, riding on what good will there is left between Marvel Studios and the fans.

Being a Marvel movie the action and the special effects were top notch. Just like Captain America: Winter Solder the fight choreography is some of the best I’ve seen. Unfortunately in this movie all of it has been masked by shaky cam. The opening fights in Lagos looked amazing: the choreographer, actors/actresses and stunt people should all be very proud; except that all their hard work is wasted when someone decides its a good idea to shake the camera and cut every three frames. Action that is this good needs a long wide shot. Let the audience see whats going on, give us some spacial awareness of where Capt. is throwing his shield, or how the Black Widow flipped over a car to crush a man’s head between her thighs. The shaky cam is a cinematic crutch, it lets the viewer know that there is action happening, but that it is not important enough to follow.

My biggest problem with the movie is the script. I watch this movie and at the end determined that there was only one hero in it and it was Zemo the man who was supposed to be the villain. Zemo lost his love ones in the aftermath of the last Avengers movie and deeming the Avengers too dangerous to exist he has a elaborate plan to get them to destroy themselves. Unfortunately he is right, the Avengers have had no regard towards the consequences of their actions. This is the main driving point in the beginning of the movie and it is an important commentary on all blockbuster films, especially the super hero movies. These films always have to one up the stakes when disaster strikes, but they rarely address that there are people in those buildings that fell over, or that some one had just finished payments on that car used as an impromptu projectile. The film starts strong with the Scarlet Witch (who is played by the third Olsen sister) saving Capt. Rodgers at the cost of killing bystanders. This leads to the reveal that the UN has been in talks over a document which would put the Avengers on the leash of a UN committee.

So far there is a worth while message, one countering that in Winter Solder. Winter Solder taught Captain America that sometimes the organization or government you love and work for can do the wrong thing, and one needs to have the independent agency to act out when the government has gone to far. Now Civil War is prepping to teach the Capt. that there are limits to this, a super being cannot go around the world beating up bad guys and blowing up bystanders and expect there to not be any consequences. This plays well with the themes in Winter Soldier about power and corruption, as the Avengers like Shield before them are now the ones with power, to be corrupted.

To my disappointment they took this nice script and threw the entire thing out the window and instead thought up whatever they could to have Capt. America and Iron Man beat the living shit out of each other. The plot breaks down when people who are self described weapons of mass destruction have the emotional maturity of children. I’m disappointed that King T’Chaka died as he seemed to be the only adult in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the explosion at the UN the entire story could have been resolved if Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark sat down at a table for 10 minutes and talked about their feelings. Instead Capt. storms off like a preteen girl who didn’t get the right color pony and goes to find Bucky. Bucky has been chillin’ in this apartment in Germany since the last movie, but Rodgers only goes to find him now, why? Because the special ops forces have instructions to shoot to kill. Firstly Bucky is a strong independent super weapon and can take care of himself, secondly wouldn’t Rodger’s time been better spent just asking “Hey, why don’t you bring him in alive?” Did he burn all of his contacts and good will just by not showing up at the UN meeting?

Rodgers goes to to find Bucky and just makes things worst. He and Bucky say they don’t want to kill anybody, but they are both trowing punches that can stop a speeding car, some of those German special forces guys are never going to walk again, and at least one will die off camera. In the chase some new dude with a cat fetish shows up trying to get Bucky and they run through city causing several million dollars worth of damage to public infrastructure before they decide that there are enough disposable officers around that thry can’t punch them all into a coma. This is the first point where the movie goes counter to its theme of actions having consequences. Even if no one died there are a lot of hospital bills to pay and roads and bridges to repair and the only one to see any cell time is the Winter Soldier because they think he blew up the UN. Instead of facing the consequences Capt. America is given a free pass by Tony pulling strings saying he “can make this all go away if he just signs the Sokovia Accords”. This is the part of the movie where Capt. America is supposed to start seeing the consequences of his ‘kill the few to save many’ mentality, but instead when Bucky is broken out by out hero, Zemo, and Capt. America decides this is his chance to skip detention and play hookie with his buddies, again putting off the movie ending conversation about feelings between him and Stark.

The CIA lady steals their equipment from the UN and as a thank you we get the most awkward kiss in cinema. Capt. America is just putting out because he lost wallet and was unable to pay his shields cab fair. Now that we have thrown away the movies themes and started punching hulk sized holes in the plot the fan service can really start. Each side of this ‘Civil War’ gathers their troops, collecting their own arsenal of these humanoid super weapons. They don’t really go into why each side needs to have all these supers. Rodgers pulls in a few buddies because he is off to potentially face an entire squad of Cree infused winter soldiers, but Tony doesn’t know this. Tony decides to cache in all his chips just to stop Rodgers and Bucky, he doesn’t know that the others are with them.

So we have bent and twisted out plot to get to this point. Five or six ‘heroes’ on each side ready to pummel each other. This fight is here for the express purpose of satiating all of the ‘who would win’ conversations. And really I only have two notes: next time wear team colors so I have some idea who’s fighting who, as about 30 seconds were allocated in setting the teams and alliances its still very unclear which team everyone’s on; secondly, where was the Vision this entire fight? He uses he forehead laser three times, to warn the Capt. and crew at the beginning, to destroy the traffic control tower, and to murder the flying black characters. Otherwise he wasn’t there, with his godlike infinity stone powers.

Regardless of the details of the fight this is the next point for theme derailment. There is a quick one liner about how Stark has the foresight to evacuate the airport so we know that nobody died in this fight, but the airport was still pretty much destroyed. Some of the most serious damage was done by the side that believes that oversight is the way to reduce collateral damage. If I were on this UN council controlling the Avengers I wouldn’t send them anywhere I wasn’t ready to send a humanitarian aid group to deal with the aftermath. So its even those who claim to feel remorse about the wanton destruction still trash the airport and it reinforces my previous claim that Zemo is the hero and these super beings are not emotionally mature enough to exist.

After this fight the UN finds the evidence showing that the guy they let talk to Barns was just some Joe off the street and maybe Capt. America was right about everything. This is the ‘this changes everything’ moment for Stark as he realizes that his friend might not just be acting out for attention, but might actually be chasing down a lead (something again would have happened if they sat down and talked for ten minutes). Except this changes nothing. This Civil War is about methodology, not intent. It doesn’t matter that Capt. America had a good reason for hospitalizing all those German police, it was wrong because he determined that he needed to break a few spines without authorization or oversight from a higher power. Instead of doing the thing which Tony has been advocating all movie, bringing the evidence to the UN council and letting them decide the appropriate action to take, Tony sneaks out of his bedroom window climbing down the tree to go play with his friends. So now the Civil War is over? Tony has decided that being beholden to the UN is a good thing until there is an actual ‘bad guy’ to stop then he can do what ever he wants? At this point the story has muddled the character motivation so much that I’m only still watching for the action.

So this is the part of the movie where we see the twist. Zemo is not a super villain trying to get at some soviet super weapons locked in an unguarded facility in Siberia and take over the world. He is a disturbed hero who is only here to disarm the bombs. He makes the same argument as the UN claiming that super beings are too dangerous to exist because they kill and destroy without consequences and so far everything in this movie has demonstrated that he is right, every time the Avengers try and do good they level the city, always resorting to violence as the first course of action. This is demonstrated in this scene with a threat from Tony stating that he could beat the power of the rocket engines the blast shield Zemo is behind was designed to protect against, before even asking Zemo to surrender.

Now its time for the last fight scene. To set up this fight Zemo some how has a tape showing that Bucky killed Stark’s parents. What is even odder is that somehow Rodgers already knew this information. Where and when did Steve find this out? We have already established the Bucky doesn’t remember his missions when he is not activated as he asked the Capt. “What did I do, did I hurt anyone?” when he comes down from one of his episodes. This plot hole aside, this is the information that hits Stark’s vengeance nerve and we get an awesome but needless fight between Capt. America and Iron man. A conflict again which would have been solved if they sat down and talked about their feelings.

At the end of the fight we see the only character growth in the entire movie: the Black Panther, realizing that individuals are prone to make rash actions and individuals with extreme powers should guard against those rash actions, takes Zimo in to the UN security forces instead of watching him die or killing him. This makes me a little hopeful for the Black Panther movie, maybe this warrior king character will be the moral compass that the Marvel Universe needs. Chadwick Boseman did an amazing job with the limited role, and hopefully the writers for his stand alone movie will have more than one draft of the script.

The movie ends with Tony and Steve breaking up, even though they made such a cute couple, they were unable to talk through their issues and instead were always getting into fights. Steve leaves Tony his numbers so he can make a booty call when Ultron shows up, and everyone goes there separate ways learning nothing.

Though I could continue to nitpick about minor problems in continuity, things that were added just to look cool, people jumping from high buildings and landing unharmed, and bad camera work, but I think I have covered my major grievances with the movie. This feels like the end of an era. Super hero movies have been over done, they stick to simple formulas for story and fill with lots of action. The market has been over saturated, and to continue super hero movies will have to be good movies, which can stand on their own regardless of genre. I think its a task that Disney doesn’t want to do as long as they can stick to their formulas and pump money out of the franchise. I think the golden age of super hero movies is over and I plead to Disney don’t do the same with Star Wars.

VR reVIVEd

Last week I received a very special package. A big box of futuristic technology. I have posted before about my use of the Oculus Rift DK2 VR headset, and one of my personal goals is to make my life as much like I was living in Star Trek as possible. I have now gotten another step closer to having my very own Holodeck with the arrival of my HTC Vive.

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Hard to tell in this picture but its a very large box.

The box that arrived at my door was extremely large, much bigger than I was expecting. I became very glad that I had it delivered to my home address and not to the office as it would have been impossible to transport this on my bike. Inside the giant cardboard box was a slightly smaller, but still large, retail box of the Vive.

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The Vive box next to the Oculus DK2 packaging

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Well padded

The reason that this box is so large, almost 4 times larger than the box for the Oculus DK2, is because the Vive comes with a lot more hardware for Room-scale VR (remember this, there will be a quiz later). This is a huge leap over the old Oculus development kit.

The Vive is a virtual reality headset. Like the Oculus it is a computer display behind some lenses arranged with software so that the lenses warp the image on the screen to make it seem like they are googles to a computer generated world. The advancements since I got the Oculus almost two years ago are numerous. The biggest difference, on paper, is that the Vive has a much higher resolution screen, actually, the Vive has two higher resolution screens, one for each eye. This improves the picture quality a lot. The lenses are basically magnifying glasses held very close to the monitors and every pixel counts when you are looking at them up close. There are also improvements in the Lenses and the ergonomics over the Oculus, though the Vive is still a little heavier than the Oculus.

The real fun is comes with the other pieces in the box. The headset is very comparable to the Oculus Rift consumer version also released earlier this year, but its not too different from the old DK2 either. The real fun come with the addition of the controllers and the lighthouse stations.

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The important bits (I added the GorillaPods)

 

A small aside, to explain some of the technology: For a good virtual experience the computer needs the most accurate data it can get to know where a users head is pointing every time the computer renders a frame. This information tells the computer which way you are facing and it renders the scene accordingly. This is what gives users the ability to turn their head and look around the environments and is the key thing that separates VR headsets from the TV googles in SkyMall catalogs that just project a 65″ screen in front of you no matter where you look. This tracking can be done with an accelerometer and gyroscope to determine which way the head is moving as well as roll, pitch, and yaw. The Oculus DK2 also came with a camera, which could track IR LEDs on the front of the headset to let users move their head from side to side, or to duck down or up, giving the headset another degree of tracking that is impossible to achieve without using an external reference point, the camera. This is referred to as positional tracking, the tracking of an objects position in 3D space relative to a known constant. The consumer version of the Oculus Rift uses the same technology as the development kit to track where the headset is pointing. The Vive however, does not need a camera pointing at the headset for positional tracking. It has a much more complicated, but much more fun system for positional tracking.

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One of the lighthouses mounted to a lamp

The Vive set comes with two small black boxes, about three inches across with one side made of dark glass. When provided with power a little light inside them turns on to notify if they are working or not. What a human cannot see is that these boxes are shooting out a complicated pattern of infra-red lasers into the room. Each lighthouse has a rotating drum with a laser that fire with very exact timing. The Vive headset is mottled with light sensors which can detect an increase in infra-red light. By analyzing the timing differences of the lighthouses IR pulse on three or more of the sensors the headset can triangulate its position relative to the base station. This gives it positional tracking. This position tracking is, simply put, the opposite of what the Oculus has. The Oculus has ‘dumb’ lights on the headset and tracks them with a fixed camera, the Vive has ‘dumb’ laser pulses and tracks them with the headset. While this may seem like an arbitrary inversion it actually leads to some interesting technology.

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Hello? Are you still there?

The odd looking doughnuts with handles that came in the box are the Vive’s controllers. Yes, it came with two controllers. Why would one need two controllers for one headset? Are they supporting multiple players somehow? Are these controllers so likely to get lost or break they they just sent two off the bat?

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Had to add an extra beefy graphics card to power it all

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Initial set up is a mess

There are two controllers because there is one for each hand! These are not just some boring old Xbox controllers, these are tracked controllers for interacting with virtual environments. All that positional tracking techno-babble is now becoming important. The beauty of the Vive system of having the sensors on the device being tracked is that it makes it easy to add more tracked objects. In this case these controllers position in 3D space is tracked as accurately as the headset is, making it possible to look down and see your hands, or reach out and touch the environment. Oculus doesn’t have that (yet).

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Pulling a virtual bow

This is what make the Vive so compelling. It stops VR from being a passive experience and turns it into a much more active one. Also the tracking is good enough that you can stand up, and walk around the room. Remember I mentioned that this was Room-scale VR! This is another step closer to the holodeck, now I can summon a virtual world, look at it, walk around in it, and interact with it. All that is missing is smaller headsets, lighter controllers, smarter computers, force fields, and photons.

Out for a Hike

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Heading out to the mountains

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Up a narrow gravel road

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Preparing to depart

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Into the woods

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Shoom did not make the best shoe choice today

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Beware the local chainsaw-bears, very deadly.

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A very lively stump

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More mud

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Nature from afar

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Nature up close

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Continuing on

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Over a perilous bridge

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Through some felled trees

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A tree

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Barclay lake

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The Lone Mountain

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Taking a photo

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Sitting in the trees

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Admiring the lake

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Everyone made it to the end