Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review: Oculus Quest

I got an Oculus Quest because I wanted to exercise more. Really.

For those not familiar, the Oculus Quest is a second-generation virtual reality headset from Oculus (owned by Facebook). Virtual reality headsets place a monitor in front of each eye (or one monitor with each eye only viewing half of it). This gives you a true 3D image, which you can look around in by turning your head. Most headsets, including the Quest, come with hand controllers as well. These create virtual hands which follow your real hands in the environment, allowing you to grip, point, and generally manipulate your environment. They usually come with buttons and joysticks which allow you to move around in your environment and interact with it in less intuitive ways.

I also own an Oculus Rift, the first-generation headset. The main difference between the headsets is one of mobility. The Oculus Rift (and the Rift S, its successor) must be tethered to a fairly powerful computer to work through a long cable. The Quest is untethered. All its components--battery, processor, memory, as well as the screen and speakers--are in the headset. This gives you a lot of freedom. You can take the Quest anywhere--even outside, though that's not recommended, or on trips.

It does make a difference. I can find a much larger area in my backyard than I could in my office with my computer, which gives you a significant area to move around in. You also don't get tangled in the cables as you turn around in the game.

But back to the exercise: I got the Oculus Quest because I had gotten into the VR game Beat Saber. This is a simple game that is also pretty effective exercise. You are given two lightsabers, one red and one blue, and you need to slice colored metal blocks as they fly toward you with the lightsaber the same color as the block, cutting in the direction indicated by arrows on the blocks. The blocks follow the rhythm of dance songs playing in the background (the beat in beat saber). There are also occasional obstacles you have to dodge as they fly toward you. At higher difficulty settings, it can be quite intense, and easily an aerobic workout.

Beat Saber. I'm not doing great here, mainly because I'm trying to capture a picture.
Unfortunately, I can't take the computer with me when I travel, so I thought the Oculus Quest would make a useful alternative. That way I can have an (entertaining) aerobic exercise even when I'm visiting my parents.
The Oculus Quest in the compact, hard travel case I bought for it. 
So, what do I think about it, especially compared to the original? Here are my thoughts:

Advantages

  • Mobile
  • Easy to set up
  • Easier to use even when you aren't traveling--I find myself using it more than my original Rift, even though I have them both in my bedroom.
Disadvantages
  • It feels slightly more sluggish. The sabers feel like they lag behind just a little.
  • There are more glitches. The original Rift had its glitches as well, but this feels like it glitches more. This may be partly because of the games I'm playing, as most glitches seem to be more errors in the game than in the system. For example, every once in a while one of the sabers stop working, and goes spinning off into the void. At one point, for about a week, I was observing freezes and the screen going black in Beat Saber too, but that seems to have been a bug that they fixed.
  • The system isn't as powerful, and so can't handle games that need a PC behind them.
  • Since the tracking is internal, it's easier to move the controllers out of sight of the cameras built into the Rift.
So would I recommend it over the Rift S, the updated version of the original Oculus Rift? Yes, for one very important reason: Oculus is adding Link--a system that lets you use the Quest as if it were a Rift through a single USB C cable. If it works as well as promised, and you get the mobility and the power of a computer when you want it, I'm not sure what market the Rift S will fill.

Now what I'd really like to see is a wireless connection between the Quest and the computer, using WiFi. You'd think it would be possible, since the Quest does have WiFi and is battery powered. Maybe next year.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Diet and Exercise

Back in late July, my doctor informed me that my weight put me in the obese category according to BMI, and that put me at risk for diabetes and heart disease. I don't really trust BMI as a measure of health, since it doesn't take into account such obvious influences as sex or age, and height is reduced to a mere denominator (and I am unusually short). This smart BMI calculator seems more reasonable to me, though I haven't read the research behind it. But I had to admit that my weight was getting up there, and I have a history of diabetes in my family, and I really don't want to be diabetic.

The doctor gave me the option of taking drugs, or trying to lose weight. I opted for the weight loss option, since I’m stubborn that way, and I have boundless—probably misplaced—confidence in my ability to discipline myself.

I've lost twenty pounds since then. Now there's probably nothing more boring than hearing someone talk about their diet and exercise program, but this is my blog, and I wanted a centralized place to point people to when they ask (and I have been asked).

The number one decision I made when I decided to do this was that I wasn’t going to diet and exercise, I was going to change my diet and exercise. This meant that this was permanent, so I wasn’t going to lose weight and stop, I was going to keep losing weight until I stabilized at a new weight, and then, if necessary, change my lifestyle further. It also meant that I was only going to do things that I felt I could live with for the long haul. This meant slower, but hopefully more sustainable, weight loss.

But I wasn’t going from a cold start, either. So let's start with before.

Before

Kristin is a wonderful cook, and I usually eat whatever food she provides. For dinner. For lunch, I'm on my own at work. Usually, I brought a cold cut sandwich and chips, though twice a week I would get food from one of the local restaurants instead—usually a steak bowl with rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, and lettuce from a local Mexican place, or a steak kebab with hummus, potatoes, and salad from a local Mediterranean place. I'd also have two, occasionally three, 12 ounce cans of Coke a day, sometimes with chips or pretzels for a snack.

For exercise, I would do one of several seven minute workouts each day, using an Android app called 7, but the app has a lot of workouts aside from the original, and often I did a light version of the exercise. I also used dumbbells, doing a weight workout three times a week in theory, in reality more usually twice a week, performing eight exercises, each with two sets of ten reps, using light/medium/heavy weights of 5/8/10 pounds. Finally, I had a treadmill desk, which I used pretty much every day, walking at a slow pace of 1.5 mph for eight hours a week (1:20 six days a week), and a fast pace of 3 mph for two hours each week (on Saturday)—for a total of 18 miles each week over 10 hours.

I had also recently purchased an Oculus Quest virtual reality headset, and started using one of the high intensity games called Beat Saber as a more intense aerobic exercise.

So I wasn’t totally inactive, but there were ways to improve.

After

I had been getting pretty sick of sandwiches, so I was looking forward to changing things up. My doctor had suggested a Mediterranean diet, in particular replacing grains with legumes for carbs. This translated into a salad with meat (or as I like to think of it, steak on a bed of lettuce) and a side of beans or chickpeas. I reduced my Coke intake to one can a day, and my snack to a single serving of flavored, roasted chickpeas. For caffeine in the afternoon, I would have loose-leaf Chai tea, with milk and sugar (but not a Chai latte from Starbucks or similar, as that has as many calories as a Coke, while I'm aiming for less than half that). When I bought lunch, I would switch to the salad with meat theme for one meal a week. For dinner, Kristin moved to more legumes instead of grains and potatoes; but she didn't drop grains and potatoes, or even desserts, entirely.

For exercise, I wanted to increase the intensity while increasing the time spent exercising as little as possible. So I did a number of things. First, I changed the exercises I was doing in 7 to a custom-built aerobic exercise four times a week (easier on my knees than the default aerobic one), and a custom-built long exercise program three times a week that combines a full-body workout with the stretching that I do before weight training. For weights, the first step was to consistently use them three times a week, and also to go from 2 sets of 10 reps to 3 sets of 8 reps. This was one of the biggest time increases. Then I bought some adjustable dumbbells to which I could add weight plates as needed, and I added two new exercises for which I needed more weight: farmer carries and leg lifts. I gradually increased the amount of weight for my exercises, from 5/8/10 to 10/15/20, while going from 8 to 10 reps, over the course of three months. I’ve recently switched to circuit training, doing sets of different exercises in a row without a rest in between, and then resting before repeating.

Next I changed up how I used my treadmill. Rather than doing all the faster walking on Saturday, I started doing half an hour at 3 mph and an hour at 1.5 mph six days a week, and an hour at 2 mph on Saturday (for a total of 20 miles over 10 hours).

Finally, I made Beat Saber a constant part of my exercise, combining twenty minutes of a more intense difficulty level with my aerobic exercise. I used the heart rate monitor on my smartwatch to make sure I was in the aerobic zone as much as possible.

When I plateaued after losing ten pounds, I made several additional small changes. I dropped the legume side dish and started sticking to the meat on a bed of lettuce lunch every weekday while reducing the meat from four ounces to three ounces. I also increased the speed of my fast-paced walk to 4 mph, turning it into a light jog, using my smartwatch to maintain the aerobic heart rate zone the entire time. Finally, I kept the additional hour on Saturday but reduced it from 2 mph pace to 1.5 mph, reaching a total of 22.5 miles over 10 hours.


My office--with treadmill desk, regular desk, and exercise mat. The desk chair has been moved to make space for VR.
The other side of my office, with my weight bench.

So, in summary:

3-4 times a week
  • 7 minute aerobic exercise
  • 20 minutes of Beat Saber
  • 30 minutes jog at 4 mph
  • 1 hour walk at 1.5 mph

3 times a week
  • 30 minutes jog at 4 mph
  • 15 minutes full body workout and stretching
  • 1 hour of weight exercises
  • 1 hour walk at 1.5 mph

Since I only jog six times a week, I can drop it once a week, or even skip all the exercise one day a week if I have another commitment, but I'll try to make up any walking so that I hit the same totals of 10 hours and 22.5 miles each week.

You'll notice that this consists of 2-2.75 hours each day, which seems like a lot. How do I get anything else done? One advantage of a treadmill desk is that I'm not just walking or jogging. I can watch television shows or read my Kindle app while jogging, and at a slower walk I can work on Mysterion or even write. While doing my weight exercises or even Beat Saber, I listen to podcasts or audio books. The only time I'm not doing something else is the 7-15 minutes I'm doing a prescribed exercise, where I need to listen to instructions from my phone. The biggest challenge is finishing the more intense parts before dinner. The walk, and even weights, can come later. Fortunately, we tend to eat dinner late—never before seven, and sometimes not until nine.

So far it's worked, but the temptation to cheat just a little is a constant danger, especially now that I've made real progress.

NaNoWriMo

I don't typically do NaNoWriMo, partly because November is a difficult month for me to set aside the time for it (though my wife and I have occasionally tried JaNoWriMo (there are actually a lot of versions of this)). But I decided now was a good time to increase my writing time. I've only been getting about 2.5 hours done each week since the July reading period for Mysterion started. Now that my work there is mostly done, I've bumped my writing per week up to 5 hours for November, making it a priority to write during my walking time. I used to frequently delay writing until I was done walking, surfing the web during the walk instead, but now I try to start writing as soon as I start walking. That has led to some procrastination from starting to walk, however.