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Guide To Choosing The Best VR Headset

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VR guide

You’re about to take the plunge in virtual reality (VR). You see how much fun your friend is having playing with his Oculus Rift. Your Galaxy S7 toting friends are showing off their Gear VR. You’ve played with an HTC Vive in the store, and now you are ready to get into VR. How exactly do you do that? What VR platform should you invest in? Virtual reality broke out in a big way in 2016 with big names such as Sony and Facebook (via Oculus) releasing VR headsets for the masses.

While virtual reality isn’t new by any means (the first VR headset was built in 1968), 2016 was the year that VR truly broke out into the mainstream. Cheap VR headsets can now be found in several big box stores and even grocery stores such as Wegmans. Despite the coming out party for VR, it’s still very much an early adopters market. How the rest of the market responds to VR in the long term remains to be seen since we’re still on the first versions of current VR headsets. With that said, here are the top VR headsets to look at:

 

Oculus Rift

oculus

Starting out this list is the Oculus Rift. The Rift started out as the brainchild of Oculus founder Palmer Luckey and id Software cofounder John Carmack. After Luckey created a Kickstarter for the Rift back in 2012, it quickly became the darling of the gaming industry and raised upwards of $2.5 million. The Rift has gone through several iterations starting with the Development Kit 1 or DK1. Each successive iteration of the Rift improved on the specs dramatically such as screen resolution, refresh rate, and frame rate.

In 2014, Oculus was bought by Facebook for $2 billion. The influx of cash from Facebook allowed Oculus to finish development of the Rift and it finally went on sale on March 28, 2016 for $600. Oculus formed a partnership with Microsoft to allow Rift games to be played natively with the Xbox One controller (which was also packaged in with the Rift headset). Initial reviews of the Rift were overwhelmingly positive with many reviewers praising the comfort of the headset and truly high end graphics that don’t compromise.

The major drawback was the lack of the Oculus Touch controllers at launch. The Oculus Touch Controllers free the user’s hands and allow more immersive VR experiences. The Touch controllers were later released in early December. The Touch Controllers connect to the Rift via Bluetooth thereby freeing up a USB port. However, even with the two cameras, the tracking may occasionally go out.

The solution is to buy a 3rd camera sensor which eats up another USB port and costs $80. Unfortunately, in order to render the detail required of Rift in a manner that doesn’t make the user nauseous, a PC with a high-end graphics card was required (NVIDIA GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290).

In October 2016, Oculus lowered the system requirements a little by adopting the “motion interpolation” technology which allows games to run at lower frame rates. This would also allow cheaper computers with lower specs to run VR games on the Rift. That said, computers that can run VR games comfortably still cost around $600-700 not to mention the cost of the Rift itself.

 

HTC Vive

vive

Up until March 2015, HTC was primarily known as a smartphone maker. The Taiwan based company unveiled the Vive at Mobile World Congress on March 2015 as a collaboration with gaming company Valve. HTC engineered the actual VR headset while Valve created SteamVR operating system for use on the Vive. The Vive was designed as a whole room experience from the beginning.

It utilizes two IR cameras placed on opposite sides of the room as well as two motion controllers to allow full movement in a VR environment. Up until the release of the Oculus Touch Controllers for the Rift, the HTC Vive was the only one allowing full room scale VR.

Most early VR games for the Rift were created for traditional couch gaming using the Xbox One controller, just with the added benefit of VR head tracking. In order to prevent users from bumping into the wall or furniture, the Vive has a feature called Chaperone which actually shows a cool “Tron” view of the real world using the built-in camera on the front once the user gets too close to an obstacle.

Reviews for the Vive were also favorable with many lauding the complete immersion offered by the motion controllers. Unfortunately, some reviewers complained how bulky and uncomfortable the Vive headset was compared to the Rift.

Additionally, be prepared to set aside about 15-20 minutes setting up the play space if you want the full room-scale games. The Room-Scale mode requires you to place the IR cameras (called Lighthouses) on opposite sides of the room. The space requirement can be as small as 6.5ft by 5ft or as large as 15ft by 15ft.

Fortunately, there is a Standing-Only setting that allows you to use the Vive in tighter spaces. Like the Rift however, all of that VR goodness doesn’t come cheap.

In fact, the HTC Vive retails for about $800, a good $200 more expensive than the base Oculus Rift. That’s also not factoring in the cost of the high-end computer needed to render the VR graphics on the Vive.  

 

PlayStation VR

playstation

Not to be left in the dust, Sony released their PlayStation VR (PSVR) on October 13, 2016. Unlike the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, the PSVR was designed to be connected to the PlayStation 4 console instead of a PC. The PSVR is meant to be a more affordable entry into the VR space as most people who purchase it will probably already own a PS4. Also, the price the PSVR itself is only $400.

The complete system consists of the headset itself, a processor box to output video to the TV and 3D audio, the PS camera, and two PlayStation Move controllers. Some readers may recognize the Move controllers from Sony’s previous foray into motion controllers to compete with the Nintendo Wii.

The main drawbacks to the PSVR is that it’s not quite as powerful as the Rift or the Vive. The PS4 is much weaker than high end gaming computers and thus the PSVR is limited to 1080p resolution. While 1080p is crisp from a distance, the pixels can be seen when viewed up close.

Also, while the Move controllers are a welcome addition and do provide more immersion than a PS4 DualShock controller, the limited viewing angle of the camera can cause the loss of tracking of the Move controllers. While the setup doesn’t require you to place cameras everywhere, the plethora of cords can be a real pain. Regardless, for the price, the PSVR remains a solid entry into the VR market.

 

Google Daydream View

daydream view

Google’s Daydream View headset utilize smartphones to provide the VR experience. Before Daydream, there was Google Cardboard. It’s literally what you think it is: a cardboard box with two lenses inside that had a slot for sliding in a smartphone. Google wanted a cheap and easy way for people to experience VR for themselves.

Google also positioned Cardboard for education and schools. Teachers could use Cardboard in the classroom for more immersive learning experiences. Unfortunately, VR on phones was still a budding concept and experiences, while novel, were not the best.

To remedy that, Google unveiled the Daydream VR platform and Daydream View headset alongside the Pixel smartphone on October 4, 2016. Initially designed just for the Pixel, Daydream View is a small VR headset made of fabric that has an opening for the Pixel.

It also came with a simple motion controller for pointing and interacting with virtual objects. Nothing as fancy as the Rift and Vive or even the PSVR Move controllers but for affordable VR, it gets the job done. Google is leveraging the Daydream VR platform on Android to allow developers to easily create VR experience for Android based devices such as smartphones.

 

Samsung Gear VR

samsung

Samsung also stepped into the virtual reality ring with its Gear VR. The Gear VR was originally released in November 2015 for use with Samsung’s flagship smartphones such as the Galaxy S6/S7. It was developed with input from Oculus and provides a cheaper alternative to high end VR headsets.

The first edition of the Gear VR was released to developers in December 2014 and only worked with the Galaxy Note 4. Technically, consumers could buy it as well but it was marketed towards developers so they could get a handle on the technology in order to create applications for it.

There are currently around 185 applications for the Gear VR. In fact, Six Flags Magic Mountain partnered with Samsung to create the first roller coaster with VR in North America.

So which VR headset should you pick? That question largely hinges on what your bank account is looking like. If you own a gaming PC with a relatively newer graphics card then go for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. Both offer uncompromised VR experiences allowing you to fully utilize a room. Because of the high-end graphics and resolution, there’s much less chance of feelings of nausea or motion sickness.

If you own a PS4 and don’t want to shell out for a high end gaming PC, then the PSVR would make a better bet. While the screen resolution isn’t as high as the Vive/Rift, it’s not so distracting that it takes away from the experience. Plus, because the PS4 already has a huge install base, game developers are more likely to create games for it.

On the downside, the Rift, Vive, and PSVR all suffer from a copious amount of cables that must be managed. If you don’t own a PS4 or high end gaming PC (or maybe you just don’t want to shell out $400 for PSVR), the Samsung Gear VR or Google Daydream View are viable options especially if you own a Samsung or Google phone.

In fact, most people will probably use these as stepping stones into the world of VR. However, the VR experiences on these devices still pale in comparison to the higher end VR headsets, not to mention significantly eating into battery life on the smartphone. If you’re interested in the Daydream View but don’t own a Pixel, don’t fret.

Google announced that companies such as Samsung (ironically), HTC, LG, Alcatel, Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, and Asus will all create Daydream ready smartphones.

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Review: On The Count Of Three

A past-due calling card for actor-director Jerrod Carmichael

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WARNING: This review, and this film, contain discussions of suicide.

On the Count of Three’s premise—two childhood friends who make a suicide pact and spend their last day on Earth together—is certainly fresh. So what feels stale about it?

It’s not that we’ve seen too many comedies about suicide before. It does, I suppose, bear some resemblance to other race-against-the-clock (Good Time) or apocalyptic (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) comedies. Maybe it doesn’t commit to darkness as much as these comedies; there’s certainly a humanist core deep down here.

But I think we all sort of know why this movie can’t fully work in 2022: it’s a movie Jerrod Carmichael made in 2020. The director and star has seen a long-overdue rise to stardom in these past months after a series of false starts. He’d already had a breakout role in a hit comedy, a sitcom starring vehicle, a special directed by Spike Lee, and a recurring feature on 2019’s biggest album.

Last month, the stars finally aligned. He came out as gay, dropped a smash-hit comedy special, and hosted SNL all in the span of a week. It’s no surprise that Annapurna Pictures quickly moved to release On the Count of Three, which they picked up at Sundance in January 2021.

Here’s the rub: On the Count of Three lacks the self-assuredness of Carmichael’s recent rise. It doesn’t feel like the film, or the version of this film, that he would’ve made today. His performance as both actor and director is good, but held to a certain restriction.

Carmichael plays Val, a down-on-his-luck laborer who ventures to commit suicide with the help of his recently-hospitalized friend Kevin (Christopher Abbott). 

While there’s a certain comical bleakness to Val’s life—he essentially shovels dirt for a living—there’s an interesting idea of suicidal ideation here. Val’s thoughts of killing himself don’t come from stagnation or trauma, but from dissatisfaction with achievement. He makes his first attempt right after getting a promotion, and we later learn that he had planned to propose to his now-pregnant partner, Natasha (Tiffany Haddish).

As director, Carmichael wisely avoids eating up the film and splits lead duties with Abbott. If anything, Abbott gets the real star showcase here, again proving his dynamic magnetism after a series of weirdo indie turns like Vox Lux, Possessor, and Black Bear.

Still, there’s a classic comedic duo chemistry here. Carmichael is the rock around which Abbott orbits. The setup also gives them plenty of opportunities to subvert that dynamic. When Val’s confrontation with his father (J.B. Smoove) gets heated, Kevin has to be the one to pull him back. But, when they come to blows, Kevin’s the one with the tire iron.

Black comedy is always a tricky balancing act. Penn and Teller Get Killed is notorious for going all-in on nihilism and failing to connect. I think this film mostly succeeds, but its uncertainty with its own dark philosophy is, again, reflective of a more self-conscious point in Carmichael’s career.

In Kevin’s first scene, he delivers a monologue about how doctors have been trying to fix him since he was eight years old, and if his life was worth saving, they’d have done it by now. Much of the film follows Kevin’s quest to kill a childhood doctor who molested him (played by Henry Winkler). Ultimately, it’s Val who pulls the trigger, but only after he decides to choose life. His decision to choose life only comes after a guilt trip from Natasha, who lays out how he’ll still be guilty in death if he abdicates his responsibility as a father.

All of which is to say, this is in many ways a philosophically bleak movie. But at the same time, the humanism of the direction kind of betrays that philosophy. There are a lot of monsters around the central players here, but the cashiers, receptionists, and other random side characters they meet along the way are given a stark innocence.

I’m not sure how I feel about any of this. Is it too bleak? Not bleak enough? Or just not made with enough confidence to come out strongly in either direction? Whatever the case, I think this movie hums along perfectly fine. Until the last minute.

For the most part, On the Count of Three is very insular. We’re never not following Val and Kevin, and it takes place over the course of a day that they spend almost completely alone. 

The final shot, which I won’t give away, finally pulls us out. We recognize that Val’s story is one of a million stories, all different, all wrestling with life and death, and all ending in the same rotten place. It’s certainly the most striking ending I’ve seen this year, and it made me think twice about the film overall.

When I’m reflecting on this year, I don’t think On the Count of Three will end up one of my favorites. Seeing how far Carmichael has come, this film’s steady, dry lob isn’t the catapult that Annapurna hoped it would be. Still, it’s a perfectly solid film. It’s absolutely worth seeing for its final shot alone. B
On the Count of Three is now playing at Landmark’s Ritz Five and available on digital.

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Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Sam Raimi saves Marvel from itself.

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Let me just start this review by saying: this multiverse isn’t that mad.

It’s impossible not to compare Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to the other big multiverse hit of the year, Everything Everywhere All at Once. The latter film breezes into totally different character histories, filmmaking styles, and finger… materials? Compare that to Multiverse of Madness, where the only alternate world we spend substantial time in is one where green means “stop.”

None of this is to say that the 28th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is without madness. It just comes from director Sam Raimi. His giddy eye manages to breathe new life into a franchise that’s functionally remade Iron Man no less than a dozen times.

Frankly, it’s to the film’s credit that the multiverse takes a backseat. The idea of infinite parallel universes may be inspiring for real-world philosophy, but as a narrative technique, it quickly loses steam. Instead, Multiverse of Madness is powered by the real juice behind Doctor Strange: dreams, ghouls, and oddball mysticism.

These macabre elements lend it a certain fairy tale quality. It feels more like a Wachowski-style bout of sci-fi whimsy than another perfunctory chapter in Disney’s medieval-marriage version of filmmaking. That’s probably why I found it much easier to connect to than any recent Marvel outing.

It’s interesting how well the film seems to stand on its own, given that it asks its audience to do more homework than any other MCU film to date. It assumes you have a knowledge of Marvel’s TV shows, recent property acquisitions, and obscure comics lore. Still, with its striking visuals, bold takes on characters, and complete embrace of mysticism, there are times where it seems to transcend Marvel entirely.

The secret ingredient here should be obvious. Raimi, who hasn’t made a film since 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, is stronger as a hired gun than many MCU directors at their best. It feels like it’s taken 28 movies for Marvel to realize you have to turn the camera on. It’s got zany zooms and frantic motion, but at its core, this is the first Marvel movie whose shots feel carefully planned out. There’s a vision here; not a perfect one, but one just strong enough to overpower Disney’s corporate interests.

There were moments in this movie that had me wanting to leap out of my seat in the theater. More surprisingly, they seemed to get more and more frequent as the film progressed. Even some of Marvel’s best—Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy—have suffered from a dull third act. Multiverse of Madness only builds, dumping its dull moments in the first third before ramping up to nonstop thrills once the villain is revealed.

While this first act is weak, it still has its charms. Raimi relishes the chance to place Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in real-life circumstances. It’s why fans have taken note of the film’s performances. Marvel often takes its A-list casts for granted, but Raimi revels in the chance to direct them.

Cumberbatch and Olsen handily deliver two of the MCU’s best performances. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez also leaves an impression, although she’s definitely a supporting player. The big Illuminati cameos you’ve been promised won’t exactly have you jumping for joy, but like the multiverse itself, they’re used with a clever economy. Even brief cameos get a chance to shine here, especially Bruce Campbell and Michael Stuhlbarg (who does 30 seconds of wig work and walks away with the “with” credit).

While fans of the MCU’s formula may find this a jarring departure, most of the film’s issues come from its Marvelisms. Like Eternals before it, the infusion of a distinctive vision makes Marvel’s shtick more glaring. The “universe-building” elements, such as the Illuminati’s introduction and pointed references to Thanos and Spider-Man, are the ones that break the movie’s spell.

On a similar note, the too-cool one-liners are especially poor here. As quippy as MCU movies are, there’s not a single memorable verbal gag in here, and there’s a few that are actively distracting. No Way Home’s one-liners are no less cringeworthy, but Raimi’s singular vision is what makes this movie work, and these moments of glaring studio intervention compromise it.

The lack of pith isn’t to say that this movie has no levity. In fact, it finds more moments for emotional connection than any other MCU film, both within and without action. Raimi employs a technique so often forgotten in today’s blockbusters: action as a gag. PG-13 as it may be, Multiverse of Madness makes hilarious use of horror and gore. Putting delicious kills front and center, it walks away with a distinctive sense of humor in spite of its paint-by-numbers dialogue.

My opinion on this film will likely be completely different in six months. Maybe it’s doomed to a fate like Shang-Chi, beloved in an instant and forgotten just as quickly. But whether it’s the Raimi stan in me or not, this brought back the sense of wonder in me that the MCU’s assembly line beat out of me a decade ago.

Maybe the fact that Multiverse of Madness came out this late in the series already precludes it from being seen as a highlight. But right now, I don’t find myself wondering if it’s the best in the MCU. I’m wondering if it’s the best in the MCU by a country mile. A-
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now in theaters.

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Plaze Review: Philly’s Fastest Growing DIY Networking App

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I’ve been involved with do-it-yourself music in the Greater Philadelphia area for over a decade now. Throughout this time, I have occupied every potential role: showgoer, performer, promoter, you name it. 

The groups I’ve ended up with typically share a similar genesis. 

Here’s a picture: you’re sitting in a half-empty living room. Below you, a crowded basement pulses with tame tropes and half-hearted expressions. Some loudmouth nursing a 40oz foolishly exchanges charm for pretension and out from a groggy, smoke-induced stupor, an assertion springs: “Jawbreaker is the definitive Bay-Area rock band of the 90s. Miss me with that Green Day sh*t.”

Leaping (or staggering) to your feet, you fumble for rejoinders. It’s then that you find yourself thrust into a spirited dialogue with an equally impassioned stranger.

One thing leads to another. Chatting and chain-smoking, you trade visions, earnestly planning a potential project only to wake up the next morning without energy or interest in maintaining contact. After all, they smoked menthols— and your inner pre-teen still weeps to Green Day. You don’t need that kind of energy in your life. 

The story repeats itself ad nauseam and there’s no light at either end of the tunnel.

Enter: Plaze. Philadelphia’s hottest DIY networking app. Aiming to revamp the way musicians discover one another, Plaze offers a digital alternative to the oft-excruciating process of starting a band. 

What is Plaze?

Double Swede at PhilaMOCA on 2/26/2022. Credit: Jj Park.

Before I dig in, let me provide some background about Plaze. Like most innovations, Plaze was inspired by a problem. As stated in the first sentence of the Our Story portion on their website: “Plaze started with a problem.” 

Call it journalistic intuition. 

Co-founder Jamie Mallia, a drummer, recounts his story. It’s a common one, and we all have our own version. An exciting new musical partnership abruptly halted upon the realization that the person you have agreed to jam with is, shall we say, grossly incompetent. 

Naturally, the unevenness of their skillset led to an awkward, short-lived alliance. That’s when the big idea hit: an app that facilitates discovery among creatives. One that promotes networking and collaboration while helping weed out the mismatches.

Plaze looks to one-up other avenues of creative networking like Facebook and Reddit. It does so by tailoring the experience to the expressed needs of its users. It is, however, currently a Philadelphia-centric app. 

A New Way of Networking

Photo Credit: Jj Park

For the sake of transparency, I must share my initial skepticism. And I’ll be the first to admit that this is likely the result of my reverence for the punk ethos. But honestly, that’s a stuffy holdover. 

And punk, in its truest and most essential form, is about moving forward. Embracing change, even (and especially) when it threatens tradition. The fruits of punk that have prevailed throughout history have been those that, in threatening tradition, offers a constructive, democratic alternative. And so, with that renewed understanding in mind, I’m downloading Plaze.

Nowadays, there’s an app to help you with everything from grocery delivery services to keeping your mental health in check. So, really, why shouldn’t there be an app for meeting other local creatives?

Mind you, this article will encapsulate one person’s attempt at using the app.

My experience doesn’t speak for the whole of us. Everyone who uses this app, with their own style, expectations, intentions, and skill sets will undoubtedly yield a unique experience. With any hope, anyway.

In a sense, you can consider this less of a review and more of an account. The semantic difference is that, in this case, I won’t submit an official judgment.

How’s the User Interface?

Upon downloading Plaze, you’ll find that the interface is simple and intuitive. For those of us experienced with any of those countless dating apps, it’s downright familiar. This isn’t a dating app though, so there’s some hope for you yet. Just think of all the time you’ll save not having to worry about a punchy new pick-up line. 

Features

All of the features are offered in a palatable four-tab menu. The tabs are as follows: 

Profile

My Scene

Map

Explore

Profile

You’re going to want to add a picture or two. Really flesh out your profile here. Honestly, this function alone is pretty dope. Consider it a central hub for all of your artist profile pages. Now you can have your Bandcamp, Spotify, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and personal website all in one place. Artists are not terribly well-known for being, well, unlazy— so this certainly helps the discovery process along! 

The profile section is also where you’ll outline your skillset. Shameless promotion here, but I need to show photos to properly explain. 

This also provides me the opportunity to show off this sleek, seamlessly navigable interface. Despite being a millennial, my handling of most new technology is more in line with that of a 100-year-old man. But believe you me, sonny: this app is absolutely easy to handle. Golly!

You can write up a quick blurb about yourself and add all of your skills. This includes both on-stage and off-stage skills; which means audio engineers, promoters, teachers, and photographers all have a place in Plaze.

Whatever your niche, Plaze has thought of ways to plug it into the scene. Speaking of the scene, let’s hop to the next tab. 

My Scene

This function puts you in the same room as what’s happening in your area. At all times. The page is split up into two subsections, both of which are very simply laid out: Show Posters and Community. These sections borrow a lot of the convenient aspects of Facebook or Reddit.

Show Posters, as its name suggests, is purely a feed for flyers. It’s like an infinite scroll of calendar events for upcoming shows. You can interact with these the same way you would Facebook events, including RSVPs, comments, and likes. 

Community is a collection of threads, not unlike Reddit, where people can post about any number of things. Want to promote an upcoming album release? Need a new drummer? Maybe you’re a promoter in search of an opening act. Whatever your need, this section allows you the freedom to express it.

Anyone can make a show flyer or community post! 

Map

The map function essentially contextualizes people’s profiles in a geographic layout. This is a cool feature, but its benefits are limited to showing exactly where each individual profile is. It’s a helpful tool, nonetheless. 

Explore

This page contains the meat and potatoes of the app. It provides full access to all other profiles on Plaze. A search bar at the top of the page offers a speedy look-up for specific people. Or you can scroll along casually, thumbing through profiles of Plaze users. (Plazers? Plazeers?)

To make it even more convenient, it splits up profiles into different categories based on each user’s expressed intent. Here are some of the subsections: Freelance Clients, Lookin’ For Bandmates, Jam For Fun, Find Local Shows, and Near You. It’s as simple as sending a message. From there, you’re free to discuss as you please! You can even curate your own feed, narrowing it down to your specific need.

Closing Thoughts: Is Plaze worth it? 

Plaze offers an entirely free platform for exploring your scene. You stand to lose nothing, and the gains are immeasurable. it’s not limited to musicians, either. Plaze is perfect for artist-designers, audio engineers, promoters, podcasters, videographers, and journalists. Every creative personality is capable of offering (and monetizing) their skills with this app.

The most inspiring part of Plaze is the way it injects a burst of democracy into an experience historically fraught with crossed arms, naysayers, and gatekeepers. Gone are the days of not being able to find the right band members. And never again will you be burdened with the task of having to cold message a show promoter on Instagram, only to be left on read time and time again. 

I can speak from experience regarding the difficulties of finding something as seemingly common as a good photographer. You end up just asking a friend with a camera and, oftentimes, you’re underwhelmed with the final product. With Plaze, freelancers are provided a large pool of potential clients and vice versa. 

Just like every punk-rocker has a conversion story— a discovery of new, challenging, artistic integrity in the face of an otherwise bland, corporate landscape— so too may every DIY soul be converted into a Plaze-user (Plazite? Plazian? I hate this bit) and reimagine the possibilities of local art. 

Even if they don’t f*ck with Green Day.

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