Redeem Tomorrow

I used to be excited for the future.

Let's bring that back.

Epic's ambitious plan for Unreal Engine and content-as-a-service

Fascinating twitter thread by game professional Mike Bithell about the strategy Unreal is telegraphing with their recent Matrix Awakens tech demo:

Epic is attempting to flip the economics of game production towards film production.
In games, we build everything, so (and this is over simplification) game assets are a fixed cost. If I need 100 things, I need to pay for the production of one thing a hundred times. Efficiencies come in, but we're still building stuff from scratch.
An open world game? Only possible if you're a mega AAA company, or you wanna stylize to the point of affordability. Movies don't build a city, they find one to shoot in. They buy props and costumes. They hire actors rather than making westoworld style puppets.
Asset stores brought some of this prop shop and central casting mentality to games, but the problem is aesthetic consistency. If you buy 10 characters off the unity store and throw em in a game together, unless you did so very tastefully, it's gonna look shit.

With Epic offering a fully coherent city backdrop, including efficient rendering technology and consistent design across characters and architectures, Mike argues, it becomes cheaper than ever for game devs to tell stories in realistic settings. This introduces new tradeoffs:

But it also increases the quality bar and expense of doing anything that's not on the shelf. Alien characters? Metahuman with some forehead bumps added... 6 limbs is expensive and out of scope. Guns? Take a prop gun and stick something on it. 90s film solutions.

I think it's interesting to see Epic touting this just a year after Cyberpunk 2077, an ambitious platform play that nearly tanked its developer, CDPR.

Sure, Cyberpunk is a game. It's also an elaborate canvas of characters, settings, and content that they can use to sell a series of stories. Night City is enormous and immersive, and the initial story they shipped barely scratched the surface of all they built there. I suspect we'll see plenty of paid DLC over the next few years leveraging that investment.

CDPR was hoisting an enormous open world, full of systems that could be reused. The complexity of pulling something like this off is formidable, and in Cyberpunk's case, led to a disappointing initial release full of technical issues, especially for players on older consoles.

Epic, decades deep into the game engine business, understands most teams don't have the capital or risk appetite to undertake that level of investment, but sees a similar opportunity to build that kind of canvas and rent it out.

As Bithell says:

Movies don't build a city, they find one to shoot in. They buy props and costumes. They hire actors rather than making westworld style puppets.

The software economics of games continue to evolve.

VR revolution: any day now

Oculus Quest 2 is a decent device that costs a bit less than a nice iPad, and far less than a television and console.

From a performance perspective, it's surprisingly decent.

I'm no fan of Facebook, but curiosity got the better of me. I grabbed a Quest 2 to find out if we were any closer to a big shift in culture, communication and commerce.

I think it could happen any day now. But it's not here yet.

Once upon a time

We've been holding our breath on VR since before I entered puberty. At malls and fair grounds, you could get a taste of the future by strapping into a monstrous set of gear.

It never really took off, to say nothing of coming into the home.

Placing ourselves into a simulated environment that our eyes and ears will believe is a challenge. It requires tracking the user's motion in space at multiple levels. Not just where the body is moving, but where the head is pointed. More advanced systems might even track your limbs. All of this, historically, has required significant computing power, specialized hardware, and complex software.

But over the last five years, VR has gurgled back into life. I'd call Vive the best early expression of modern VR, but that's not saying much. To make Vive work, you needed:

  • A high end gaming PC with a powerful graphics processor
  • Permanently mounted "lighthouse" devices for tracking your movements in 3D space
  • A heavy, bulky headset tethered to your PC by several cables
  • Big, awkward controllers to track your hand movements

Once you assembled all of this, you were rewarded with an experience that resembled reality as viewed through a screen door. To trick the mind into a 3D experience, a VR rig needs to produce two images: one for each eye.

So you need to be able to drive a lot of pixels in order to make 3D work. This is challenging in two places: computationally, as more detail requires more horsepower, and physically, as pixel density makes display panels like those used in a headset more expensive. In Vive's case, managing these costs  meant a distracting black grid seemingly overlaid on an otherwise plausible visual field.

Really, you were perceiving the gaps between pixels.

So, just to get into VR you were talking about $500 for Vive hardware and another $1500 for a high end gaming PC. In exchange, you got a mediocre picture and occasional headaches.

Literally, headaches. I had to take the thing off sometimes because of nausea and other discomfort.

It wasn't a great value proposition.

That doesn't even get into how technically complicated the first-run experience was. It required so many cables plugged in, so many pieces of software installed, so many interlocking systems to debug. This was an experience only arch nerds could make sense of. It had no chance at mass-market appeal.

But that was five years ago. Today, things work a little differently.

Oculus Quest 2: surprisingly okay

Oculus, meanwhile, has been aggressively pushing away from the tethered, PC-dependent model.

In the case of Quest 2 (hereafter Q2), cameras built into the headset itself determine your motion through space. Cameras track the motion of controllers you hold in your hands, allowing you to interact with virtual menus and environments with surprising accuracy.

This is not Facebook's first attempt at such a self-contained system. Vive and Oculus have both been trying to crack the nut of self-contained VR for several iterations now.

From a hardware perspective, it's important to note that Q2 is merely okay, not excellent. The included straps are terrible, though upgrading to a better mounting system is possible. Adjust the straps wrong and you'll have a splitting headache within minutes. But get them too loose, you'll find your view blurry, and a different sort of headache sets in.

VR is still fiddly.

But far less fiddly than it ever was.

Onboarding for Q2 was far easier than anything possible five years ago. You install an app on your phone, sign into Facebook (ick), and pair with the Q2 hardware. From there, you settle into the headset and follow some prompts.

This is a much more consumer-friendly experience. Anyone with tech savvy, or even just a teenager nearby, will do it with no problem.

All of this sets the table for a simple proposition: a computer tricking your brain into thinking you exist somewhere that isn't real. Q2 can do that reliably and somewhat comfortably. Even the screen door effect is much improved. Unlike early adventures with Vive hardware, Q2 has the resolution to convincingly hide the technical details that drive its experience.

The question is:

So what?

The software is meh

Once you're in virtual reality, what's supposed to keep you there?

Right now, not a lot.

There are some compelling novelties. Beat Saber is a rhythm game that's fun and physically demanding, and probably more interesting than any cardio equipment you'll ever find at the gym.

Google's Tilt Brush, an early entry in the modern VR game, might be one of the more magical creative experiences you'll ever have. With Tilt Brush, you can paint in 3D space using both mundane pigments and with light. Five years on, it remains my favorite way to spend time in VR.

There's other stuff. 3D games, from shooters to puzzle things to a remake of Myst. Facebook would like you to conduct meetings in VR. Altspace, now owned by Microsoft, provides a multi-user environments, and Facebook has a competitor in a closed beta.

This software runs the gamut from meh to okay. But I don't think there's a killer app that's going to inspire fanatical, compulsive engagement with an experience you can only get in VR.

Yet.

Still, the economics of Q2 create a strange situation. At $299, it's compelling enough to be an interesting gift. By comparison to a console, it's a bargain. A PS5 costs $499. Add the television you need to play it, and a console experience edges toward $1000.

Will enough people buy them to trigger the network effects needed to start the next phase? If so:

  • All new venues for social media emerge. The basic experience is already cognitively persuasive enough, and everyone is tired at looking through their friends and loved ones through a screen. The illusion of sharing space despite distance will be compelling, to say nothing of sharing physical experiences. But it only works if there are people there you want to share the space with.
  • A customer base large enough to gamble real money on emerges as well. If you can make money building VR experiences, you might make a metric fuckton of money making the one experience people can't live without.

Facebook, of course, badly wants these outcomes. The challenge is in the IP. Sure, Q2 cheaper than a PS5, but so is a plastic bucket, and neither a bucket nor a Q2 is going to be able to play Spiderman or Final Fantasy.

Unless something changes, Facebook is gambling on novelty and a middling content catalog to move these units.

What about Apple?

Of course, Apple has been sitting this one out.

Remember how VR needs lots and lots of pixels, the better to trick your eyes? The thing about Apple is that they have an unparalleled advantage in energy efficient processors that push loads of pixels. Their portable graphics prowess is the best in the business.

Better graphics efficiency means nicer screens and smaller batteries, making for lighter and more comfortable headgear. Apple has been shipping denser and denser screens on lighter and lighter devices for over a decade.

The thing about Apple, though, is that they don't ship their experiments. They ship when they're convinced they're poised to gobble up the entire high end of a hardware market.

Meanwhile, they've been laying the foundations for augmented reality and social VR:

  • ARKit, Apple's framework for realtime compositing of mixed reality content, has been through years of iterations
  • Apple is two years into ramping up production of miniaturized LiDAR sensors, as used in their Pro-level iPhones and iPads
  • The new SharePlay API allows users in different locations to synchronously enjoy the same content

Most of all, Apple already has thousands of developers using these APIs and trained up in their ecosystem. If they release a new category of hardware, they have both the software infrastructure and the developer base to make a play for that vaunted killer app.

Rumors have said for years that Apple is targeting 2022-2023 for such a device. But who knows when they'll move?

Any day now

Facebook is making lots of noise. They have a mindshare advantage, thanks to close consumer relationships built for 16 years, and their pricing is damned compelling. We'll see how many Oculus units go home this holiday season. Microsoft wants their own crack at the pie, Vive is still out there, and Apple is locked in their wizard tower, up to god knows what.

It's still anyone's game, and so far there's nothing to inspire deep FOMO.

Still, with the hardware firming up like this, a whole new paradigm could kick off any day now. For better or worse.

Keep your eyes peeled, and don't forget your dramamine.

Amazon: bleeding institutional knowledge through attrition

Here's a post from someone in the r/antiwork subreddit detailing their difficulty in getting started in a gig at Amazon:

One hour was spent trying to make the surround sound work for endless power points. Another hour was spent by HR basically gloating about how proud she is about catching people faking reasons for time off. This woman literally was so proud about how she will literally call funeral homes to make sure the person you said died, is in fact actually dead. She was so arrogant about it. It really disgusted me.
Next the safety guy came in and said a few things, only to leave without an explanation. Then they have us log into these iPads. They’re wondering why we can’t. We never received login information to do so. That took another hour. I tried logging in with the info i had for the recruitment website but that didn’t work. They gave up.

The post is really sad: OP needed accommodation for their ADHD, but didn't have a supportive environment to get it, so walked from the job.

All of this is of a piece with other stories we've heard from Amazon: they don't care about attrition, especially at the warehouse level. Using people up is the business model.

But the obvious downside of this is that their institutional knowledge is constantly running out the door. After awhile no one knows how to do the basics of essential tasks like onboarding, so the jobs are miserable for new folks from the very first second.

Hard to imagine that doesn't catch up with them eventually.

9/11 and a Hari Seldon future

It's important to understand the War in Iraq as an imperial snuff film.

You can get away with a lot in America—destroying the financial system, illegal arms dealing, laundering drug money—without earning the lasting ire of our ruling class. America is an empire long ago built on a two-tiered view of human worth.

It's a country that has always treated some of its population as disposable. Which neatly limits your accountability for malfeasance. Consequences are for those other people. Up to a point.

Because of this two-tiered state of affairs, American life is not itself treated as sacred by our culture, nor is civic duty.

But the American Status Quo is another story. Rupturing that has consequences.

While we lost thousands of American lives on September 11th, 2001, we also lost our sense of the status quo. Bankers, politicians and generals spent their day feeling out of control. Literally running for their lives, American elites felt visceral fear as they evacuated their strongholds in the wake of a terrorist attack. The people who were supposed to be safest in our country, the people with the most power, were scrambling.

This is not how the United States is supposed to work.

Bush and his courtiers spent the day in a nightmare of uncertainty, vulnerability, and disconnection. The resulting trauma of that crisis was pumped and massaged into the psyche of the country. In the US, calls for blood were in the media, in the halls of government, in the corner bar.

Somehow, Afghanistan wasn't enough.

Meanwhile, Iraq never had anything to do with 9/11. Didn't, as claimed, have terrifying weapons that could end Our American Way of Life as We Knew It. What it did have was people who bore a passing cultural resemblance to the attackers who shattered our status quo. It had a feeble dictator.

So 18 months later we all watched on cable news while the American Empire made a demonstration of its power. The world's most expensive military made quick work of Iraq's defenses, concluding its invasion in less than one month.

Saddam, humiliated, was yanked out of a hole in the ground nine months after that. Then they killed him.

Truly some street thug shit, sending a message: the US can still deal pain and destruction wherever we want it. For the rest of the world, this was a threat. For US citizens, this was meant to be a reassuring promise.

For the traumatized elite, it was confirmation that they were still in control.

Foundation on TV+ is an intro to imperial power

Vague spoilers within.

One of the gifts of science fiction is its ability to reframe our perception. Spaceships are fun, but they're not really the point. What matters is that, from a new frame of reference, we can imagine old problems fresh. We can discover new points of view, freed from the biases of history and prejudice.

At its best, science fiction is a social simulation laboratory.

In the case of Foundation, the simulator projects an enormous, tactile model of empire.

How does empire work? What are its traits?

Foundation takes all these details and zooms in on them, letting us roam around and examine systems of empire. Imagine a sociological museum filled with exhibits, diagrams and models. By imagining a powerful state that spans an entire galaxy, Foundation lets us really dig into the mechanics of power.

And what is an empire?

Empires are… civic eruptions. They're tangled webs of logistics capacity, resources of all kinds, military power, and self-justifying ideology. Empires can snowball, since having all of these things in combination lets them seize more capacity, more resources, more power. Ideology provides the moral and cultural lubrication needed to enable these actions.

The challenge is stability. All that growth comes at a cost. Administrative overhead, yes, but also the resentments of those on the losing end of encounters with the empire.

Foundation explores the practical, visceral experience of an empire: the brutality of power, the terror of instability and decline. We join Cleon as his Peace is interrupted in a terrorist attack. He responds, much like America, with attacks that do little more than destabilize the game board and slake popular bloodlust.

"You can't play chess with someone who's willing to set the world on fire."

Like America, Cleon lets his subjects watch on TV as the empire enacts revenge upon far-away people who or may not have had anything to do with their crisis.

An imagination toolbox

America is an empire in decline. I walk with the trauma of watching a leviathan crumbling around me.

Logistics capacity sputters. Resources are squandered to fight enemies we don't have. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of lives are snuffed out by a plague—many multiples of those lost on 9/11.

Large swathes of our population are too ignorant to shield themselves from that plague now, even as science provides badly needed, effective protection. Meanwhile, grifters take money for cures that don't work.

We've always had the ability to shut down the covid pandemic within our borders. We've just never bothered to do the work.

There is, everywhere, an air of discontent. The minor burghers who would once bully the poor into low-wage work now lament shortages of people willing to be so oppressed. Labor actions are more and more frequent, as conditions grow so dire that workers must overcome decades of crumbling union power and organize.

Of course, injustice abounds. We see corruption out in the open, we see the innocent oppressed for the color of their skin, we see righteous anger in the streets.

And we see white supremacists trying to overthrow our government.

Meanwhile, basic needs go unmet. US citizens, supposedly the freest people in all the world, can't access medical care without risking financial calamity. Wages have stagnated. We've abandoned updating the federal minimum wage. Homelessness is a soaring problem, and though we have the resources to solve it, like covid, we just can't be bothered.

I don't know what's next for this place. Not knowing is scary and tiring.

Foundation enters with metaphors, postulates and scenarios to help me imagine the long term consequences of what I see around me. All of it is rendered in exquisite, emotional, human detail. So far, we've touched:

  • The civic conflict between science and theology
  • Terrorism
  • Colonialism and the tribute paid to tyrants
  • Use of mathematics, engineering and science to enhance the imperial machine
  • The use of media narratives to support the whims of the political elite
  • Gerontocracy and the consequences of long-term elite crisis
  • Civil unrest as an outcome of the dimming light of the state
  • Imperial meddling in the political process of client states

Every detail of the writing is thoughtful, but every other detail is just as attentive. The production design brings us exquisitely rendered costumes, architecture, vehicles and props. A poignant, utterly distinctive score from Bear McCreary (Battlestar Galactica) sews everything together into perfect emotional resonance.

The cast is, of course, unbeatable.

Lou Llobel and Jared Harris are giving these roles everything they've got.

I'm haunted and captivated by what I've seen so far. I chew on the stories between viewings, and find so much integrity in the web of cause and effect they describe.

The scale of the story works. It's a successful epic that feels both adult and nourishing. Where Game of Thrones hit us with brutality to be provocative, Foundation finds more subtle ways of taking our maturity seriously—without pulling punches on the brutality of empire.

It's not necessarily feel-good. But it's a story of how to recognize, survive and mitigate a difficult moment in history. It's a story about putting a floor on darkness and chaos. It's a tribute to our power to stand up to tyrants and chart a new course.

I don't know about you, but I need a little of that right now.