Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Four All Things There Is A Season

A week is a "long time" in politics ? More like a bloody agony. It's been God-knows how long since I did a politics-as-movie-analogy post, but it's high time to resurrect this important form of super-serious socio-political commentary.

First, the mood right now is very much out of Star Wars :

Specifically it's like the very end of Return of the Jedi after the destruction of the second Death Star and the whole galaxy bursts into cheers :

Finally the citizens of the Empire can wake up knowing that they don't have to listen to endless Twitter rants about that "even bigger, so beautiful" Death Star for another four years.

Hell, if it wasn't for the pandemic, we'd all be entitled to a full-on global orgy right now. A literal, actual orgy the like of which even PornHub would disavow in disgust. For the moment  - just for the moment - we can leave any cautionary points aside : the myth of right-wing populist invincibility has been shattered.

Star Wars also works very well in terms of Trump as un even uglier version of Palpatine, using his opponent's hatred as Nzeitchean monster.  

He even looks a bit like Palpatine, but not nearly as much as the last pope.

Trouble is that none of the other characters or storyline really fit. Joe Biden as Luke, a forgotten and under-rated candidate living in the political wilderness ? Meh -  sort-of... nah, not really. There isn't really a good equivalent of Vader either, unless Mike Pence suddenly decides to turn away from the dark side*. I suppose Bernie Sanders might be Yoda and AOC could be Leia, with Nancy Pelosi as "many Bothans died" woman (and Obama as Lando Calrissian ?), but the story just doesn't fit.

* Technically there's still time for this to happen.

Though I think Bernie does also look a bit like Admiral Ackbar. 

To be honest, a few days ago I was thinking that Batman Begins would have been a better choice : not as an analogy exactly, but with the League of Shadows as the good guys.

Though if you want an analogy, I suppose you could cast Vladimir Putin as Ra's Al Ghul, and substitute "misinformation" for "economics". Trump works pretty well in the role of head mobster Flacone...

It may be terrible photoshopping, but on the upside I've somehow made him look like Prince Charles.

... but then we'd have to have Joe Biden as Batman, and that's just weird.

Some astute observer noted that Batman's actual mask is exactly the wrong way to stop the virus.

Any anyway, this is all missing the point : which is that I thought Liam Neeson might have been right. A society so corrupt as to vote for an insane fascist deserves to be burned to the ground, because it's the only way it'll learn. Just ask the nice people of Europe, where this actually fucking happened.

But now, a week later, and the League seem like the bad guys again. Order is restored ! Hooray !

No, the best analogy I've found is Gladiator. I watched in on Saturday, when things were looking good for Biden but it wasn't called yet. I wasn't ready to celebrate but I was ready to watch a movie about the fall of a horrible dictator. And it's way more topical than I thought.

The movie follows the story of a childish dictator with some serious daddy issues :

Obviously though, Fred Trump doesn't hold a candle to snuggly emperor Marcus Aurelius.

He's also a draft dodger, preferring opulence and luxury to chilly battlefields and hard work. 


He even deliberately makes an enemy of a war hero.


At least Commodus had a modicum of eloquence.

It gets better : he has disturbing incestuous tendencies.


And from the word go it's obvious to everyone that he has no political skill whatsoever. He vows to "bleed the Senate" and rid Rome of the corrupt politicians :


One of these is more articulate than the other.

On entering Rome itself he's greeted with cries of "usurper !" and "you'll never rule us Commodus !". Definitely a #NotMyEmperor moment. And he appeals firmly to idiotic populist tendencies, giving Rome an extended series of games as a distraction. "Fear and wonder... a powerful combination. He'll give them death - and they'll love him for it", says Derek Jacobi.

Eventually, after a battle that's closer than anyone expected, he gets stabbed with a big sword and democracy is restored.

It's an extremely satisfying moment, and it's interesting to reinterpret classic movies in a changing world. And it really does feel like there's been a paradigm shift. Suddenly we don't have to deal with all that bullshit any more ! I turned on the news today and was greeted by stories about a successful vaccine and a helicopter crash in which nobody died ! Amazeballs.

Except... the Trump era didn't much end like Gladiator : it was altogether stranger.

Yes, we genuinely had Trump's legal advisors protesting from a car park of the Four Seasons gardening centre. Four All Things There Is A Season... and one of those Things is to be bloody confused, and that Season is Right Now.

I just can't think of any good analogies to this one. In no standard narrative does the evil dictator's reign end in a gardening centre. The only vaguely-similar thing I can think of is that rubbish bit* at the end of The Lord of the Rings novel in which Saurman is reduced to pestering the Hobbits. Basically he goes around tearing up allotments out of spite, which is an ignominious end but an absolutely ridiculous way to end an epic story.

* You can argue all you want how important it is, but I'm firmly of the opinion that that section is just bad writing.

Rudolph Giuliani as a mad wizard ? You know it makes sense. What's really strange is that his nose is identical to Christopher Lee's.


The Serious Bit

But... what do we do next ? Trump didn't get stabbed and Republicanism hasn't gone away - far from it. Is it a time to kill or a time to heal ? Life isn't a movie or mythology.

I have to say I'm extremely conflicted about this. My first instinct is that those calling for naked injustice are people you fight, not appease. But what's the goal here : straightforward punishment and retribution, or building a society where fascism cannot flourish ? The two countervailing arguments are that those endorsing racism, fascism and entrenched inequality deserve to suffer the consequences of their actions or nothing will ever change, that opening the hand of friendship will simply embolden them; yet simultaneously, treating people like dirt is exactly the best way to make them fight back all the harder.

I'm really struggling here. On the one hand, basic justice demands that you stand up to bullies. On the other, you only make peace with your enemies, not your friends. And you simply cannot afford to have seventy million enemies - even if it feels good to have enemies.

 Please do watch this video before proceeding.

There is of course no symmetry between someone calling for the fascist suppression of minorities and someone calling for the suppression of fascists. These things are not the same. And certainly for the instigators and ringleaders I don't think there's any hope : being nice to Trump or Barr is as effective and morally stupid as appeasing any dictator. Even punishment won't help, because psychopaths simply don't work like that. Better by far to remove them from society completely. Imprison them, ignore them, whatever. I don't care. Just don't give them a platform to stand on. Shut them down utterly and completely.

But what of the followers, the armchair bigots who at most showed up to vote or maybe attend a rally ? This depends heavily on how deluded they actually are : if they were from a cult, no-one would have any hesitation in sending them for deprogramming. No-one would debate that they needed someone to reach out to them. But is this really an appropriate analogy ? A mass cultural brainwashing (which is entirely possible) is certainly an appealing explanation, but a more disturbing possibility altogether is that these people have looked at the evidence and thought, consciously or not, "nope, I'll stick with hurting the minorities, thanks." We have yet to solve this dilemma

One of the hardest aspects of the problem is that polarisation is so easily self-driving. Five years ago I wrote this little piece about the problem of uncompromising men and their ideals. Trump is, after all, a lot like Palpatine (and thoroughly deserving of similar treatment) : he thrives on hatred and creating a bias spiral, where the hatred he instills in his opponents is used to convince his followers that anyone against him is evil. That's the difficulty : hating those who support evil is by definition justified, but expressing that contempt is the very worst way to win them over. 

And yet... if you can turn a society from marauding Vikings to marauding Ikea salesmen, then perhaps Trump supporters too, in principle, can be saved. Even if they are a bunch of contemptible fuckwits.

(This post is not intended to actually persuade them, obviously. I'm in no mood to do that right now. This is only speculation of long-term strategy, nothing more. Obviously, it would be madness to expect immediate forgiveness from anyone - and I'm certainly hypocritical in that I block Trump activists on social media on sight.)

What might be going on with them ? All forms of extremism come with something positive : the problem is that they demand an incredibly high price in return. The last time the fascists were in power they offered a genuine concern for worker's rights. Nationalism, and other cults, do have some sort of (at least superficially) positive benefits for their supporters, but at the expense of everyone else. Trump supporters, presumably, at least think Trump is acting to their benefit, even if his real goal is nothing more than sheer megalomaniac powermongering. 

So if Trumpists follow the pattern, it follows that they too are in some way suffering, and those concerns should be addressed. Maybe it's poverty, maybe it's privilege - both are problematic, but need to be addressed in quite different ways. The overly-privileged need a slap in the face, the poor need more traditional forms of help. Whether economic or informatic, whatever sickness has infected these people, whatever's driving them to ally with such a figure of pure hate, needs to be expunged. If not, all that work in overthrowing a tyrant will have been for nothing. True they've done, or at least endorsed, despicable things, but if you go on hating them forever - if you refuse to figure out the structural problems that have led them down this path, all you'll have is more hate. With seventy million of the buggers, you can't fight them all. You have to reintegrate most of them.

You don't have to tolerate the intolerant. But you do have to distinguish the people from ideas, to recognise that most people are at least as much products of the system as they are the result of their own choices : there but for the grace of God... Given the right circumstances, ordinary people can turn villainous remarkably quickly, but so too can hatred be overcome

Ultimately, forgiving your friends is easy and generally unnecessary. Forgiving your enemies, acknowledging the harm done and accepting it, is far more challenging. So what's more important : to keep hating them, or stop them from being hateful ?

Two positive notes to end on. First, some regimes do fall peacefully and adherents and revolutionaries can peacefully co-exist afterwards. Forgiveness, sometimes, can be a powerful weapon. Second, Trumpism itself isn't an ideology, it's a movement for the glorification of one sad, pathetic little man, feeding parasitically off existing far-right ideologies. Without him driving it, as his loans are called in and he faces a barrage of lawsuits without Presidential protection, it's lost its driving force - Trump is not just a consequence but also a direct cause of the far right bullshit that characterises modern politics.

But alas, clearly not the only or even the main cause. And figuring out how to deal with that is far more challenging. I don't know what the answer will be, whether to punish or assist, but I strongly suspect it's some combination of both. Don't forgive Palpatine - but don't assume every minor technician who worked on the Death Star is equally guilty either.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Sci-fi Versus Fantasy

I was walking around the other day, an unusual activity in these troubled times, when for no particular reason a half-read Quora answer popped into my head. It was something about whether Game of Thrones is high fantasy or not. The answer mentioned that the amount of magic has nothing to do with it, which I thought was a bit odd and I hadn't bothered to read any further.

Call me crazy, but I'd say the presence of magical dragons is a dead giveaway. J. K. Rowling disagrees.

What struck me was that it might be exactly wrong. If we invert this, we might get a useful definition of what science fiction and fantasy is all at the same time. And surely we ought to be able to do better than Arthur C. Clarke's (or was it Asimov ?) "I know it when I see it". Because, given the current crises, it's very important indeed to think about things which are of no importance whatsoever. Otherwise we'll all go Stark (see what I did there ?) raving mad.

Here's my suggestion. Both sci-fi and fantasy are speculative fiction, where something about reality is fundamentally different to our own. If it's a plausible difference then it's science fiction. If it's not, then it's fantasy.

Perhaps "plausibility" is too limiting though. I'd say that things based on essentially sound scientific principles, albeit often with exaggeration, or exploring concepts which are scientific in nature, are generally sci-fi, not fantasy. This even extends to postulating deliberately fictional science : what if the Planck number was much bigger, what if gravity could be controlled, what if we could warp space with unobtainium, etc. It doesn't necessarily mean that the science has to be accurate (although that always helps), just that the modification has to be about science.

Fantasy is when the modification is about something actually incompatible with science. A story about the Sun going nova is definitely science fiction even though we know that's impossible, because it's still about science, but a story in which the Sun is actually a fire pushed across the sky by a surprisingly fire-retardant scarab beetle is fantasy. Science fiction generally requires altering the laws of physics, fantasy requires we do away with them. That's what I mean by "plausible".

One of these is not 100% accurate based on our current knowledge. The other is absolutely 100% impossible.

Judging whether something is hard sci-fi or space opera, high fantasy or escapism, is easier. It's not exactly "how much magic there is", but neither does it have anything to do with anything as mundane as the location of the events (as is the usual definition of "high fantasy"). Instead, I suggest it's about how important the speculative aspect is to the story. Could just be one crucial difference, could be lots of little things - importance neatly subsumes all that ugly mess into one nice happy parameter.

So : if a story is fundamentally driven even by a single but absolutely essential difference to reality, then it's deep in the genre of speculative fiction. If it's of only a minor element, and actually most of the story is about character interaction (whether on a spaceship or in pseudo-medieval Europe), then it isn't. This, I think, is much more consistent than the usual definition that "high fantasy is not set on Earth". And everyone loves consistency, apart from Michael Bay fans and Trump supporters, of course.

Lets explore this with a handy four-way chart :

Now obviously there are grey areas and lots of subjectivity here. After all, most sci-fi doesn't try to get everything right, and most fantasy contains at least a few aspects of reality : very few novels feature humans which are two hundred feet tall and made of socks, for example.

It's usually easy to see if the modification was about a scientific concept or not. Deciding how crucial that is to the story is much more difficult. In principle, for instance, one could have the story of St. George and the Big Crocodile*, but this would hardly have the same mythological overtones. The change would matter, but in a way that's very hard to define. Even in really deep stuff, one can always argue that it's really about characters and their interactions, that some more plausible substitute could be devised to tell the same tale**. So yes, there's a good deal of subjectivity here, but you can't replace everything. Sometimes the speculative element is absolutely crucial.

* Or St George and the Surprisingly Small Lizard in the case of the Czech Republic.
** A friend of mine was once asked to say what "Aliens" was about. She said "motherhood".

It's probably time to go through the different quadrants of the chart.


Proper sci-fi

From back in my CGI hobbyist days of my long-lost youth.

This is when the speculative element is definitely scientific, basically plausible (in the sense discussed earlier), and dominates the plot line. Only very realistic works in which the science is absolutely integral to the plot deserve the label of hard sci-fi though : basically anything by Clarke, Baxter and Asimov (among many others). 

Hard sci-fi is a wonderful mechanism for exploring how humanity would change if given access to radically different technologies and/or knowledge. The science may matter more than individual characters, but this doesn't prohibit such works from examining entire societies. For example The Time Machine, : never mind the time travel, the story is driven by the principles of evolution creating two human species, along with a stonkingly good social commentary.

In contrast the bulk of more popular sci-fi doesn't have such-far reaching epic consequences. Stargate has a thoroughly sci-fi device but keeps it secret, so that the consequences for humanity are never really exploited; the first Jurassic Park movie similarly places heavy restrictions on the impact of genetic engineering (though the book has somewhat broader, if subtler, comments). The science does matter in these stories : Jurassic Park is fundamentally about genetic engineering, not sexism in survival situations. But individual characters play a much greater role than in the hardcore stuff. The full implications of the speculative science are not fully played out, and its importance to the story diminished. You could change the xenomorph to a completely different monster without many serious changes to the story at all, although if you did that I would have to hurt you.


Weak sci-fi

Eraser has a cool gun, but other than that it's basically just another action flick.

A.k.a "space opera", though not all sci-fi is set in space. Soft sci-fi is probably a much better term, but too late did I realise this to alter anything.

The lower right section is especially sparsely populated : it's pretty rare, but it is possible to have realistic sci-fi elements in a story that don't actually contribute much. The rebooted Battlestar Galactica is a good example of this. Sure, it has sci-fi elements, some of which are crucial (especially later on), but the majority of it is contemporary American politics that's been shot back in time and into outer space. It's not that the science doesn't matter at all, just that it doesn't matter anywhere near as much as the characters, politics, presence of hot people, etc. depending on the story.

Some other media also features the occasional sci-fi element that can be vaguely plausible (i.e. not violating the laws of physics, but often breaking the laws of economics or psychology or just plain common sense) but is not really important to the story as a whole. Bond movies are generally action-driven, not science-driven, but they do feature occasional improbable but technically possible devices (space lasers, for example); Arnie movies and other action films tend to be similar.


High fantasy

The world of The NeverEnding Story works in a fundamentally different way to reality, even if the human psychology element doesn't.

Tolkien's world is undoubtedly the highest of high fantasy, especially the Silmarillion. The world fundamentally runs on magic - the plot could not be told without it, and the breaking of physical laws is used deliberately to that effect. The only thing that could exceed it is true mythology.

As with hard sci-fi, this label applies really only to the extremes. Other fantasy uses far more mundane settings with much more limited impacts of magical thinking : most of the characters in Dracula, for instance, are entirely non-magical. The story couldn't really be told without its supernatural elements, but they're far less important than in Middle Earth. Star Wars is undoubtedly a fairy tale in space - not quite as outright impossible as Middle Earth, but still heavily reliant on magic. Heck, it's full of space wizards with magic swords, for heaven's sake.

Dune is more difficult to place. Large aspects are plausible but speculative, but other key factors are entirely magical. And those factors are absolutely essential to the story : Paul's prophetic abilities may be intended as a metaphor, but they could not be easily replaced. 

Further down the quadrant we get Marvel. These are fantastically implausible. The speculative element is important in some ways, but the main feature is lots of hot people dealing out vast amounts of property damage with hilarious witticisms, none of which makes a lick of sense but is enormously entertaining.


Escapist fluff

Sometimes you need to stop caring. The Asylum movies are brilliant examples of this, being (deliberately) hilariously stupid. Few others go to such extremes, at least not on purpose, and if any section of the chart is biased towards bad content (or at least away from serious content) it's this one. When you don't care about plausibility or importance, you're less likely to care about anything else.

Of course, good and bad content can be found all over the chart. A hard sci-fi that's badly explained (e.g. The Expanse) is no use to anyone. A high fantasy that's based on defeating the Dark Lord by shoving an enchanted hamster up his backside would be unlikely to ever be taken seriously. But equally, just because something is intended as pure entertainment doesn't mean it isn't worth watching.


Conclusions

So, in much less time than usual, that's it. We haven't learned a damn thing of any use, except that now there's something to rant about that will irritate lots of people that doesn't involve talking about politics. And surely that alone makes it all worthwhile.

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Puppy Plague Prevents Pandemic Pessimism

Remember how this blog used to be full of wacky adventures and not long cynical rants ? Well today I've got the least cynical thing ever : a PUPPY !

This is Gilly, a.k.a. Gigi, a.k.a. GillyGiGi, a.k.a. Gilly GiGi Gizelle, a.k.a. Gouger, for reasons which will become clear later on.

We already have one papillion, Lulu (a.k.a. Cthulhu), and some time ago we decided we wanted another. We made a preliminary visit to the breeder a month or so ago just to visit the horde of dogs, which was exactly as much furry chaos as you'd expect in a tiny two-room apartment filled with (I believe) a total of no less than eleven crazy little butterfly dogs. The breeder is a woman absolutely devoted to her dogs, which is probably why she produces such excellent little nutcases.

Little Lulu was not terribly happy about returning to the nest, but then, being mobbed by a bunch of tiny lunatics would be a distressing experience for anyone. Eventually she settled on keeping as far away as possible from the rest of them and occasionally venturing to inspect the puppies when the adults were out of range.

"But... I am the only papillon in the village !"

Not that the other papillons were at all keen to give her any personal space. Lulu's travel bag was particularly popular.

Lulu's dad Jeremy is an especially magnificently fluffy beastie.

The nightmare over, we returned some weeks later to retrieve her half-sister Gigi (we couldn't decide on a name, but the dog responds better to Gilly, so we're mostly going with that). It's always hard when a puppy leaves home, but she soon settled into her travel rucksack and slept pretty much the whole way back.


(Incidentally, we've made three trips during the pandemic - once to Germany when case numbers were near their lowest, and twice to Brno for puppy inspection/acquisition. Of those two trips one was by car and the second by train. Covid restrictions are limited to wearing masks, but there being only two or three other people in the compartment, this doesn't present a risk nearly as high as being in the crowds in Brno itself. But if I say any more on that I'll become cynical, which I've banned for the duration of this post.)

There being no real prospect of travelling outside the Czech Republic for the foreseeable future, we took two weeks of holiday for a staycation. During that time, we did exactly nothing except binge watch TV and play with the puppy. And there are far worse ways to spend a holiday. I think I'd probably do extremely well on a long-duration space mission : only give me my creature comforts (pun intended) and I'm happy indefinitely. The hard part would be persuading me to go in the first place, not dealing with the stresses of travel so long as there was sufficient Netflix and tiny doggies.

Anyway, it's already hard to believe just how small she was on that first day :


It took about a week for her to learn to hold both her ears up. Now she looks a lot like a bunny, especially when she goes hyperactive and charges around the garden at full speed.





Gilli treats other dogs with sensible caution, not running away from them but not getting too close either. Which is exactly what you want when they're a full thirty times heavier than you in some cases.


Getting Gilly used to Lu is easy. Getting Lu to accept Gilly was a longer processes but not all that bad in the end. Lulu is very particular about other dogs and especially doesn't like other dogs touching her, although she's generally more tolerant of tiny puppies. Still this meant a few massive over-reactions with Lu going into full-on explosive mode when Gilly got too close, but in a week this was over. In a week and a half they were playing and cuddling together. Lu has learned she just has to stare menacingly at Gilly when she wants her to back off, or maybe give a warning growl, and not turn into a fluffy hand grenade of death and destruction. We did this with a combination of shouting at Lu for misbehaviour and bribing her to come close to the puppy with treats and enormously exaggerated praise. And it worked perfectly.

But alas ! Poor Lulu is a victim of this success. One evening during puppy wrestling Lulu gave a rare yap, then carried on as normal until they both collapsed from exhaustion. The next day her eye was swollen and she looked like a pirate, but it seemed to be improving. The day after it got worse again so we took her to the vet, expecting she'd need eye drops...


... only to discover she needed eye surgery to save the damaged eye ! Fortunately they were able to do that the same day and it took less than two hours. She's now doing well, getting a bit more active each day, and is expected to fully recover with both eyes completely back to normal in a couple of weeks. She's starting to want to play again, though this is very difficult on account of the lampshade, and able to tolerate "Gouger" running underneath her (still being a tiny bunny, even if she is a bit bigger now). So all is well, and once again working from home has proven a godsend. The fluffy adventures shall continue.

Monday, 10 August 2020

No Escape From Reality ? HAH !

It arrived !


It took months and months, but I've wanted one for years, so in the end I guess the wait wasn't so bad. Here are my initial impressions after being plugged into the thing for about a month. Well, not literally, but certainly enough to give a decent overview.

Short answer : I'm hugely impressed. It blows my obscure MagicSee thing out of the water. It's not quite a holodeck, but honestly it comes closer to the holodeck experience than I thought I was ever likely to get. To cut to the chase, ten out of ten from me. But, I don't believe even ten out of ten should mean Platonic levels of perfection, so let's break that down a bit.


Setting up

Very straightforward. The only oddity here is that you need a phone to do this initially, for reasons that elude me. You use it to pair the headset to the phone (and presumably the controllers) and set the WiFi password. I've no idea why you can't just do this on the headset itself, but it's not any kind of difficulty, just odd. Then you plug it in and charge, which takes about 2 hours from zero (obviously less if the unit is already partially charged). You generally get about a 1:1 ratio of charge to usage time. There are a few other occasions when you need a phone, but after initial setup it's very rare.

The box contains the headset, two hand controllers with AA batteries included, a charging cable (USB C on both ends, with a mains adaptor but no USB A adaptor), and a separator to make it easier to wear for people with glasses. I've only just started using that - being shortsighted I can easily wear it without glasses, though after a while I feel my eyes start to go funny. The supplied picture-only instructions on how to fit the lens separator don't make a lot of sense, but it's actually very easy and it does improve things wearing glasses.

Initially I made a bigger deal out of putting the headset on than I needed to, because it has a cleverer design than I thought. The straps are attached to the unit by two rotatable side-tubes, and you can pull back on the strap to increase the distance like pulling on elastic. Then you can adjust the straps by pulling on the velcro and pulling through. Very easy, very effective. I would recommend a tight fit though, otherwise the image will bounce around and that's not a lot of fun.

The first thing you see is the "passthrough", the greyscale camera view the Quest uses for tracking. This is itself quite a strange experience to see the world in 3D grainy greyscale - the perceived depth doesn't quite match up to reality, though it's close enough to walk around comfortably. Despite the manual's warnings, I'd have no problems with tackling a flight of stairs. And while it's a grainy image, I could still read the time on my watch with it. I don't know if there are any current possibilities to use the camera feed for augmented reality*, but this seems at the very least like a possibility for the future. It would seem a logical option for further iterations to use hi-res colour cameras as a way of doing AR while ensuring a clear display.

* My guess is no, at least not officially. Oculus have adopted the "high quality or nothing" approach, and the camera quality is not high.

Then you set up the Guardian system that prevents you bumping into walls. You do this very easily by clicking and dragging to define an area with a controller, like spray painting a hologram. The Quest itself determined the floor level perfectly with no input from me - it's only now that I stop to think about it that I realise just how impressive this is.

And that's pretty much it. In five minutes or less you're ready to go. Though, I did initially find that there is one other essential step - I was finding it difficult for it to maintain a direct WiFi connection. This was causing annoying issues when trying to access the Store and, in particular, the setting for the virtual home environment (the former mostly worked, the latter never did, and kept insisting the WiFi wasn't working even when it was connected). My workaround for this was to use my phone to create a WiFi bridge (a trick I've found necessary in some hotels where the WiFi takes you to a landing page, which my laptop sometimes doesn't like). From thereon, I've had no further WiFi issues. Later, for other reasons, we changed router and then I was able to connect directly without any problems.


User interface

Like most things about the Oculus, this just works. It's super-sensible and intuitive and doesn't really need any explanation. The controllers are rendered as virtual objects which respond perfectly - absolutely perfectly - to how you orient them, projecting a beam showing you what you're pointing at. Then you click, or click+drag to scroll (or hold down the twiddly thumb stick thingies).

A very nice "experimental" feature (you have to enable it from the Settings menu) that works perfectly well is to double-tap the side of the headset to show the passthrough at any time. This is extremely helpful in finding somewhere to put the controllers so you can take the headset off. You can of course just venture outside the Guardian zone, but the switch to the passthrough can be a bit slow if you do it that way (and you might bump into something on the way). Occasionally the Guardian grid gets stuck on permanent display, but this can be fixed by changing from roomscale to standing and back again, though this hasn't happened at all since a recent update.

The only thing that does get somewhat irritating is nothing much to do with Oculus but certain apps, in particular Vader Immortal. Normally tapping the Oculus button brings you straight to the menu, but sometimes it just doesn't. Nothing happens, and you're stood there clicking a button over and over again pondering how the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It's a minor annoyance, but one I wish developers would pay a bit more attention to. Eventually it works, and this too has at least improved with a recent update.

None of these cause any real problems. Compared to the cheap Chinese knock-off that was my first headset, the ability to use apps that work reliably is a huge bonus.


Comfort

Excellent. I've heard that some people don't enjoy wearing it for long periods since it has a tight fit and is, they say, quite heavy, but for me I could wear it quite happily for at least an hour if not more - the only reason I tend to stop is because my feet need a break ! Watching full documentaries on the Quest is a genuinely immersive and engaging experience, though this needs a looser fit otherwise things do tend to become distracting. In a game, I barely notice that I'm wearing a headset at all - in a passive documentary, it's much more apparent. I also tend to end up with a bright red band across my forehead that fades after a few minutes, but I can't imagine this really bothering anyone.

I've heard that the battery pack accessory not only makes it last much longer but also much more comfortable for those who do notice the giant goggles strapped to their face. I haven't tried this, but maybe in the future I will.


Content

A headset is only as good as what it has to show. I've been using this pretty extensively and intensively, so I'll give a brief summary of my favourites so far below. There are two kinds of VR experiences : 3DOF (degrees of freedom), which means you can only rotate your view, and 6DOF, which means you can move anywhere inside a scene.

3DOF is really only necessary for pre-rendered content, i.e. videos. It's also used on older systems like the Oculus Go and Google Cardboard, but there's really no excuse for any interactive app to still be using this. Not that there isn't some great 3DOF content - especially videos ! - but 6DOF is incomparably better. The difference is a bit like being in a planetarium compared to actually flying a spaceship. In 6DOF scenes you can typically pick up objects, bring them close to you for inspection, and then chuck 'em away. You can crouch down to look underneath tables and peer over the edges of walls, or worriedly back off from dangerously high ledges. In 3DOF you can look in any direction from a strictly fixed viewpoint, so move up and down and the scene doesn't change. This is a bit weird and might be one reason for motion sickness (more later); with 6DOF that sensation is completely absent. It really is like teleporting to a new world. As the tagline to Pratchett & Baxter's The Long Earth puts it :
There are worlds waiting. All it takes is one small step.
It must be said, though, that unless you're willing to fork out some serious cash, it can seem at first glance that there's not that much 6DOF content natively available for the Quest at the moment. This is not really true, for several reasons. There are in fact five or six different ways to access content.

1) From the Quest Store
While there are a few totally free or very low cost apps, it's worth being aware that the official refund policy is pretty sensible. Personally I'd rather have an ask-permission system rather than ask-forgiveness model, i.e. if there isn't a free demo available, then a very short free trial period (say, 15 minutes) would be nice. The Store does feature some rather good "Daily" deals though, typically meaning a healthy 25-50% off. Such deals don't actually happen every single day, but most of them - and when there isn't a daily deal, there's usually something else that's very similar.

My biggest gripe is that many of the experiences available - and some of them do deserve to be called experiences rather than games - are awfully short for the price. If I'm going to fork out $30, I'll want to be sure it has replayability, which many apparently don't. For $5-$10, sure, I'll do an occasional impulse buy, but $30 ? That's the level where I start wanting either substantial content length (10-20 hours plus) or high replay value. And there's not too much of this available from the official sources as yet, though it is growing.

2) From the Oculus Go
There's a fair bit more content available for the older Oculus Go. Fortunately, some - not enough, but some - has been made Quest-compatible, and you can run these (official full list here) on your Quest no trouble. Oddly, you have to install these using your phone, as the Oculus Go library isn't available from the Quest. Why they couldn't just make the supported apps (unsupported apps will not work !) available directly in the Quest I don't know, but the procedure is very simple and miles better than letting them all go to waste. Once installed, you can then select them in the Quest like so. Most, but not all, have 6DOF support. I hope they'll add more in time, because some of these are really very good. Many of these are free or low cost. I don't know if it's the developers or Oculus who make whatever modifications are needed, but it'd be nice to see more regular updates on this.

3) Web-based VR content
This is harder to find and generally a lot more experimental - some of it simply doesn't work at all*, for reasons unknown. This is especially odd since it's supposed to be cross-platform by definition. A few things work in the Oculus native browser but not in Firefox's VR browser and vice-versa, so it's a bit strange. And some of it does work but just barely, like Sketchfab (which is a great shame given how many models there are, hopefully there'll be a dedicated Quest app in the future**) while some is just not very good. One that I do really like is Access Mars, which lets you walk around the Martian surface using real data from Curiosity, as well as examine the rover itself.

* Typically you press the headset button and it either doesn't do anything or gives you a hugely distorted display. I've yet to find a case where playing with the VR settings makes any difference - it either works straight away or not at all.
** It works but a at a distractingly low frame rate for all but the simplest of models.When it does work, it's great - I was able to walk around one of my own data sets as though an HI cloud were right in front of me. You can even scale things up interactively... but it's damned hard to scale them back down again. And it's just not well-optimised, so even simple models display at worse resolution/speed than they really should.

My impression is that WebVR has a bright future ahead of it, but it still needs a lot of work. It's difficult to find proper 6DOF content; often experiences labelled as "VR" are really just 360 degree images that aren't even stereo. Matterport is particularly disappointing as they have tonnes of 3D models but only let you explore the 360 images, and there are plenty of other cases where the models are ready to go but the VR setup just hasn't been done.

4) Quill Theatre
It's all too easy to overlook this. I assumed this was just some kind of built-in video player until I decided to check it - just in case - a few days ago. How wrong I was ! This is a whole library of creations from the Quill animation app. It's all 6DOF but not interactive, so this is the place to go if you just want something cool to look at. Some pieces are static models, others are full-on short story animations. Although it's all very cartoony, there's some really good stuff here and it's well worth checking out. Sadly, it isn't possible to create your own Quill content on the Quest, at least not yet.

5) SideQuest
This PC program is an absolute essential. It allows you to load content not officially supported by Oculus, which is a lot more extensive than the standard Quest library, especially free stuff (educational apps developed by amateur enthusiasts, but also demos and pre-releases for commercial games and the like). New content is added daily. It's super easy to use. You install it on PC, connect your Quest with a USB cable (which probably means finding an USB C-A cable or adaptor unless your PC has a USB C port*), then you browse the app to find stuff and install it directly onto the Quest. You can also use it to wirelessly stream content from your headset to your PC (not the other way around) so that everyone can see why you're flailing wildly around the living room... a feature which works far more easily than the Quest's native Casting facility, which I've never been able to get working at all. Oh, and many of these games are in active development, so if you post a review, you often get a quick response from the developers, something I really appreciate. I think I've had a response from every single review I've posted.

* Not to be confused with USB 3.0. USB C has a different physical connection.

6) Oculus Link
Finally, as Shakespeare said : "Oh God, I could be bounded by a nutshell, and count myself king of infinite space... if I could only get this bloody Oculus Link to work". The Link system allows you to use your Quest as a display for content being rendered by your more powerful PC, a la the earlier Oculus Rift. The advantage, of course, is that this gives you access to graphically demanding programs, and good graphics are the heart and soul of immersive VR. I opted for the Quest over the cheaper Rift only because my laptop is apparently not powerful enough, though I was still hoping I might be able to get a few basic things to run on it. 

This is my biggest but only disappointment. Despite prolonged effort, I've been unable to get the Link to work at all - I just a momentary black screen which returns me to the main menu. I'm not sure if my cable is just incompatible (it's USB 2.0, not 3.0) or if there's some more technical reason my hardware doesn't support it (e.g. the USB port not going to the GPU ?). I haven't given up quite yet, but numerous experiments with free wireless streaming apps haven't accomplished anything except bugger my microphone setup for some reason. This is extremely frustrating : I can run Skyrim and Rome 2 Total War on maximum - actually more than maximum - at perfectly good frame rates, which are far more graphically demanding than anything on the Quest. Logically I ought to be able to do at least something with the Link system. But I shall leave that for another time. My next big investment may or may not be a high-end gaming PC to get this to work... we'll see.


Right, that's the various sources covered. What about the actual content itself ? Since the most graphically heavy stuff is out, I really only have access to stuff that runs directly on the Quest. This is basically hi-end smartphone quality but in VR. And, my goodness me, that makes the world of difference ! It's very dangerous to judge the content of an app by the screenshot - things that look naff in a 2D view actually look more than decent in 3D. Would better graphics help ? Sure, but there's plenty of fun to be had even running things directly on the Quest. For a good game, you're looking at World of Warcraft-level graphics only a bit more realistic (though a few games have managed to go a cut above that by various means).

But, don't forget the sound ! Surprisingly, the sound delivered by the Quest without headphones is excellent - so much so that I rarely bother using headphones except when there's too much exterior noise. Good sound in VR is even more important than in regular games, since it gives essential clues to what's going on in other directions, and it adds a lot to the sense of "being there". That you can just put on the Quest and not have to worry about messing around with headphones - since built-in speakers in mobile devices are usually utter crap - is a real plus.

Without further ado, here are apps and games I've tried so far.


Tutorials : First Steps, First Contact, Bogo (free, native Quest)
First Steps and First Contact are both Oculus tutorials on how to navigate in 3D VR and use the controllers. They're both excellent. You get to interact with a Short Circuit-style robot, launch model rockets, fly a model airship, dance with a creepy alien, shoot guns, all in a well-rendered environment. Essential for beginners. Bogo is not technically a tutorial but a virtual pet game, but it's so short I count it more of a tutorial than anything else. You get to take care of a strange-looking lizard thing with a fetish for belly rubs, but it's pretty nice for what it is.


Vader Immortal Episodes I & II ($9.99 each, native Quest)
Come for the story, stay for the dojo. From the minute you step on board a ship that's about to make the  jump to hyperspace, you really feel like you're inside the Star Wars universe. The story is short (about 2 hours apiece, I guestimate) but is superbly well-done and absolutely feels like genuine Star Wars canon, but the training dojo is where it really shines. The thing is that hitting things with a lightsabre is innately fun and never gets old. I play every day and I've just reached the final level (40) on the first dojo, and it's good exercise too* : duck and dodge the myriad of droid-based opponents, listen to hear the direction of the next attack, deflect blaster shots with your upgradable lightsabre... if you don't enjoy this, I don't think we can be friends. Worth every penny, and I'll be buying episode 3 as soon as I finish the second dojo or it's on sale. 10/10, easily.

* At least if you're bad at it, like I am. I rely on ducking quite a lot, and after about 30 minutes I'm sweating profusely and often too tired to play for much longer.


Bow Master & Arrows (free, SideQuest)
I've just bought  Elven Assassin, but I first tried these two free archery games. Both are well worth a go, but both have different strengths and weakness. Both follow the same format of defending a village from attacking hordes : you yourself are not in danger, instead you have to shoot the baddies before they enter the village. Both are very cartoonish in style.

Bow Master has a single nice-looking environment and features endless waves of a very wide variety of enemies which have different abilities. You can shoot ordinary arrows, flaming arrows, and even hurl a small number of bombs at your opponents or ignite well-placed explosive barrels. It has three difficulty settings and in most ways it's very well-done, but it has one serious flaw and one fatal. The serious one is that you have to continuously hold the grip button to avoid dropping your bow, which gets uncomfortable rather quickly - the natural inclination is to grip very tightly, which probably isn't good for the controller button. Worse, it doesn't appear to be possible to lose... once the orcs reach the main hall, it never gets destroyed. I stood around for a good ten minutes but nothing happened. It does, however, have a nice feature of displaying your current score and accuracy level very unobtrusively on a panel low down on the surrounding wall.

Arrows has three levels which you can unlock in different lighting levels at different difficulties. The environment isn't as nice as Bow Master, but you can teleport yourself to different vantage points, including one with a cannon. The variety of enemies isn't quite as great as Bow Master, but it doesn't have as many serious flaws. The collision detection could be better though, as many people have noticed that direct hits don't always do anything. The arrows are also slightly more difficult to load and fire than in Bow Master. But the enemy vikings have collision between each other, which slows them down, and shooting higher-level enemies also causes them to slow down (rather than speed up as in Bow Master).

Both of these games are tremendous fun but have various annoyances. 7/10 from me.


Elven Assassin ($14.99, native Quest)
Having so much fun with the free archery games, I was very curious about this graphically superior paid version. I got this on sale for $10 and it's definitely worth that. The graphics are indeed far better than either of the free archery games - being thumped by a giant orc or flamed by an enormous dragon is a fantastic experience. Contrary to this earlier review, by Quest standards the graphics are competent, though slightly higher resolution textures would be nice. And you get to be outside (in three different environments), which is quite unusual since large-scale environments are challenging to render.

For gameplay this one generally has the best of both worlds of the free games : the collision detection works, you get to teleport to different locations (cleverly designed so that no location is perfect), and you don't have to hold the damn button down to hold the bow. The feedback from the controllers is perfect : Bow Master doesn't have any, Arrows has simple vibration, but Elven Assassin cleverly varies the feedback so it feels like the bow is sticking slightly as you draw it back. It's really quite viscerally satisfying. The variety of enemies is good, though not as creative as Bow Master, while the different spells offer a nice way to keep things fresh. And you do need to use these to progress to the higher levels. It also has multiplayer, which I've only tried the once but found very enjoyable. In co-op you get to be part of a team defending the town, which is a lot more believable than being one lone dude taking out the oncoming hordes.

It's not without weaknesses however. You can upgrade your equipment but it's purely for show (a shame - the different helmets could at least affect visibility). The enemies can attack you (they can only attack the village in the other games), which gives extra tension, but the red-out effect is too strong : I want to get a good look at that giant dragon, dammit ! The main problem is the sound. It's... good enough, mostly, but only just. Somehow the directionality doesn't feel very 3D or immersive, and the music is neither loud nor epic enough. When the orcs reach the gates, some dude with an annoying voice keeps shouting, "they're breaking in !" with no variation at all. And when you lose, the game just ends. There's no sorrowful horn or music, you just get the "game over" screen. There's a token bit of dust and a crashing sound from the village, but it's nowhere near enough.

All in all, hugely addictive, and I'd pay for extra levels. Somewhere more atmospheric, preferably with a thunderstorm, would be well worth it. I'll give this one 8/10, pushing 9.


Matter VR (free, SideQuest)
This astronomy god game probably wins the "most potential" award. You create planets and stars of different masses by holding down a button, then you can launch them on different trajectories. It appears to be a true n-body simulator, so you can end up with some bewildering orbits. Planets can collide and explode, stars eventually supernova and leave behind a remnant (including black holes for the most massive), and sometimes collisions produce rings. The challenge is to create the most complex system possible. Like lightsabres and archery, the developers have here found that crucial aspect of something that's innately fun and doesn't get old. All it needs to bring this one to its full flowering is a more structured approach and some guidance on where to aim. 8/10 from me, looking forward to updates.


Masterworks Journey Through History (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on the Quest)
This is the right way to do a history app. Photogrammetry gives much more realistic results than modelling. Even if the textures could be a little sharper (especially the background images), and some more background audio noise would be welcome, you still get a very good sense of "being there". You get four different sites to explore, all of which are well-prepared. As well as the 3D models, there's also a selection of nicely done 360 3D photographs to show the sites from other perspectives. And there's plenty of narration, so it takes quite a bit of time to go through the whole thing. It would be nice, though, if the narrators were a bit more enthusiastic and talked more about history than the site-specific details - considering how impressive it is to feel like you're standing in these ancient monuments, the narration is a bit dry. Still, 9/10 from me - there desperately needs to be more stuff like this !


Omnigallery (free, SideQuest)
Another really good "history" app though this one is art-focused. The idea of an art gallery in VR sounds a bit daft at first, but it really isn't. Slipping on a headset is way more convenient than actually going to a gallery (especially since it's free), and you get to examine paintings - and more importantly sculptures - at their actual size. The scan resolution of both paintings and sculptures is really impressive. What this particular app does really well is provide narration about many of the exhibits, and this alone makes it better than most physical galleries, which in my experience tell you sod all. Actually being told something about the painting, its subject, and why it's important makes high art so much more friggin' accessible. Even though I'd like more narration and history, I'm giving this one 10/10 just for that.


Anne Frank's house (free, native Quest)
Another history exhibit, this time using conventional 3D modelling. You get a narrated or free-form interactive tour, which is excellently done. You can view this in a web browser here, but needless to say, being able to walk around it is far better. I can't really fault this, so 10/10.


Apollo 11 ($9.99, native Quest)
I bought this on sale for $5 for the Moon landing anniversary. It's nice, but $10 is really a bit much. Considerable effort has gone into accurately modelling the interior of the spacecraft, and it's fun to sit alongside the astronauts as venture into space. There's a couple of interactive sections where you get to dock the modules and land the ship, but I couldn't help feeling that these could have been a lot more interesting with only a little extra work. Most of the experience is passive. The graphics are generally good, especially the space scenes, though the astronauts facial expressions are frankly hilariously bad. A life-size vibrating astronaut sat next to you with his mouth half-open and his eyes half-closed ? It's a bit disconcerting to say the least ! Overall it's worth $5, so I give it 7/10. If they added, say, a chance to driver the lunar rover and more interactive functions through the journey it would easily be worth $10.


Mission ISS (free, native Quest)
A much more complete space experience, albeit one that feels more like a demo than a full product. You get to explore a very nice model of the ISS, including a really excellent mock-up of the cupola where I felt this would be genuinely useful in astronaut training. In fact manipulating the robot arm felt so difficult as to be too realistic, and I gave up in frustration. It's a bit of a shame - the environment is so good, the attention to detail is clear (with plenty of video clips to explain each section), but in other ways it falls flat. The narrator keeps telling me I'm going the wrong way even though I'm not, the robot arm needs either much better instructions or be made simpler to operate, and moving around is unnecessarily difficult and can induce strong motion sickness. A teleport option and/or greater air resistance to slow you down would be a huge improvement, even if it's not realistic. I had the most fun when somehow, due to a glitch, I found myself freely floating outside the station, calmly and serenely exploring the place without the bloody narrator getting on my nerves. 6/10 from me, but could so easily be bumped up to 10.


Multiverse (free, native Quest)
An odd but nice attempt to make an astronomy museum a place for socialising. Features a gigantic museum full of different rooms exploring the Solar System and space technology. The models are decent but a bit low resolution. Very informative, and it's always fun to hurl stuff at planets. There's even a history section with a model of Stonehenge you can wander around in. The man downside is that it's too reliant on the traditional gallery format and doesn't use models anywhere near as effectively as it could. Yes, you do need some big old-fashioned wall-panel displays, but VR can do so much more than that. Let me sit inside a Mercury capsule, or play golf on the lunar surface ! Don't tell me about Titan, show me the surface from the Huygens probe ! And why there's a social aspect to this I'm not really sure... a museum is hardly the most natural place to meet people. Still, a worthy effort - 7/10.


Notes On Blindness (free, native Quest)
You'd think that an experience of being blind would be easy enough on the Quest - just turn everything off except the audio. But this narrated, slightly interactive experience is so very much better than that. The narration, taken from diaries, describes how nothing exists except when heard. Simple but compelling graphics show us a variety of places as revealed through sound. The narration is top notch and the visuals are beautiful (the sound of course is perfect). It was so interesting an experience that I'd certainly do it again. 10/10.


The Key (free, native Quest)
Another slightly interactive emotion-driven experience. A more conventionally abstract (stylistic) approach than Notes on Blindness, it's a well-told and engaging tale. There's a photogrammetric environment at the end which further illustrates how this needs to be more widely-utilised : it lets the Quest leapfrog its limited rendering power into highly realistic settings. This experience is good, but at bit too stylised for me, and one of the main interactive features just didn't work. 8/10.


Puzzling Places (free, SideQuest)
More photogrammetry, but this time for a 3D jigsaw puzzle. Simple concept, perfectly executed, with nice little audio emanating from certain regions. Moving pieces around and dropping them in 3D space feels quite futuristic. Only one puzzle so far but it's rightly getting rave reviews - an almost therapeutic experience. 10/10.


Project Terminus (free, SideQuest)
Free prototype/demo of a Half-Life style FPS. Absolutely terrifying and I've yet to complete it. Realistic and highly immersive environments, with some impressive outdoor scenes at the start. This is what I'm longing for VR to do more of - really make me feel like I'm in a whole other place to explore, even if that exploration is limited to a tiny region. 

As a game, this plays well, with the minor difficulty that using your phone is a bit awkward at first. Lighting effects are excellent, sound is great, and did I mention it was terrifying ? It is. I also got a bit motion sick the first time I tried it - I've yet to get used to smooth scrolling. The second time I reduced the speed and this helped enormously, but a teleport option would be nice*. I'm leaving this one unrated because I couldn't complete it, but a must-try for horror fans.  

* Someone should develop a specialist get-over-motion-sickness app, where you could move around increasingly complex environments in increasingly nauseating ways. By all accounts overcoming motion sickness is entirely possible, but it takes effort.


High Seas (free, SideQuest)
From the makers of Project Terminus, experience life on a tiny boat stuck in the Arctic ocean. Navigate icebergs and fix problems. Great environments, but the gameplay is too limited - not bad, just limited. Each time you collide with an iceberg your boat develops a problem and you have to go and fix it (including the extremely strange approach of hitting a fire with a fire extinguisher, which is... worrying). If at least the iceberg density were to be lower, you'd have navigation as part of the gameplay, but it's so dense that collisions are rapidly inevitable, making trying to avoid them an exercise in futility. Good concept with brilliantly tense sound, but needs a lot more fleshing out (and removal of the CGI arms, which just look bizarre and get distracting). 6/10 from me - good so far, but needs development.


Operation Serpens (free, SideQuest)
Like shooters but hate motion sickness ? This is the game for you ! You play a member of a generic, very polite army unit (your commander greets with with a friendly "hello !") charged with taking out assorted generic terrorists. You're in a fixed location, e.g. firing from a building into a street, or behind a door into a room, so you can move around if you want but you don't need to move much at all - no need for scrolling, and indeed that feature is not enabled. You get a variety of guns and accessories, including a bulletproof shield. Decent graphics (cartoony but not overly-so in style), good sound, lots of fun. Potentially quite addictive, though holding my arms straight out for long periods gets very tiring. Challenging but not absurdly so. I'm giving this 8/10.


Dino Encounters (free, SideQuest)
This one definitely falls in the category "better than it should be". The concept is solid : in each environment, you walk (and/or teleport) through a short narrated tour to reach a dinosaur doing its thing. The environment is huge, the narration is quite good (apart from the same annoying welcome message each and every time), and the atmosphere looks nice. A big positive is the background sound, which I found very immersive. The downsides are that it's overly-ambitious. The graphics are crude (not awful, but crude), the dinosaur animations simplistic. If they'd made smaller, more detailed environments with just one or two dinosaurs, rather than whole packs of them roaming across silly-looking prehistoric landscapes, the experience would have been much better. On the other hand, you get to hand-feed life-size dinosaurs, and that counts for a lot in my book. 6/10.


Wonders of the World (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on the Quest)
In contrast, this one is very much worse than it should be. It's a history app about various notable historical sites, but the execution is poor. Even in the menu section the background image is far too low resolution. Throughout, the graphics are not merely cartoony - which would be understandable - but also highly stylistic, which utterly ruins the immersion (as does the poor, mostly very American narration). Like this dinosaur app, this one is also overly-ambitious. Instead of just letting you explore the sites, you play the role of some totally unknown character with terrible voice acting. Look, I'm here to visit the Colossus of Rhodes, why in the world would I care about some unknown girl's dead father ? I couldn't even see the Colossus from the front ! Bloody daft if you ask me. 2/10


Sports Scramble (free demo, native Quest)
At $30 the full version is way too expensive, but the free demo (bowling, tennis, and baseball) is fun. Happy little cartoon characters with a zany twist on each sport : for example, the baseball bat can turn into a fish, which I found hilarious. It's a really stupid game, too difficult, but quite enjoyable. If it was $5 I'd consider buying it, but $30 is hell no I'm not an idiot5/10, mainly because they've got the price catastrophically wrong.


Black Holes Light and Matter (free, SideQuest)
Fun, very small educational proof-of-concept app exploring how black holes affect light and matter. You get to examine lensing or orbits. With lensing you see a black hole in front of you that distorts the background image. With orbits you get to see how the black hole affects the trajectories of orbiting material. In each case you can set the size of the black hole and a few other parameters. It's nicely done, but it would a lot better if you could set parameters using the controllers, e.g. grabbing the black hole to scale it, launching particles with the controller. I'll leave this unrated since it's proof-of-concept.


Elixir (free, native Quest)
Proof-of-concept spellcasting thingy. Annoying narration, quite nice cartoony graphics, worth a go but nothing special. Needs a more fully-formed environment and stuff to do to be engaging. 6/10.


Epic Roller Coaster (free demo, native Quest)
If you want to experience extreme vertigo, then this is the game for you. You ride around on a bunch of ENORMOUS roller coasters, optionally trying to shoot targets as you go. The sensation of motion and height is, well, epic, and I'd recommend sitting down for this one in case you fall over. Surprisingly, I didn't get any feeling of nausea from this one, just an unprecedented feeling of ohholycrapImgonnacrashImgonnacrash ! Powerful, pointless stuff. It would be nice if I could see how much the paid coasters actually cost before having to sign up though. 7/10.

Dead Body FallsAngest (free, Oculus Go converted to full 6DOF on Quest)
Two similar-in-style-and-format games from the same developers. Both are extremely well-made with engaging storytelling and immersive environments, good sound, and a pleasing graphical style. Dead Body Falls feels like a murder mystery in an old hotel whereas Angest is about a cosmonaut on a deep space mission. Both are surrealist, especially Dead Body Falls, and it's here where both come unstuck. I still have no idea what's even supposed to have happened inside the DBF hotel (literally I haven't got a soddin' clue), much less whodunnit. It's got some good scares along the way, but from start to finish it doesn't make a lick of sense. Angest is a bit better, but both would benefit enormously from exposition. I do plan to replay both though, so maybe it'll be second time lucky. I'll give both 7/10.


Videos
A few pre-rendered 360 VR videos worth mentioning. The Jurassic World video is totally amazeballs - if you want to know what it would feel like to have a T-Rex roar in your face, try this without delay. The Felix & Paul Studios app has a selection of videos of which I've only tried the one where Barack and Michelle Obama give a tour of the White House , which I enjoyed. Dear Angelica is a nicely made but overly-schmultzy short story about death (but with interesting animations); Henry is a silly story about a hedgehog narrated by Frodo Baggins; Tested has Mythbuster's Adam Savage explaining some really quite dull stuff about his workshop, and Ecosphere has some good uplifting things about humans interacting with nature. There are tonnes and tonnes more, but the Jurassic World one is my clear favourite.


Conclusion : yes, we're living in the future

We may not have actual sci-fi holograms free-floating in space, but we do have virtual holograms. VR is now firmly in the realm of being accessible and usable by the masses. Is it useful ?

In my opinion no, not yet - at least not for everyday office work. I tried a few "productivity" apps which are supposed to allow you to use your PC in VR in some more productive way, but I couldn't see the point of any of them. Compared to a big hi-res monitor with a keyboard and mouse, the effort of using VR controllers on the comparatively low-resolution headset display is not even remotely worth it. For that we'll need a substantial leap forward in resolution and true AR, not VR, because the plain fact is you need to be able to see your keyboard clearly. This is certainly possible, but we're not there yet.

But is VR fun ? Hell yes, with bells on. Is it just going to be a flash in the pan like 3D TV ? Oh gods, I hope not... the experience is too awesome for it to fade away. It's truly an introvert's dream : hide away in a virtual environment where you can do as you please, see things you couldn't otherwise see... why would anyone in their right mind not want this ?

Not only gaming : it makes exercising about two hundred billion times more fun. Lift weights ? Hell no, fight robots with lasers for eyes instead ! And the potential for education is huge. Imagine teaching history by showing kids what the world looked like in different eras, or how physics works on scales untestable in a classroom, or explore non-Euclidean geometry, or teaching painting with a whole new array of brushes impossible in the real world, or anatomy, or seeing the world with the eyes and perspective of an animal... the technology for all of this already exists, only the price remains a barrier. But the potential is there, no doubt about it.

It should be said that there differing opinions some of which are truly strange. Some describe Vader Immortal, for instance, as meaning that an "experience" is just a euphemism for "underdeveloped game". Others describe things like Anne Frank's House as "not suitable for VR" or, even weirder, complain about the small number of objects you can interact with. Because being able to mess up Anne Frank's house would make the experience... better... how ? I guess some people just don't get it. I'm biased in the other direction, mind you, but there is currently a lack of truly "you can't do this except in VR" apps (as opposed to, "this is better because it's in VR" apps, of which there are legion) and the price is a barrier.

VR deserves to go at least as fully mainstream as gaming consoles or even PCs. It should be normal to say, "I'll enjoy that more in VR" or "that'll make more sense in VR", just as people opt for blu-rays over regular DVDs. For that to happen will probably take one more iteration of the technology (e.g. combined VR/AR, substantially lower price, lighter equipment, greater compatibility with existing hardware) and/or a suite of "only fundamentally possible in VR" apps. If and when that happens, it's hard to see what would stop it from taking the world by storm. Should you buy one already ? Yes, if your main purpose is gaming, but no not quite yet if you want other experiences. Of course, it's easy to what what should happen, but much harder to predict what market forces will actually do...

Thus ends my gushing review. I'm itching to learn how to convert various Blender projects into VR (including my Arecibo model, which thanks to lockdown is ready to go), it's just a matter of tearing myself away from the existing stuff long enough to sit down and get on with it. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got some orcs to kill.