culture technology

Oculus Rift and virtual reality

Oculus Rift - early development kit hardware
Oculus Rift – early development kit hardware

You’re sure you’ve seen it before. Maybe an ad in a computer magazine in the nineties? Maybe a music video? Surely a movie somewhere – Johnny Mnemonic? Max Headroom? One of those things. The Oculus Rift, its presence reinforced by the foreboding name (”a rift? What’s coming out of the rift? I don’t want to fall into the rift!”), is an artifact that is both from a shared recollection of a future that never was and a herald of a future that is, in fact, right here.

We have thought about “cyberspace” and virtual realities since the late eighties and early nineties, wondering how it would work, what it would be like, and what would be the benefits. Having test-driven the development kit edition of the soon to be launched virtual reality device, I’m both convinced and intrigued.

I am convinced because it works. You put on that helmet and your brain immediately just accepts it: this is how the world now works. When you hear you coworkers talking around you, they are disembodied demon voices, coming from wrong angles. It’s exciting and unsettling and undeniably new.

You may have heard about the low resolution, but it still surprises you how low it really is. In a technical sense, this is the most rudimentary, primitive virtual world you’ve seen since the original Half-Life. It’s also blurry, which may have been due to the set being adjusted for other people’s eyes. But in a minute or so it doesn’t matter. It turns out humans are really good at adapting to a changing sensory input.

The way the virtual world reacts correctly to your head movements is crucial to the immersion – I’m hesitant to call it an illusion, because in all the ways that matter in the moment, it is a reality you’re dealing with, albeit it only exists in your brain. When nothing you can see is in conflict with what you’re observing through your body, it doesn’t take any sort of conscious effort to slip into the experience. You forget about your real body as your mind adapts to the most pressing sensory feedback.

The level of immersion is total. There are issues with HUD graphics and movement – the way your body moves differently to the way you’re used to navigating first-person 3D spaces with a controller throws your inner ear out of whack, resulting in nausea. But once developers figure out best practices, it is very easy to see that this is going to be the preferred way of playing most first-person games, from shooters to simulations.

What I’m intrigued by is how much of an effect is the social aspect of interacting with screens going to have. When you’re immersed in the Oculus Rift experience, especially with headphones on, there is no way to get your attention, and indeed it is very disorienting if you’re interrupted while immersed. People are used to playing games on their TVs and monitors, but still in the company of others. I’m not sure I would feel entirely comfortable being that isolated, even if alone at home. Letting completely go of your awareness of your real-world surroundings can be scary.

Any misgivings aside, there is no doubt a device like this is going to have a profound effect on immersive experiences and achieve wide-spread success. It’s going to be interesting to see if it’s going to find mainstream success, though.

culture technology Xbox 360

Rocksmith (Xbox 360)

Rocksmith Xbox 360 PAL cover
Rocksmith. The guitar is what it’s all about.

Rocksmith’s appeal is entirely up to your background. Mine follows: when Rock Band came out in Europe in January 2008, I first picked up a plastic guitar controller. (I’ve had four since.) Two years ago I picked up a real guitar, all thanks to the game. I’ve been noodling with it once a week. It’s just not enough practice to really progress in the art, but I do have the basics of picking and chords and tuning down. I realize that I need way more practice, and it’s just not happening. I would need either friends to play with or lessons to motivate myself. Rocksmith sounded like just the thing – and the cheapest option, to boot! (“Friends” option would also mean getting a practice space.) It’s been a frustrating year, waiting for it to come out in Europe.

Rocksmith is basically Guitar Hero played with a real instrument. The skills you build can be transferred as-is to the real world. Just plug into an amp instead of your console (or PC).

The first and lasting revelation comes right in the first loading screen. You’re plugged in and during loading you can play whatever. The game and your AV system works as a  virtual amp. Just with the default settings – which you can mess around with much as you please – you sound great. The tools do matter. The game is doing some magic to mask your noise (unwanted sound you’re producing), but really just the right effects, guitar sound and amplifier make you sound so much better than through your likely cheap home amp, it motivates you to no end. I’ve been thinking about getting a virtual amp and right now I see no reason to.

Moving on to the game proper, it works like all music games do. You’re presented with songs to master and you tackle them one by one, playing virtual gigs to virtual venues. Here lie the game’s problems – it probably would be better off not calling itself a game. Games are supposed to be rewarding. Learning to play an instrument is rewarding… in the long term, but in the short term it demands patience. The way the game constantly ups the difficulty as you’re making progress, all the time keeping right out of reach of your abilities, is great for learning, but makes for poor gameplay. When you’re missing notes, you’re not “making mistakes” or losing points, you’re learning. The game does not reprimand you for mistakes, rather just politely pointing you at the right way, rather like a teacher would. It’s only a problem of perception.

The mini-games are designed to teach you basic skills like positioning. Can’t say how long I’ll play them, simple as they are, but as warm-ups they work. I’m more confident in some of my core skills already (finding the blasted 10th fret).

The way the game makes you learn everything through playing actual songs at real speeds does wonders to your sense of rhythm. It forces you to start reading with your fingers, because at real speeds you just don’t have the time to check both your hands. Compared to how I’ve been training by myself, this is nothing short of a revolution. Playing on your own, it’s so easy to play just a tad slower to keep up.

As a teaching aid, Rocksmith has just one problem and another potential one. The real problem is that the game’s Guitar Hero-y way of displaying the songs you play does not correspond to any real world way of noting music. You won’t be able to read songs based on your time with the game. That’s something you need to learn the hard way.

The potential problem is that maybe you’re not keen on the game’s selection of mostly classic rock. I’m fine with it – I don’t actually care all that much what I’m playing, as long as I’m making music. There’s plenty more options available on the download store, too. It’s nowhere near Rock Band levels of choice, but it’s choice.

The way you start from single notes, upping the amount of strings and notes as you go, moving on to chords and eventually combinations, allows you to practice at a level that’s most useful to you. Even the single note versions do sounds like music, when played correctly.

There’s been talk of lag. Can’t say it’s a problem. I did switch out the HDMI for component cables as instructed and used an analogue cable to my stereo. Apparently the loading times grate some folks, too. Again, can’t say it’s a problem. Maybe if this were a party game, but to me it’s something you fire up instead of grabbing a sheaf of tabs and plugging into my amp. You can play through the virtual amp as it’s loading. The user interface is a bit of a laugh, especially compared to Rock Band 3, but it gets the job done while looking cool enough.

Likely if you already can play a number of songs at full speed, Rocksmith won’t be anything beyond a way to master a few more songs to you. It’s been made for guys like me, who just need a little more kick to keep playing. If you were to pick up your first guitar with the game, I think you’d do okay. The game does cover the basics of tuning and holding a pick and so forth.

All told, Rocksmith is everything I wanted it to be, and more. I am psyched to get back on the guitar tonight.

roleplaying tabletop games technology

Power2ool: Better than paper

Dyson Airblade
Dyson Airblade: better than paper, scary as hell. Why'd they have to call a thing you insert your hands into a "blade" of any sort is beyond me

I started planning the D&D game I ran over the last weekend some years ago in a Moleskine notebook while on a cruise boat to Sweden. Since then I’ve iterated on the plan and written it up in Google Docs and latest in Notepad as I was without internet access during my summer roadtrip. Making my final plans for the game a week ago, I was frustrated with my tools. Running a nonlinear RPG campaign is just not compatible with the format of a text document, which is linear.

To get around this problem I have in the past tried using mindmapping software. I like Freemind the best. But they have not been designed with running roleplaying games in mind. I have generally resorted to printing out my material and using the hardcopies plus pens, but it’s not ideal.

Coming across Power2ool with my half-prepared Notepad documents in hand, I could immediately tell it was going to be good. But until actually running the game with no printouts, just using Power2ool, I had no idea just how good.

Power2ool gives you a set of workspaces. Within a workspace, you have a blank canvas which you can populate with note cards. They can be any size and you can arrange them however you wish. You can write text on these cards. It is just that simple. This functionality alone would make it superior to text processing software as I’m able to easily use my whole screenspace, minimize the need for scrolling and adapt to changing priorities during a game.

Then there’s the ability to create cards, much like the ones you have in your D&D books. I found this very useful as I could easily create custom magic items, print them out and hand them out to my players with a look that matches their other stuff.

The monster card creation is awesome. Copying monster information from a book to have it available without page-flipping couldn’t be quicker – you still do it manually, but the pre-formatted cards and auto-completion help a lot.

Only it actually can be even quicker, because Power2ool is able to log into a DDI subscription and pull monster information and more straight from the Compendium, inserting the data you know you’re going to need straight into your workspace. Even though I could manage without a DDI subscription, Power2ool makes it much more tentative.

The user interface is smooth enough and very importantly, it’s pleasing to look at and use. It comes with a nice dice roller, too, if you’re son inclined.

It could be more refined still – you really want to be able to move cards between workspaces – but even as-is, I wouldn’t want to go back to paper. As long as Power2ool is available, I can see myself plotting my D&D adventures on it.

It was only weeks ago when I thought I wouldn’t need a laptop at my game table – now it’s hard to see going back to being without one. In my around 20 years of gamemastering, this was the first time ever I haven’t had any printed out or hand-written notes at the table, and I didn’t miss them one bit. Even the combat notes (initiative, HP, special conditions) were done in water-soluble ink on the battlemat. I’m saving on time and space and money and trees! Plus I’d need the computer anyway to manage my playlist during the game.

Power2ool is currently free to use. I hope Wizards never shuts it down, although they easily could – as it is, it’s helping me play D&D and makes me want to spend more money.


Sennheiser CX-300 II Precision

Sennheiser logo
I guess I'm something of a fan

My previous pair of Sennheisers CX-300s lasted me almost three years of heavy daily use, mangling in pockets and travel. I think that’s pretty amazing, especially since it’s also my first pair of headphones not put aside because of snapped wires resulting in patchy output in around one year. They still work, it’s just the rubber that’s worn through in many places, the white parts looking decidedly filthy, and an overall drop in audio quality, attributable to general fatigue in components and crap I can’t clean in the ear pieces, I guess.

It was a no-brainer to go for another pair like it. Successors to the at this point somewhat legendary CX-300s, the CX-300 II Precision is just as good, except a little bit better. The wire’s Y junction is reinforced with hard rubber. The black color should take more heavy use before looking ratty. And that’s about it, really. If the life expectancy is as good as with the previous pair, at 40€, this is going to run me around 1€/month. (If I didn’t live in Finland, I could get them for less than 15€ online.)

I briefly considered a model with better sound insulation, but decided against it. While the insulation is good, I like that loud noise comes through, because for the most part I use my headphones while out and about and potentially in danger in traffic. The insulation is still good enough that it blocks out TV, conversation, commute noise and jet engine hum inside the cabin without high volumes.

Super comfortable, very affordable, great sound, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t upgrade your MP3 player’s or phone’s pack-ins with these, unless you’re after even better audio quality and ready to spend upwards of 60€ for it.

PS3 technology Xbox 360

Migration woes

Due to the number of people having to change their Xbox 360s, I am surprised the topic of migrating to a new console hasn’t been talked about more. I’ve been through it a couple of times, but only this latest migration has really pumped up my blood pressure.

As it happens, I’ve moved to a new console on both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 lately and it feels fitting to compare the process. I’ve had enough grief from both that I can’t really say which one is the lesser evil, but overall, I’m a little less angry at Microsoft.

The actual process itself is not terribly taxing. You plug in either a Microsoft-branded memory module or for the PS3, any USB memory stick, and copy or move your saved games to that. Then you boot up your new console, sign in to your existing profile and move or copy over your saved games. Resume being entertained.

If only each step of the way wasn’t riddled with tears. In a surprise move, the copying (or moving) of saved games is broken on both platforms. Shouldn’t be terribly difficult, no? Well, yes, if some of the saved games weren’t locked. In a game of virtual Russian roulette, I managed to dodge every bullet I would’ve actually cared about, so this only annoys me. On the PS3, Motor Storm: Pacific Rift, Lost Planet and parts (!) of the Devil May Cry 4 saved games wouldn’t move. On the Xbox 360, same situation, with the additional twist that some of the saved games could only be moved, not copied. Considering the reliability of the whole process, this did not leave me terribly amused. I didn’t make notes of the guilty 360 titles.

Once you have moved your saved games over, thus far everything is working alright. Except the one title I’ve put over some 30 hours into lately, Fallout 3 on the PS3. It does not let me save any of the moved games once I load them up.

To add insult to injury, I started up a new game of Fallout 3, which does let me save the game, to find out that every time I should get a Trophy, it informs me (with a cling) that “You did not earn a Trophy”. Well, thank you. (No, I have not received any Fallout 3 Trophies before.) I haven’t been this aggravated in a while, feels like goddamn PC gaming all over again.

Migrating the profile and in the PS3’s case, the separate Playstation Network profile, was hassle-free. I would have appreciated some user input and information when Xbox Live downloaded all of my small (I think sub 50 MB) XBLA titles while migrating, as this did take an hour or so. Of course it left me in the dark regarding which titles I still have to download manually.

Not that any of that did me any good when I hauled the Xbox 360 to a Rock Band party, only to discover that none of my paid for and downloaded songs work when I’m not connected to Live. I did use the XBLA ownership transfer tool, but either it didn’t work or it doesn’t apply to the Rock Band DLC.

(Edit: Using the transfer tool (which is not easy to find) again, it appears that all of my content now works. I had to re-download all of it, but luckily it only downloaded the licenses from Live, not the content itself.)

It’s clearly a process both console manufacturers have neglected to really work on and something which could leave a sour taste in the mouth for a long while, especially for people who need to go this numerous times, as is likely the case with Xbox 360 owners.

So what’s the new hardware like? Worth all this troble? I moved from a launch phase 60 GB PS3 to the current 80 GB model, bundled with Little Big Planet, and from a launch phase Xbox 360 Premium to the current Pro.

On the Playstation front, I do like the Dual Shock 3 compared to the rumble-less Sixaxis. Even Motor Storm feels like something, now, and I’m looking forward to playing Sega Rally as God intended. The console seems even quieter than before, but the hard drive makes plenty of noise compared to the practically soundless old one. I mourn the loss of two USB ports, but it’s not really an issue. I had the occasional use for the now missing memory card readers. I expected them to at least hang on to their own Memory Stick format. I have a separate PS2 Slim and the support was buggy anyway, so the loss of backwards compatibility does not bother me.

The Xbox 360 change got me a triple-size hard drive, from 20 GB to 60 GB, allowing me to actually install games on the HDD. This is a great improvement, as it completely eliminates the DVD roar. The DVD noise does not sound improved at all, but at least it’s a less frequent invasion of your ears. The power brick seems smaller and it comes with narrower cables, as I’d expect with the supposedly much reduced power consumption.

All told, I’m all for the change, but I could do without the grief, especially since these seem to be a failure of processes on the platform owners’ part.

DS PS3 PSN PSP technology Xbox 360

Summer pursuits

I’ve been busy with renovating the apartment, going for more than a week without a functioning computer, not checking my RSS feeds for over two weeks. Despite the exhaustion, gaming has been going on.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots (PS3)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from MGS4, probably because I skipped MGS3, despite remaining a staunch fan of the first two games. I didn’t know what to expect, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because right from the second it begins, MGS4 works very hard at breaking your expectations until you give in and just take it as it comes. I did not buy into the hype at all and had read very little of the game beforehand, but my god – Kojima has outdone himself in every level.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, but if you’re over-sensitive to such things, just skip to the next paragraph. The game is full of inspired, marvelous moments. The section where you replay your insertation to Shadow Moses island from the original game is just genius, blurring the lines between yourself now and a decade a go, between consoles now and two generations ago, between control schemes, between your expectations of a videogame now and then. The re-staged finest moments (locations, setups, boss fights, feelings…) from the previous games are used masterfully, bypassing the worry that it would feel like backtracking. The way your original bewilderment upon first witnessing the Metal Gear Rex is used in the cathartic, epic exit from Shadow Moses just blew me away. I can’t resist this kind of playing to my heart.

There are a lot of very long cutscenes. For the most part they’re executed very well. The game is a whole, not something that’s “padded out” with CGI. The mission briefings are far too long, however, and the first meeting with Drebin the gun launderer is just way too long and boring. But all told, of my about 18 hours with the game so far, I’ve spent perhaps a couple of full-length movies’ worth of time just watching the story play out, and I don’t mind. It often spins your expectations and blurs the lines between gameplay and cutscene. The mix-up is handled much better than previously, usually giving the player plenty of time to explore the gameplay. Codec discussions are pretty rare and certainly never jarring like in MGS2.

Speaking of gameplay, they’ve finally figured out how to control Solid Snake. I’m sure it can still be a bit much for a newcomer, but you can now have actual gunfights in the game, effortlessly switching between third and first person. Indeed, it’s often possible to just shoot your way through, if you’re so inclined. Even the camera plays nice.

Metal Gear Online (PS3)

Considering the near-unplayable control schemes of Metal Gears past, I was not looking forward to online Metal Gear action. After the ridiculously long and complex process of getting your free online MG passes (whatever they call them), the game proved to be rather engaging and accomplished. I neglected to complete the story mode of MGS4 on my vacation due to playing this too much. I am left wanting some sense of progression, á la Call Of Duty 4 or Battlefield, though. A suitably tactical and slow-moving affair, it looks like it’s going to become a steady component of the PlayStation Network game. It offers a lot of possibilities and maintains a distinct Metal Gear flavor, despite remaining accessible. The kind of MG humor that’s in it sets it apart. You can’t beat human catapults in an apparently serious military setup.

I understand that they’re going to support this barebones start with downloadable maps and whatnot, and let’s just say that I hope they’re ready for deployment – what’s here is good, but it’s woefully short on quantity.

Ridge Racer 6 (Xbox 360)

I have not played Ridge Racer before, I’m ashamed to admit. Being an OutRun fanboy, I felt right at home with the on-rails handling model, although this is definitely an acquired taste. They don’t get more arcadey than this. After my first session with the game, I felt very underwhelmed with the cool, laid-back presentation and Namco insider humor. After a couple of hours it really grew on me and now I can’t wait to get back to the “World Xplorer”. This single-player mode where you complete races and uncover a map of sorts while doing it is proving to be very addictive. I’m not crazy on the music and many of the car designs aren’t really to my taste, but nevertheless, there’s something about this 60 frames per second smooth ride that beckons me. It’s just so very relaxing, even when you’re trying the same race for the twentieth time, before realising that you just need to unlock a faster car to stand a chance.

Guitar Hero On Tour (DS)

When I first heard about this instalment of the Guitar Hero franchise, I took it for a joke. When I actually saw it in my hand, I just thought that it wouldn’t work. The problem is, it does, but it could have been so much more. The add-on to your Nintendo DS works fine. You plug it in and presto – you have four fret buttons on your DS, just like what you have on your guitar controllers. There’s one button less, because your frethand is also supporting the DS and you can’t move it. The guitar pick shaped stylus is excellent. Strumming on the touch pad works fine. Activating Star Power is achieved by shouting or blowing into the microphone or hitting just about any of the DS’s face buttons. (Blowing or shouting works best.) With the functionality in check, the problem lies with presentation.

The game does a good job of replicating the look and feel of the main series. However, the dark 3D graphics do not sit well on the relatively tiny screen of the DS. I have zero interest in modifying my character, because I can’t really see her at any stage, much less her instruments. Constrained to the small size, the 3D models of the characters are utterly charmless. Most of the time, I can’t see anything going on apart from the actual note track, especially since the DS is shaking around with the fretting and strumming.

The game could have been improved a lot by adopting a brighter, less serious style. What with the fewer frets and the feel of playing a fake guitar on the DS, a “jamming” or backstage approach would’ve been more at home instead of the miniature version of rockstardom that’s on offer. Now it feels like a lesser substitute for the main series, which is a shame.

Echochrome (PSP)

The black and white, Escher-inspired, “what you see is what you get, despite what your brain thinks is there” puzzler feels like it might be a cool game. As it stands, there are a couple of problems with it. For one, the basic controls don’t quite work. It can be far too difficult to spin the view into a working angle, even if you know what you want to achieve, even if you keep the “snap” button pressed at all times. Then there’s the unpredictability of the design – sometimes what you see is not what you get, and this basically breaks the game when it happens. Finally, the basic structure of the game is not rewarding and I find it hard to get excited about beating another level. All this said, a noble effort and I trust to come back to it every once in a while.

Rock Band (Xbox 360)

We’ve played a lot more of Rock Band with my wife. I’ve completed the guitar solo tour, we’re pretty far in a guitar and bass powered band world tour and I’ve dabbled in the singing solo tour. The game is still great and I haven’t even really gotten into the drums yet. Having played some more with the Rock Band Stratocaster controller, it just doesn’t work as well as the Guitar Hero III wireless Les Pauls, even if the effects switch is fun to play with at times.

PlayStation Portable online

I’ve mucked around with the PSP quite a bit, using it for my internet needs when I couldn’t hook up a computer. I also like the fact that since it’s hard to type on the thing, you’ll mostly just browse stuff, not getting too involved – perfect for a holiday. I played some games, as well, getting frustrated with the (presumably) final fight of the otherwise excellent Killzone: Liberation and getting closer to finishing God Of War: Chains Of Olympus, which is still rock solid.

PlayStation 3 online

When I absolutely needed to type during my vacation, I used a USB keyboard plugged into the PS3. The web browsing on the PS3 works just fine and all I missed was support for my Scandinavian keyboard layout. I had to switch to a new wireless box and had zero problems with my PS3 setup – completely effortless, just the way it should be. (My Xbox 360 still won’t talk to my computer.)

What I continue to loathe about the online enabled PlayStation is the updating and installing. I’d be playing on the PC if I wanted to spend time installing games. The time it takes to update the PS3 is ridiculous and the bloody thing is updating itself every time I turn it on (which hasn’t been very often, not until MGS4). I’m not sure how Microsoft does it, but for some reason the Xbox 360 updates are never this bothersome. Granted, it’s usually just a couple of minutes, but the time I wanted to get down with Metal Gear Solid 4? Over an hour of installing and updating, both the console and the game, further extended by the unbelievably convoluted process of registering for Metal Gear Online. Exactly why do I need two additional IDs in addition to my PlayStation Network ID to play one goddamn game? This shit wouldn’t fly with any other game than MGS.

technology Xbox 360

Guitar Hero III vs. Rock Band, Gibson vs. Fender

I’ve now played enough Rock Band and Guitar Hero III to feel like I’m up to comparing the toy guitar playing. I have not played Guitar Hero I or II very much, just some hours at parties, so that may affect my judgement.

The Rock Band experience was elevated considerably when we switched the plastic Fender Stratocasters to Xbox 360 Guitar Hero’s plastic, wireless Gibson Les Pauls. Part of the issue was that the Stratos had been used by a lot of people and they seem rather prone to breaking – the whammy bar was hanging uselessly on every Strato we had and the strum bars all had their quirks, like only registering up or down strumming, or requiring quite a bit of force to work. My own Les Pauls hadn’t been used nearly as much and worked perfectly.

On the whole, the Stratos feel flimsy compared to the Les Pauls, even if their proportions are more authentic. The Strato’s angular neck is irritating to the fret hand over time. The Les Paul has sturdier construction, even though the detachable neck may be prone to connection issues – I haven’t had any, though. It certainly helps when transporting the equipment. In a party environment, the wireless nature of the Les Paul is a major plus.

I’m not crazy on the Guitar Hero guitar and bass track arrangements. The last tier of songs on “medium” feels like hard work and just unnecessarily difficult, with sudden jumps in the level of skill required – going from “alright” to “I don’t see a way in hell I’d ever be able to clear that” in the same song. “Hard” I can’t really see myself clearing at any time, but we’ll see what yet more practice entails.

Rock Band has this covered a lot better, with “medium” difficulty rarely asking more from you than you can handle and with many players able to play the easier songs on “hard” and some songs on “expert”. I feel that’s the way it should be, allowing you to progress naturally, getting used to the extra fret buttons a step at a time, whereas Guitar Hero slams you into a concrete wall starting from “medium” and doesn’t provide any clues as to how to get on with it. This is very understandable considering that the guys who originally designed Guitar Hero, Harmonix, moved on to dream up Rock Band and Activision brought in Neversoft (the Tony Hawk guys) to continue Guitar Hero. Thus they’ve had to build on the Guitar Hero gameplay without having a chance to really work with it.

On the whole, I fee like Rock Band is the superior toy guitar experience, as long as you use proper toy guitars instead of the indigenous brand. However, Guitar Hero has plenty of room for you to grow, if you’re looking for a challenge. I just feel GH III is a bad place to get started with the phenomenon. I find myself looking for a copy of Guitar Hero II even though I’m not even through the “medium” difficulty yet.


Sennheiser CX-300

CX 300

I bought a pair of Sennheiser CX 300 in-ear headphones because my Sennheiser PX 100s are a little cumbersome on the go. The PX 100 has been a good set at work – I usually hear through if someone calls out for me, and being a rigid, foldable headband set, it’s easy to just drop them around my neck if I need to talk a while. On the go, though, having to fold them away is something of an annoyance, and the open design is not ideal in traffic noise. It can be hard to listen to talk programming, even if music is usually alright.

The CX 300s were an impulse buy. They were cheap at Heathrow and a friend had just recommended a set like them (indeed, I think it may be the same set, actually). I was a little wary of the in-ear design, but I’m liking them a lot. The soft rubber pad does not irritate the ear, unlike the hard plastic of regular headphones – the kind that comes with any MP3 player, for instance. I’ve used them for several hours on time, without any irritation of the ears.

The phones don’t work unless you get a snug, airtight fit. Luckily there are three sizes of replaceable rubber pads with the phones. Once all is set, you have pretty effective sound insulation, allowing you to drop your volume levels considerably. People sitting next to you probably appreciate the insulation as well.

The bass these things can reach for the price is impressive. I’ve liked using them when playing Guitar Hero. You really get that rock gig feeling with the very low, thumping bass. The sound isn’t muddled in the least, either. I guess someone might find the discant treble too high, actually, but it doesn’t bother me.

The cord is a little short, but very flexible. The one thing that bothers me is the amount of acoustic rustle you get when the cord brushes against your clothes. Thus I think these may not be ideal sports headphones, but good for gaming and public transportation. And they take up so little space!

culture Games technology

The Rock Band Stage Kit

So we still don’t have a Euro release date for Rock Band (I’m guessing March), but this is something that ought to add a little flavor to your band sessions, whenever they may finally come to fruition. People are saying it’s overpriced, but I don’t know, 99 USD doesn’t sound like a dealbreaker to me, if the build quality is good. It’s a basic light and smoke machine which reacts to the game, presumably upping the output as things get more hectic.

culture technology

Piracy on the PC, the Introversion view

Chris from Introversion has a remarkably clear and level-headed post up on the state of piracy on the PC and what needs to be done. I basically agree with him on everything.