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The Engadget Podcast Ep 11: Everybody Hurts

Transcript of this episode:

Terrence:
Hello nerds, and welcome to the Engadget podcast! My name is Terrence O'Brien. Joining me this week: To my right, Mona Lalwani. Welcome.

Mona:
Thank you.

Terrence:
I'm so excited to have you here.

Mona:
I'm not.

Terrence:
I know. I can see that in your face; I can see the dread. I've been trying to get you to come on the podcast for many, many weeks now.

Mona:
I know.

Terrence:
You finally caved and agreed.

Mona:
It feels good so far, for the first 2 seconds.

Dana:
It's a little chilly in here, but yeah. You've got your jean jacket, so-

Mona:
I'm dressed for it, yeah.

Terrence:
That other voice is a familiar one. Dana Wollman, managing editor.

Dana:
Dana puppet editor.

Terrence:
Dana puppet editor?

Dana:
I just wanted to say "puppet." I'm sorry.

Terrence:
You just wanted to say "puppet?"

Dana:
Yeah. Hi. Hi, guys.

Terrence:
Whose puppet are you?

Dana:
Oh, I don't know. I didn't think that far.

Terrence:
We'll figure it out.

Dana:
We'll figure it out.

Terrence:
We'll assign someone to be your puppet master. It will not be me. Just to be clear, because I don't have any interest in being my own puppet master, nonetheless somebody else's.

Dana:
He's weird.

Terrence:
I am not! I'm just letting you know that it won't be me. Somebody else.

Dana:
Good to know.

Terrence:
Yes. Can we make you- There's just too many ways this can go terrible. Let's move on to Flame Wars, which is how we start every week. Mona, you are new here, so allow me to explain the rules. We are going to debate the biggest topics of the week, and by "we," I mean you and Dana. You'll get 20 seconds to make your opening statements. I will allow a brief time for rebuttal, at which point I will declare a winner. We are keeping score; at the end of the season, which will end at CES, the person with the best winning percentage will get something not that nice, and the person with the worst winning percentage will probably have to do something embarrassing onstage.

Mona:
Sounds cool.

Terrence:
You might want to make sure that you don't lose all 3 of these arguments today, because I will drag you onstage and-

Mona:
I know. I'm kind of dreading that.

Terrence:
Are you? OK. Let's start with something that started making the rounds a little earlier this week as we are gearing up for yet another Apple event, because they seemingly are never-ending, and that is that there is rumors floating around that Apple is going to start pushing towards having EInk keyboards on their Macbooks. This is not next year, not for the newest models, but they're pushing in that direction, hopefully by 2018. Dana, your 20 seconds starts now.

Dana:
OK, this is an intellectual exercise; does not actually reflect the views of the author, but yes, sure. E-Ink on Macbooks. Apple would be taking a concept that it didn't even invent itself; the Saunder E-Ink keyboard, so it would not be making its own mistakes in the first-generation product.

Terrence:
You were not excited to have to make that argument.

Dana:
No. That one was rough.

Terrence:
It doesn't bode well for your chances. I'm just going to throw that out there. Mona, you’re incredibly easy task of rebutting that begins now.

Mona:
I actually watched the Saunder demo video. Did you? I'm not sure, but when I watched it, I actually wasn't impressed at all, because the transitions between the changes that they're sort of recommending just took forever. As a writer, I'm just not sure I'd want that kind of workflow change in my everyday life, so no. I do not need it.

Terrence:
She came in under time. She's like an old pro at this. That's like, Devindra-like, almost.

Mona:
That's a compliment; I'll take it.

Terrence:
Dana, what is the practical benefits of having an EInk keyboard, though?

Dana:
It would be potentially context-aware, in that it would be easier to use different alphabets, but really, you can already use different alphabets. I'm going to-

Mona:
Yes, exactly.

Dana:
I'm going to defect and also join Team Mona on this one. The only thing I can say, and this really isn't answering the question at hand, is that any updates to the Macbooks at this point would be welcome, even if they missed the mark. It would be nice to know that Apple is iterating and innovating on the line, even if it makes some mistakes, but surely, at this event next week we'll get, at the very least, newer processors and things that serve a practical use, even if they're not exciting.

Terrence:
When was the last time they were updated?

Dana:
Years ago. Definitely more than one year. We're talking multiple years ago.

Terrence:
Mona, since she's just conceded defeat, do you have any additional things you'd like to say?

Mona:
For me, honestly, I get the idea of EInk, and I think it looks great and it feels great; it's easy on the eyes, but I kind of feel like it's a step back. We're going so super high-res and bright with everything else, but for the keyboard we're kind of going a step back.

Dana:
For 2018, right?

Mona:
Yeah. It just doesn't make sense to me.

Dana:
It's like, we'll have self-driving cars on the roads and-

Mona:
And "E-Ink keyboards." No.

Terrence:
Yeah, it doesn't really seem to make a whole lot of sense. I'm going to have to agree with you guys on that one.

Dana:
But then, it might not be true.

Mona:
Yeah. I think I'm in denial about this rumor. I don't want it to be true.

Terrence:
No.

Mona:
No.

Terrence:
The more believable rumor that was making the rounds was something about them doing away with USB ports, I believe, right?

Dana:
You mean full-size ones?

Terrence:
Yeah.

Dana:
I mean, they would.

Terrence:
Yeah, that one- Which is why we're not going to debate that, because it seems like a thing they'll do, and there's just no point in arguing about it.

Mona:
Yeah. It sounds like an Apple thing to do.

Terrence:
Pretty soon, they'll get rid of screens and power ports and everything else. Every other thing that makes a computer a computer, they'll just do away with.

Dana:
Yeah.

Terrence:
Let's move on to Amazon, though. Rumors started circulating that they're looking to get into the ISP business in Europe. There, it's a little bit easier for companies to kind of dip their toes in the water, because there aren't the same- I shouldn't say there aren't the same regulations. Their regulations are, in some ways, more strict. Basically, they're looking to operate like an MVNO, where they buy bandwidth from other companies and serve Amazon Internet over that as part of a Prime subscription bundle. We started with you last time, Dana. Mona, your 20 seconds starts now.

Mona:
I actually don't think it's going to be a good move on Amazon's part. I think they'll get to definitely boost the Prime video service, and that's probably why they're going to do this, but I think it's like, a super-complicated and expensive experiment to take on, which Amazon has zero experience with, so I don't see how it's going to be a good move.

Terrence:
Again, very Devindra-like. Dana, what benefits does this have for either Amazon or its customers?

Dana:
One benefit for consumers, potentially, is that if Amazon's controlling both the bandwidth and the content, it can no longer throw a third-party ISP under the bus if it doesn't deliver speed sufficient for video streaming, which is what you'll see in the U.S. You'll see the likes of Netflix pointing at Comcast, or some other big ISP, and saying, "Well, let them deal with it."

Mona:
Yeah, I agree. I agree with that, but I think it's definitely- That's a benefit, but at the same time, kind of- To bundle the video service and be the Internet provider, to me that's a little bit dicey. How do you get away with that?

Dana:
That wouldn't fly, certainly, here in the U.S.

Terrence:
Quick question about the whole "not being able to throw a third party under the bus." I think that makes some sense to me, but when you start digging a little bit, I don't know if that argument necessarily holds up, because they are basically just leasing bandwidth from another company, so it's not like Amazon is building their own pipes. Their name wouldn't be attached to it; I don't know if it would be affected, but they could still throw whoever it is that they're leasing that bandwidth from under the bus. If it was- I don't know the names of net providers in Europe or the U.K. Does Sky provide Internet? Or Vodafone? Those sound like things, right?

Dana:
I don't know, where's a European when you need one?

Terrence:
Not on this podcast. At least, that's my understanding, is that it would operate much like an MVNO in the U.S., like Google's Fi is not Google's network, it's Google paying for space on Sprint and I want to say T-Mobile, right? I know I could be wrong about that, but it's definitely Sprint. If things go wrong, Google's the name on the bill, maybe, but really at fault is Sprint, for their job to maintain the network.

Mona:
Yeah, I didn't actually think of it that way.

Dana:
Although, it would still be Amazon handling customer service complaints about its potentially crappy network, so they have some incentive to stand by it and feel accountable.

Terrence:
Oh, yeah. I think, at the end of the day, customers probably aren't going to make the distinction. The customers are probably going to be like, "No, it's Amazon's Internet service that sucks, not whoever it is that actually owns the pipes. ... Trying to think if there's any other sort of outstanding questions around this. If this is one of these other ones-

Dana:
The tricky thing is, none of us are scholars about European net neutrality laws.

Terrence:
What you're saying about it raising alarms; it raises alarms for us as Americans. I don't actually know very much about European net neutrality law, and it's probably going to vary somewhat country to country, I assume.

Mona:
Yeah. I wonder if that's why it's easier for them to experiment with this in Europe, right? There's got to be some reason why-

Dana:
Surely, Amazon would still have to allow for any other service on its network. Especially if it is an MVNO thing.

Terrence:
Amazon likes to experiment, though, and they've been doing that a lot recently, but their track record is a little spotty, right? I mean, yes? No?

Dana:
Experimenting in-

Terrence:
They like to dip their toes in things that they don't have a ton of experience in; building phones-

Dana:
Drone deliveries.

Terrence:
Building tablets, and even , I guess to a lesser extent, and we'll see how this plays out with the Echo and Alexa, Amazon has always been about trying to build this ecosystem, and this seems like a natural extension of that, but I don't know how much they've succeeded at the other parts of it, which would give me pause about buying into an Amazon ISP. No?

Dana:
Yeah, although that decision is at least more reversible than some if you didn't like it.

Terrence:
It's true. You can always just back out of a contract.

Dana:
Hopefully it's easier than cancelling a Comcast plan.

Terrence:
Fingers crossed. I'm going to give this one to Mona.

Dana:
OK.

Terrence:
At this point, as long as you don't come back on the show, by the way, you're pretty much guaranteed not to be the last-place person.

Mona:
Oh, really?

Terrence:
Yeah.

Mona:
OK. I won't come back, then.

Terrence:
Spend the next couple of months just avoiding me.

Mona:
Basically.

Terrence:
All right, so let's move on to our last topic for Flame Wars, and this is a little bit of a controversial one; a little bit of a dicey one. Julian Assange and Wikileaks have been accused of basically acting as an extension of the Russian government and trying to meddle in the U.S. election. Barring all of that, Ecuador shut off his Internet access temporarily and is now restricting his communications, basically as a way to keep him from doing that, saying that Ecuador has no interest in being part of American elections, so my question to you is, is Ecuador right to go out of its way to restrict the communications of a single person, who is not facing criminal charges in that country, and is that effective in keeping him from meddling in the U.S. election. Dana, your turn first.

Dana:
Definitely, I'm just going to come out and say this. This is not part of my argument, but I really loathe Julian Assange on multiple levels, so I don't know if, per se, he is cooperating with the Russian government. Who knows what contact he actually does indeed have with them, but he is meddling with the election, and I think that needed to stop, and I think that is fully in support of what Ecuador did there.

Terrence:
Came in right under the buzzer. I wanted to hit it anyway. It's my favorite thing on the podcast, as I repeatedly say. Mona, your rebuttal?

Mona:
I think if you specifically think about the leaks, and if you think about why they published it, is it for the greater good of the public? I think it was, and I think that people have the right to read that and make a decision for themselves. It also feels a little strange to me that this is the time they chose to step in and shut it down. Why didn't they do it before?

Terrence:
Dana, do you have any rebuttals?

Dana:
I would feel more sympathetic to the idea of the public good if Julian Assange himself were more of a careful, responsible curator of information, even- I think this is where he differs, let's say, from Edward Snowden and his media partners. Even Edward Snowden himself, the leaker of all that; that treasure trove of information, was in favor of some measure of restraint, vetting of what gets made public and what doesn't. His media partners have been very careful. Julian Assange is just more in favor of an information dump. I think he's less careful, less responsible, and I don't consider him a journalist. I think that's really at the core of my feelings for him and about him.

Terrence:
Putting aside whether or not Julian Assange is a good person, I don't think any 3 of us are going to argue that he is, whether or not you think what he does as a member of Wikileaks is-

Dana:
No, I'm not even getting into what a misogynist and anti-Semite I think he is, but I just don't think what he's doing and has done is responsible.

Terrence:
I don't think many people would say that he does things with good intentions, as a general rule, but here's a bigger question, and I'm going to put this to you, Mona, which is, Ecuador turned off his personal access to the Internet and restricted his communications personally in order to stop him from interfering in the American election, but it didn't stop Wikileaks, and really, all it kind of did, it seems, was draw more attention, so is this effective, or is it counterproductive?

Mona:
I think it's definitely counterproductive. I think even when it was announced, Wikileaks immediately Tweeted, saying they had they had contingency plans in place, and they've actually dumped some 4 or 5,000 emails, I believe, ever since. That's a huge number, so I don't think it's actually going to stop the damage or stop Wikileaks from interfering with the election, so I'm not sure that this was the right move in putting-

Dana:
Does that mean Ecuador shouldn't have attempted anything?

Mona:
I don't think they should have, to be honest. I completely get it, like I get that he's not a journalist, and it shouldn't be up to him, but at the same time, is it up to the government to- I also don't kind of get their moral stand on this, they're like, "Oh, we don't want to interfere or meddle with the international affairs," which is fine, but this isn't the only instance where he sort of leaked something about a different country. Why didn't you come in earlier? For me, it's much more of a political play, as opposed to a moral stand that the government's taking.

Terrence:
Dana?

Dana:
It probably is more of a political play, but one I am grateful for.

Mona:
That's fair.

Terrence:
Do you think it is an effective way, even if not to deter Assange or prevent him from meddling in the U.S. election, but was it effective in sending a message in some way, to people who might be considering the same thing?

Dana:
Considering doing what?

Terrence:
Considering leaking additional documents, considering trying to interfere in the American electoral process, trying to influence-

Dana:
I guess it's interesting that you sort of lump those together, because I have a lot more respect for the actual leaker, which is, in this case, Chelsea Manning, than I do the publisher of the information. I don't think Chelsea Manning is an interferer with elections, and I don't think that was ever the intent. Yeah, you sort of lumped all those together. I don't feel the same about leaking versus interfering with elections.

Terrence:
Let's specifically take the idea of leaking things in a controlled way, in the way that the Chelsea Manning stuff was done, and the way that the Snowden stuff was done, and look at pure data dumps, and think of it in that way. I think there is a distinct difference between what Wikileaks did with the diplomatic cables and what Snowden did with all the NSA documents, and what we got was Podesta's emails, which was unredacted, unedited, just literally a dump of somebody's personal communications, without thought about the impact and-

Dana:
I don't know if it really sends a message to anyone else, and in a way, that's OK for me. I think it at least sends a message to Assange that you cannot just hole up and evade charges in this is house and expect the same luxuries that you would if you were a law-abiding person not hiding out in an embassy in a foreign country.

Terrence:
Do you think it is effective in that? Do you think that he did get that message?

Dana:
What does it mean to get the message? Would he not do it going forward? I'm sure he would, but I think, at my core, what I'm saying is, and I'm going to get a lot of hate mail for this, is, I am in favor. Is it a dick move toward Assange? Is it spiteful?

Terrence:
Yeah.

Dana:
OK, sure. Great. I don't like Assange, I am pro-anything like that. I don't think you need to read too much into what I'm saying. You really don't.

Terrence:
I don't know who to declare a winner on this one. I'm going to go with a tie, which I don't think I've done before.

Dana:
That's new. Speaking of a political play versus a moral play.

Terrence:
Here's what I'm saying, is, I think you, Dana, make very good points, and I tend to agree with you that Julian Assange is a garbage human with no good intentions, and disconnecting him from the world is a good move.

Dana:
Who we should not feel bad for.

Terrence:
No, in theory, but I also think Mona's right in that cutting him off is not effective, and is, in fact, very counterproductive in that it only raises his- Why am I blanking on the word I'm looking for? I make a great podcast host, guys. I'm the best. It just kind of raises his image amongst people. People look at him as being this persecuted figure for trying to fight for radical transparency. Nobody who already tends to agree with Assange, in general, is looking at this and saying to themselves, "You know what? Ecuador was right! They made the right move." It's just going to get him more sympathetic coverage from the intercept. We end the day, Mona wins 2, and then Mona, get a tie, which I'm just going to give you both the win for that one.

Dana:
OK. I like that.

Terrence:
That seems fair?

Dana:
Yeah.

Terrence:
Although, that means that you're- I guess I'll have to give you both a win and a loss for that. All right. We'll do it that way, because if I give you a win and no loss, that means you have to come onstage at CES.

Mona:
I like that you're going out of your way to keep me offstage. I like that.

Dana:
We should stick with that.

Terrence:
I'm trying to help you out. I'm looking out for you.

Dana:
I'm doing my "thinking emoji" face right now.


Terrence:
It is now time to move on to open source where we sort of dig into what goes into writing a story. And this is the whole reason I've been trying to get you on for weeks now. You've spent I don't even know how much time this point, months and months and months

Dana:
You went skydiving for this story.

Mona:
Yeah, I did

Terrence:
Yeah, I want to hear more about a little bit later. You've spent months and months now building this whole story around the Cybathlon in this multi-part video series you've published called Super Humans. There is a whole bunch of written articles to go along with it.  The last installment of that...

Mona:
Is up today

Terrence:
...goes up today.

Mona:
It's on the site.

Terrence:
Today we are shooting this on a Thursday, so by the time the people at home are watching or listening to this it will have gone up yesterday. You should watch all of them... read all of them. They are so so good. But let's start with a really basic thing. Mona, what is the Cybathlon?

Mona:
Okay. It is actually the world's first sporting event dedicated to people with disabilities who use really experimental robotic technologies that sort of enhance their bodies and get around their everyday lives.


I know that a lot of people initially confused it with the Paralympics  because that's where a lot of similar stuff happens. But the difference is basically is the Paralympics is for passive technologies, but the Cybatholon is really trying to push innovation. They wanted to see what exists out there. So they looped in a bunch of research universities, some research groups from universities, a lot of big corporates that make and sell prosthetics and exoskeletons. They brought all of those in and they all are powered technologies.


They rely heavily on cutting-edge sensors and computers. That was basically the biggest difference because this actually wouldn't be allowed in any other global contest as of now so they needed their own and they built it.


It was organized by ETH Zurich which is one of the biggest technical universities in Europe.

Terrence:
What are some of the competitions that the athletes would do?

Mona:
They chose six disciplines: leg prosthetics, prosthetics exoskeleton race, powered wheel chairs, which is obviously very different from the wheelchairs we regularly see on the street. These are prototypes to climb steps. There was also bike race, which was absolutely fascinating to watch. It was for people with complete paralysis, but they basically used sensors and implants which kind of sync their bodies with their recumbent bikes in a way that they could actually pedal and race around the tracks.


Another one, the sixth one, was the brain computer interface. This was actually kind of mind-boggling because I saw it at the event and it was a bunch of people sitting motionless in their wheelchairs and staring at their screens and they had a lot of sort-of sensors on a cap on their head. They were actually moving this avatar in the game just purely by the power of their thoughts. This is a novel thing that they are experimenting with - they had a discipline dedicated to that.

Terrence:
What are the actual competitions they are trying to do with the prosthetics in the arm, leg prosthetics? Foot races, or... ?

Mona:
No, I think the whole point them of doing this event is to see how people get by in everyday lives. So the tasks were built around that. For example, people with an arm prosthetic had to go over to a breakfast table and open a jar because that is one of the hardest things to do with a prosthetic arm. Or people with a leg prosthetic had to go over different surfaces and balance on that. That is all laid out in a way that you could sort of see how these technologies perform every day for these people and how they should get better. I actually really like that.

Dana:
So when we were in the pre-production stage of this whole project there were dozens of teams that you could have possibly interviewed.  That was one of the trickier aspects, as least that I recall. Even deciding which of these many teams you wanted to focus on.

Mona:
Yeah, there were about 74 teams that I was looking through and trying to find the right stories. But I think in the end, not to say that all of them weren't interesting - there were a lot of interesting technologies being built - but I kind of had to choose based on the ones that were either most experimental or most established. Because I also wanted to contrast that because they are bidding that out in the event.  They are bidding these boot-strap research labs with these big corporates that have huge resources.


It was interesting to contrast that and see how a small team makes it work and how a big corporate bids something new for it, which is why I went with Team Cleveland -- they represented Team America -- in the bike race. They were the only team in the bike race discipline that actually had surgically-implanted sensors. Everyone else had superficial ones on the skin. They actually won the race because of the way it was implanted, the technology, the way it communicates with the machine and the bike. You can't compare it with what's already superficial on the skin because it directly stimulates the muscles.


It was a lot of interesting things to work with. I guess that was my reasoning for picking the teams that we did.

Terrence:
How many teams did we end up following in total?

Mona:
We followed four pilots. We went to Iceland to feature to one of the biggest leg prosthetics makers called Ossur. We followed German pilot Andre [inaudible 00:04:58] who bought the exoskeleton suit from Reebok. We did Team Cleveland, and we also did this incredible skydiver. She's known as the one handed skydiver in Europe. She was representing Dutch bionics with arm prosthetic.

Dana:
So that takes us to you jumping out of plane for work.

Mona:
Yeah, I can't believe I did that.  I think I sneakily always wanted to do it and this was my opportunity. We actually shot this episode with her at the German national skydiving contest, which was such an incredible experience ... it is a totally different world from what you can even imagine. They should make a movie about this. There's hundreds of people jumping out of the sky. Everyone time you look up there is someone falling from a different direction. It is actually beautiful to watch and feels is so normal when you get there. There are so many people just falling ... what does that feel like?


Our subject herself was such an enthusiastic skydiver, she talked me into it. So, yeah, I hoped on a plane with her and jumped out of a plane.

Dana:
You weren't interviewing her as your were falling thought the air, right?

Mona:
That was the plan, but it didn't quite work out that way.

Terrence:
A little too loud while you were falling?

Mona:
Basically. Yeah.

Terrence:
You took one of the other members of our team with you, right?

Mona:
Oh well, I wanted to. A cinematographer, Chibani.

Terrence:
Who is hiding behind the camera for those who are watching.

Mona:
Yup.  She kind of got out of the first day, but we did try to put on the plane the next day. She got all suited up and she was ready to hop on the plane when there was a skydiving accident. A girl basically fell to the tarmac and broke a lot of bones.

Terrence:
Oomph.

Mona:
So they cancelled the plane rides. I think it was wise not to send her on the plan after that. That wasn't fun.

Terrence:
How did she get out of the first time?

Mona:
Oh, she had a shoot the landing, so it was a logistical issue.

Terrence:
Sneaky. It's pretty sneaky.

Mona:
She conveniently decided to shoot from the ground.

Terrence:
So how did you like skydiving, by the way. This is completely off topic...but I'm interested.

Mona:
I loved it. But I don't think I will do it again.

Terrence:
No?

Mona:
No, it's one of those things you do, at least for me, I did it once. It was super scary. But honestly, it was different from what I had imagined. You know how people say, you feel like a bird? No, you don't, it's pretty freaking scary up there. You are free-falling. I did a tandem jump so I had another skydiver with me. No, I didn't feel like a bird, so no, I don't think I'm going to go back up there, now.

Terrence:
Dana, would you jump out of plane?

Dana:
In my fantasies, but the few times I've been offered to go along I've always turned it down. I don't know if I'll ever actually do it.

Terrence:
Yeah.

Mona:
I think everyone should actually do it once to be honest. It's quite an experience.

Terrence:
I'm getting heart palpitations just thinking about it right now.

Dana:
I don't even like roller coaster drops so I probably wouldn't enjoy this.

Mona:
Yeah, maybe not.

Terrence:
That's where I'm at. I'm a wuss. I won't get on a roller coaster. My wife has been trying to get me to go jump out of a plane with her for a couple of years now. After talking to you and Chibani about your experience with it, I think that's kind of the nail in the coffin that I'm not doing it.

Dana:
Nail in the coffin?

Terrence:
Yeah, ah, God, that was terrible. She lived though, right?

Mona:
Yeah, she did. I recently followed up on that and she's okay.

Dana:
That's nice of you.

Terrence:
Good.  I feel slightly less terrible about my choice of metaphor there. Other than skydiving, what were some of the other highlights for you?

Mona:
I think the highlights were, for an event that was making its debut, I think it was incredibly well-organized . They had so much that could go wrong with it, in terms of you are handling over 75 people with disabilities, and they come with a lot of medical teams and stuff. They're handling a lot technology and experimental technology that they don't know if it will work. It was a lot of work and I was really impressed with the way they pulled it off.


I think also just the reaction from the crowd was incredible to watch. They were so into it. It was a really gripping event too because there were a lot of disappointments of course, because a lot of pilots, the technology, failed or they couldn't make it over the obstacles. But just the energy of the crowd, every time equally cheering for someone who won and someone who stumbled. It was just a great sense of community there as well, which is what I think they were trying to get at and achieved. So that was nice.

Terrence:
What was the presentation like? You say there's crowd that is really into it, and they are cheering, and it is a very gripping event. Not that I doubt you, but in my head, it's hard to imagine how a competition that involves opening a jar can be really gripping and get a crowd riled up.

Mona:
But it was all timed, and they are going head-to-head. There are four tracks laid out in the middle, and so there are always four pilots racing each other. So there's that sort of thing to watch where one person gets ahead, the other doesn't.


Also, it is timed, so they have to complete it within a certain stipulated time, so that makes it exciting because they can't exactly take an hour to open it. It has to be a lot quicker than they would probably take in their every day life. It's a timed event, it's a proper sporting event.

Terrence:
Was it like a big production? People doing announcements, and all that staff?

Mona:
Oh yeah, it was huge. It was televised by the Swiss national television. There were huge camera crews, there were commentators, there were over a thousand volunteers helping out with this. It was a massive production and they plan to bring it back four years from now. Make it a running thing.

Dana:
Similar to the Olympics...

Mona:
Yeah. They timed it that way too so it's always Olympics, Paralypmics, then the Cybathlon. It's going to be like that.

Terrence:
Oh man, I am so excited to watch the last episode.

Mona:
It turned out pretty great. I'm happy with it.

Terrence:
Good, I like it when people like what they do. It makes me super happy. I think it comes through in the piece. We will obviously have links to all of that stuff in the description, the post, or whatever. You have to go read it, you have to go watch it. It's just really excellent. It's one of things I'm most proud of what we've done as a site.

Mona:
Thank you, me too.

Terrence:
Dana, do you have any last thoughts or questions?

Dana:
Just that people should look for more of that from us. That was our first ever documentary series, but not our last.

Terrence:
It's part of our Engadget R&D labs.

Dana:
Yeah, who knows what we will, you will, dive into.... sorry, no pun intended. What you will delve into next time.

Terrence:
Nothing makes me happier than Dana making puns.

Dana:
Because I hate puns.

Terrence:
You do.

Dana:
No puns

Terrence:
Do you have your next thing all queued up at this point?

Mona:
I'm working on it. I have a bunch of ideas.

Terrence:
Okay, we'll talk later. Don't want to give away everything. So yes, definitely go read and watch this stuff it's super, super excellent.


Terrence:
Now it is time to move on to group chat and really dig deep on a certain topic and I think this week is something that Mona, I think, you'll have a lot to say about.

Dana:
This is up your alley.

Terrence:
Right up your alley, and that is talking about VR, and its use to create a sense of empathy, and the emphasis for this conversation is an article written by one of our editors over in the UK, Aaron. He talks about this game called "The Circle". Dana, do you want to tell us a little bit about this?

Dana:
Yes, so it's a game that I don't believe is out yet. Right now, it's only being demoed at various gaming shows, but Erin got to play a few minutes of it, and it puts you in the position of a transgender person who is wheelchair-bound after being attacked in a hate crime. It is a VR game, and we'll delve into this obviously, but it definitely helped Erin build, not just sympathy because he already sympathized, but I think it did effectively put him in the shoes of this fictional person.

Terrence:
Yeah, so one of the bigger questions I guess, there's plenty of games and stuff that aim to put you in the shoes of another person that can create a sense of empathy or connection with characters, but Mona, VR is very unique in that way and can be used to create a much more powerful connection with the characters, right?

Mona:
Yeah, absolutely. I think for the longest time VR's been talked about in the context of gaming and that's been created and that's what kicked it off and brought it mainstream, but I think one of the biggest benefits of VR is this idea, not just idea, but the actual feeling of empathy, when you strap on a headset and instantly get transported to someone's life or a certain situation, I think that's incredibly powerful. We've never seen anything else like it. I think it makes, from a journalistic point of view, I think it makes news more hard-hitting.


You know everything right now gets drowned and things feel so far removed from where you are, but when you're in VR and watching a journalistic story, I think it instantly puts everything in perspective, and makes you feel things that you don't feel from watching it on TV. I think it's one of the most important things about VR. I'm glad that a lot of people are actually using it for that now.

Terrence:
I think that's one of the first places that started seeing a lot of people talking about VR and its ability to create empathy was very much in the news-focused things, right? New York Times and others have used it in that way?

Mona:
Yeah, I think the New York Times by far does a phenomenal job. Some of the VR journalistic pieces are really, really interesting to watch, but also the U.N. They do such a phenomenal job, and they actually recently launched a VR app, just sort of dedicated to the VR experiences around the world. I think U.N. being the U.N., they have such an incredible access to people, that they bring really powerful stories forward.


I think what I really like about what the U.N.'s doing with that in particular is that, sure you feel certain things when you watch something, right, and even Aaron's piece I was reading it this morning, it's incredibly powerful. I was so moved when I was reading that, but for me, what do you do when you feel that? Like what do you do with that empathy? Do you just sort of take off the headset, get back to your normal life? And that's basically what you do, but the U.N.'s introducing this idea of taking action while you're in that experience, so in the new app, they have these experiences and they've actually tacked on a Take Action button, so you can actually click on that, and it instantly takes you to maybe to Donate Your Money, Donate Your Time, Volunteer, whatever the options might be for each social cause that they're bringing forward.


They're also now bringing it to the streets in a way. They have this initiative in Canada where they're doing home screenings for VR, because obviously the refugees situation's a lot more real there than say in the States, so they're trying to make people understand the refugee situation a lot better through VR, which I think is interesting, and it brings in this idea of grassroots efforts, which haven't been done before.

Terrence:
Yeah, the New York Times and the United Nations have done, I think, really good and interesting work, but there is something different about this Circle and this gaming, part of it that -

Dana:
Right, the use of VR here, I think, was really interesting. There were things Erin pointed out that I don't think I'd heard of before. For instance, there's a part in the game where the telephone is ringing and even if you chose in the game to answer the phone, you can't because the phone is supposed to be on the ground next to your wheelchair, out of the field of view of your VR headset. He really felt the frustration of reaching for this thing he couldn't actually grab, and then at a different point in the game, the developers actually simulated VR sickness to help simulate a panic attack that the character was having. These are interesting elements that make the game feel more immersive, and therefore more empathy-inducing, but I don't know if we've heard of that being used before.

Mona:
No, I think that's a really interesting sort of combination, because you always talk about the sickness in VR and I think that's what the developers talked about.

Dana:
He made it a boon here.

Mona:
Yeah, like he actually used it to make you feel the panic attacks, and that was amazing. I don't know, I feel like there's a lot that's happening with it, and in the game experience as well, but I think it'll be interesting to see if people actually start to change with it. I think that can only happen over a period of time to see how people actually react based on that, but it's a great start.

Terrence:
Yeah. The part you're talking about specifically where it's, Dana, it's one of these vignettes where they're trying to not simulate a panic attack so much I think, but the gender dysphoria, this disassociation from what she feels on the inside and what she looks like on the outside, and they don't go into really much detail about how they do it, but Aaron talks about this subtle, weird feeling that's -

Dana:
Yes, it was intentional, it wasn't an accident.

Terrence:
Yeah, and that is one of the most powerful things that I think that I've heard of. We've talked a lot, I think over the last couple of months and probably couple of years, about the potential for VR to tell stories or create empathy and doing all these things and change the way we deliver narrative and honestly, not that this stuff that the New York Times is doing is bad, but it seems to be very traditional in the way it delivers information and the way it delivers a narrative. Even a lot of other VR games that might try to do this empathy thing, this is a uniquely virtual reality trick to deliver a very specific effect in the narrative that I really wonder what else we can do, what else is there to mine.

Mona:
Yeah, I think they're also doing a lot with Fidi Audio and that, and using that as a tool, just using sounds to create certain feelings which sometimes even visuals don't, right, so I think they're actually playing with a lot of things, and then we have to enhance this sort of experience of being in someone else's shoes. Yeah, I'm excited to see where this is going.

Dana:
It's an interesting progression, especially when you consider where we started with news outlets, using VR. I think it's a great start to at least put people in the scene they're talking about, but I think what we're seeing now is justification for how VR can really add to the experience in a way that other mediums, over other mediums, why you might experience this in VR as opposed to a traditional laptop game or PC game, let's say.

Mona:
That's really true. I think, yeah you're right, I think it makes VR even necessary in certain experiences, which it wasn't earlier.

Dana:
I think in general, when a gadget covers VR, we've had to think critically, and we've had this discussion you and I, Terrence, we can't just put up headlines that say such and such is available in VR, we have to think critically about whether VR adds to the experience or what it adds to the experience.

Terrence:
I can't wait for the commentators to point out a recent headline, whenever they do that, it's going to be great.

Mona:
Oh yeah, it's coming.

Dana:
I think this is -

Terrence:
We love you guys.

Dana:
I think this game, The Circle, definitely makes the case for it. I think the U.N. example you gave makes a case for it.

Mona:
Yeah.

Terrence:
Are people finally starting to figure out, do you think, how to use VR as a medium to tell a story, because one of the other things that I always came up against in a lot of the early experimental VR over the last couple of years, I shouldn't say really experimental VR, but once it started to go mainstream, they were branded experiences to go along with movies and stuff and these VR short films, sure they were interesting, but came really hard to tell a narrative visually when the creator doesn't have control over the camera angle.

Dana:
Right, and it was you who wrote at some point about how if you are in this VR experience and you can keep looking around, that you, yourself, might be slowing down the narrative because you've just stopped to sniff the roses, but I think you wrote about the challenges of keeping a narrative going.

Mona:
Yeah, I think people are still figuring it out. I don't think they have yet, which is why I think they go with a companion piece for a movie, because somewhat of the narrative is already there for them to toy around with, and honestly it's not, I don't think people have still figured out the visuals and how it all comes together, and all the other tools you need to make it work, because if you actually watch an experience that isn't done well, there's nothing more boring than having that headset on and having to sit through seven minutes of what is going on, and you can see all the flaws in it. I think they have a long way to go, but I think they're starting to figure it out a lot better now.

Terrence:
Is this interactivity and game-like structure essential, do you think, to VR as a tool for creating art in narratives?

Mona:
I think they're different applications, that's the way I see it. I think the way that journalism's using it is completely different, and there's a strong story there, and they are doing a really good job of not having, you know, they just rely on the truth of what the situation is and they let you walk through it yourself, but then there's the gaming aspect, which works really well. I think it's two different applications, for sure.

Terrence:
I am personally super excited, I guess is the word I'd use, to play The Circle. This is one of the weird things I think I found at least about VR and I don't know if either of you have had the same experiences, every time I hear about one of these really dark, and this is to be clear a very dark game, if you can call it that, experiences in VR where it puts you in the shoes of somebody else and it tries to build empathy, I'm 100% on board, I need to do this, I want to experience this, I want to know what this is like. I have the polar opposite reaction most of the time to when it comes to a movie, that seems really dark, I really have to brace myself for this -

Dana:
It's so funny you should say that, we've written about this too, is gaming as an art form is maturing and is starting to be taken more seriously, the way films struggled to become taken more seriously, struggled to be taken more seriously, and I think that's why we're seeing more games and games in general, but VR experiences too that have some sort of humanitarian or social justice bend to it. I think that's why also we're more comfortable with these games, or we've come to expect them, but it's interesting that with movies, which is the more mature art form and long-standing art form, you're like "meh!"

Terrence:
Yeah, I don't know what it is. Do you have the same draw to these experiences?

Mona:
I think I have it to both. This is why I'm actually surprised to hear that you would draw the experience on something darker in VR than the movies? That's what you said, right?

Terrence:
Yeah, more or less. I mean here's what I'll say. It's not that I don't want to watch the movies usually, it's not when somebody likes this is a really serious, dark important film that I don't want to watch that, I'd rather go watch insert latest Marvel mayhem here -

Mona:
Of course you would.

Terrence:
It's more that I feel like I have to gear myself up for it more. I think it might partially just be the novelty of VR, that might be a big driver of this, I want to experience a virtual reality, this is a unique experience, whereas watching a super depressing movie for two and half hours on my couch, is not a unique experience.

Mona:
That's actually really interesting, so I wonder if you would feel the same way when the novelty wears off, because I think that's a pretty solid point. Maybe that's why you're more excited about it, because it's new, and it feels different, right? I don't know, I'm just as not excited but enthusiastic to experience something dark, but I am, I go both ways with VR and film, and you're weird for saying that.

Terrence:
Yeah, Dana, do you also like just depressing things?

Mona:
Sometimes.

Terrence:
This is what we established over the last episode is that we are the dark -

Mona:
A bunch of dark people.

Terrence:
Yeah, we're the dark, miserable tech podcast.

Dana:
I'm not.

Terrence:
I'm not saying you are, I'm saying the podcast in general, largely because I play host and I'm properly, as somebody pointed out to me last week, a dark, miserable human being.

Dana:
I'm not a gamer, so I mean my preference is, for games, really irrelevant to everyone, because I'm not a gamer, but I know that as a reader and an editor, I prefer reading about games like that. It doesn't mean they'd be my favorite to play, but these are the kind of, you know if we're going to write thoughtfully about gaming, we should be starting with pieces, with themes like this, and experiences like this.

Terrence:
Before we wrap up, in that vein, I'm going to drop a link to this in the comments on the description for this anyway, even though it really has nothing to do with anything, just because I would like for people to read it. Aaron also wrote an excellent piece called about That Dragon Cancer, which was a game about losing a child to cancer, and it is one of those super dark game, super dark piece, it's one of my favorite gaming-oriented things that we've ever done. I think it's definitely work worth reading and looking at. If you want a game that builds empathy, Jesus, I think that's as good a place as I need to leave it. Mona, where can the fine people find you on the Internet?

Mona:
Just on email. I hate Twitter, so don't look for me there.

Terrence:
Dana, where can they find you?

Dana:
Mona's lying, she sometimes faves my tweets.

Mona:
I do it secretly.

Terrence:
But she doesn't tweet herself. She just faves other people.

Dana:
I am Dana Wollman on Twitter, it's my full name, no space, and I tweet about tech only some of the time. Just be warned.

Terrence
I am @terrenceobrien, lots of Es, no As. I almost never tweet about tech, most of my tweets at this moment are about politics, so don't follow me if you're not looking to hear me complain about Donald Trump. As always, thank you guys for joining us, joining me. Thank you out there for listening and watching. Please send us your feedback, your comments, questions, complaints, whatever it is, we want to hear them. You can find us on Twitter at Engadget or at Engadget Podcast, we have a specific podcast account, which I keep forgetting about. You can also email us at Podcast@Engadget, make sure to subscribe to us on Itunes, your podcast app of choice, rate us on there, because the more you rate us, the more people will find us and we want people to listen to us, that's why we do this. 

Before I go, I want to leave you with the comment of the week, which comes from Beta Tester, "Fart, the new fuel."

Mona:
Okay.

Terrence:
It's the best I got.

Mona:
It's good to know. Thanks.

Posted 10.21.16

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