Plasma 5.5 Review

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For those who haven’t seen it already, I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve been working with Michael Larabel over at Phoronix to post an in-depth review of Plasma 5.5.

You can read it here:
KDE Plasma 5.5: The Quintessential 2016 Review

I gotta hand it to every KDE contributor; I call this review comprehensive but there’s an incredible amount of information I could not cover in a sane article, and it could have easily been twice that length while still failing to hit every feature.

From me to everyone; you’ve all been knocking it out of the park, great work, and thank you. I’m looking forward to what the KDE community brings in 2016!

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Steam’d Controller

I made a promise to myself about a day ago that I would not touch my recently-arrived Steam controller until I finished a few of my projects. After successfully not touching it yesterday, I caved like a wet blanket and set my alarm for two hours of play – maybe I wouldn’t be going into the deep end, but I figured I should at least see how my investment panned out considering the unique aspects of the controller.

I don’t get to play games often, but the odd session once or twice a month is necessary to ensure my head doesn’t pop from overworking myself. The only downside is my increasingly awful wrist which sounds and feels more like a cement grinder from mouse-and-keyboarding all day during work and play; so I use a controller sometimes. This is hard though, since even the “best” controller (Xbox 360 brand) doesn’t do most games I enjoy, and I can’t play first-person games (like Amnesia or SOMA) on a controller – I just hate doing it.

So I ordered a Steam controller, and excitedly unboxed it and plugged it in under Valves promise it was a cure-all for PC games. For the first 20 minutes, I can’t say I was impressed. My first 20 minutes with the Steam controller made me yearn for the Xbox controller again.

The Steam controller did have some immediate and notable aspects; I did not expect the haptic feedback to be so incredible. I was expecting an smartphone-esque situation where you shove your finger onto a flat surface and get no tactile feedback. Somehow they got it to work, how a little rumble could make the matte surface somehow feel tactile and real I can only attribute to black magic. It is also incredibly clicky, with many buttons having a nice mechanical snap. The unit is firm and solid as well, and I feel like I could really wrench at it during an intense moment.

But that wasn’t saving my lackluster ability to play Borderlands with it; I was having a bad time because of awkward controls. At this point I had clocked in about 5 minutes of gameplay and 15 minutes dicking around with the controller – failing because the customisation was nothing short of overwhelming. I decided to move onto the next game: Alien Isolation. I had clocked in a few minutes a couple weeks ago or so, and I decided to see if I could have better luck there. The recommended controls were sluggish, and I found myself getting a bit of a cramp because the controls were insensitive and slow. I was sick, thinking “$60 for this?”.

Then I discovered “Community Profiles”, mentioned as an input tip at the bottom of the screen. If one thing was “make or break” for this device, community controls would make it. Community profiles are complete controller configurations created by other players,¬† listed by popularity. The most popular control scheme described itself as being “ACTUALLY FUCKING USEFUL”. I selected that one. And about 10 seconds later I was completely sold on the Steam controller.

This specific scheme was fast, responsive, accurate, and I can only say it deserved its place as being the control scheme used by nearly 3X the users as the default layout. I stopped thinking about the controller and I’m absolutely impressed to say the least, able to effectively use the trackpad and flick around with mouse-like ease.

Since using a good control scheme, I quickly reversed my previous faltering position on the controller. I had never, ever in my life considered first-person games “playable” on a controller. I’ve never liked it, but on the Steam controller I think I actually *prefer* ditching the mouse.

The main achievement is the speed and accuracy the controller provides compared to a traditional controller. The default game controls set for the Steam controller were unusably slow and almost too conservative… But a more optimal configuration, while not as accurate as using a mouse, in some ways is more responsive as you only move your thumb – not your whole hand as with a mouse – which feels a touch faster and less strenuous. Wonderful for my awful wrist.

Though I haven’t used it yet, you can offset this tradeoff though “Input Modifiers”. You set one input on the controller to be a modifier, and it will change the behaviour of another input. A good use-case is if you are a sniper in a game, and you want your aiming touchpad to be made slower and more precise when using your scope. You make the scope button your modifier, and suddenly you are able to manoeuvre effectively while running and be hyper-accurate while shooting. I’m looking forward to trying Left 4 Dead later with it.

Despite the very positive results with software schemes, I will complain a bit about the feel of the controller. The trackpads are what I worried about the most, and I’m glad to say they delivered – but because of their massive size it forced Valve to move their buttons closer to the centre of the controller. This makes the analog stick and action buttons a bit hard to reach, and I found my left hand had a more awkward grip trying use them. The triggers were well placed, but the shoulder buttons seem specifically designed to be difficult to reach; they stick out compared to the triggers so you have to move your otherwise comfortable index fingers up, over, and out to hit them. Generally speaking the controller doesn’t allow me to have access to all buttons at a given time, and I do need to either stretch my fingers or rotate my hand a but to reach some buttons no matter how I hold the controller. Finally, I feel like portions of the controller should have been rubberised a bit; because your hands are more in-front of the Steam controller compared to contemporary controllers, I do feel like I want a little more grip on the unit.

Overall, I’m now very impressed. Probably the biggest thing is making sure you check the community control schemes if you find yourself bemoaning the generic scheme. From what I understand some games do have specific built-in schemas, but if it doesn’t it’s a safe bet to assume someone has decided to share their ultimate controller layout with the world, and it will probably do the job very well. I have average hands and I’d say the controller makes me consciously reach for some buttons at times, but this isn’t a deal breaker and the controller does what it does so well I can forgive some button-placement fumbles. It’s also the most customisable controller I’ve ever seen and the Steam client allows you to customise everything to a ridiculous degree, which is definitely the secret-sauce to why it can work well with so many different games.

If you play Steam games and have $60 to spare I recommend the Steam Controller, though if you have small hands you may want to find one in the wild and see how it feels first. If you pick one up do try community control layouts as they literally make-or-break your ability to play a game as a poor scheme will make the controller feel useless – but a good scheme will blow other controllers out of the water.

Plasma 5.2 – The Quintessential Breakdown

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KDE is one of the oldest open-source desktop projects which can be found today, and over the years it has established a rich history of highs and lows. During some points it has been the undisputed ruler of the desktop world, while other times it had fallen behind or faced hard trials.

A memory everything but forgotten, just over 6 years ago KDE tore itself apart in spectacular fashion to assemble itself anew. Brave users who wandered through the rubble and wreckage saw developers rebuild the KDE before their eyes, witnessing the birth of ‘Plasma Desktop’ and it’s sister project ‘KDE Development Platform’. It was universally understood that this twisted gnarled creature of a computing experience was both hideous yet full of potential, and over 5 years of refining Plasma it had struggled, crawled, hobbled, walked, run, and eventually mature into a fine desktop.

Despite becoming an accepted way of computing there has always been one nagging persistent issue with it all; KDE is old and the legacy it inherited was a knotted mess of a foundation, with over a decade of old code accumulating to encumber nearly every aspect of the system. Software could not be written to use KDE Development Platform without pulling in so much baggage, and like a bundle of cords or strings there was no chance of pulling one from the mess without receiving the entire ball of twisted tangles; even a simple media player could bring in nearly all the legacy materials, even when used outside the Plasma desktop.

KDE developers knew what had to be done and set into motion years ago a complicated, time-consuming, and challenging goal: “we must untie the knots”. With a looming Qt5 transition on the horizon (the underlying toolkit used by KDE) developers saw their opportunity to untangle the ball as they ported to the next Qt.

But there were fears, warranted fears, that this process would again lay waste and pervert the now solid Plasma Desktop, people fearing they would be forced to decide between their beloved systems with an expiry date, or a new era of painful unfinished instability. The developers had a different plan in mind; a silent revolution planned to pass silently with little fanfare, as the underpinning foundations are churned into a sleek and modular framework which could be as loved as the desktop which used it.

“We must untie the knots.”

That day has already come and passed; dubbed “KDE Frameworks 5” for the technology, and “Plasma 5” for the environment/applications, these technologies have been in circulation as technical demonstrations and alternatives for some months now. A combination of nervous anticipation and memories of being burned by the 4.0 releases lead all but the bravest to venture early and discover nothing nearly as painful as the transition between KDE 3 and Plasma. With KDE Plasma 5.2 being formally announced as the default environment of Kubuntu 15.04 due only months away, Frameworks 5 and Plasma have been recognised as maturing usable products – which means it’s time to take a serious look at what to expect when you turn it on for the first time.

For the sake of simplicity I will be referring to KDE Plasma Desktop as “Plasma 5.2”, KDE Frameworks 5.6 as “Frameworks 5”; most regular people don’t need to know the exact version of the frameworks, and this review will be focused on the experience of the Plasma 5.2 desktop as it feels today. Some parts of the Plasma 5.2 experience are holdovers from Plasma 4, but I will cover them all the same should new users wonder if the hand-me-downs of the previous generation desktop gel with the new experience. I won’t be covering most technical issues in this breakdown; there are several that I had, however I’m using Beta software on an Alpha operating system – technical issues are to be expected which won’t impact final releases.

KDE Frameworks 5.3 & Plasma 5.1 – First Impressions

Today I took the plunge into the next-generation KDE desktop, performing a dirty upgrade from Kubuntu 14.04 to 14.10 before installing the plasma-5-desktop package; and this is my first impression of KF5.x and Plasma 5. This is also a bit of a primer, because when Plasma 5.2 enters the stage I’m interested to see the comparison and do a second write-up, using my experience in both 5.1 and 4.x as points-of-reference.

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The Old & New

Many KDE applications are in a transitional state and not migrated to KF5, so summarising the applications’ of KF5 as “uneventful” is apt because there are literally no events. I don’t know how a great deal of this is being handled, and it could just be from my method of installation, but aside from the system settings panel almost all the core applications are still running KDE Frameworks 4. Uneventful can be good, and I’d rather apps take their time porting to KDE 5 than sloppily rushing their ports. So, upgrading to the next-generation won’t gut your applications, and that’s a good thing to know an upgraded desktop won’t be paired with potentially unstable apps.

This makes me note how differently this iteration of the frameworks has been handled in contrast to Frameworks 4; there’s no mad science going on here folks – this major transition is being handled with caution and care.

Widget Shuffle

When it comes to the desktop itself, the reserved nature of the application updates speaks nothing of what you’ll get with the desktop widgets; a complete replacement of everything you’ve got. This sounds obvious, but at first blush while KDE looks similar to its forbearer with the white panel at the bottom, sporting the same widget selection and placement as its predecessor – that’s where the desktop similarities end, and it’s probably easier to name what’s stayed the same than everything that’s changed. This all makes sense, because swaths of the desktop *had* to be re-written, and the authors didn’t want a rocky transition this major release.The changes I did encounter aren’t flow-breaking and you won’t feel like a drunkard stumbling around unfamiliar territory, it’s still got KDE DNA and while you will have several “oh that’s different” moments: I’m glad to say they’re mostly good.The bad news first though; at least in Plasma 5.1 many of the widgets you may have used simply don’t exist yet. New and returning widgets are in the pipes, and with time they will surely return with the same level of polish found in the current crop of widgets, but with such a dramatic re-write it will take a few releases for all the widgets to catch up.

The good news is that the Plasma goodies which do make an appearance are universally improved. KDE has fully committed to QML as the language used for programming desktop components, and this decision has yielded a much more consistent desktop. It’s one of those things which is difficult to put your finger on, but it’s all just a little more cohesive.

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There are a few notable new widgets and behaviours I’d like to specifically mention. The new search widget is shockingly fast, organised, and a hidden treasure. The notifications tray has been reworked; it’s easier, simple, consistent, and often integrates controls more smartly than before. The applications menu launcher, despite having no outright usability differences, also “feels” better.

Stability & Bugs

I’ll say this outright; KF5 and Plasma 5 are not nearly as mature as yesteryears KF4-based desktop. After installing the update and doing a complete reboot I’ve suffered several crashes, and Plasma had at one point managed to forget my colour and wallpaper settings. A second restart seems to have shored it up, and the desktop now seems to be stable; perhaps it had to overcome stage-fright? I’ve had several issues with the Plasma desktop, ranging from the desktop placing the ‘add widgets’ tray into the middle of the screen (seemingly “docked” onto a window), and the system settings application behaving like a petulant child.

With all that aside, for en early revision of a recently overhauled desktop environment, (after it calmed down) it’s become more stable, and it’s been running a full day without issue. With that being said, I’ll be looking at 5.2 before I take a more firm stance on stability and making recommendations based on that factor.

Performance & Animation

I have one of those huge Aluminium Mac Pros which I’ve upgraded it significantly during its’ lifetime, yet despite my heavyweight computing power and KDE never feeling ‘slow’, I must admit often times it didn’t necessarily feel ‘fast’ or ‘smooth’. With KF5 and Plasma 5 the desktop for the first time feels *smooth*, please understand I’m saying it feels buttery, slick, and silky in all the right ways.

This can be attributed to Qt 5, which has moved to a hardware-accelerated graphics-stack, and while KDE has taken advantage of hardware acceleration since KF4, it was not nearly as pervasive throughout the entire toolkit as it is in this most modern environment.

There also seems to be fewer visual glitches associated with the desktop; KF4 had some minor issues where it might blur a background or draw a shadow before whatever content was to be placed on the screen. KF5 and Plasma 5 have reduced these issues, but odd moments of ‘hiccups’ which reminded me of KDE 4 can be rung from the system if you launch an unloaded plasmoid from the panel. These visual hiccups are incredibly minor, but do detract from the incredible mirror-shine polish that I feel will become expected of the modern Plasma desktop.

This can be seen a split-second before the content catches up and fills in the popup.
This can be seen a split-second before the content catches up and fills in the popup.

Animations throughout the Plasma desktop are both more pervasive, consistent, and smooth. Everything feels animated, and it makes the desktop feel more alive. The animations and movements within widgets themselves look consistent, and are overall much more tied together. It feels less like desperate parts bolted onto a desktop, and more like a single whole dancing to the same tune.

Look ‘n’ Feel

Once again, a disclaimer; I’m a member of the group managing this aspect of KDE.

Out of the gate, Plasma 5 is both more and less visually polished than the Plasma 1 experience, it’s give-and-take. Generally, the “new look” (named “Breeze”) for KDE aims to be simpler, less cluttered, and more ‘designed’. The layout of just about everything has improved dramatically; this is in blatant disregard to your selected theme, being a core improvment on an applications’ and widgets’ level. Things don’t feel so tightly packed together, and it allows your eyes to rest more easily.

(as a side note, in my screenshots I’m using Oxygen again)

The new applications’ theme (as it stands in 5.1) can feel Spartan, with reduced chrome in the windows, more focus on spacing, and whiter default pallet. These are still clearly the early days for Breeze, and quite simply it hasn’t had the 6 years Oxygen has had to fine-tune its design and mature. That being said, it’s a very different style in it’s most core concept: Oxygen had head-first jumped into an extremely heavy and visually intense theme which gradually lightened itself up, while Breeze has started with an extremely minimal design.

The majority of toolbar icons no longer have colour, instead using a monochrome design, and it can sometimes take an extra few moments of searching to locate icons you’re looking for on the toolbar. This is offset by vivid content icons which readily call to your eyes, sporting near-pastel colours and thoughtfully laid out structures. Overall, the icons shift focus away from the UI and towards content, and you really don’t feel like the chrome of the windows is there.

The end result of all these changes is a much lighter feeling KDE. The UI gets out of your way more, and instead of attempting to woo you with distractions it’s clear the next generation desktop will have a reserved respectability in terms of costly design choices that will create a more elegant environment.

Settings & Configuration

Plasma 5.1 is configured to feel a great deal like the traditional KDE desktop, with the standard panel, mouse actions, and shortcuts, but things diverge a great deal in the system settings application which has been completely rearranged. Previously the grouping of the settings menus felt random as they were built on the leylines of technical details over user-oriented goals, while in Plasma 5.2 they are more sane to users, being grouped more by goal than underlying mechanics.

Desktop configuration (specifically managing widgets) has been incremented upon, with some changes feeling slightly arbitrary. The “add widgets” panel now slides in from the left and adding widgets now presents a “drop indicator” which illustrates where on an underlying grid your widget will be placed to help avid widget-users keep everything aligned. Widgets still have the slide-out drawer, which can often seem strange in how you interact with it – but it’s unchanged.

Several widgets on KDE which beg for configuration options open up bare settings dialogues, such as the search widget. While this is a minor nit-pick, it’s the type of issue where you know the first step is still going to be building the selection of widgets available, and you’ll need to wait to play under the hood of the high-quality widgets bundled with KDE.

Final Notes

KDE Frameworks 5 and Plasma 5.1 create a fine environment, but one that is still visibly in it’s early days – you could almost say it suffers from many small papercuts, avoiding the haemorrhaging issues that soured the initial KDE Frameworks 4 release. With a completely re-based desktop I don’t feel these little cracks will remain for long, as it seems the developers have a firm grasp of what needs to be done and exactly what they want to do. For a major point-release, there’s a real feeling that this software will reach rock-solid stability very quickly given the state of it as it stands.

Now, do I recommend Plasma 5.1 for general use? Compared to the current 4.x Plasma release?

If you were installing fresh I’d say go for Plasma 5, but if you were just considering an upgrade, I’d wait. Plasma 5.2 is coming in hot, and I believe it will be the beginning of this next-generation desktops’ serious push to bring people to this fine new desktop. Even if it doesn’t reach feature-parity with the previous desktop, I imagine 5.2 will be the ice-breaker for the interested public with 5.3 will more/less beginning the larger migration to the 5 series desktop.

Oculus Rift – First Impressions

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Today my mom got her dirty mitts on on Oculus Rift (Dev Kit 2); and being the techie of the family, along with the distinction of being the one who essentially sold her on it, was the made responsible for getting it set up and running.

Out of the Box

The very first thing we commented on was how surprisingly light the unit was; given its square almost bulky appearance, the unit looked as if it could have been 100 grams heftier. Even holding it, looking inside, you felt as if it should been as heavy as a pair of premium binoculars. Because of this, it almost felt… Cheap. The plastic was good quality, but even the small gears on the inside (used to adjust the distance of the lenses) were from the same plastic – and I felt a little like stressing it could cause it to snap; this never happened though. I’m not sure what the lenses were make of, but I suspect they are plastic as well – especially given the reports that they easily scratch.

The box came with an array of cables and cords, some are apparently optional; when I set it up I missed a cord that clearly looked like a 3.5mm audio jack, and after placing it to the side I later found out it was a low-latency sync cable for the camera – which I had believed worked through USB. The software gave no warning that the cable was not connected, and we simply didn’t have spacial tracking because of it, and for the first time in a decade I resorted to the manual.

For a normal non-technie person, I would easily classify the setup as a small nightmare; there were plugs in very unintuitive places, and it seems as if there’s no good way to do the wiring. On the PC, the Rift will consume 2 USB ports, and an HDMI port. The camera connects to the PC and a box in the middle of the headset cords.

Getting Started

The first ‘game’ we got running was the configuration environment; it’s a simple office desk on a blueprint-like plane, and you could look around and lean in. It was very simple yet elegant way to both demonstrate and calibrate the multitude of sensors and options on the system. You’d assume with gyroscopes, lenses and motion sensors calibration would be a nightmare, but out-of-the-box it worked just fine, you didn’t even really need to calibrate it.

For the majority of rift software outside the configuration tool, packages are simple downloaded archives which are unzipped and run directly. Some are ‘properly’ installed. Playing “real” games requires patching ‘drivers’ which get applied directly to games, though in the short time I had I couldn’t get any of the patches to work. I imagine this is simply a bi-product of being a development kit, and that it will be trivial for apps to ship full Oculus support without extra hassle.

With some games, you launch the executable, with others you launch a specific “dev kit 2” launcher. The support for various features is spotty, but that’s expected for early software; some games supported spacial positioning while others were oddly fuzzy. The haphazard support is apparently a result of the second dev kit having such different features, and games had simply not caught up. For the consumer version there’s a similar feature jump which concerns me slightly, will features be fragmented for the consumer version? Will it be as noticeable?

Our First Experiences

The first game we got running was one I had specifically selected to ease us into the peripheral – the “Tuscan Villa”, a simple house you can explore on the coast. Despite being a lightweight game in terms of mental intensity both my mother and I had almost immediately became motion sick when we took our first steps; The moment you start moving your brain almost has an abhorrent response to your senses conflicting messages; your body says your stationary, your eyes say you’re moving. It only takes half a minute to adjust though, and once you get past it you start to notice the real sense of agency the Oculus gives you.

There were butterflies fluttering about the villa and despite being a grand total of 4 polygons I found myself following one around the yard, until hitting a balcony overlooking the water. This is a completely different kind of depth than a movie in 3D; in 3D movies you feel like actors are in front of the screen, but in the Oculus you feel like that water really does go on forever, it’s nearly cathartic.

The next experience we tried was the “Lava Coaster”; this was the game we discovered that we missed a cable used for spacial positioning. Once we got past the initial minor hiccup this much more intense simulation made us seriously queasy. We made the mistake of giving this to my stepfather (before something easier like the villa) and he immediately had to take it off. As we played successive demos we found ourselves actively become resistant to nauseating effects.

Not for Sharing

The Oculus has two sets of lenses which are interchanged, and two adjustment knobs used to achieve focus on the unit. I was a ‘Type B’ lens while my mom was a ‘Type A’ lens; unscrewing them to swap out can feel a bit tight, and the torque required to do it makes me just slightly uncomfortable – mostly owing to that plastic lightness. Overall, because of the constant adjustments we were making we ultimately had to find a middle-ground because it’s so much to fiddle with each time we swapped the rift between us. There doesn’t seem to be an ideal solution for quickly adjusting the device, and I’d be tempted to say they could make the entire lens face-plate removable so only the electronics and screen would remain; so you just make “your” perfect faceplate and snap it in… Otherwise there’s just no good way to share between multiple people because of the time-sucking vampire that is tweaking the rift. You ultimately have to settle for “good enough” focus to share it around a couple people.

In terms of fit, the rift seats very low on your face; I found it completely covered my nose. There’s also air-holes in the rift to avoid fogging, but light can get in and I had an odd lens-flare for a couple games. The weight was, again, lighter than expected; I’ve heard other people say it needs a counter-weight but it’s really not necessary, I think it’s just a case of taking regular breaks – the device was light enough to be quite comfortable.

The Experience

The “screen door” effect is apparent when you put on the device; I’m still unsure if my expectations were too high, but it was noticeable. Right now the Oculus uses a mobile phone screen, but I imagine when the formfactor comes into its’ own, screens formatted to sit inches from your eyes will eliminate the issue. The effect is more prominent on brighter games, and horror games with darker visuals will seem far less obfuscated.

Having the rift on does nothing to help you locate your hands, and we found ourselves fumbling all over the keyboard. I’ll be attempting to hack a wii remote onto her computer my next visit. At one point the rift went out of sync, and she was ‘rotated’ 90 degrees from her keyboard causing WASD to behave like DSAW; it didn’t help that she was freefalling at the time, frantically trying to get in control of the keyboard while plummeting into her fear of heights.

I did notice occasional jankiness in head movement vs the screen keeping ‘in sync’, though I can’t say for sure if it was the computer, the camera being blocked, gyroscopes, or something else. But it was only in some games, which suggests in my be an issue on their part. Other games appeared to be slightly out-of-focus.

Though not a fault of the unit, I would highly recommend rocking some Q-Tips if you expect to share the device; when you change lenses a single hair or piece of dirt on the screen becomes immediately obvious, and a Q-Tip is a surefire way of fetching those specs without fingering the screen. If you keep the lenses close toy our eyes, expect to use the supplied cleaning cloth to regularly wipe down the lenses.

Final Thoughts

The Oculus Rift is a fine piece of technology so far; I was both impressed and cooled by its performance in several areas. The set-up is a nightmare, but once it’s up-and-running things got easier fairly quickly. I do see where it has a ways to go, especially in the screen-door-effect area, but without a doubt it’s the most immersive thing I’ve ever used. I didn’t gush too much over it’s mostly silky-smooth feeling, and it really does add incredible agency, even for games with the most simple of graphics. For the second prototype in a brand new category of device it’s nothing less than an achievement.

If you want to touch the future today in lieu of waiting another year, you’ll need to be willing to get your hands dirty – but once you experience the Rift you’ll just kind of sit back in awe at both the impressive immersion of the contemporary device, but also at the possibilities and potential of virtual reality. There’s a little difficulty in admitting to yourself that this sci-fi thing is here today.