Another relatively quiet one – the big event being that I started my TIG welding course. Hopefully, as a result of this training, I’ll be able to make delicate welding projects, like under 10mm stainless steel armatures. With that, I’ll be able to start on a series of small, figurative sculptures I’ve been planning for a while now.
On the same day I was going to the welding class, I had the laughable misfortune to get my first taste of being the target of an internet troll. Having been part of a group decision to remove a member from a Facebook group, as a consequence of their use of abusive and libellous language towards another member, and having drawn the duty to announce that to the group, I then found my phone going nuts with notifications as this person found me on Twitter, and started sending abusive replies to dozens of my recent tweets. So, after screenshotting everything, I blocked him, and he became a nonentity within my Twitter world.
Then, he started sending me abuse in Facebook Messenger, and commenting on Facebook, as my Tweet about this was crossposted there as a public post. The more the guy went on, the more unhinged, or at least mentally unwell, he seemed. So, I started deleting his comments to protect his reputation from himself, and then blocked him from commenting. He tried to rejoin the Facebook group a couple of times, so we just blocked him entirely.
A friend who saw the exchange noted that he lived only a stone’s throw away from him, found pictures of the guy from newspaper articles in a local paper, and made a prediction as to where he probably hung out, given the demographics and location involved.
Felt very Spook-y for a moment there.
Anyway, the welding course was OK – not the best organised theory session I’ve attended, but we’ll see what happens when the practical classes start. Driving back from Nambour, I was treated to an impressive lightning display, and the air, the whole way back, smelled of wood smoke. No rain, however.
This week has been quiet – the major project being a documentation of the photography kit I’ve been working on, which when I posted it on Twitter with @mentions to the companies whose gear was featured, received likes from 3 Legged Thing (as well as a retweet), Peak Design & Blackrapid.
Sunday evening was a cruise on the Noosa River, organised by the local creative community. There’s some formidable talent here – I spent an hour or so chatting with one of the 3D effects artists from the original Tron, and met a couple who are 3D animators, and fellow former Sydney Goth scene folks. We’ve probably been in the same nightclubs over the past couple of decades, despite having never met before. Small world.
I’ve finally succeeded in getting my Urban Exploration / Urban Landscape photography kit together, so I thought I’d document it here.
The goal was to have a single backpack that I could travel with, which didn’t scream “tactical gear bag”, and which could handle a versatile photographic load.
Here’s the loadout.
Peak Design Everyday Backpack 20L, with:
Nikon d8XX with the 14-24 2.8, with a modified 3 Legged Thing QR-11 L-Plate. Umbrella in side pocket. Headphones and small medikit with hand sanitiser, paracetamol etc. Godox V860II & X1-n. Blackrapid Sport Breathe. GSI low-profile water battle in side pocket. 3 Legged Thing Leo with Airhed Switch.
It all packs in very snug, and there’s some modifications to the dividers to scavenge every last millimetre in width across the bag (not such a big commitment now they sell them separately). There’s also lens tissues, lens covers, remote release cable, camping knife-spork and a couple of cable adapters in the interior side pockets. Wallet and a protein bar in the top compartment, and still space for an iPad in the laptop sleeve.
Inside, there’s one vertical divider at the bottom to separate the camera onto the left, and tripod on the right, then one horizontal divider across the top of that.
The horizontal is folded up on the right to make one tall space for the tripod on the right. One layer of the folded up part on the horizontal divider is removed to give 5-10mm more room in the top left compartment. The vertical divider has a layer removed from the folding section as well, to give more room to the L-Plate on the camera, so as to stop the grip from poking out through the side. That vertical divider also has an extra row of velcro sewn onto it, so the whole side adheres to the inner surface of the bag, rather than just the stock tab. The Blackrapid bag packs in behind the tripod in the space it creates where the carbon fibre of the legs is exposed. The trimmed parts removed from the folding sections of the dividers are velcro-ed into the bottom of the bag with adhesive-backed velcro strips, to provide a bit of padding for the lens and bottom of the tripod.
Tuesday, I was over at the Men’s Shed again, picking up the modified Blackrapid connector. It wasn’t quite as modified as necessary, unfortunately. Therefore, most of the day was spent with a file, manually cleaning up the lathe work, and removing material. Important lesson – never use a power tool, to do something that a hand tool can accomplish. The hand files have produced a beautifully even result.
I kept working on the Blackrapid connector throughout the week.
I also did a bunch more modifications to the 3Legged Thing L-Bracket, which involved taking some material out of the back so that the Blackrapid connector could be screwed through the plate and into the camera.
It’s not the prettiest result, but it works. That little cutout gives the Blackrapid connector’s loop the necessary room to rotate. It’s a simple design issue that could have been avoided, by just making the cutout a bit longer so that the threaded part of the slot was equidistant from the edges on all sides.
There was more extensive surgery to follow.
While the bracket is “universal” and specifies the Nikon D800 as having first tier compatibility, there’s still a couple of protuberances on the side of the camera that limit how snugly the bracket can nestle against it. One of these, is the attachment point for the rubber covers for the ports on the front of the camera. Another, is the thumbnail catch for the door covering the side ports, and another is a slight curve in the body’s geometry.
So it was back to filing to pull a bit of material out.
Now, this wouldn’t ordinarily be an issue, except that I’m trying to save every millimetre I can in overall camera width, so that I can pack it into my camera bag without taking off the L-Bracket. With these modifications, I was successful – the bag can zip closed, and the camera produces no visible bulges or bumps on its profile.
Thursday night was a meetup to talk about grants and funding as a followup from the Immerse conference, in conjunction with the Horizon festival. It was great to see the same faces, and get to the point where we know each other’s names.
Friday was a bit of a down day, but I bought a little pack of micro-files from Bunnings. They’re brilliant – don’t know how I made do without them in the past.
Here’s a gear hack to combine two products that should play well together, but don’t. The Blackrapid FR-T1 connector, and 3 Legged Thing QR-11 L-Bracket.
Technically, the QR-11 does work with Blackrapid straps – there’s a 1/4″ mounting hole in the short arm to screw in a Connector, however this interferes with the ability of the short arm’s rail to mount in the Tripod’s Arca clamp. Also, the ergonomics don’t work as well when the camera is hanging on the strap.
As a bonus, here’s a modification of the short arm on the L-Plate, to get it as close as possible against the side of the camera.
Material needs to be removed to clear the rubber gasket covers for the ports on the front of the camera, as well as the thumbnail catch for the port door on the side.
In April 2016, HTC released the Vive VR headset. Designed in conjunction with games developer Valve, the Vive represented a significant evolution in consumer Virtual Reality.
Technologically, the Vive’s breakthrough centred around a tracking system that could detect, within a 3x3x3m square volume, the position and orientation of the headset, controllers, and any other object that had a tracking puck attached to it. Crucially, this volumetric tracking ability was included as a default part of the basic kit.
The result, is that HTC’s hardware has effectively defined the minimum viable product for VR as “room scale” – an experience which lets you get out of the chair, and walk around within a defined area. Not only can you look out in all directions, you can physically circumnavigate a virtual object, as if it were a physical object sharing the room. When combined with Valve’s SteamVR platform and store, this has created an entire turnkey hardware and software ecosystem.
From my recent experience of them, the Vive plus Steam is a product, not a tech experiment. This is a tool, not a toy.
First, some basic terminology for the purposes of this article:
XR: Extended / Extensible Reality – A blanket term covering all “reality” versions.
VR: Virtual Reality – XR in which the real world is completely blocked out, and the user is immersed in a completely computer generated environment.
AR: Augmented Reality XR in which the real world remains visible, directly or via camera feed, and computer generated elements are added, also known as “mediated reality”.
GPU: Graphics Processing Unit – the part of a computer that does the work to generate the immersive environment.
eGPU: A GPU in an external case, usually connected via Thunderbolt.
More than a year after the Vive’s release, Apple used their 2017 World Wide Developers Conference to announce they were bringing VR to macOS, in a developer preview form.
For those of us in the creative fields who are primarily Mac-based, and have wondered “when can I get this on my Mac?“, Apple’s announcement would seem to be good news. However, there are fundamental differences between Apple’s product philosophy for the Mac, and the needs of VR users and developers. This raises serious concerns as to the basic compatibility of Apple’s product and business model, with the rapidly evolving first decade of this new platform.
When it comes to Apple and VR, the screaming, clownsuit-wearing elephant in the room is this: Apple has weak graphics.
This is the overwhelming sentiment of everyone I have encountered with an interest in VR.
The most powerful GPU in Apple’s product range, AMD’s Vega 64 – with availability starting in the AU$8200 configuration of the iMac Pro, is a lowered-performance (but memory expanded) version of a card, which retails for around AU$800, and which is a fourth-tier product in terms of 3D performance, within the wider market.
Note: Adding that card to an iMac Pro, adds AU$960 to the price of the machine, whose price already includes the lower performance Vega 56. In contrast, the actual price difference between a retail Vega 56 and 64 is around AU$200. Effectively, you’re paying full price for both cards, even though Apple only supplies you with one of them.
The VR on Mac blog recent posted an article lamenting “Will we ever really see VR on the Mac?”, to which you can only respond “No, not in any meaningful sense, as long as Apple continues on its current product philosophy”.
To paraphrase Bill Clinton “It’s the GPUs, Stupid”.
When you’re looking at VR performance, what you’re effectively looking at, is the ability of the GPU to drive two high-resolution displays (one for each eye), at a high frame rate, with as many objects rendered at as high a quality as possible. Effectively, you’re looking at gaming performance – unsurprising, given a lot of VR is built on game engines.
Apple’s machines’ (discrete) GPUs are woefully underpowered, and regularly a generation out of date when compared to retail graphics cards for desktop computers, or those available in other brands of laptops.
Most of the presenters at Immerse were using macbooks for their slide decks, but none of the people I met use Apple gear, or seem to have any interest in using Apple gear to do VR, because, as I heard repeatedly, “the Mac has weak graphics”.
How weak is “weak”?
Looking at the GPUs available on the market, in terms of their ability to generate a complicated 3D environment, and render all the objects within that environment in high quality, at the necessary frame rate, here they are, roughly in order of performance, with a price comparison. This price comparison is important, because it represents not just how much it costs to get into VR if you already have a computer, but how much it costs, roughly on an annual schedule, to stay at the cutting edge of VR.
Note: This is excluding Pro GPUs like the Quadro, or Radeon Pro, since they are generally lower performance, in terms of 3D for gaming engines. The “Pro”-named GPUs in Apple’s products are gaming GPUs, and do not include error-correcting memory that is the primary distinguisher of “Pro” graphics cards.
Nvidia Titan V: ~AU$3700. Although not designed as a gaming card, it generally outperforms any gaming card at gaming tasks.
Nvidia Titan XP: AU$1950
Nvidia 1080ti: ~AU$1100
Nvidia 1080 / AMD Vega 64: $AU850 (IF you can get the AMD card in stock)
Realistically, the 1080ti should be considered the entry level for VR. Anything less, and you are not getting an environment of sufficient fidelity that it ceases to be a barrier between yourself, and the work. A 1080 may be a reasonable compromise if you want to do mobile VR in a laptop, but we’re not remotely close to seeing a Vega 64 in a Mac laptop.
So what does this mean?
The highest-spec GPU in Apple’s “VR Ready” iMac Pro is a 4th-tier product, and is below the minimum spec any serious content creator should consider for their VR workstation. It’s certainly well below the performance that your potential customers will be able to obtain in a “Gaming PC” that costs a quarter of the price of your “Workstation”.
The GPU in the iMac Pro is effectively non-upgradable. The AU$8-20k machine you buy today will fall further behind the leading edge of visual fidelity for VR environments every year. A “Gaming PC” will stay cutting edge for around AU$1200 / year.
While Vega 64 is roughly equivalent in performance to Nvidia’s base 1080 (which is significantly lower performance than the 1080ti), in full-fat retail cards, it can require almost double the amount of electricity needed to power the 1080.
Apple’s best laptop GPU, the Radeon 560 offers less than half the gaming 3D performance (which again, is effectively VR equivalent) of the mobile 1080, and you can get Windows laptops with dual 1080s in them.
Apple is not providing support as yet, for Nvidia cards in eGPU enclosures, and so far only officially supports a single brand and model of AMD card – the Sapphire Radeon RX580 Pulse, which is not a “VR Capable” GPU by any reasonable definition.
The consequences of this are significant.
We’re not going to see performance gains in GPU hardware, and performance requirements for VR plateau any time in the near future. A decade ago, computers were fast enough to do pretty much anything in print production – 300dpi has remained the quality of most print, and paper sizes haven’t changed. That’s not going to happen for VR in the next decade.
GPU progress is not going to hold itself to Apple’s preferred refresh and repurchase cycles for computers. The relationship content producers have with GPUs is, I suspect, going to be similar to the relationship iOS developers have with iPhones & iPads – whatever the top of the range is, they’ll need to have it as soon as it’s released. People aren’t going to turn over a several thousand dollar computer every year, just to get the new GPU.
By Apple’s own admission at WWDC, eGPU is a secondrate option, as compared to a GPU in a slot on the motherboard. A slotted card on the motherboard has potentially four times the bandwidth of a card in an external enclosure. For a user with an 11-13″ microlight laptop, eGPU is a good option to have VR capability at a desk, but it’s not a good solution for desktop computers, or for portable VR.
While Nvidia’s mobile 1080 has been an option in PC laptops for some time now, and offers performance comparable to its full-fat desktop version, AMD (and by extension Apple) seems to have nothing comparable (a mobile Vega 64) on the horizon for Macbooks.
There are, therefore, some really serious questions that need to be asked about the priorities of Apple in using AMD for graphics hardware. Overall, AMD tends to be marginally better for computational GPUs, in other words, GPUs that are used for non-dislay purposes. For realtime 3D environments, Nvidia is significantly ahead, and in mobile, represents having the capability to to VR at all.
If the balance of computation vs 3D “gaming” performance means computation is faster, but VR isn’t possible, then it really starts to feel like back in the days when the iMac went with DVD-ROM while everyone else was building around CD burners.
Apart from operating system system changes relating to driving the actual VR hardware, Apple’s “embrace of VR” was more or less devoid of content on Apple’s part, in terms of tools for users.
Apple’s biggest announcement regarded adding “VR support” to Final Cut Pro X. As far as I can see, this is about 360 video, not VR. This needs to emphasised – 360 Video is not VR. It shares some superficial similarities, but these are overwhelmed by the fundamental differences:
360 Video is usually not 3D. It’s effectively just video filling your field of vision.
360 Video is a passive medium. While you can look around, you can’t interact with the environment, or move your viewpoint from a fixed location.
In contrast, VR is:
a place you go to,
a place you move about in, and
a place where you do things.
VR is an activity environment, 360 Video is television in which you can only see one third of what is happening, at any one time.
The power of VR is what you can do in it, not what you can see with it.
For example Tvori:
And for a more nuts & bolts vision of actually working in VR:
This is using a 3D VR workspace to create content that will be played on a 2D screen.
This is important – the future of content creation when it comes to VR is NOT going to be based upon using flat screens to create content that can then be viewed on VR goggles. It’s the other way around – we’re going to be using VR toolsets to make content that will be deployed back to 2D platforms.
All of the current development and deployment environments are inherently cross-platform. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to be making macOS-specific VR apps any time in the near future. That’s a self-evident reality – the install base & market for VR-capable Macs is simply too small, and the install base & market for VR-capable PCs too large, to justify not using an application platform that allows for cross-platform applications. VR does not have the problem of a cross-platform app feeling like a secondrate, uncanny-valley facsimile of a native application. In VR, the operating system conveys no “native” UI paradigms, it’s just a launcher, less in fact given that Steam and Viveport handle launching and management of apps – it’s a glorified BIOS.
This is not going to be a replay of iOS, where Apple’s mobile products were undeniably more powerful, and more capable than the majority of the vastly larger market of Android and Windows Mobile devices, and were therefore able to sustain businesses that could ignore other platforms. VR-capable Macs are smaller in market, less-capable as devices due to weak graphics, higher in price to buy, and radically higher in price to maintain relative performance, than VR-capable PCs. As long as this is the case, the Mac will be begging for scraps at a VR table, where Windows (and eventually Linux & SteamOS) will occupy the seats.
The inherent cross-operating-system metaplatform nature of Steam reflects a growing trend within the Pro software market – formerly Mac-only developers are moving their products to be cross-platform, in effect, making their own technologies the platform, and relegating macOS or Windows to little more than a dumb pipe for commoditised hardware management.
One of the recent darlings of the Apple world, Serif, has taken their Affinity suite of design, imaging and publishing apps across to Windows, as have Macphun, who’ve renamed themselves Skylum, and shifted their photography software cross-platform. In the past, developers had marketed their products, based on the degree to which they had embraced Apple’s in-house technologies as the basis of their apps – how “native” their apps were. These days, more and more are emphasising independence from Apple’s technology stack. The presence of the cross-platform lifeboat is becoming more important to customers of Pro apps, than any advantage brought by being “more native”. The pro creative market, by and large, is uncoupling its financial future from Apple’s product strategy. In effect, it’s betting against that strategy.
What does Apple, a company whose core purpose is in creating tasteful, consistent user interface (however debatable that might be these days), have to offer in a world where user environments are the sole domain of the apps themselves, and the operating system is invisible to the user?
Thought exercise, Apple & Gaming:
Video and cinema has always been considered a core market in which Apple had to invest. Gaming (on macOS) has always been a market that Apple fans have been fine with Apple ignoring. The argument has always been about the economics and relative scale of each. It’s worth bearing in mind however, that the size of the games market and industry dwarfs the cinema industry.
Why is it ok amongst Apple fans, Apple-centric media, and shareholders, for Apple to devote resources to making tools for moviemakers / watchers rather than directing it at game developers / players?
When Apple cuts a product, or restricts the versatility of a product under the guise of “focus” there’s no end of people who’ll argue that Apple is focussing on where the profits are. Mac sales are relatively stagnant year over year. Gaming PCs, or as they’d be called if Apple sold them “VR Workstations” have been consistently growing in sales of around 25% year upon year for a while now.
Windows’ gaming focus and games ecosystem, is co-evolutionary with VR. It is the relentless drive to make Windows as good as possible as a gaming platform, that makes it the better VR platform. No amount of optimisation Apple can do with Metal, their 3D infrastructure, can make up for the fact that they’re shipping sub-standard GPUs in their devices.
”High spirits are just no substitute for 800 rounds a minute!”
Apple’s WWDC VR announcements seem to have had very little impact on people who are using, and making with VR now. Noone I spoke to at Immerse seemed particularly excited about the prospect of Apple getting into the space, or seemed to think Apple had anything in particular to offer. If you look at what Apple did to professional photographers by neglecting, and then dumping their Aperture pro photo management solution, without providing a replacement (and no, Photos is not that), that wariness is well-justified.
What Immerse really opened my eyes to, is that VR is very probably a black swan for Apple, who have spent the last 5 years eliminating the very thing that is central to powering VR – motherboard PCI slots, the associated retail-upgradble GPU, and the entire culture of 3D performance focus, from their product philosophy.
VR is an iceberg, and Apple, no matter how titanic, will not move it. The question is whether the current design, engineering and marketing leadership, who have produced generation upon generation of computers that sacrifice utility and customer-upgradability in the pursuit of smallness, are culturally capable of accepting that fact.
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Monday I went down the coast a bit to a plywood merchant who CNC cut the benchtops for my new work tables. They were originally supposed to be 15mm ply, but after I’d paid for the job, they called to let me know they’d discovered the 15mm stock wasn’t up to the necessary quality, so they offered to do them in 18mm for no extra cost.
After a quick revision of the model I’d made, I confirmed everything would work, and gave them the go-ahead.
Once I’d picked the timber up, I checked it with my tape measure, to calibrate the dimensions of all the framing timbers against the tops, and fed those into my cutting list spreadsheet.
Tuesday, it was down to Brisbane to use a mitre saw (and pick up my new L-Bracket), with stops at Bunnings along the way to pick up the necessary timber. A couple of hours work, and I had everything chopped up, and ready.
Wednesday, I brought in all the newly cut timber, and took some spare timber back to Bunnings. I also went down the coast again to visit a chandlery supplier to try to find a suitable shackle or buckle to create a Blackrapid slider for the strap of my small Lowepro camera bag.
Thursday it was over to the men’s shed, to see if we could get the Blackrapid connector successfully modified on the lathe. Everything was going well until disaster struck, the part became uncentered, and bent. I had a backup part in case something happened, but because of time issues, the guy working on it couldn’t start over that day. It’s going to be ready next week.
Then I hit a snag with the L-Bracket.
The machining on the short arm’s arca-rail was slightly out, which meant that when clamped into the tripod head sized for the long arm, the short arm wouldn’t fit, but when the head is sized for the short arm, the long arm would slide about.
I tweeted this to the company’s official twitter account, and they offered to send me a new one. This brings up what I like most about Twitter, for all its flaws, it allows consumers to put a subtle pressure on companies, by notifying them of problems in a public fashion. For companies, it lets them show off being pro-active about providing good customer service, and standing behind their products, so a win all round.
Thursday night was spent seeing a punk gig in Noosaville, which is all sorts of odd.
Friday, I made some adjustments to my websites, to get everything running under https, and took a file to the L-Bracket to see if I could re-machine the short arm to match the Long’s profile.
Saturday, the L-Bracket fix was complete. This bracket has a bit more Frankensteining due next week, to enable it to play nice with my re-machined Blackrapid connector.
Week 3 has been productive. On Monday and Tuesday I was in Brisbane, checking out an L-Bracket and quick release plates for my new tripod. Unfortunately the L-Bracket wasn’t going to work with my Blackrapid straps, due to not having enough room for the connector to screw in. I ended up buying a quick-release plate from Blackrapid, and took the tripod out for its first test run.
On Tuesday, after a yum-cha breakfast, I took a look around a few camping stores in an attempt to find a low-profile water bottle that would go in the side pockets of my camera bags. Everywhere I went, no options. Finally the salesperson at Paddy Pallin mentioned they knew of one, checked the shelves, and found they had one in stock – a PET plastic hip flask by GSI Outdoors. This is a major win, because round water bottles have been a real thorn in my side for camera bags. This one doesn’t expand the lines of my bag too much, and hopefully won’t stretch out the elastic of the side pockets.
Once I returned home, I couldn’t get the idea of using the L-Bracket out of my head. On Wednesday, I took the Blackrapid connector to a local engineering shop to see if they could modify it on a lathe. They couldn’t, but they suggested checking out Noosa Men’s Shed to see if anyone there could do it.
After my previous sculpture experience, I was reluctant, but pride doesn’t get you anywhere, so I went over on Thursday, and sure enough, one of the guys there checked it out, and said he had a solution.
So, I’ve bought the L-Bracket, and next week I’ll be back over at the Men’s Shed to do the modifications necessary. Once that’s done, I’ll have a good couple of articles to write, covering my developing mobile photo kit.
It started with me waking up on Monday morning, feeling ill, and checking my email to see a new tripod I’d bought in the last couple of days of 2017 was waiting at the post offie. I drove over, picked it all up, and just had time to unbox and look at the new piece of kit, before I was floored by a catastrophic case of what I assume was some variety of Norovirus.
That was most of my week – trying to stay hydrated while being sicker, and feeling more wretched, than I can recall in recent memory.
By Sunday, I was up to playing around with divider configurations in my main camera bag, trying to figure out a way to fit my new travel tripod into it.
So, the first post in an effort to ensure I write something every week, if for no other reason than to keep track of time across the year, similar to what I did with my ArtStart Diary posts.
Week 1 was a fairly quiet affair – I went to see local punk band The Chats play live in a little venue in Nambour. Had a lot of fun watching the weird combination of fashion choices the local kids are into now – some of them dress like baby-boomers did the 1980s. Saw a group of a dozen people, all wearing the same shoes.
On the Sunday, there was a trip up to Montville, and out to a creek for a bit of a picnic, though my knee wasn’t really up to the scrabbling over boulders part of it. We came back via the scenic route.