Diablo 3 Reaper of Souls Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls: Malthael’s Crazed Fall From Grace.

Sometimes the things that happen after a review is penned are far more important than those that came before it. Diablo 3  is a prime example of this as whilst my initial impressions of the game were nothing short of amazement the tale of my experience after that is much more mixed. The challenge progression felt great, for a while, but once I hit Inferno the game shifted from being a conquerable challenge to an exercise in frustration. The auction house, initially a great source to give your character a quick boost, soon became the bane of my existance with all the items I needed far beyond my reach and the amount of griding required to get them far too high. It wasn’t long before I lost interest, alongside many of my long time Diablo fan friends. Blizzard was keenly aware of this however and the release of Diablo 3′s first expansion pack, Reaper of Souls, sets out to correct many of the missteps of its predecessor.

Diablo 3 Reaper of Souls Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

With the defeat of Diablo at the top of the crystal arch humanity was once again safe from his terror. However his essence was still captured in the black soulstone, unable to be destroyed even by the angels of heaven. Tyrael, now the mortal Aspect of Wisdom, has once again sought out the Horadrim to secret away the soulstone so that none may attempt to use it for their own purposes. However Malthael, the Archangel of Wisdom who had been lost ever since the destruction of the World Stone, had tracked the soulstone’s location. Whatever his plans are for it are not known but one thing is for sure, you, the Nephalem, are the only one who can stop him.

As you’d expect from an expansion pack Reaper of Souls adds a little more graphical flair to Blizzards’ flagship dungeon crawler although it’s nothing major like an overhaul of the graphics engine. The environments do feel like they have a lot more detail in them and the use of lighting and environmental effects is a lot more liberal, especially in the new areas. Still Diablo 3 is a game that’s meant to be fast paced so much of it is designed to run well without stutters or slow downs and with Blizzard’s reputation of being the low poly kings this ensures that the visuals are still on par with other current generation titles.

Diablo 3 Reaper of Souls Review Screenshot Wallpaper Fall of Westmarch

There have been some major changes to the core game play of Diablo 3 in Reaper of Souls, the vast majority of which have been aimed directly at addressing concerns that the community raised. The auction house is gone (both of it’s incarnations), the loot system revamped in a massive update called Loot 2.0 and the end game changed significantly adding in a new mode to replace the previous boss run meta that was the norm since Diablo 2. Additionally all the classes have had significant work done on their skills in order to make more of them viable for both end game loot farming as well as during your initial levelling experience. Suffice to say that whilst Reaper of Souls might only bring an additional act’s worth of content it adds an incredible amount of replayability, enough so that this feels like the game Blizzard should have released 2 years ago.

I actually jumped back onto Diablo 3 prior to the release of Reaper of Souls in order to try out the new Loot 2.0 system. Suffice to say I was very impressed as it only took me a couple hours to move from my less-than-stellar auction house purchased Inferno gear to a new set that was much more suited to my playstyle. It also didn’t take long for me to pick up a couple legendaries that completely changed the way my character was built, tempting me to try out builds that would have otherwise been completely unviable. Indeed even without those pieces of gear the various builds I experimented with all felt viable, a highly refreshing change to what I had to do previously.

Diablo 3 Reaper of Souls Review Screenshot Wallpaper Uzrael

Levels came thick and fast with my monk being able to reach 70 after a few nights worth of play. Indeed the levelling was so fast that I had pretty much reached level 70 before facing Malthael, only requiring a slight detour for the last push. The same can be said for Paragon levels that you’ll continue to amass after you reach max level, especially if you’re doing bounties or rifts often. The extra levels don’t add too much to the classes although the addition of another passive skill slot at max level does open up a lot of opportunities for builds that might not have been viable previously. The new monk skill, epiphany, is quite interesting although my current gear selection isn’t as effective with it as other builds. Whilst this might be disappointing to some (typically the new skills added in tend to be overpowered) I feel it’s a show of good design as the new skill adds variation whilst not being so powerful that its use is required.

The new way of running end game content is an obvious attempt to shift the current meta of boss runs for items to a more varied approach, incorporating a number of different types of runs that will result in a certain number of legendaries per hour. The first one is called Adventure Mode and is unlocked after completing the campaign through once. In this mode you’re given a series of bounties, usually things like “Clear out all enemies in the Den of Evil” or “Kill this act boss”, and for each of the ones you complete you’ll receive some XP and gold. Complete all of them within one act and you’ll receive a cache from Tyrael that contains a number of items, gems and health pots. This is in addition to any items that might drop along the way which will usually fill your inventory once for every 2 bounties completed. There’s also Nephalem Rifts which are randomly generated dungeons that require you kill a number of enemies before a boss will spawn and the Infernal Machines which pit you against super versions of act minibosses with a chance to drop legendary crafting materials.

Diablo 3 Reaper of Souls Review Screenshot Wallpaper Massacre

The addition of the mystic, along with the minor tweaks to the crafting system, are welcome changes. The mystic allows you to reroll one stat on a piece of gear to another stat, making more pieces of gear viable. The costs of doing so are a little on the extreme side, especially for legendaries which all require a disenchanted legendary, but it can be worth it when you’re trying to min/max your way to victory. The limitation of only rerolling one stat is a little frustrating sometimes as you’ll often come across gear that’s got 2 junk stats on it but is otherwise fine but I can understand why this limitation is put in place. I’d probably complain less if crafting was actually worthwhile as currently the costs seem to heavily outweigh the chances of creating something that you’d use.

For the most part all of this adds up to a very enjoyable experience however I’d be lying if I said it didn’t start to feel a little grindy after a certain point. Sure my character is decked out in about half legendaries, some of them quite amazing, but the quest for items that improve my character has become somewhat arduous. I see as many legendaries drop as the next guy but even with my small collection I already have duplicates (quite irritating when you consider you can’t equip 2 of the same legendary weapon) and I’ve yet to see a solid upgrade in the last few days of play. It’s hard to fault Reaper of Souls specifically for this, it’s just the uncaring wrath of the random number generator, but grinding without the guaranteed reward of an upgrade at the end of it does sap a lot of the fun out of the experience. Now that I’ve said that I’ll probably do one run and get 3 upgrades in a row and all will be right in the world.

Diablo 3 Reaper of Souls Review Screenshot Wallpaper Malthael

Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls is the game Blizzard should have released 2 years ago as it has managed to capture the enduring attention of so many of my Diablo fan friends where the original failed to do so. The revamps to the talent system, loot and addition of the mystic all add up to make the experience far more enjoyable and rewarding, removing some of the reliance on good rolls to give you the stats you require. Adventure mode is the end game that many were seeking originally, something that provides a bit more flavour to the traditional boss runs of yore. Of course this doesn’t absolve you from the grind completely and, if I’m honest, this will likely be the thing that drives me away from playing Reaper of Souls. Still it’s enough that I feel that Diablo 3 will resurface as one of the LAN games of choice as it’s a lot of fun to blast through a couple bounties or rifts with a close bunch of friends.

Rating: 9.25/10

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls is available on PC right now for  $49.95. Total play time was approximately 15 hours reaching Paragon level 56.

The Strange Auditory World of Cochlear Implants.

It’s fascinating to think about how unique our perception of the world is. We like to think that everyone experiences the world in the same way we do but we all have subtle differences that influences the way we perceive the world. I for instance have partial red-green colorblindness which affects my ability to distinguish between darker shades of certain colours. The difference for me is subtle but for others who suffer from more pronounced colorblindness the different can be extremely drastic, completely changing how they view the world.

Similarly for those who are deaf or hearing impaired the world would seem like a very different place to them, bereft of all the noises and sounds we think are commonplace. For some there are treatment options available, like cochlear implants, and for the longest time I thought that the sounds that users of those devices were the same as the ones you and I can hear. As it turns out their auditory world could not be more different and the simulation below shows just how different it is:

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I had read a little while ago that music sounded completely alien to those who had received cochlear implants but actually hearing what it might sound like was actually quite shocking. The improvements that came through with the extra channels were impressive but I had a hard time recognizing the elements of the music, even after I heard the original clip. I understand that the main function of cochlear implants isn’t music (they are primarily aimed at speech) but the differences were so stark that it was, to be honest, quite shocking.

Thankfully it does seem like there are vast improvements being made in this area, to the point where users claim that music is enjoyable for them. Hopefully with time we’ll be able to improve even further so one day the auditory world of those with cochlear implants won’t be much different from ours.

Orion_with_ATV_SM

NASA’s Ambitious Asteroid Capture Mission.

Whilst the debate among the space enthusiast community still rages about what the next target for human exploration should be those with the capability seem to have already made a decision: we’re going to Mars. NASA has committed to getting astronauts there some time around 2030 and SpaceX’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, has long held the dream that he’d be retiring on Mars. There’s also the Mars One which, to my surprise, is still going and garnering attention worldwide even here in my home country. The lack of a return mission to the Moon does raise some questions about the technology that will be used as we don’t have any craft capable of going past low earth orbit, not since the Apollo program ended almost half a century ago.

Orion_with_ATV_SMNASA has been working on a new crew capsule for some time now, dubbed the Orion. Initially this was part of the planned 2020 mission to return to the Moon however the majority of that was scrapped in favour of going directly to Mars. The capsule and the revised launch system were retained however and will form the basis of NASA’s future manned space missions. However if the Moon is no longer the goal for this craft and it’s end goal will be long duration flight there’s a lot of testing that needs to be done before we send one of them to Mars. Interestingly NASA has gone for an incredibly ambitious mission to put the Orion’s long duration flight capabilities to the test: an asteroid capture and analysis mission.

There’s currently two mission profiles being considered, both of them seeming like something straight out of science fiction. The first (and I’ll guess least likely of the two) is a robotic craft will make its way to a large asteroid, break a chunk of it off and then bring it back into orbit around the moon. The second would be a straight up asteroid capture with the craft grabbing an asteroid in its entirety (it would be small, about 7m or so in diameter) and, again, putting it into lunar orbit. Then once the asteroid is in a stable orbit NASA will send crew to it in an Orion capsule to study it, testing out some of the long duration capabilities as well as other rudimentary space activities like EVAs.

Such a mission is actually quite feasible (at least the latter profile) from a technical perspective. Pretty much all the technology required to capture an asteroid of that size is available today and there’s already 6 candidate asteroids identified. The main issue I see with it is time as just getting to the asteroid is planned to take at least 4 years with another 2 to 6 required for it to make the trip back. That means if the mission were to launch today it could potentially take up to 2024 before it returns to us which doesn’t leave a lot of time for NASA to test out the Orion capsule on it, This could be sped up considerably by changing it’s launch profile to include a second stage rocket to boost it rather than relying on the ion thrusters to achieve escape velocity but that would come with additional expense. There’s also the possibility of foregoing the robotic part of this mission completely and just sending humans although that poses just as many challenges as going straight to mars.

I’m glad to see NASA making a return to missions like these, ones that truly push the envelop of humanity’s space capabilities. It’s going to be interesting to see how the mission develops as there’s lots of different variables that need to be sorted out, some that will change the mission dramatically. Still the thought of us being able to capture an asteroid, bring it into lunar orbit and then send humans to study it is just an incredible thing to think about and I truly hope NASA sees this one through to fruition.

 

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Pony pony: Pony?

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Dragon Age Inquisition

Bioware’s Mea Culpa: The Next Dragon Age.

It’s been 2 years since I reviewed Mass Effect 3 and whilst the burning need I once had to spew forth vitriol has long subsided there’s still a part of me that can’t let go just how badly they handled the way the game ended. I’ve been told several times over that the subsequent DLCs made significant inroads to improving the situation however, for me, the damage was done and I felt it was better to put the series to rest in my mind. Overall it was still a wonderful game experience, one I do not regret playing at all, and it was my fervent hope that Bioware (and the game developer community at large) took the criticism to heart and would do everything to avoid such a situation again.

Turns out, they just might.

Dragon Age InquisitionI managed to get into the Bioware panel at PAX Australia last year and it was interesting to see what the panelists, most of whom were writers and producers for the Mass Effect series, had to say for themselves. It was clear that the room was much of the same mind as I was regarding the ending, much to the chagrin of the person who was asking the question, and it was somewhat disappointing to hear them write off the reaction as mostly “you can’t please everybody”. It seemed then that the community’s desire for Bioware to take the criticism in stride had been met with deaf ears even if the DLC response had been somewhat positive. However recent news, whilst not been a direct apology from Bioware, might be their way of admitting a mea culpa on this part by allowing the player to heavily influence their next title’s ending.

News comes through today that Dragon Age: Inquisition will heavily incorporate the player’s choices into the ending. Interestingly the span of choices isn’t simply from a couple of distinct endings it will in fact include minor tweaks dependent on your choices in the game (and previous ones too), major changes depending on choices made within the game (of which there are 40 or so) and a handful of completely unique endings. If memory serves me Dragon Age wasn’t exactly the heavily player driven narrative like Mass Effect was, although the heavy variation in the origin stories was amazing, so the inclusion of so many different factors does seem like a reaction to the community’s reception of Mass Effect 3.

This was the kind of variation that players were expecting for Mass Effect 3. So much of the game was predicated on choices that you made, many of which had lasting consequences that shaped the world to be uniquely your own. To have all that choice boiled down to a modifier on the RGB spectrum felt like all those choices were essentially meaningless, stripping any feeling of agency you may have built up through each of the titles. With Dragon Age: Inquisition Bioware might be on the right path to restoring some of the community’s faith in them delivering a player sculpted narrative, one that feels unique to them. Whilst I, as always, try to avoid the hype for things like this news of this nature does make me excited for what Bioware has in store.

 

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Deus Ex: The Fall: Some Things are Better Left Unported.

The number of games that were mobile exclusives that make the transition to another platform, whether that’s PC or consoles, is vanishingly small. It’s obvious to see why this is as many of the concepts used in mobile gaming like, touch input and interface design, simply don’t translate readily between those platforms. Platform transition issues have always been a problem for developers, as was shown with the consolization of PC games, but the problem space has been well mapped out over the course of the past decade. Mobile games still struggle with this unfortunately and whilst I really wanted to like Deus Ex: The Fall it was a glaring example of the struggles that developers face when doing mobile to PC transitions.,

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You are Ben Saxon, an ex-military agent who served with the Belltower corporation during the Australian civil war. Your career with them was ultimately cut short when bad intel sent you straight into the middle of war zone, your entire team lost when your transport was shot down. However in the midst of all the chaos you managed to meet with someone, Jarron Namir, who recruits you into his special operations team called The Tyrants. With your new augs and all the resources you could ever want at your disposal the future looks good, that is until you uncover the truth about why you were sent into Australia.

Deus Ex: The Fall is a game based on the Unity engine and in that regard it’s actually quite impressive. The graphics are comparable to Deus Ex: Invisible War with a few lighting and rendering tricks helping it to feel a little more modern. Compared to Human Revolution though, a game that was released 3 years ago, it looks like a bad rip off. On a smaller screen, say a tablet or your phone, they’d look a little bit more impressive but on a PC it just feels streets behind everything else. This would mean that if you were craving a taste of the new Deus Ex universe and couldn’t run Human Revolution, for some reason, then it’d be a good place to start.

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Original Fall

The Fall essentially a cut down version of Human Revolution in almost every sense, from the skill trees to the weapons to the environments that you’ll be playing in. It’s very clear that everything about The Fall was designed with the mobile market in mind with most of the levels and missions broken down into chunks that can be completed in 5 to 15 minutes. The core game mechanics are still there with the stealth functioning largely the same and the gun combat comparable but, again, modified for the mobile interface. Whilst there’s definitely been a non-zero amount of work done on the transition from mobile to PC the unfortunate reality is that The Fall still contains numerous glitches, bugs and weird quirks on game play mechanics that heavily mar the overall experience.

Human Revolution really got the stealth mechanic nailed down tight and it was nice to see that the majority of mechanics had made their way into The Fall. Most of the levels have numerous different pathways snaking through them allowing you to sneak up on nearly every enemy and take them out silently. However there’s a discrepancy between what you can see in first person mode and what the NPCs can “see”, allowing them to sometimes detect you through walls when, from your point of view, there’s nothing that can be seen. Once you’re aware of this it’s not too hard to work around however it’s a glaring reminder of the limitations of mobile as a gaming platform as I’ve never had this kind of issue with other stealth games on PC.

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Skill Tree

Combat is extremely clunky which, when coupled with the extremely rudimentary AI, makes it unchallenging and ultimately not satisfying. The recoil mechanic functions by zooming your view in and moving it up slightly, something which is horrifically jarring and doesn’t really add any challenge. Now I played Human Revolution as a primary stealth character and I played The Fall in much the same way however the times when I felt like it’d be fun to run and gun instead were stopped dead in the tracks because of how bad the mechanics are. It’s for that reason that I never really ventured into the buy screen as I could get past every section without using a single weapon.

The talent trees contain familiar upgrades including all the hacking and stealth upgrades from Human Revolution. They pretty much all function pretty much the same as they did previously with the main difference being just how quickly you’ll be able to unlock most of them. Much Human Revolution The Fall seems to be optimized for hacker/stealth players as the majority of things are hidden behind hackable panels and in long air ducts.I have no doubt that if you took the time to thoroughly investigate all of the levels you’d be able to unlock every ability without too much trouble as I managed to get ~60% of them before I got bored and just bypassed everything.

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Graphics

As I alluded to earlier The Fall suffers from many issues due to its transition from the mobile version of Unity to the PC. The first issue I noticed was that sounds just refused to play which also meant the subtitles didn’t stay up either. I traced this back to my headphones (a pair of Logitech G35s) as once I unplugged them everything seemed to work fine. It wasn’t limited to that either as the hacking screen would simply refuse to be moved around which was something of a necessity considering how limited the zoom was. I’m pretty sure this is due to the way you’d handle input on mobile (with DragStart and DragEnd events) which doesn’t directly translate to how PCs with mice work (MouseClick even and then track pointer movement). There were also some rendering issues apparent in a couple levels which wasn’t game breaking but was rather annoying.

The story was semi-interesting although it was so simplistic that it was hard to get into it. There are some familiar faces that appear in the previous games which I thought would be a cool way to give some more backstory on them. However they’re really only there to show their faces before the real meat of the game continues so it just feels like a tease to those who enjoyed the story of Human Revolution. Probably the worst part about it is the huge, glaring TO BE CONTINUED at the end which means seems to indicate that this is going to be an episodic adventure although we’re fast approaching a year since its initial release with no more content in sight.

Deus Ex The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Stealth

Deus Ex: The Fall is yet another unfortunate example of how mobile-first games simply don’t translate well into the PC world. It feels like the same amount of time and effort could have been dedicated to implement this as a DLC for Human Revolution, something which I think would’ve seen this story done a lot more justice than what it was on the mobile platform. I may be singing a different tune if I had played this through on my phone but the fact is this was made available through Steam as a game for the PC. In that regard it’s hard to not call it as it is, a bad port that needed a lot more work to even be mediocre.

Rating: 4/10

Deus Ex: The Fall is available on Android, iOS and PC right now for $10.49, $7.49 and $9.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time with 57% of the achievements unlocked including the pacifist one even though I killed multiple people.

The Amazing Speed of Cracks in Glass.

We’ve all been there at one stage in our lives, one minute we’re standing next to a perfectly fine piece of transparent silica (commonly referred to as glass) and the next we’re faced with a crack which seemingly came out of no where. Whilst we’re often able to see the events leading up to the eventuality the actual mechanism of a crack appearing appears to be instantaneous. Every driver who’s been on a gravel road and had the unfortunate happen can attest to this and whilst it might be of little comfort the process of that line appearing is actually quite intriguing. However you’re not going to be able to see it without anything but highly specialized equipment, something that can recording millions of frames per second.

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That video is shot at a staggering 10 million fps which is why the small ball appears to be hanging motionless in mid air for an eternity before the cracks in the glass appear. By comparison the cracks themselves appear to snake out from the point of impact with blazing speed, reaching the outside of the pane in an incredibly short span of time. This is why cracks in glass appear to come out of no where as the speed at which they move is so fast that it’s imperceptible to the human eye, moving at several thousand kilometers per hour. This is just for plain glass plates as well and those cracks can propagate even faster if you mold the glass in a special way.

A Prince Rupert’s Drop is an amazing example of this. They’re a curious thing to behold, resembling a tadpole, and are created by dropping molten glass into a bucket of water. The bulbous end is surprisingly durable, able to withstand punishment that’d shatter any other type of glass (like hitting it with a hammer) but if the wispy tail sustains even the slightest dent the entire structure will rupture violently. So much energy is released in the reaction that the fracture actually propagates at 1.9km/s which you can witness in gorgeous slow motion here.

I’ve often though of getting a couple to keep around the house as a conversation piece but I’d fear they wouldn’t last the weekend with me wanting to see them explode.

OculusVR Headset Developer Preview 2

What’s the Deal with Facebook Acquiring Oculus VR?

Companies buying other companies is usually nothing to get excited about. Typically it’s a big incumbent player buying up a small company that’s managed to out-innovate them in a particular market segment so instead of losing market share the incumbent chooses to acquire them. Other times it’s done in order to funnel the customer base onto the core product that the incumbent is known for much like Google did with many of its acquisitions like Android. Still every so often a company will seemingly go out of its way to acquire another that honestly doesn’t seem to fit and we’re all left wondering what the hell they’re thinking. Facebook has done this today acquiring the virtual reality pioneer OculusVR.

OculusVR Headset Developer Preview 2Facebook and OculusVR could not be more different, one being  the biggest social network in the world that’s got 1.23 billion active users per month and the other being a small company with only 50 employees focusing on developing virtual reality technology. Whilst the long winded PR speech from Zuckerberg seems to indicate that they’re somehow invested in making the Oculus Rift the new way of experiencing the world it’s clear that Facebook is going to be running it as it’s own little company, much like Instagram and WhatsApp before it. With the recent rumours of Facebook looking to purchase drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace, another company that doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Facebook brand, it begs the question: what’s Facebook’s plan here?

Most of the previous high profile acquisitions aligned directly with Facebook’s weaknesses, namely how badly they were doing in the mobile space. Instagram fit the bill perfectly in this regard as they managed to grow a massive mobile-only social network that rivalled Facebook’s own mobile client for usage. Whilst many questioned whether paying $1 billion for a company that hadn’t generated a single dollar was worth it for them it seems like Facebook got some value out of it as their mobile experience has improved drastically since then. WhatsApp seemed to be in a similar vein although the high cost of acquisition (even though this one had some revenue to back it up) makes it much more questionable than the Instagram purchase. Still for both of them it was filling in a gap that Facebook had, OculusVR doesn’t do that.

From my perspective it seems like Facebook is looking to diversify its portfolio and the only reason I can think of to justify that is their core business, the Facebook social network, is starting to suffer. I can’t really find any hard evidence to justify this but it does seem like the business community feels that Facebook is starting to lose its younger audience (teens specifically) to messenger apps. Acquiring WhatsApp goes some way to alleviate this but acquiring the most popular app every couple years isn’t a sustainable business model. Instead it looks like they might be looking to recreate the early Google environment, one that spawned multiple other lines of business that weren’t directly related to their core business.

This was definitely a successful model for Google however most of the products and acquisitions they made at a similar stage to Facebook were centred around directing people back to their core products (search and advertising). Most of the moonshot ideas, whilst showing great initial results, have yet to become actual lines of business for them with the two most notable ones, Glass and the self-driving car, still in the developmental or early adopter phase. Facebook’s acquisition of OculusVR doesn’t really fit into this paradigm however with OculusVR likely going to be the first to market with a proper virtual reality headset it might just be a large bet that this market segment will take off.

Honestly it’s hard to see what Facebook’s endgame is here, both for OculusVR and themselves as a company. I think Facebook will stay true to their word about keeping OculusVR independent but I have no clue how they’ll draw on the IP and talent their to better themselves. Suffice to say not everyone is of the same opinion and this is something that Facebook and OculusVR are going to have to manage carefully lest the years of goodwill they’ve built up be dashed in a single movement. I won’t go as far to say that I’m excited to see what these too will do together but I’ll definitely be watching with a keen interest.

 

ESA IXV Full Scale Prototype

ESA’s New Spacecraft Shows Engineers are Obsessed with Tiny Shuttles.

There’s no denying that the Space Shuttle was an unique design being the only spacecraft that was capable aerodynamic flight after reentry. That capability, initially born out of military requirements for one-orbit trips that required significant downrange flight, came at a high cost in both financial and complexity terms dashing any hopes it had of being the revolutionary gateway space it was intended to be. A lot of the designs and engineering were sound though and so it should come as little surprise to see elements of it popping up in other, more modern spacecraft designs. The most recent of those (to come to my attention at least) is the European Space Agency’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, a curious little craft that could be Europe’s ticket to delivering much more than dry cargo to space.

ESA IXV Full Scale PrototypeWhilst this might not be an almost exact replica like the X-37B is it’s hard to deny that the IXV bears a lot of the characteristics that many of us associated with the Space Shuttle. The rounded nose, blackened bottom, white top and sleek profile are all very reminisicent of that iconic design but that’s where the similarities end. The IXV is a tiny little craft weighing not a lot more than your typical car and lacking the giant wings that allowed the Shuttle to fly so far. This doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of flight however as the entire craft is a lifting body, capable of generating lift comparable to a winged aircraft. Steering is accomplished 2 little paddles attached to the back enabling the IXV to keep its thermal protective layer facing the right direction upon reentry. For now the IXV is a completely robotic craft with little room to spare save for a few on board experiments.

Much like the X-37B the IXV is being designed as a test bed for the technologies that the ESA wants to use in upcoming craft for future missions. Primarily this relates to its lifting body profile and the little flaps it uses for attitude control, things which have a very sound theoretical basis but haven’t seen many real world applications. If all goes according to plan the IXV will be making its maiden flight in October this year, rocketing up to the same altitude as the International Space Station, nearly completing an orbit and then descending back down to earth. Whilst it’s design would make you think it’d then be landing at an air strip this model will actually end up in the Pacific ocean, using its aerodynamic capabilities to guide it to a smaller region than you could typically achieve otherwise. It also lacks any landing gear to speak of, relying instead on parachutes to cushion its final stages of descent.

Future craft based on the IXV platform won’t be your typical cargo carrying ISS ferries however as the ESA is looking to adapt the platform to be an orbital platform, much like the Shuttle was early on in its life. The downrange capability is something that a lot of space fairing nations currently lack with most relying on Russian craft or pinning their hopes on the capabilities of the up and coming private space industry. This opens up a lot of opportunities for scientists to conduct experiments that might be cost prohibitive to complete on the ISS or even ones that might be considered to be too dangerous. There doesn’t appear to be any intention to make an IXV variant that will carry humans into space however, although there’s already numerous lifting body craft in various stages of production that are aiming to have that capability.

It’s going to be interesting to see where the ESA takes the IXV platform as it definitely fills a niche that’s currently not serviced particularly well. Should they be able to transform the IXV from a prototype craft into a full production vehicle within 3 years that would be mightily impressive but I have the feeling that’s a best case scenario, something which is rare when designing new craft. Still it’s an interesting craft and I’m very excited to see what missions it will end up flying.

Moto360__Metal_RGB

Motorola 360: Defy One Trend, Follow The Other.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of the current generation of smartwatches as I feel that, in terms of functionality, they simply don’t provide enough for me to justify purchasing one. Sure they’re pretty neat bits of technology but geek lust can only drive me so far as should I buy one and only end up using it as a watch then I’ll likely feel disappointed. When I thought about this more I figured it was a little strange as I’m already a watch wearer and so you’d think that if it came down to that then, realistically, I was getting my money’s worth anyway. After seeing the Motorola 360 though I think I know why all of the other smartwatches are so lacklustre.

Moto360__Metal_RGBFor the uninitiated last week saw the debut of Android Wear, a new version of the Android phone operating system that’s focused specifically on wearable technology. Right now it’s focused at developers with current applications that produce notifications with preview allowing developers to see how they’ll look on future devices. Interestingly enough it supports both the traditional smartwatch screen (square/rectangle) along with a more traditional round face. Considering every smartwatch that I’ve heard of up until this point had a square face I was wondering who would be create such a beast and it’s Motorola, something I probably should’ve seen coming.

Smartwatches have always gone for the rectangular style screen for 2 reasons. The first is that’s what screen manufacturers make and getting something that isn’t standard like that ends up costing quite a considerable amount. In order to make them affordable enough for people to want to buy them this kind of precludes doing anything particularly fancy so square faces it was. Secondly doing content layouts for square screens is hard enough already and doesn’t translate well to the rounded format. Motorola’s 360, in combination with Android Wear, makes this non-standard fantasy a reality but the question then becomes, why?

As it turns out Motorola has realised that smartwatches, whilst a popular niche in their own right, are focusing on one demographic: technophiles. The 360 on the other hand isn’t targeted at them specifically instead it’s aimed more at “people who wear watches” hence the round design (which apparently is 80% of all watch sales worldwide, who knew). Indeed the 360 looks like it’d be right at home among the chunkier watch offerings that have become popular of late with the added side benefit of having additional functionality built into it. The Pebble Steel made some headroads in this regard although it’s hard to deny that the 360 is a much more striking beast.

So I guess what was needed for me to overcome my initial skepticism about smartwatches wasn’t so much the functionality, although I’d admit I still dream of getting an all in one, it was more of design. It will be interesting to see if the round watch face gamble pays off for Motorola since they’ll be the first to market with their device and it’ll likely be the standard by which other Android Wear products are judged. I’ll hold off on saying Motorola has my money for this one until I see one or two in the wild but it’s been quite interesting to see my opinion changed due to good design.

Maybe I am an Apple fan boy after all. *shudder*