Bren's blog

Why Fandom Matters! - Guest Blog by Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

Why Fandom Matters

Today I just had a conversation with Colin, a friend of mine in Manchester. I say ‘friend’ even though we have not talked in seven years, we realised today!  He owns this amazing record store called Vinyl Revival in Manchester. Before I lived in the UK, I would make annual pilgrimages to see him, and pick up hundreds of pounds worth of records, T-shirts, badges, mugs and assorted other memorabilia.  The store specialises in Britpop era, Madchester items, from original Factory Records posters to re-released compilations.  It became a joke, because I would literally have to buy an extra carry on bag after every trip to the store, and would be seen drudging through Heathrow back to California with bags stuffed full of books about the Happy Mondays almost bursting open in customs.  Colin would always hook me up with special limited edition items - he gave me one of my most treasured possessions, a Hacienda Members card. To someone else, this may be total garbage. To this kid from Santa Cruz who had spent an entire lifetime obsessing about all things Mancunian, it was like a piece of the holy shroud.

Speaking to Colin today made me appreciate (for the millionth time!) how powerful music and fandom are.  He remembered me from those years of annual visits, being in awe that he had actually been to the Hacienda, or that he knew the members of Joy Division / New Order. He never made me feel like the total obsessive nerd dork who viewed Madchester as a personal religion. Instead, he always made me feel included in it- telling me stories, giving me New Order posters from twenty years ago, even getting me on the list for a Bad Lieutenant show (a spin off project of New Order with Bernard Sumner and Stephen Morris).  

He recently reached out via Twitter to help do a launch party for my new Joy Division book in Manchester, the obvious ground zero for the band and root of my own adoration of all things Northern.  It did not matter that we had not spoken for years, or that I was now living here, a bit more jaded, a lot less excitable, than I had been during all of those annual visits.  The tribe of our shared fandom acts as a glue which binds us together- it means we share specific tastes, values and ethos. He is now running an indie record label on top of the shop- one of my all time dreams to do myself.  The fact that he has had the shop for almost 20 years- during some of the worst possible times to be in the record store game- is an illustration to our Gen X going against the grain belief system, if it means pursuing something that we are passionate about. 

I was again reminded that it is because of Joy Division that this friendship exists, the opportunities of my life have opened up in the specific way they have and that I have been able to move from fan to fan expert. The other day I put on the New Fast Automatic Daffodils, another band that I listened to constantly for several decades of my life (though never became as besotted with as I have at times with JD).  All I could think was, ‘THIS IS SO GOOD.’  It is rare, almost never that I hear something new and have this reaction. Is it nostalgia, is it getting older, or really was the music just better? I argue that it is all of these things- but they are intrinsically linked to the fan communities, the Colins of the world, and places like Vinyl Revival, where you immediately share a bond upon walking in. Ok, you say, don’t One Direction fans share this too with each other? Show me a boy band who has had fans open stores, put out records, be in the community living the life that we heard via the beat of our musical heroes- fans making, sharing and recording history.   They don't exist. Which makes my circle of fandom special, important and valuable.  

**For more info on the book launch for "Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture" check out the event page over on Facebook**

My Oculus Rift Experience

This time of year is always pretty eventful where I work.  It’s the time of year where BA and BSc students are coming to the end of their major projects, and there’s usually some pretty cool experiments to get involved in.   Last year I was incredibly lucky to take part in a demonstration of full 3D audio, with a 9 speaker set up that took mixing techniques and immersive audio to a whole new level.  I wasn’t sure that could be equalled, that was until a student put up a post looking for volunteers to try out the Oculus Rift as part of his dissertation project.

For those that don’t know, the Oculus Rift is a Virtual Reality headset and is a truly immersive gaming experience.  I have been dying to get my hands on one of these since the original Kickstarter launched, and so I signed up immediately.  

The day of the experiment arrives and I turn up at the live pod in the Studio Wing, the same room where we recorded the first 20+ episodes of NerdVsWorld.  I am given a heart monitor to strap across my chest under my t-shirt, and a corresponding watch that will allow one of the assistants to take readings during the experiments.  I am then asked to sit  at a desk, on the otherside of which there is a video camera that has been set up to record the whole thing.  I am then handed the Oculus Rift headset, and put it on.

The headset is a sturdy piece of kit and it fits like a glove, as I maneuver it over my head, with a series of straps taking the weight so there is no pressure on my nose or face.  Really, until I tried it on I hadn’t even considered the logistics of the device at this level. There are two eye pieces in side, and before the first game is loaded I can see the Windows screen separately on both of them.  Once the game was loaded, the image became one.  It fits so snugly to your face, that you can see nothing else, and in a small room with four people, I felt quite isolated.

The details of the first game are explained to me as the set up process gets underway.  There are no controls, I simply have to sit and look around and the game will take me through the level.  They tell me that I am Subject 1, and that Subject Zero almost threw up.  I jokingly say that perhaps I shouldn’t have had that sausage and egg panini, the one that I had finished mere moments before.

“Haha, don’t worry, you’ll be fine” is the response “How are you normally with roller-coasters?”

“How am I with what?” I ask

“Roller coasters...”

“Oh, I don’t do roller coasters..”

The laughing in the room stops, replaced by an ominous silence.  

By now it’s too late and the game has started.  I find myself in a medieval environment, moving through the streets  on some kind of track.  I look around and everywhere I look there is incredible detail, the world of the game filling in and surrounding you.  I look up and I see sky, sun, clouds.  I look behind me and I see the track that I’m riding on stretch out behind me.  I turn to face forward and notice that the track is now rising up, looking down I see the ground below me getting further away.  My inner voice is going “Wow, this freaking cool”, when suddenly I spot where this track is heading.  Some way in the distance the track climbs up behind the turret of huge castle, and then emerges in the sort of sheer vertical drop that roller coaster designers wish they could get away with.  

I feel my anxiety levels rising as the cart approaches the edge of the drop, my inner dialog now just screaming “OhShit!OhShit!OhShit!OhShit!OhShit!OhShit!”.  I close my eyes, and try to breathe through the panic, trying to rationalise with my mind. I am not hundreds of feet up in the air, I am sat on a chair that is very much fixed at ground level.  I just about beat the urge to rip the headset off and bolt, and then the drop comes...

Now I have spent many hours of gameplay on DC Universe Online, climbing to the highest points of Gotham and Metropolis before throwing myself into free fall; and yet, even in first person, nothing prepared me for what the Oculus Rift was about to put me through.  I tried keeping my eyes on a fixed position, but found that I had to look around, and when I did I felt every twist and turn of the track, the acceleration of the drop.  It. Was. Incredible!

The next test is a version of Alone in the Dark.  Standard WASD key controls for movement, combined with some mouse usage too. The idea is that minor corrections in direction can be affected by moving ones head and letting the Rift take control, but for major sweeps you should use the mouse.

Reconciling these two control systems together took some getting used to, and about 5 minutes in I realised that I had been blindly staggering around in circles in the dark.  The game itself was fairly uneventful, and aside from the first two scare moments nothing else really caught me off guard.

The final game was one that had been designed by the student running the experiment, and featured three puzzle rooms.  The first required picking up and placing objects in a container, the second required the player to move with a series of moving spotlights, and the third required you just to stand in a coloured spotlight.

As with Alone in the Dark, this was a game that required keyboard and mouse controls as well as the headset. This is also where I started experiencing the most problems.  Perhaps it was down to the coding and development of the game, but the connect between the mouse movement and headset movement seemed off.  I reached the first room easily enough, but half way through the first test I started to feel very ill indeed.  I collected a couple of the objects, and looked around with dismay as more of them had spawned all over the various levels of the room.  I was unsure I could get them all before being sick.  So I didn’t.  I stopped where I was, and inside the headset I closed my eyes. My character died, and I was told to just move on to the second room.

The last two rooms passed without incident, and I was allowed to take off the headset and finish the game.  I had to answer a questionnaire detailing my reaction to the tests, with questions about the music, fear and sickness being asked.  It turns out that the experiment was to examine the use of music in creating anxiety in immersive video games.  Mission accomplished, I’d say.

As soon as it was possible I made my way swiftly home, and then after a four hour nap I had properly recovered.  I would be very interested to see if the feeling of sickness was unique to me, or whether it was felt by other subjects of the test; the presence of questions about sickness on the questionnaire seem to suggest it was expected to a degree.

All said and done, I was extremely impressed with the Oculus Rift, and impressed with myself for not losing my lunch..

Towel Day 2014

The 25th May is an important, and busy day, in the geek sub-culture.  It was on this date in 1977, that Star Wars IV: A New Hope got it’s cinematic release in the US.  A film that arguably changed the perception, and presence, of Sci-Fi on the big screen.

It is also the day that Terry Pratchett fans mark as the Glorious 25th, remembering the Glorious Revolution from  “Night Watch”

Furthermore, it is also the day that many Douglas Adam’s fans (myself included) make sure they know where their towels are.

Unsurprising, then, that the date was co-opted to be celebrated officially as Geek Pride Day.  

A couple of years ago, when NerdVsWorld was just starting out, and in it’s previous guise as a Youtube show, I made a Towel Day video to pay tribute to the wonderful Douglas Adams; an author whose work became my gateway to the wonderful world of Science Fiction.  I’ll never have the words to eloquently express how much that meant to me.

Here is the video, it’s the little acorn from which the fledgling oak of the the current podcast has grown.  It’s not perfect, but it’s something geeky that I’m proud of.   Hopefully it’s suitably bizarre enough that the late, great Douglas Adams would have approved.

Until next time, take care and be excellent to each other.

Stay Hoopy, Froods!

Bren