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    My 10 VR Takeaways from Oculus Connect 2

    Last week's Oculus Connect 2 conference was perhaps a pivotal event in the story of virtual reality. It was the last developer conference before the floodgates of consumer VR open next year when three platforms--Oculus, Steam VR, and PlayStation VR--make their way into our homes and offices. In some ways, it felt like Apple's WWDC before the App Store and iOS SDK launched in 2008. Developers and users are on the cusp of a new frontier; there's so much we don't know, but the eagerness and excitement for this new platform is palpable. The lessons of early VR experiences are just starting to compound and fuel a feedback loop that will eventually lay out the foundation for our understanding of what works in virtual reality. There's a whole lot of figuring out to do, which is really exciting.

    The emphasis of this year's Oculus Connect wasn't on unveiling new hardware. This Holiday's Samsung Gear VR isn't all that much different from the past models. We didn't see new Rift headsets or controller prototypes--the first consumer release is pretty much set. More interesting were the software demos, both from first and third party devs. These demos show not only the current state of VR gaming and social experiences, but where developers' heads are at in fleshing out new ideas and focusing their efforts for experimentation. Oculus Story Studio, Medium, and the Twitch social experience are the best examples of that, and there are insights to be gleaned from each, even from short demo sessions. As with last year's Connect and our GDC hands-on with the HTC Vive, I'm going to share the takeaways that stood out to me most. If you followed along the announcements at Oculus Connect 2 or attended the conference, I'd love to hear your own takeaways in the comments.

    Job Simulator: Making VR Games for Oculus Touch and HTC Vive

    Since Oculus, SteamVR, and PlayStation VR will each have different tracking capabilities and handheld controllers, how will virtual reality game developers make software that will work across all platforms? We chat with the devs at Owlchemy Labs, whose upcoming Job Simulator game will work on HTC Vive and Oculus Touch. Here's how they see cross-platform VR working, and what they think about each system so far.

    The Work of Master Model Builder Greg Jein

    Back in the early eighties, a number of magazines dedicated to special effects brought the work of artists into the spotlight. Publications like Cinefex and Cinefantastique helped a number of effects mavens became stars in their own right, like Rick Baker, Dick Smith, and Tom Savini, to name a few. But it wasn't just make-up artists that became well known among film geeks. Greg Jein became a legend in the model building world, thanks to his work on Close Encounters, 1941, The Hunt For Red October, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and more. Jein is still working steadily as a master model builder in the age of CGI--he was working on the show Black Sails when we reached out to him to talk about his career and current work.

    When Rick Baker started creating monsters out of latex, there wasn't the huge effects industry there is today. Jein didn't think of going into the movie industry as a model builder at first, "I just sort of blundered into the business," he told us with a laugh. "I used to watch a lot of war movies as a kid growing up," Jein said. "I still like airplanes. I used to go to a lot of airshows, and I started making some models. What actually got me started was I never had a major in college, so I finally took an art major."

    Through friends, Jein heard that Sea World needed some fiberglass props, and he eventually hooked up with an effects company called Cascade. "A lot of this stemmed from the Cascade guys, and the hi-tech commercials like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, the Green Giant…a lot of the Star Wars guys came from that."

    Jein then broke into making models for low budget films like Flesh Gordon, and John Carpenter's Dark Star. On Gordon, Jein was getting paid $75 a week, and there were times he didn't get paid at all, but he still had fun working on it, and his work on Dark Star soon brought him to the attention of Douglas Trumbull (2001, Silent Running).

    Tested: How the BB-8 Sphero Toy Works

    We recently visited the workshop of Mike Senna, a droid builder who has made his own R2-D2 and Wall-E robots. Mike's next project is recreating the BB-8 droid featured in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens! We discuss what's known so far about how BB-8 was built for the film, how a remote-controlled model could be built, and take apart a BB-8 Sphero to see if we can learn anything from the small-scale toy!

    Dissecting the Technology of ‘The Martian’: NASA’s Roadmap to Mars

    The movie edition of Andy Weir's fantastically popular sci-fi novel, The Martian, is set to hit theaters in just a few days. Although the storyline is fictional, NASA has taken a keen interest in the movie, providing consultants to Hollywood and hosting a handful of promotional events. Clearly, the agency sees something to celebrate in Weir's vision of the future for manned spaceflight.

    As we have seen in the previous articles of this series, there are numerous similarities between The Martian and how NASA actually handles things in space, such as water, air, electrical power and problem solving. In this final article we'll examine NASA's current plan for visiting Mars.

    The Hermes spaceship in 'The Martian', via 20th Century Fox

    Red Planet Ambitions

    NASA is not being secretive about their plans for putting humans on Mars as early as 2030. They've even published a website with a slew of information. Yet, any plans that project 15+ years into the future are bound to be heavy with technical and financial assumptions. As the agency moves forward, the plan will certainly evolve to match the reality of the times.

    We're finding out that Mars has a very diverse landscape. Scientists are still trying to decide where the first manned Mars expeditions will land. It is a debate that will likely linger well into the next decade. Several satellites are currently orbiting Mars and mapping its surface. Lower-resolution, broad-brush mapping images will help the scientists narrow down the field of landing site candidates. Subsequent high-resolution imagery will be used to pinpoint precise landing locations.

    MSL Curiosity's Gale Crater Landing Site.

    While many fundamental aspects of a manned Martian mission remain in limbo, the basic timeline appears to be ironed out. If you've read Weir's book, you'll notice that it follows NASA's plan nearly verbatim. It goes something like this:

    Visions of Mars in Film

    This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 9/22/2014 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

    MAVEN has reached Mars! "Hold up!" I hear you cry. "What the heck is MAVEN?" Well, I'll tell you. It's the latest in a long line of spacecraft sent to gather data on the Red Planet. Its full title is the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN mission, and it's the first of its kind, dedicated as it is to exploring in detail the upper atmosphere of Mars.

    But all that's a bit of a mouthful, so MAVEN it is.

    One of the puzzles the MAVEN mission controllers are hoping to solve is the mystery of how the sun may have stripped Mars of its early atmosphere, creating a barren desert out of a world that may once have supported microbial life.

    What they're unlikely to find are the irradiated survivors of a doomed Martian race, a bat-headed spider, an abandoned atmosphere processing plant or a race of green, six-armed warriors.

    All of the above have graced our cinema screens over the years, and little wonder. As one of Earth's closest celestial neighbors, Mars has long fascinated filmmakers.

    Virtual Reality and 'Bullet Train' with Epic Games' Tim Sweeney

    We're extremely thrilled to be able to chat with Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games, about his work on Unreal Engine 4 and its use in virtual reality! We get Tim's thoughts on modern graphics hardware for VR, first-person shooters in world-scale, and the mechanics of Epic Games' new Bullet Train VR demo.

    Tested at Oculus Connect 2: New Demos and Impressions

    We're at Oculus Connect 2 this week to test Oculus' new game and hardware demos, chat with VR developers, and check in on some familiar faces in the virtual reality community! We get an update from Oculus' VP of Product Nate Mitchell, and then run through our impressions of the new games, VR multiplayer content, and Touch demos at the conference!

    How I Built a Furiosa Cosplay Prosthetic Arm

    This is a guest post by cosplayer and fabricator Michelle Sleeper, aka Overworld Designs. We previously shared Michelle's Half-Life 2 Gravity Gun project.

    Last year, I was talking with a friend of mine about some of our "holy grail" projects. I told him that it was one of my dream builds to make a T-800 Endo Arm, as an actual prosthetic for an amputee. You know the scene: in Terminator 2, Arnold cuts off the skin of his left arm to expose his robotic endoskeleton.

    I told him how it would be a dream project to build an Endo Arm like in this scene, for someone who is missing a limb. I've met or been made aware of a few people over the years who used their unique body attributes in their costumes, but I never had the chance to connect with someone.

    He said he wanted to introduce me to someone. This is Laura.

    Laura is a left arm transradial amputee, meaning that she is missing her left arm below the elbow since birth. She's also really into cosplay, and living in Atlanta, she has been a "featured zombie" on The Walking Dead. You've probably seen her in the shambling hordes.

    We met and I told her about my idea and what we could do, and she was enthusiastic. I felt really lucky because this really was one of my dream projects! She said she had done a few costumes in the past that incorporated her arm, but nothing really to the scale of what we planned. The idea was to 3D print a CAD design for the Endo Arm and possibly wire it up to an Arduino and some sensors and servos to make the fingers open and close. It was going to be a fun and really challenging build, and I was really looking forward to getting it started.

    And then, Mad Max: Fury Road came out and changed everything.

    Meet the Glowforge 3D Laser Printer

    Four months ago, we visited the offices of Glowforge, a company developing a new kind of 3D laser printer. The Glowforge simplifies laser cutting by moving software to the cloud and making use of smartphone sensors. That both lowers the price and allows for incredible user features that makes the Glowforge extremely easy to use. As Glowforge readies to launch, we check in to check out the final product!

    Dissecting the Technology of 'The Martian': Solving Problems In Space

    The previous articles of this series have focused on the real-life NASA hardware which inspired the fictional equipment found in Andy Weir's novel (and imminent movie) The Martian. Specifically, we looked at many of the components that are used to process water, air, and electrical power in space. This article will be a little different.

    Readers of The Martian know that one of the recurring themes in the book deals with fixing broken equipment using whatever is on hand, combined with plenty of ingenuity. Those scenarios have a very real parallel in NASA's day-to-day operations of manned and unmanned spacecraft. Space is an extremely harsh environment and spacecraft components break…a lot. Let's take a look at how NASA deals with these in-flight failures.

    Photo credit: 20th Century Fox

    Stuff In A Box

    It would be difficult to talk about hardware problems in space without mentioning the Apollo 13 mission and the countless miracles performed by mission control to get the crew home alive. In one memorable scene from Ron Howard's 1995 movie about the ordeal, engineers in mission control begin working to reverse rising carbon dioxide levels in the Lunar Module. Someone empties a box of random-looking parts which represent the total resources of the spaceship's crew. The challenge is immediately obvious: use these parts to find a solution or people will die.

    In a recent conversation with present-day flight controller Tom Sheene, I asked if the "stuff in a box" scenario still happens. He replied, "All the time… it's the most challenging and rewarding part of my job." Sheene went on to tell me about a custom tool that his team had designed to lubricate the space station's robotic arm, and another that was used by spacewalking astronauts to free a solar array that refused to unfurl.

    Flight Controller Tom Sheene is part of the OSO group that is responsible for the maintenance and repair of all systems on the ISS.

    When these custom tools are being designed, aesthetics takes a back seat to functionality. But no one seems to mind as long as they get the job done. The names given to these tools are equally low-key. Apollo's hacked carbon dioxide scrubber was the "mailbox", and the solar array tool was the "hockey stick". Tools that become a part of the permanent inventory are renamed with more scientific terms and, as with all things NASA, branded with an acronym. Case in point: Sheene's robotic arm tool graduated from "fly swatter" to "BLT" (Ball Screw Lubrication Tool).

    While a failed component on the International Space Station (ISS) rarely triggers an immediate life and death battle of wits, the stakes are invariably high. Whatever the failing component may be, it was sent up there for a reason and at great expense. You can't just roll down the window, turn up the radio, and pretend that it isn't squeaking.

    The Hybrid World of “The Boxtrolls”

    This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 10/7/2014 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

    The Boxtrolls is the third feature to come out of Oregon-based animation studio LAIKA, both of whose previous productions Coraline and Paranorman were Academy Award nominees for Best Animated Feature Film. Directed by Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, and adapted from the book Here Be Monsters by Alan Snow, it tells the story of Eggs, a human boy raised by Boxtrolls — strange cavern-dwelling creatures who live in hiding beneath the cobbled streets of Cheesebridge. When Eggs meets Winnie, feisty daughter of Cheesebridge dignitary Lord Portley-Rind, the upper and lower worlds collide and the sinister truth behind the dastardly Archibald Snatcher's mission to exterminate the Boxtrolls is revealed.

    "The Boxtrolls" is a hybrid animation film with its roots firmly in the stop-motion tradition.

    Like its predecessors, The Boxtrolls is at heart a stop-motion feature. However, thanks to developments in both methodology and filmmaking technique, it is described by LAIKA as a "hybrid" film integrating the traditions of stop-motion with the latest advances in visual effects.

    Michael Hollenbeck animates the Archibald Snatcher and the Red Hats.

    "Coraline was almost entirely shot in camera," explained LAIKA visual effects co-supervisor Steve Emerson. "There is some CG in that film, but for the most part the director, Henry Selick, was after something entirely practical and in-camera. The big shift for us came with Paranorman. That's when our producer and lead animator, Travis Knight, started talking about this vision of creating hybrid films."

    In the LAIKA lexicon, hybrid filmmaking means taking a stop-motion film and expanding it visually beyond the confines of the animation stage. "As a genre, stop-motion is typically confined to smaller environments and a limited number of characters," said Emerson. "With hybrid, the idea is to use technology to open up these worlds, and do things that you wouldn't typically do in stop-motion, like have large crowds, or big effects, or wide vistas."

    What You Should Know about the Form 2 SLA 3D Printer

    Good news everyone! Formlabs has just announced their next gen SLA printer, the Form 2 and it's an improvement on the Form 1+ in almost every way. Formlabs developed one of the first affordable SLA resin printers that gave pro results--check out the Print the Legend documentary on Netflix for a fascinating look at how they got started. I had a lot of fun last year testing the Form 1+, but there were a few bumps along the way. Here's how I wrapped up the review:

    "So would I buy a Form 1+? As much as I like the prints, I personally would like to wait for their next gen machine which I hope would address some of the issues I had. I would also like to see them come out with a material that hits that sweet spot between their standard material and the flexible - something that is rigid with just a bit of give. Despite any problems I ran into, I really liked the Form 1+ and look forward to what Formlabs will do next."

    CREDIT: Formlabs

    What they're doing next looks pretty good. I was recently invited to meet with Formlabs co-founder Max Lobovsky and chief marketing officer, Colin Raney to take a look at the new Form 2, and guess what: they addressed every concern I had and then some. The Form 2 looks to be the machine I would buy for myself.

    Here's what's new: the Form 2 has a bigger print volume, a more powerful laser for faster and finer prints, a new resin cartridge system among many other updates. I was very pleased with the prints off the Form 1+ and it was relatively easy to use, but there were a number of things that I felt needed addressed--let's take a look at each of the changes individually. (I'm not going into detail about how the SLA printing process works, as on a base level, it has not changed. Take a look at my Form 1+ review for an in-depth explanation.)

    Tested Builds a Hydrogen Converter

    This week, Adam challenges Will and Norm with the task of building a hydrogen converter--a simple electrolysis rig that can split water into oxygen and hydrogen. It's a science experiment to demonstrate one way of harnessing hydrogen gas with basic chemistry! (Special thanks to John Duncan for supervising the shop for this build!)

    The Future of Practical Creature Effects

    This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 9/9/2014 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

    What does the future hold for practical creature effects? Ah, was there ever a question more likely to raises the hackles of fans of old-school special effects? Or to cause a look of blank bemusement to cross the face of the average moviegoer? Ever since Jurassic Park, argument has raged over which is better: a CG dinosaur or its mechanical equivalent? Whenever the issue is raised, emotions run high; discussing it at all is only marginally safer than poking a nest of snakes.

    But is it an issue? Is it valid even to ask the question at all? Isn't it time we rejected all that "either/or" nonsense and concentrated on simply getting the job done in the best possible way? There's only one way to get a decent answer: ask the experts. So that's what I've done. I put my question to a group of top professionals from the field of practical effects, left them to ponder… and then stood well back. You want to know what the future holds for practical creature effects? You're about to find out.

    Richard Taylor
    Co-Founder & Creative Director, Weta Workshop

    "At Weta Workshop, we very much believe there is still a dynamic place for physical creature effects in the entertainment industry. While there has been a huge shift towards CG creatures over the last ten years, there are still directors who are interested in utilizing more traditional, real-world effect solutions for characters in their films.

    "There is no doubt that films such as the latest Planet of the Apes, with work by Weta Digital, give a clear indication how extraordinary characters can be fully realized through CG, but there remains a very compelling reason to have real actors in prosthetics and creature costumes on set to create particular characters for the right project. A great example is the recent blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, which uses a huge ensemble cast of aliens of which, I believe, only three are digital. Here is a wonderful use of traditional makeup and creature effects (created by a truly superb and world class team) to do something absolutely extraordinary.

    Awesome Jobs: Meet Tom Iliffe, Underwater Cave Explorer

    Tom Iliffe only studies animals that live in the hardest-to-reach locations -- those weird colorless, sightless organisms that exist only in the world's deepest, darkest, underwater caves. As a biologist and a diver, he has been down to 460 feet below the ocean's surface and spelunked some of the world's most remote locations all while breathing through a dive regulator. Throughout his career, Iliffe has discovered 250 new species of marine and freshwater cavernicolous invertebrates, including 3 new orders, 7 new families and 50 new genera. He talked to us about how to find your way around a previously undiscovered cave without getting lost, how to swim through tiny cracks and crevices, and what it's like to grab samples of tiny nearly-invisible animals in the darkness of an underwater cave.

    Dr. Tom Iliffe in Deep Blue cave. Image courtesy of Jill Heinerth, Bermuda Deep Water Caves 2011, NOAA-OER

    Why study caves?

    First of all, it's like any form of basic research. You may set out just to learn how something works but you never know where the path is going to lead you. Some of the most exciting scientific discoveries that have taken place were because people were curious about a phenomenon and investigated.

    So that's kind of the starting point. We have a totally unknown realm, we know nothing about it, this is a challenge, let's learn what's happening here. Not: "let's find something that has immediate commercial potential." Just because you start out at the bottom rung of the ladder, doesn't mean you can't end up making very important discoveries.

    A lot of the most important discoveries that have ever been made have been by accident, by a fortuitous discovery. You don't have to have a rationale other than scientific curiosity.

    That's to begin with.

    Tested's Walking Tour of Dragon*Con 2015

    We spent last weekend immersed in fandom and cosplay culture at Dragon*Con. For those of you who haven't been able to make it to Atlanta for this annual show, Norm and Frank walk and talk through Dragon*Con's hotels and public spaces to give you a sense of what it's like to be at the convention!

    Making Sci-Fi Armor for a Video Game Trailer

    We stop by Frank Ippolito's shop to check out an interesting project he recently worked on: building foam armor to be used in a video game trailer. Frank and his team fabricated three futuristic suits and hand props that were used in the recent LawBreakers debut trailer! We chat about how these suits were made using development assets, and the difference between fabricating a costume for cosplay versus a video shoot.

    A History of Flying by Wire in Film

    This story originally appeared on the Cinefex blog on 9/1/2015 and is republished here with permission. Learn more about Cinefex magazine here.

    Ever since the dawn of cinema, people have been flying by wire.

    In Fritz Lang's 1927 classic Metropolis, for example, shots of flying machines soaring over the film's iconic cityscapes were achieved by mounting miniature planes on taut wires. A similar technique was used in the original King Kong in 1933, for which a tiny squadron of biplanes was inched along its guide wires one painstaking frame at a time.

    Then as now, there were plenty of amateur filmmakers keen to re-create the kinds of sequences they'd ogled in the blockbusters of the day. Luckily for fans of miniature aircraft shots, cinematographer Jerome H. Ash was on hand to offer advice.

    Creating the miniature effects of "Metropolis". Illustration taken from "Science and Invention" magazine, June 1927, via Smithsonian.com

    Here's an extract from Ash's article Substandard Miniature Shots, published in the May 1936 edition of American Cinematographer:

    "I think that by far the most satisfactory way to handle miniature plane shots is to hang the plane from wires, as the professionals do. To begin with, stretch three parallel wires well above the path you want the plane to take: these are strictly for support. From these, hang a little T-shaped wooden framework, on pulleys or eyelets; this supports and guides the plane. From the framework, three wires descend to the plane – one to each wing, and one to the tail."

    Ash is at pains to point out to his enthusiastic amateur readers that the wires mustn't show up on camera. If only a little camouflage is required, he recommends a light application of blue vitriol. A more extreme solution involves painting the wires with alternating black and white stripes, each around half an inch in length – Ash likens this bold approach to the dazzle camouflage used on WWII battleships.

    Building the Star Wars Rancor Costume, Part 4

    In the fourth part of our Rancor costume build, Frank Ippolito walks us through the mold and casting process of the large Rancor head sculpt. We discuss ways to add texture and "skin" to the foam suit, and start painting the creature just one week before Comic-Con! Thanks for following along with the build--we'll be back next time with a debriefing of how the Rancor suit turned out. (Thanks to Model-Space.com for sponsoring this project!)