Welcome to my Happy Place

When I tell friends about my new obsession with my Oculus Quest, the first thing they usually ask is what apps I use. It’s a little hard to explain that one of my favorite apps is the home screen.

Seriously. Let me explain.

When you enter the Oculus Quest you find yourself in a geodesic dome. Being VR, it’s a fully immersive experience. Every direction you turn there’s something to look at. Overall, the space is lovely. Wood floors, cozy fire, mid-century modern furniture, and a gorgeous view. What’s not to like?

Cozy fireplace on the Oculus Quest home screen
Desk (with an appropriate amount of shelf space)
Chair arrangement with coffee table perfect for a conversation or game

(OK, the absence of any doors in or out is a little creepy if you think about it too hard, but let’s not.)

Of course the first thing I wanted to do when I landed in the home screen was to walk around and maybe hang out on the furniture. Small problem. The furniture isn’t real (obviously). Also, you can’t just wander freely: you are constrained to the space inside your “guardian.”

Let me backup and explain how the “guardian” system works. When you start using the Quest, it prompts you to choose either a stationary or room scale experience. If you choose stationary, it sets up a circular boundary around you. When using the device, if you reach your hands or move your head close to the boundary, a grid (reminiscent of the Star Trek holodeck grid) appears. If you move your head outside the boundary it stops showing you the virtual world and shows you a grainy black and white image of the real world.

When you choose a roomscale experience, the guardian border works the same, but you use the hand controller to “draw” your own boundary. You need about 6ft x 6ft minimum, but you can go much bigger if you have more clear space. Here you can see the outline of my guardian, showing where I can go in the dome.

The guardian shows where I can safely walk within the virtual space

The geodesic dome is probably about 40ft across, give or take. So you would need a lot of space if you wanted to roam freely. I haven’t tried to test the limits, so the device might not even let you draw a guardian that big. But unless you happen to have an empty warehouse available to you, it’s a purely hypothetical question.

As it turns out, I do happen to have a very long living room. Not 40″ but I can get a guardian that’s about 8ft x 18ft. And after some experimentation, I discovered that I could orient my view with respect to the guardian in such a way that I actually could get close to the furniture. With a little bit more work, I can orient the view so that the virtual couch is in the same location as my real couch.

Let’s go over to the fire, shall we?

Here’s what the view looks like from the couch.

What a fabulous place to just sit

So why do I like the home screen so much? Because with a little finagling to get everything lined up Just So, I get to sit on my actual (comfortable) couch next to a cozy animated fire, and just be. Not check my cell phone or my email or my twitter, not be distracted by a mess I should be cleaning up or an undone To Do. Just exist. Enjoy the present moment. Quiet my busy mind.

Sometimes Ellie, our 100lb rescue pup, will see me on the couch and decide to join me. So I’ll be staring at a virtual fire scritching my real-but-invisible-to-me dog. Sitting there for 15 minutes, petting Ellie, enjoying the environment, and thinking about nothing in particular leaves me in a good mood for the rest of the day.

But wait, there’s more.

After a little more experimentation I discovered that I could actually walk outside the dome. Below is a view from just behind the couch.

It’s a lovely evening in Oculus Land. Let’s enjoy the view!

Notice the details in the art. The back of the couch is a wooden frame. Someone (or several someones) put a lot of care into every single detail in the home screen. Even parts of the scene that there is no reason to think a user would ever see are carefully crafted.

The one thing you can’t do is interact with any of the objects in the home screen. So when I want to do something more active than admire the view, I reach for one of my favorite apps. More on those in another post.

Comments are still off for now.

My New Hobby: VR

In October last year I visited my therapist for a regularly scheduled check in. Things had been a little stressful, so we talked about ways to relax.

“How do you quiet your busy mind?” she asked.

It’s a great question, and it’s not the first time she asked it. A few months prior when she asked it, my answers prompted her to recommend a meditation device that she had found some of her patients responded to well. So I’d borrowed a device from her to try out, and ultimately bought my own. That had worked very well for a while because it gave me the real time feedback I needed to stay in the zone and quiet my busy mind instead of just giving it more space to wind itself up.

I waved my hands. “Oh, you know, the usual,” I said. “Meditation. Walking.”

She nodded.

“But they’re not working particularly well at the moment,” I added.

Given that my therapist turned me onto the Muse device, I expected her to offer some sage advice about how to improve my meditation practice with it. Instead, she nodded again, and then asked a question I never thought I would hear come out of a therapist’s mouth: “Have you tried VR?”

Have I tried what now?

At the time, my impression of virtual reality was that it was yet another gaming platform, and relatively nascent. My incredibly limited personal experience with VR involved a cardboard frame, a mobile device, and a video of a roller coaster that I could not see very well. It was…underwhelming.

I knew there were commercial VR rooms cropping up with immersive higher fidelity experiences that I was certain would be far better than the home experience, but as far as I knew they were all in the shoot-at-things genre. I’m not into first person shooters: I don’t like violence and don’t have the reflexes for real-time games requiring lightning fast response times. I’d tried laser tag once back in the day and hated it, so I did not find the idea of a more immersive virtual war game experience even remotely appealing.

Further, in my personal life I tend to be a technology laggard. While I own the usual complement of electronic devices for someone in tech (two smart phones and a tablet plus a couple computers I use actively and a small stash of ancient laptops I need to clear off and recycle Some Day), that’s where the tech stops for me in my personal life. I want my home to be dumb. You are not going to find a Ring by our door or an Alexa in our living room, nor do I want connected light bulbs controlled by an app.

So VR? Yeah. Totally not my thing, I thought. 

Also not at all something I expected a therapist to suggest might help with mental health.

I explained all that to my therapist, and she shook her head. “It’s not what you think it is,” she said. And then she told me about studies in using VR to reduce chronic pain and thus reduce the need for pain medications. She told me about applications for play therapy for kids (a particular area of interest for her). And she told me that in general VR is such a hot field in medicine there’s a whole conference dedicated to it.

“Try swimming with dolphins,” she said. “I guarantee you that you’ll feel like you just took a 2 week vacation after 15 minutes.”

So I bought myself an Oculus Quest at her suggestion. And as I tweeted shortly after:

In my early days with the technology I was spending about an hour a day immersed in other realities. My therapist was right. A 15 minute session in the morning left me with the same kind of relaxed and ready-for-almost-anything feeling as a multi-day vacation.

So as I indicated in my previous post, now that I have some time on my hands I’m starting to experiment with creating content for VR. But those experiments, along with a list of the apps I’ve been enjoying, will have to be a subject for another post.

(Comments are still off for now.)

Hello, 2020!

It’s the start of a new year, and for me it’s the start of a new adventure. As I posted on Twitter:

In case you didn’t know, the VMware / Pivotal merger closed on December 30. The merger makes a world of sense, and I am genuinely excited for my Pivotal colleagues as they embark on a new journey with Tanzu.

I will forever be grateful for my time at Pivotal. I worked with amazing people across most of Pivotal’s product areas (Cloud Foundry, Greenplum, Apache Geode / GemFire, and PKS). Along the way, I learned and grew so much. However this post isn’t about my time at Pivotal, it’s about what comes next.

As we start the next decade[1] and I come up for air after 7 years of not getting out much, I wanted to take some time to explore before diving headlong into something new. Although I truly do not know yet where my adventures in 2020 will take me, there are a few things I do know.

  • There will be naps. I wasn’t kidding about that. I have napping places set up all around my house. I’ve missed naps.
  • I’ll be getting out a little bit more than I have been in the last several years. I still won’t be on the conference circuit per se, but I’ll definitely be at Agile Testing Days in Chicago in June. I’m really looking forward to it. ATD is one of the finest conferences around. They always have great a great speaker lineup and put so much heart into creating an inclusive and fun atmosphere.
  • I’ll be experimenting with making content for VR.

On that last point…

If you follow me on Twitter you’ve probably seen my tweets about my Oculus Quest. VR is my new hobby. I’ve been tremendously enjoying consuming content for VR (apps and videos). Now that I have some time, I want to try my hand at creating content. For now, it’s just for fun, and nothing I would want to share. However, enough people have asked me about what I’m doing with VR, what apps I use, etc. that I figure this blog is a good place to share. So watch this space…

[1] Thank you @11rcombs for pointing out ISO 8601 section 4.11. Zero-based numbering for the win.

(Note: I’ve disabled comments on this blog because I just don’t have the energy to moderate them. Long term, I don’t know if I’ll be turning comments back on, or just engaging with folks in other ways. For now if you want to engage with me about this post please reach out on Twitter.)