(NB: this was written a little while ago – just rediscovered it in my ‘posts to, well, post’ pile 🙂 )
With my VR system now set up and ready it was time to start exploring the limitless world that VR promises. We are still in the infancy of VR, with mass adoption still a way off, and so the number of really good VR titles, games, experiences on offer is still relatively small. There are some that I knew to be must-haves, from Google Tiltbrush, the 3D drawing environment, to WeVR’s theBlu, an amazing visual and sensorial experience that helps to really convey the magic of VR. Others include The Lab, a fun series of mini experiences and games that help to introduce VR users to the principles of what is possible, and indeed normal, in VR. For example, one of the simplest experiences sees you standing atop a high hill – you could, for example, be somewhere in the Sierra Nevada range – complete with soaring eagles and incredible vistas off into the distance. The next thing you become aware of is a small, robotic dog running around your feet. My instinctive response was to crouch down, gesture for robo-pooch to approach me, which he/ she duly did and then to stroke and rub it’s belly as it rolled over in exactly the same way a real-world dog would. Whilst I knew I was holding a Vive controller and could see that I was, the experience was such that I felt I was genuinely stroking the dog and so had much the same emotional response with a natural smile spreading across my face. The next thing that dawned on me was that there was a small pile of sticks close by. Whilst not immediately obvious or signposted, thoughts of “what if” popped into my head and so I went over and leant over to pick up a stick. Lo and behold that was exactly what I was able to do and within seconds I was playing fetch with my new robotic dog atop a glorious hilltop. Magical! Simple but magical!
Other experiences in The Lab included entering a strange, creepy shop run by a stooped elf and home to all manner of odd artifacts and creatures, including one that looked like something from David Bowie’s film, The Labyrinth. Even though it clearly wasn’t real, seeing this strange creature react to me, my movements and follow my hands as I moved a light source around it was incredibly powerful. It is this reactivity of elements in VR to your position and actions that really adds to the immersive power of the medium. To an onlooker I was simply stood in a room, mask on face and waving a set of controllers about in mid-air but as far as I was concerned I was exploring and interacting with a creature that simply could not exist in the real world but in a manner as though it was physically there. That is a deeply engaging experience and one that conjures up all sorts of imaginative applications.
Another simple yet profound experience within The Lab was the robot repair lab, where I was invited to pull open a malfunctioning robot in a bid to repair it. Whilst I was never going to be able to fix the machine – the experience is geared towards a dramatic close – the experience of being able to physically expand the machine so that it’s component parts were levitated in mid-air allowing me to manipulate, examine and otherwise interact with them was highly instructive as to what the educational applications of VR are. I know that there are already VR programmes that allow users to pull apart and explore the human body in a similar fashion, and it does not take a leap of imagination to extrapolate that to veterinary educational use. I have visions of being able to digitally recreate the animal barn at the vet school in Southwell Street, Bristol, where I trained, and being able to step inside and learn all levels of anatomy on a variety of species through direct interaction with digital renditions of them. There would be no limits on the number of times I could visit, no time constraints and the ability to be able to relate the internal anatomy to the external topography of my subjects by simply expanding and contracting them with the use of my hands would, I am certain, reinforce learning outcomes in a way that books and other real-world modes of instruction would never be able to match.
In terms of pure fun, the Minecrafty, arcade-esque archery experience that saw me take on the perspective of a lone archer atop a castle tower and charged with defending the castle’s gates with my bow and arrow was pure gold! Another physical, fun experience was provided by Audioshield. This simple game involves picking an audio track, with a number pre-loaded, and seqentially blocking a series of light-meteors as they hurtle towards you from an origin in the distance. With three different colours: blue, which you have to block exclusively with the blue shield being held in one hand; orange, which you block with the opposite shield; and purple, which comes sporadically and is blocked by bringing both hands together to create a single, purple shield, the experience is a high-octane, clubby, aerobic workout, which left me flushed with the glow of being both physically exerted and mentally stimulated and entertained. It easily feels like VR’s Tetris – simple yet highly addictive! One of my housemates, whose first time it was experiencing VR, innocently selected the ‘elite’ setting and within a minute was dancing about like a man possessed as he fended off volley after volley of high velocity light-strikes that were fired towards him in a torrent of dance-beat driven insanity. It was as entertaining watching him from the real world as it was for him playing the game himself.
One of the striking takeouts from these initial VR experiences was the fact that VR involves interacting with and manipulating data in very different manners to that in which we are accustomed with non-spatial, screen-based computing. For example, instead of clicking on an icon to load up and ‘enter’ an experince in The Lab, I simply ‘walked around’ the room, browsing the various options as though I were in a shop and then to engage with the one I wanted all I had to do was pick up the sphere representing it and place it to my face, as though I were peering into it. Simple. Effective. Intuitive. It is exactly what one would do were they browsing the same thing in the real world. This entirely new, yet naturalistic approach to interface design and interaction is exciting as spatial computing heralds a totally new, yet at the same time instinctively familiar, way of interfacing with our digital tools. This will help to further blur the lines between our digital and physical world lives such that computing augments our abilities and experiences in a manner that does not seem alien. Novel and magical at first, yes, but once we are all familiar with this technology it will feel bizarre that we ever lived without it.
What do a Wookie, a Rubix Cube, clowns and Toy Story soldiers all have in common? The answer is that they were all in attendance at this year’s epic Halloween party, hosted by the incredibly cute Count Chompula, but organised by his two housemates. The idea for the party came off the back of the intention to host a housewarming once it was decided that I would be moving in to villa 20, an idea that had to be put on temporary hold whilst each of us either traveled or hosted guests. So when the idea was refloated and it was realised that Halloween was fast approaching, the decision was an easy one: the housewarming would double as a Halloween Party. With date set, theme decided and the fact that Halloween conveniently fell this year on a Friday, preparations started in earnest, with a Facebook event established, invites fired out and diaries urged to be circled by all.
Planning & Prep
I love a project and with so much to consider in planning an epic party I knew this was going to a lot of fun, as indeed it turned out to be. The main issues to consider were the obvious ones, such as food, drink, decorations and music. However, with no intention of doing anything too simple, other additional categories were soon added to my dedicated Evernote page, including ‘Entertainment/ Games,’ of which I soon discovered there were many fun options.
The beauty of a Halloween party is that pretty much anything goes – the only limitation is imagination and, of course, budget, which is a shame because if the latter were not a consideration then I suspect we could have gone even bigger than we did.
Food was an easy decision, with a BBQ being the obvious choice. Consulting with the bona fide Braii King, Emile, suggestions were made for what meat to order and from where, and once ordered from the excellent Springbok Butchery in Abu Dhabi, Emile and Adri duly went above and beyond helpful by offering to collect everything as they were due to be in the capitol on Friday anyway. With Adri and her sister, Alae, visiting from South Africa, on incredible salad and mouthwatering bread duty, and Emile tending to the BBQ like the true master that he is, the catering was faultless and I am eternally grateful to the Dream Team for making sure we were all fed like the Ghoulish Kings and Queens that we were on the night. Lesson learned: always defer to an expert in matters of recognised inexperience. I know little about putting on an amazing BBQ but I know a couple who does.
Drinks were similarly straightforward, the big decision simply being how much and what selection to purchase. A Thursday evening dash to Baracuda’s, which must have been looking decidedly bare by the time Michaela and Jim left, put our drinks offerings at perfect, with the additional safety of requesting that guests “Bring a Bottle,” a standard party rule, ensuring that glasses would not go empty come party night. The matter of how to chill and keep said beverages cool was solved by the creative purchase and use of a rubber dinghy, into which various cool boxes and buckets were loaded, ice being packed in to start the chilling a few hours before party kick-off. Discovering the existence of the Modern Ice Factory in Al Quoz was a true revelation, with the fact that they are not only open 24/7 but also charge prices for ice that are a fraction of those asked for by the main supermarkets, being an added bonus. The process was also super easy: drive up, tell them how much ice you want, pay them relatively little money for what ends up being a relatively large amount of ice, and off you go. Job done! Remembering to place out glasses (plastic for added safety and cleanup ease), straws, sliced lemon and lime, a bin into which caps and empties could wind up and, of course, a bottle opener or two are also oft-overlooked essentials for keeping the ‘bar’ operating smoothly. Lesson learned: order more ice. Always order more than you initially think you’ll need!
Entertainment and decoration was where I had the most fun and where there was certainly some creative bleed into one another. We are very fortunate to have a really cool villa that has a front veranda, with seating looking out over a front garden, complete with amazing looking foliage, a lovely front gate and relatively high wicker trellising above the wall, offering privacy without feeling hemmed in. As such, the bulk of our decorating efforts were focused on this outdoors space, where we figured most of the party action would be centred owing to Dubai’s enviably amazing climate at this blessed time of the year.
Oil lanterns were lashed up either side of the gates and a royal red set of curtains set across said gate, offering an incredibly dramatic portal from the outside world into our rarified land of Halloween fun. A similar set of thick, deep red curtains were hoisted into place between the two large palm trees that sit either side of the driveway, thus separating the somewhat boring driveway area from the thriving buzz of the garden and served as the best place to stage one of my favourite ideas of the night: a video projection.
I had thought early in the brainstorming about how cool it would be to have classic Halloween movies projected somewhere as a visual backdrop, with a separate music playlist serving as the usual soundtrack to the party proper. After seeing the same idea mentioned on a website I knew I was onto something and so became determined to have such a feature at the the party. There were things that needed to happen: first of all, I needed a projector and a screen, both of which I actually ended up buying myself after failed attempts to source them from other channels. I love movies and so knew I would use both again, even imagining how fun it would be to make use of the system over the winter by hosting outside movie screenings for friends and possibly even a fundraiser for my IronVet challenge. As such, it wasn’t too big a deal to sink the investment in a top of the range projector system. The second aspect of the plan was to source some suitable movies. This is where having incredibly resourceful and generous friends comes into play, as between Beth, Rob, Paul and Heidi, enough incredible films were acquired to keep the projector buzzing for days! In the end the most appropriate and visually effective films to screen were the animated ones, such as The Corpse Bride, as they acted as fantastic visuals for the party, without being too gory or macabre for party goers, including the one young child who was present (son of our neighbours Oliver and Elodie). The wind had threatened to put the projection plans in danger on party night itself as they were strong enough to prevent use of the standalone screen, meaning that I had to resort to the idea of projecting onto a white sheet pinned to the red curtains. As a simple initial test before placing the sheet up I trailed the projector using just the curtains and was instantly struck by how incredibly effective the result was. The image was clear and with the red backdrop acquired a really cool, Halloween appropriate hue to it, whilst also just taking some of the brightness out of the image, preventing it from potentially being too distracting to party goers. The fact that the curtains were, on numerous occasions, buffeted and billowed by the wind blowing from behind them, thus causing the projected images to distort, simply added to the spooky effect. In effect, what initially looked to be an annoying problem (the wind) actually led to the outcome being even better than initially planned.
On the entertainment front, I had also researched fun options for party games, as everyone loves a good party game! The plethora of themed games meant that some whittling down of options was required and in the end I decided that having three that guests could get involved in would be fun:
Pop the Pumpkin, whereby guests pop orange balloons arranged in the shape of a giant pumpkin and full of sweets and confetti.
Donuts on a String, which involves stringing up a whole load of sugar donuts for guests to race each other at eating without using their hands.
Apple Bobbing, an absolute classic.
The other activity that I figured could be fun was to have a ‘Spooky Art’ station, with a large doodling pad or blank canvas and coloured pens so that party goers could discover their inner artists. As it turned out, in spite of having all the required supplies for the games, time ran away with us and there just wasn’t enough of it to allow the games to be set up. A shame, as I think they would have been really fun and made for some really classic photo moments, but ultimately there was already a lot going on and perhaps the addition of games would have taken things a little overboard. Lesson learned: plan but don’t get too fixated on an idea. If it doesn’t pan out then the world still moves on. Also, occasionally what can initially look to be bad fortune often turns out to be the opposite.
Music is one of the bedrocks of a great party and getting it right is important. Now I am no DJ and I had thought about asking one or two of our guests to bring their iPods with playlists compiled. However, I figured that this should remain a back-up as opposed to the firm plan, so I consulted some online playlist suggestions, looked through my own collection for both Halloween-themed (even if loosely) tracks, as well as just simple crowd pleasers, and between a few iTunes purchases of very niche tracks, such as The Monster Mash, which I must say I didn’t previously own, and my own tracks, a playlist of over 140 tracks quickly came into being. In other words: plenty of music! Although I had initially been a little anxious about whether our ‘sound system’ would be big enough, comprising just two small speakers and sub-woofer, it quickly became apparent via a simple plug-and-play test that it could easily kick out some serious decibels, sufficient to keep the party well soundtracked. Inevitably, at a later stage in the evening someone changed the music anyway and I think we ended up seeing the night out to some German techno(?!), which definitely saw the smoke machine and strobe light in their element!
A last minute addition to the party entertainment mix, and something that was simply born out of having a spare sheet of card handy was to make a large ‘photo frame’ that people could hold for pictures. I remember seeing something similar at festivals before and really liked the quirkiness of what is ultimately just a very simple idea.
Cobwebs, glowsticks, fake graves, a strobe, hanging skeletons and spookily illuminated shrouds made for an eerily beautiful garden setting, and with a similar theme extended into the house itself, the setting was perfect for what was ultimately a magical night. As mentioned before, the beauty of Halloween is that anything goes and so coupling fake cobwebs over plants with glowsticks hanging from branches, to give off an eery glow, didn’t look wrong. Creating cheeky little themed signs for the bathrooms helped to signpost the amenities whilst keeping everything themed, and a genius move by Michaela to purchase a Psycho-inspired shower curtain for my bathroom, coupled with ghoulish toilet decorations and bloody handprints over the walls, made sure that even a usually mundane trip to the loo was sure to be anything but. If we’d not run out of decorating time then there would also have been a whole army of glowing ghosts dotted around the garden and house, with the plan being to make them by sticking glowsticks in white inflated balloons, attaching them to poles, use white bin bags as the ‘cover’ and stick black eyes on them. I reckon they would have looked awesome, especially as the breeze on party night would have helped move the ghosts in a really eerie manner. Lesson learned: let your imagination go wild when it comes to decorations. Halloween is a time for ‘anything goes.’
No Halloween party is complete without Jack-O-Lanterns and we ended up with a large number of incredibly varied examples, which really topped off the aesthetics perfectly. I personally sourced a few pumpkins from the better-than-fairly-priced Dubai Fruit and Vegetable Market, and invited friends to take charge of carving them, bringing them along to the party. The result was impressive as not only did it free me up to focus on the huge number of other party related tasks at hand, but also added an excitement at seeing just how talented and creative everyone could be. We had cute to grizzly, small to huge, all in perfect line with Halloween itself. Lesson learned: involve other people in creating a great party atmosphere and believe in the creative potential of others.
The second big idea, or rather ideas, I had for atmosphere and, I guess decoration of sorts, was to have a smoke machine. After Jim had said that he might have one at home I instantly imagined a party with one. So when it transpired that unfortunately he did not in fact have a machine I set out to solve the problem. After all, the party now HAD to have a smoke machine. Renting one seemed to be the most logical and, based on Google searches of options in Dubai, the only way of getting hold of a machine. The one company that seemed to have one quoted me a very steep price and after researching the retail cost of small machines – sufficient for a party of our size – came to the conclusion that paying someone that much money just to rent was out of the question. I did find one option on Dubizzle, our local classifieds, and agreed to contact the vendor the following morning to go and view and hopefully purchase the brand new machine he had advertised. After not being able to then contact him the next day I wracked my brain for solutions, asking in the big party store in town, where I was informed that they were not available in spite of several people asking after them. Determined not to give up – this is Dubai after all, where surely something as simple as a smoke machine must be possible to source – I asked in a music store, more out of a frustrated stab at some lateral thinking than really expecting a result. Lo and behold though they had the answer. I needed to head up to Deira (of course!) and specifically to the various music stores around Fish Roundabout, as they stocked such items. The fact that these mythical stores had no websites and thus way of contacting them before making the blind trek over simply meant that a leap of faith had to be made and so I hopped on the metro up to Deira. The very first store I walked into, a tiny little single room with speakers, the odd mixer and theatre lights on show, said that they did indeed have not just one machine but three. A choice?! Wow! I ended up going for a 1500W machine and a bottle of ‘fake smoke,’ all for the incredibly reasonable price of 345 AED, with a discount negotiated off the back of offering to distribute some of the vendor’s cards to a couple of the party stores who said that apparently there were no smoke machines available. So there we had it. A smoke machine was now to be a feature and another lesson learned: never underestimate the true power of simply asking questions and listening. It is often the most unexpected sources that provide the most helpful answers. Having the machine set up indoors did add a fun twist to the party and making use of the Dr Evil from Austin Powers style mini remote control provided real fun as we were able to fire off jets of smoke at comically opportune moments, of which there were many.
On the subject of smoke, another very Halloween appropriate effect is to make use of dry ice, which is what theatres and nightclubs use to create that amazing fog that gives an incredibly ethereal atmosphere. This was one of the more out there ideas on the party wish list but as mentioned before, I do love a challenge and so how to actually acquire said dry ice and what to do with it made for a fun mini project. Dry ice is actually frozen carbon dioxide gas, and in it’s solid form is extremely cold, at about -78 degrees Celcius. As such, it very rapidly sublimes, which means turns from a solid to a gas, at about -56 degrees Celcius, which is what we see as the flowing gas cloud that rolls over container edges and along the floor – a very cool (no pun intended) spooky effect. Being so extremely cold, it can be dangerous to handle safely and store, touching it with bare skin being a very bad idea and lasts for very little time meaning that the delay between sourcing and using needs to be kept short. After consulting with one of our nurses, whose other half manages nightclubs in Dubai, it turned out that he could sell me a small amount of the dry ice that one of the clubs had ordered for their own Halloween night, and so for the princely sum of just 100AED I swung by their house after cycling on Friday morning, took delivery of a small ice pack containing the much anticipated pellets of dry ice and drove back home mindful of keeping the car window open to prevent the CO2 levels in the car building up too quickly, something that apparently can happen and has made people feel feint or pass out according to online reports. Once home I quickly transferred the pack to another insulating pack before placing it in the freezer, although keeping it cold enough to prevent sublimation with anything other than an industrial freezer was fanciful. Still, it did last until the evening and after some initial testing, the time to roll out the fog came when it was proposed that we could serve up shots, using my surfboard as a serving tray and placing the bottle in a bucket complete with the dry ice (thus effectively chilling it as well). Hot water was duly added and instant awesomeness was the result! Billowing thick fog streamed over the bucket edges and achieved that amazing Halloween effect that we have all seen on TV. The 5kg that I had did not last very long and so it would be cool to acquire a larger quantity next time and think of really creative ways to exploit what is an amazing visual effect. Lesson learned: just because something seems like it shouldn’t be attainable or is too complex, it is probably not. Look into it, ask questions and who knows, you may be surprised by the end result.
The day of the party came around so quickly but in spite of having to still decorate the place, it was thought that the whole of Friday would be more than enough time. How wrong an assumption that was! I personally started the day super early with the usual Friday morning bike ride, with no option to bail last minute on account of being the one to have actually called this week’s ride. After hopping off the bike, and the compulsory post-ride coffee stop, I was helped out by my friend and fellow Wacky Racer, James, who kindly lent me the use of some tools to knock up a protective box for the projector and to cut out some realistic looking shark bite marks from my mini-surfboard, part of my own costume. Once that was done, it was time to dash round to Beth’s to collect some of the movies to screen, before picking up the dry ice from Aurianne, and finally home to start the preparation. The plan had been to work with Michaela to get the place looking awesome, pick up any last minute items, such as ice and snacks, before kicking back for a couple of hours, grabbing some Z’s and then costuming up at leisure with a couple of drinks before welcoming the first of the guests at 8pm.
What actually happened was that time literally flew away, and the final touches were still being put in place as the first guests arrived. It was at this point that it became clear the plans for the games were going to have to be put on ice for this year, and with the very last essential touches in place, I handed over hosting duties to Michaela, who had changed into her amazing costume, whilst I disappeared to get bloodied up as a shark bite victim. Costume on, shit-tip of a bedroom sealed off (I placed little ‘Chompy’s Private Quarters’ signs on both Michaela and my rooms, as it was just nice to know that these spaces could be kept private, more so for if we had to provide Chompy with a hiding place to escape from his adoring fans). As much as it would have been nice to show friends my room, as this would have been the first time they had seen my new place, the sheer mad cap craziness of the previous week had manifested itself in utter disarray, meaning that my room resembled something akin to a junk store that had just been hit by a tornado. No one needed to see that!
P. A. R. T. Why? Cos I gotta! Words uttered by the genius Jim Carrey in The Mask and with those words ringing in my head as I donned my own mask of sorts, it was time to enjoy what we had been building up to for the best part of the last two weeks.
The steady stream of guests arriving through the dramatically framed and draping curtains, complete with flaming lanterns, quickly turned from an initial trickle to a steady flow, with amazing costume after amazing costume soon filling our front garden, and the sound of excited chatter and glasses clinking providing the ultimate soundtrack to the night.
Coupled with the amazing smell of expertly cooked food emanating from the BBQ, the drinks flowed, the chat was easy and the whole evening went perfectly. So much so that before anyone even realised, it was that time when things naturally start to wind down, guests filter away into the night and the last of the party faithful squeeze the final value out of what was generally agreed to have been a top night. Count Chompula himself even made a brief appearance, although sans costume, as he had been a little freaked out by the number of attendees such that he spent most of the night hiding away. Still, he came out of his shell later and rather enjoyed doing some last minute hoovering up of tasty morsels of BBQ goodness that were laying around for easy picking. I’m sure if he could have spoken and had apposable thumbs he’d have decreed the night a success and given it a resounding thumbs up.
Needless to say there was a reasonable amount of clean-up, with my bathroom still host to bloody hand prints at the time of writing. The fact that I had to work the following day, including getting my shift wrong and turning up way too early, did mean that I dodged the bulk of the clearing up. The fun thing was that the spider webs and curtains stayed in place for the best part of the following week and even now we still have a lovely pair of Royal Red curtains framing the entrance from the driveway to the front garden. Clearing up after a party is, on balance, not really such an onerous task as it mostly involves binning stuff or cramming things into fridges or cupboards. Super easy. What I certainly would give greater amounts of time for next time is the initial set-up, as that took way longer than anticipated!