I don’t know about you, but I’ve been getting pretty bored by phone colors of late. Everyone is offering the same silver and gold finishes, of course, while China’s initially laudable effort to develop every single blue gradient pattern imaginable seems to be running out of steam.
Former Oppo sub-brand Realme thinks it has the answer, and that answer is — what else? — “hire the most famous Japanese industrial designer alive to make phones inspired by vegetables.”
Yes, vegetables. Naoto Fukasawa, who you may know from his iconic work with Muji and the Infobar range of phones, has turned to the kitchen for inspiration with the new “Master Editions” of the Realme X flagship phone. Two versions are available: Onion and Garlic.
And, well, heck if these phones aren’t evocative of onion and garlic. The rear panels have a slightly rough texture, and there’s a degree of translucency and light scattering that makes them appear not altogether solid. Fukasawa says that when working with Realme, the team went through 72 gradient tests and over 300 sample adjustments “in order to take this texture to perfection.”
Stylistically, these phones don’t have a lot in common with most of Fukasawa’s portfolio, which has often focused on a kind of warm minimalism with simple colors and friendly shapes. But the designer only worked on the CMF (color, materials, and finish) of the Realme X Master Edition rather than the actual phone itself, which perhaps freed him up to experiment.
“Design is to improve the relationship between human, object, and environment,” he says. “I enjoy observation, see the beauty from our nature. Garlic and onion are so common, but if you look closely, there is something you don’t normally realize: the fine texture. I want to make people surprised. I started to think ‘can we reproduce this texture on a smartphone?’”
The answer is basically yes. The Garlic edition is very subtle and could pass for a regular white phone if you catch it head-on, but looks great from an off-angle — albeit still near-impossible to photograph. The Onion model, meanwhile, is immediately an unusual color for a phone and has a more obvious texture that reacts more dramatically to the light. The patterns are a little more regular than you might expect, but the straight lines make sense given the size and shape of the phone.
The Realme X itself isn’t quite enough phone for me, but otherwise I would absolutely rock either of these as a daily device. The Onion edition in particular is so unlike any phone I’ve ever seen that it’s hard to resist.
And to be clear, the Realme X would be enough phone for most people. This is a similar and mostly better device than Oppo’s mid-range F11 Pro from earlier this year, despite Realme’s status as a former budget Oppo brand. It has a Snapdragon 710 processor, a 6.53-inch notchless OLED screen, an in-display fingerprint sensor, a 16-megapixel pop-up selfie camera, a 48-megapixel primary camera, up to 8GB of RAM, a headphone jack, and VOOC fast-charging over USB-C. It runs Oppo’s ColorOS 6 software, which I found to be pretty inoffensive on the Reno 10x Zoom flagship last month.
The regular version of the phone doesn’t look bad, either. The glossy white back panel looks normal at first glance, but there’s a sub-surface pattern that causes a rainbow-hued S-curve to dance across the back from the right angle. The build is a little plasticky and the “chin” under the screen is more noticeable than on most recent flagships, sure, but neither are egregious for the price category.
And the Realme X is a pretty outrageous device for the price, starting at 1,499 yuan (~$220) for 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, while a model with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage is 1,799 yuan (~$260). The Naoto Fukasawa Master Editions are 100 yuan (~$15) extra on top of that.
The Realme X makes supposedly cheap phones like the $479 Pixel 3A XL look extremely overpriced, whether you’re into onion-inspired designs or not. The only catch is you’ll need to be in China to benefit — or soon, India, which is also getting a Spider-Man: Far From Home special edition.
When you think of the Devil May Cry series, your mind likely jumps directly to over-the-top, stylish action filled with lots of demonic horrors and excellent leather jackets. That very particular vibe has become a franchise hallmark, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the recent Devil May Cry 5, which exudes wonderfully ridiculous action. It’s a game where you can wield a motorcycle like a sword and juggle monsters using a pair of pistols. It’s hard to not look cool while playing.
All of this makes the original Devil May Cry, which debuted on the PS2 back in 2001, particularly interesting to play now. It recently launched on the Nintendo Switch, and I’ve been slowly making my way through its blood-drenched castle. (The game’s brief missions, which usually last around 20 minutes each, make it a great fit for portable play.) There’s a lot that’s still immediately recognizable as DMC: the slick swordplay, enemies like giant spiders and flying skulls, and yes, those leather jackets. But what’s stood out to me the most is how different the game feels from its successors.
First, it’s important to know a little bit of history. Devil May Cry didn’t actually start life as a slick new action game from Capcom. It was initially the next Resident Evil, before the team decided to switch directions and turn it into something new. This context makes it especially fun to play now; you can see the tension between what the game started as and what it really wants to be.
As always, you play as Dante, a demon hunter who runs a demon hunting business called Devil May Cry. This leads him to a mysterious island that’s home to a giant castle infested with all manner of horrors. And really, the castle feels like something from a Resident Evil game. It’s incredibly complex, with all kinds of rooms and doors locked behind cryptic puzzles. One minute you’re in a library, the next you’re plummeting down to a terrifying basement. There are ornate sculptures everywhere. And the whole experience has a very cinematic feel, thanks to the Resident Evil-style fixed camera angles, which lend everything a sense of gravitas.
Of course, that sense of familiarity starts to change as soon as you start playing. In its early days, the Resident Evil series was somewhat infamous for its stiff, slow controls. Moving around Raccoon City as Jill Valentine was a laborious process that led to the term “tank controls.” Dante, in contrast, moves with speed and grace. He can fire guns in the air and then land with a satisfying crash of his sword. As you fight, the game will even rate you; spam the same attack repeatedly and you’ll be called “dull.” But chain together a series of moves and you’ll be known as “stylish.” The combat is constantly changing as you unlock new weapons and powers, adding more options to your repertoire.
It’s in the combat that you can really see the game trying to push beyond its roots. While Dante is incredibly mobile, he’s often stuck fighting in cramped hallways or tiny rooms. Sometimes those perfectly chosen fixed camera angles will obscure an enemy, or shift jarringly if you accidentally move into a new area. The action is still incredible even today, but it often feels constrained. It wasn’t able to fully break free until later releases.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about Devil May Cry is that while it serves as a fascinating time capsule, it’s also still a lot of fun to play in 2019. Action games don’t necessarily age that well; they often feel clunky and slow compared to more modern releases. But even after spending hours with the much more streamlined Devil May Cry 5, I didn’t have many problems with the original, aside from still being terrible at fighting giant spiders.
If anything, DMC5 made me appreciate the first Devil May Cry even more — Dante may be rendered in more simplistic polygons, but he’s just as cool as ever.
Cassette tapes are having a minor comeback: sales were (somehow) up almost 19 percent year over year in 2018, and where there’s a market, there’s a Kickstarter project looking to cash in. Case in point: the Ninm It’s OK. It’s sort of what a portable cassette player like an original Walkman would be if Sony continued to develop tape-based tech in 2019.
So while the It’s OK does the usual tape things, like playing cassettes or letting you record to tapes, it also bills itself as the world’s first Bluetooth 5.0 portable cassette player (a claim of such niche specificity that it seems to be true). It allows you to listen to your favorite jams with wireless headphones or even link it to a Bluetooth speaker, should you wish.
The merging of Bluetooth and audio technology from 40 years ago may seem incongruous, but it’s not the worst idea ever: assuming you’re still the sort of person who’d want to carry around a retro-style cassette player, having to stoop to using a second ancient tech standard — the 3.5mm headphone jack — at the same time might be asking too much. (The It’s OK does have a headphone jack, too, though.) It even runs on AA batteries, just like the old Walkmans did.
While the nature of being on Kickstarter means that there are certain risks with backing, Ninm has successfully run a retro tech crowdfunding campaign before, so it has some experience here. Still, use your best judgment before you back.
Ninm is selling the It’s OK for an early Kickstarter price of $75, in either pink, white, or navy blue colors (the last of which feels specifically designed to evoke the original Sony Walkman TPS-L2). Delivery is estimated for December. The company will also include a blank tape with each It’s OK, operating under the likely correct assumption that most people don’t have tapes lying around in 2019.
It appears that Google will soon add a play button to its Chrome browser, as spotted by ZDnetand Techdows. The button will live on Chrome’s toolbar, and will allow users to play or pause a video or music that’s playing in a tab.
The feature is called Global Media Controls, and it’s currently being tested on Chrome’s Development browser, Canary. Once it’s enabled, the feature appears next to the URL field, and will highlight what is playing, even if it’s on a different tab.
If you have the Canary browser and want to test it out for yourself, you can go to its experiments page, chrome://flags/, and search for “Global Media Controls.” When the result pops up, you can then enable it. After relaunching the browser, you’ll see a tiny play button next to the URL field. Once you’re listening to a song or video, the feature will allow you to skip forward or back, pause, or play the file. Testing it out myself, it works with video sites like YouTube and Vimeo, as well as Apple’s podcast pages and Spotify, although if you have multiple tabs that are playing something (say, if a page starts autoplaying a video), it’ll only pull up the original.
It’s not clear when the button will be live for the main Chrome browser yet, but it does appear to be a useful feature. Google has introduced a couple of helpful features along these lines in the past — an indicator for what tab was playing something, the ability to mute an individual tab, and most recently, the ability to mute a site permanently. This seems like the next logical step — pause the song or video you were actually listening to in order to listen to something else quickly.
Formula E, the first global all-electric racing series, has unveiled the racecar that will run in its new upcoming off-road sister sport, “Extreme E.” Dubbed Odyssey 21, the all-electric SUV made its debut at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK this weekend. It has even been making runs up the famous Goodwood hill, and while it’s still just a prototype, one thing is clear: it’s an absolute unit.
I wouldn’t say that just to say it, either. The wheels alone measure 940mm (37 inches!) in diameter, according to Extreme E’s organizers. The SUV’s body is 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) wide, 1.9 meters (6.2 feet) tall, 4.4 meters (14.4 feet) long, and the whole thing weighs a whopping 1,650 kilograms (3,638 pounds).
And yet this big lad can still go from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (0 to 62 miles per hour) in 4.5 seconds, even on steep grades. That’s thanks to a total 400kW (550hp) power output, driven by motors on each wheel.
The Extreme E series will start putting the Odyssey 21 prototype through its paces this September, and French manufacturer Spark Racing Technology is set to deliver 12 final versions of the racecar in March 2020.
Extreme E is slated to kick off in early 2021. The goal of the series, which was created by Formula E founder Alejandro Agag, is to race in far-flung places with “fragile ecosystems” to “highlight the impact of climate change,” as well as promote electric vehicle technology. The series is still working out how all that will happen, though it did just sign a multi-year broadcast deal with Fox Sports. What is clear is that, if the final vehicles look anything like the first prototype, Extreme E will be a racing series full of big, beefy EVs that are also really fast. As Swedish racing driver Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky, who drove the Odyssey 21 up the hill at Goodwood, can be heard saying at the end of the clip above: “Holy shit!”
July Fourth brought along a bunch of good deals on tech, and fortunately, most of them are still happening. Below, we’ve rounded up the week’s biggest price drops on a few 4K TVs, gaming tech, and more.
Looking into the very near future (just over a week from now), Amazon Prime Day 2019 will be underway. Expect to find even more sales when it starts on July 15th. We’ve put together some tips on how to spot the good deals from the not-so-good ones yourself. But don’t worry, we’ll still be doing our part to show you the very best deals.
Vizio’s 2019 P-Series Quantum X received its first big price drop for July Fourth at Best Buy, Walmart, and Target. It’s $1,799 for the 65-inch TV (model PX65-G1) instead of $2,199. This is Vizio’s flagship model, with 384 local dimming zones and impressive 3,000 nit peak brightness.
The 65-inch model in Vizio’s more affordable M-Series lineup is cheaper, too. This TV (model M658-G1) now starts at $849.99 at at Best Buy and Vizio’s site, which is $150 off. It’s worth nothing that all of Vizio’s 2019 TVs (as well as some older ones) will get AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support this summer.
The 65-inch Sony XBR-65X950G 4K HDR TV is $1,699 at Daily Steals. This is $200 lower than Amazon’s current price. Sony’s 2019 LED TV is nearly bezel-free, and it runs on Android TV software, so you can access popular apps like Netflix, Hulu, and more without buying a streaming box. Additionally, this TV will gain AirPlay 2 and HomeKit support this summer.
TCL’s 6-series 4K HDR TV with Roku software is an excellent value if you don’t want to spend over $500. This 55-inch LED TV costs $494.37 (final price after tax) at Google Express with the offer code NOBWGZ used at checkout. Comparatively, it will cost you $499.99 at Amazon, plus the cost of tax.
The Ultimate Ears Blast speaker is $69.99 at Dell. It can handle Bluetooth connections, but it has a few other features that put it squarely against the Amazon Echo: it features far-field microphones, Wi-Fi connectivity, and Alexa voice support. Notably, it’s water-resistant and boasts 360-degree sound, so it’s more capable. Best Buy is selling it for $10 more, if Dell sells out.
Apple’s 2018 iPad Pro tablets are still discounted at Best Buy. Each configuration is around $150 off of its usual price, and the cheaper models match the best discounts we’ve seen so far. Here are a few to check out:
The 11-inch tablet (64GB, Wi-Fi) is $674.99 (usually $799.99) at Best Buy
The Wi-Fi + LTE version of this tablet is $799.99 (usually $949.99) at Best Buy
The 12.9-inch iPad Pro (64GB, Wi-Fi) costs $849.99 (usually $999.99) at Best Buy
If you want LTE connectivity with the 12.9-inch tablet, that version of the 64GB iPad Pro costs $949.99 (usually $1,149.99) at Best Buy
Sony’s PS4 Pro usually costs $399.99, but Google Express is selling it for $346.06 (final price after tax) with the offer code NOBWGZ used at checkout.
Steam’s annual summer sale will conclude on July 9th, so now is a good time to check out the deals to see if you can pick up any wishlist items for less. There are countless games that are marked down in price, but a few highlights include Soulcalibur VI for $19.79. Devil May Cry 5 costs $39.59, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is $29.99, and Astroneer is $22.49.
Lastly, you can save 50 percent on a new season of any series offered at Serial Box with the offer code FOURTH19. Each Serial Box series releases new content in seasons, much like a TV show, and they are delivered in both ebook and audiobook formats (compatible on mobile, tablet, or e-reader). They usually cost $9.99 per season, so this is a good chance to save on some summertime entertainment.
Prime members can get $5 in credits back after spending $20 on ebooks. You’ll need to activate this promotion to get the credit. This perk for Prime members ends on July 14th, the day before Prime Day 2019 begins.
The new Nebula Capsule II projector is a portable can-shaped mini projector. It can create an HD, 720p image that’s up to 100 inches diagonally. But like all mini projectors, it doesn’t get bright enough to work anywhere but in dark spaces. It has a speaker built in so you don’t have to fuss with Bluetooth. It also has Android TV built in so you don’t have to fuss with HDMI or casting from your phone (though you can do those things, too).
I could see it fitting into people’s bags as a portable projector that ticks a lot of boxes. I also could see most people balking at its cost: $579. Anker’s predecessor to the Nebula Capsule II was our pick as the best mini projector last summer. This new one is so much better that it’s a shame that it costs so much. It’s a great little gadget.
Unless you want to watch Netflix with it.
I love mini projectors. (You can also refer to them as micro or pico projectors, so I’m playing fast and loose with the terminology for this category.) The basic idea is that you have something radically smaller than a traditional bulb-based projector that you might mount to your ceiling. You could take a mini projector camping or use it in your backyard.
The Capsule II is portable enough to put anywhere, but it’s quite a bit bigger than the old one was. (Imagine one of those giant Foster’s beer cans, then make it just a little taller.) You can hold it in one hand, and you can throw it in most bags, but you’ll feel the one and a half pounds it weighs.
Even if you don’t know exactly what you’d want it for, it’s fun to imagine where you might create a gigantic screen on a whim — even if it’s just projecting a horse on your friend. But use any mini projector for even a little bit, and you’ll find they are still stuck in a particular phase of technological development: the fiddle zone.
There’s just so much to fiddle with on a mini projector! You have to find a spot to use it that’s dark enough (not to mention a surface that’s large and flat enough to project on). You have to ensure it’s aligned and straight and focused. You have to figure out how to get the video you actually want to watch on it. You have to figure out how to get enough sound out of it so everybody can hear it.
With a regular projector, you do all of that fiddling ahead of time. You create a permanent setup somewhere in your home over a weekend (or three) so that using your projector is as simple as turning on a traditional TV. With a portable mini projector, you face those challenges pretty much every time you want to use it.
The whole premise of the Capsule II is that it reduces the number of things you have to fiddle with. It is almost entirely successful in that — with a few unforced errors that are annoying but don’t ruin the experience.
On a practical level, the Capsule II solves two problems that few other portable projectors manage. First, it has a decently loud, decently good 8W speaker built in, which means you have one less thing to worry about when you set up to watch a movie. You can even use it in a Bluetooth Speaker mode, which has the added benefit of lasting way longer than the standard three-ish hours it can run in projector mode.
The second problem the Capsule II solves is just getting content into the projector so that it can project it. It has an HDMI-in port, but most of the time, you don’t need it because it runs a clean, native version of Android TV. That means you can use standard smart TV apps downloaded directly from the Google Play Store. As long as you can get a Wi-Fi connection, you can stream video from any app that’s installed on the device.
It will support Chromecast from several apps if you have the video saved locally on your phone. The device itself has very little local storage, and Android TV apps aren’t designed for downloaded content anyway. You can also play video via other means, including sideloaded apps that aren’t available in the Google App Store for Android TV or directly from video files saved on a USB thumb drive. (If you know what I mean, and I think you do.)
There’s an included remote control, so you can use this projector like you would any smart TV. In fact, it comes with the Google Assistant built in, so you can speak into the remote for searches. If you take nothing else away from this review, remember this: it’s a portable projector that’s nearly as easy to use as your smart TV, and that’s wonderful.
All of this simplicity made the Capsule II’s most serious limitation all the more frustrating: the only way to play Netflix on it is a ridiculously hacky workaround. Netflix, you might recall, is very picky about what devices it will certify for its video, and the Capsule II hasn’t made the cut yet. Netflix’s certification block also applies to casting video, unfortunately. So to watch Netflix, you either have to be clever enough to sideload it yourself or you have to do it Anker’s way.
Anker’s way is to install the smartphone app controller app, then send you through a series of convoluted steps to sideload Netflix on the device directly. (If you were hoping to just use Cast for Netflix, sorry, that doesn’t work either.) Then from now on, you can only run Netflix by hitting the button in the smartphone app. It all works, technically, but it’s an awful experience. It’s pretty rough to ask users to install a literal file browser app, and it’s just as rough to have to use a button on the phone to launch Netflix.
Speaking of rough: Amazon Prime Video is not compatible with this device, either. Aside from those limitations, I was able to watch all sorts of movies, HBO shows, and YouTube videos on it. Hulu, Spotify, Pandora. Sling, Showtime, CBS All Access, and a bunch of other standard smart TV apps are also available.
Beyond finding the content you want to watch, there is still the challenge of getting a clean, rectangular, focused image. When you set down the Capsule II, it is able to use lasers to autofocus. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the likelihood that you’d get the picture exactly where you want it on the first try is going to be low, so you’ll move the capsule a little to fix it. Once you do, it’ll go out of focus.
Anker set up the software to trigger autofocus when the device is moved, but it doesn’t work very well. The fix is to hold down the HDMI button on the remote to activate the autofocus, which is fine. But if you don’t have the remote handy, the only way to fix the autofocus — and this is what Anker suggested — is to pick the thing up and shake it.
The last fiddly thing with getting a good picture is the “keystone” adjustment, the thing that makes your picture look like a proper rectangle instead of a trapezoid. The Capsule II can only do vertical keystone adjustment, not horizontal. That means that you will need to position your projector centered directly in front of the surface you want to project on.
Getting both vertical and horizontal keystone adjustments in something this small would be difficult, and Anker also tells me that “comply with the Android TV certification regulations, we had to use only a vertical keystone.” It’s not a big deal, but you should be aware of it. There is a standard tripod mount on the bottom of the projector, so I just use it with a standard Joby GorillaPod tripod to make it easier to place in the right spot.
This all sounds dire, but in practice, it’s not — at least not if you have the remote and something good to set the Capsule II down on. You center it on a wall, point it up, hit the button to autofocus, and you’re done. Then it’s time to start playing a movie, and so long as you’ve got some kind of Wi-Fi, that’s as easy as doing it on your TV (minus Netflix and Amazon Prime video). Pro tip: make sure that Google Play movies is hooked up to your Movies Anywhere account so you can access movies that were purchased on Amazon or iTunes.
Once a video is going, the experience is nice. The picture can get really big and doesn’t seem to drift out of focus over time. Battery life really can reach just short of three hours in my experience, though you might want to have a charger or backup battery (it charges via USB-C) handy just in case. There is a fan that you can definitely hear inside, but it’s not loud enough to distract from the actual sound of the video you’re watching.
As for picture quality, don’t expect this to be as good as your TV. You’ll need a dark area, and the larger you make the screen, the darker your room should be. Anker rates it at 200 ANSI lumens, which is to say it’s brighter than many other tiny projectors, but nowhere near as bright as a dedicated projector you plug in. I projected it on lots of different surfaces and as long as the surface was flat, it produced a clean and sharp 720p image.
A portable projector is definitely an “aspirational” gadget. You can easily imagine all sorts of situations where you would be the hero with a TV in your bag. I personally like having it because I don’t want a TV in my bedroom but sometimes, you know, you just need to be in bed all day and binge something. Or maybe you have a backyard and want to have a little s’mores-and-movie time.
All that sounds great! But it also sounds like the sort of thing you’d daydream about but probably won’t do as much as you’d imagine. If this were a cheaper gadget, I’d say go on and buy your dream — you only live once — but $579 is way too much to spend on a daydream.
If the price doesn’t put you off and you’re also the sort of person who isn’t worried about those video content workarounds (I don’t judge), I think it’s a pretty great little TV in a can. I’m glad I have one. But as I’ve said before: if you have to pile on a bunch of caveats and if-thens before you recommend a product, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
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Lego’s official Apollo 11 anniversary set is pretty slick already, but aerospace engineer Adam Woodworth has made it even cooler by adding a set of propellers so that the lunar lander can actually fly, as spotted by Gizmodo.
Woodworth detailed the build in an Imgur gallery, and it’s seriously impressive. He hollowed out the inside of the set to make room for a battery and flight controller. (The battery is hidden inside the ascent stage half of the set, while the electronics are in the base). He also added the four T-Motor F40 spinning 4-inch propellors that allow it to actually fly. The motors are staggered to overlap so that Woodworth could actually get enough thrust from the set. He notes that the model is pretty heavy for its size, which made it difficult to design.
For the most part, Woodworth doesn’t resort to glue or other fasteners to hold the flying Lego craft together; he just uses the Lego brick’s connective powers. The one exception is the screws holding the motors to the plates, which makes sense given how much force they’re under.
The finished model can only fly for 90-second increments, which may not sound like a lot, but it should be just enough time to reenact the lunar landing as Woodworth does in the video. Woodworth isn’t planning to stop here, either: he’s already working on a functional ascent stage modification.
Big changes are always scary, and that’s especially true for Netflix’s Stranger Things. After showrunners Matt and Ross Duffer created an instant hit in 2016 with their focus on the “kids on bikes” aesthetic of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the question was: how long they could sustain the formula before it became stale or transformed into something unrecognizable?
It’s appropriate that the fear of change is the focus of season 3, which was released on July 4th. As the residents of the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, confront a shifting economy, the possibility of new relationships, and the tumults of puberty, the Duffer brothers are showing that they can also build on their past work and continue to expand the show’s mythology, characters, and stakes.
Season 2 was focused on Halloween, and season 3 picks up the following summer, with the show’s central gang of dorky kids struggling to adapt to new dynamics. Sweet hero Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) is spending all of his time making out with psychic government project escapee Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) to the point where he’s infuriating all of his friends as well as Eleven’s adoptive father, surly Hawkins chief of police Jim Hopper (David Harbour). It’s a classic mix of rom-com and coming-of-age tropes, with Hopper playing the protective dad. He’s more reasonable about that role than the standard clichés would suggest, but his attempts to get the lovebirds to cool things off creates a rift between them. They seek advice from their friends Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) and Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) who have somehow reached the status of senior couple, despite having broken up and gotten back together half a dozen times since October.
While these plot dynamics aren’t especially original, they’re done extremely well because of the twists provided by the show’s supernatural horror. A shopping montage with Max and Eleven, set to Madonna’s “Material Girl,” could easily come off as a sexist cliché. Instead, it’s empowering, as Eleven cultivates a colorful new look and her first female friendship, which is distinct from the succession of men who have dominated her entire life. Meanwhile, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) — who spent most of season 1 trapped in the horrifying shadow realm known as the Upside Down and season 2 being possessed by the villainous Mind Flayer — is desperate to get his friends to stop obsessing over girls and get back to playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement. It’s a stand-in sentiment for audience members who are pining for the purity of the group’s first-season dynamic, but it’s also an emotional lifeline for a deeply traumatized child who’s desperate to return to some sense of normalcy.
But this is Stranger Things,and normal isn’t in the cards. The signs that something supernatural is afoot again in Hawkins emerge slowly: magnets lose power, rats act strangely, unexplained blackouts occur, and extremely plucky nerd Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) intercepts a coded message with the high-power radio he created to communicate with a science camp girlfriend who may or may not exist.
The ways the characters react to these events let the Duffers explore their personalities and ambitions. Will does his best to ignore his feelings of foreboding, while his intractable mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) dives headlong into what she sees as a new conspiracy endangering the town and her family. Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) sees a mystery she can unravel to finally earn the respect of the sexist staff of the newspaper where she’s interning. Dustin and Steve Harrington (Joe Keery), who’s fallen from “coolest kid in school” status to “guy slinging ice cream in a sailor suit,” see the chance to earn respect. Series newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) just wants a distraction from her boring job working alongside Steve.
The story’s mix of fear and ambition provides a strong excuse for different groups to form as characters pursue leads that inevitably bring the gang back together. They’re facing a horrifying new threat that pays homage to Dawn of the Dead, Red Dawn,and The Terminator. Stranger Things continues to focus on the terrible combination of evil men playing with powers they don’t understand and the unknowable horrors of the Upside Down. But the latest manifestation gives the show’s literal monster a new voice and a terrible agenda while letting its figurative ones serve as puppets or over-the-top caricatures and comic relief.
The biggest change in season 3, though, comes in the tone. Stranger Things mirrors the shift between Alien and Aliens by moving away from slow-burn suspense to deliver high-stakes action horror. The show delivers some truly grotesque body horror, as first rats and then people are infected by the season’s villain and dissolve into oozing piles of flesh and organs with nightmarish capabilities. There are significantly more fight scenes this season, alternating between special effects-driven spectacles where Eleven shows off her powers, slugfests with Hopper trying to stand his own against a seemingly unbeatable enemy, or the kids just using improvised weapons and gumption to do what damage they can. They never feel unnecessary, though. The fights are just quick bursts of adrenaline that help advance the plot and show off the characters’ relative strengths.
And the accelerated pace isn’t just expressed visually. Once everyone stops denying that there’s a problem, they jump into fighting like the seasoned pros they are, quickly identifying who can help, who’s at risk, and what allies and tactics from previous seasons can be called in. The character and world-building choices of the first two seasons pay off here, as minor characters are called back or given expanded roles. Lucas’ sassy sister Erica (Priah Ferguson) gets to shine in season 3, as she’s roped into Dustin and Steve’s schemes — not through any sense of duty or heroism, but with the promise of free ice cream for life. While Max, who was added to season 2 to bring more gender balance to the show, felt like a forced addition at times because she spent most of her time away from the scary stuff, Robin dives right in and quickly proves she’s an invaluable ally.
Throughout the season, the Duffers make it clear that they aren’t trying to run away from the show’s roots. Instead, they’re expanding on them to be more inclusive to the many different forms of nerds. Max introduces Eleven to Wonder Woman. Robin can talk with Dustin about the technology behind Cyborg. Erica is a math whiz with an uncanny understanding of economics for a 10-year-old. Dustin badgers both Steve and Erica to abandon their pretenses of being cool kids who are above nerdom and says they shouldn’t be afraid to embrace the things and people they enjoy being around. It might as well be a plea to viewers to acknowledge that, while the show might be most meaningful to those with an existing love for its genre tropes and cultural touchstones, it doesn’t need to be limited to a specific audience.
The Duffers have used Dungeons & Dragons as an in-show reflection of the story’s events since season 1, and that’s still true in season 3. Will tries to get his friends’ minds off their relationship woes by running a game involving saving a village from Juju Zombies. (They’re classic monsters that are far more dangerous than regular zombies because they retain all of their mortal knowledge and skills.) That threat, of course, is extremely similar to what’s happening in Hawkins. But the game also provides a frame for the show itself. The boys won’t stay in the basement together forever, but the game will remain core to their friendship, with new campaigns letting them work together and build on their shared knowledge and experience. Characters will sacrifice themselves nobly, monsters will be heroically defeated, and the fantasy and friendships will live on as long as Netflix and viewers maintain their passion.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria — superbugs — are medical monsters of our own design. Honed by years of antibiotic misuse and overuse, superbugs demand new weapons to treat them. Bacteria-hunting viruses called phages have emerged as potentially potent tools in this fight, successfully sicced on vicious infections in a psychologist who caught a superbug on vacation and a London cystic fibrosis patient.
The cases are the most dramatic moments yet in a Western renaissance for phage therapy. Over a century since its debut, phage therapy is having a moment. And researchers are hoping that the moment lasts long enough for this to become not just a reliable weapon in our war against superbugs, but also potentially a tool that could do anything from delivering cancer drugs to parts of the body, to making our food supply safer.
Just a few decades ago, phages were mostly forgotten in the West — but were still used frequently by doctors in the Eastern bloc. Alexander “Sandro” Sulakvelidze, a researcher from the country of Georgia first learned of the knowledge disparity during a fellowship at the University of Maryland in the 1990s. Sulakvelidze came upon his mentor, who had just lost a patient to a drug-resistant infection. When Sulakvelidze asked why the phages had not worked, his mentor asked him what he was talking about.
“It was one of those moments in life when it really hit me,” Sulakvelidze says by phone. “Somebody’s father, brother, husband, friend just died in the most developed country in the world … has just died really unnecessarily, probably, from a simple infection that probably could have been treated in Georgia.”
Nearly thirty years later, Thomas Patterson lived. The UC San Diego psychologist caught a vicious stomach bug on a vacation to Egypt. When he took a turn for the worse, bloodwork back in San Diego revealed he was fighting Acinetobacter baumannii, a bacterium nicknamed Iraqibacter for its proliferation in the Iraq conflict.
Iraqibacter is an example of a “superbug,” bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Desperate, his wife — epidemiologist Steffanie Strathdee — dove into the medical research and found papers on phage therapy. She promptly put out a call to other doctors around the world. The resulting assistance saved her husband’s life.
Isabelle Carnell is alive, too. A cystic fibrosis patient in London, Carnell’s double lung transplant had led to an infection by Mycobacterium abscessus, another superbug. A team, led by Graham Hatfull of the University of Pittsburgh, began a phage treatment for Carnell as well. This was the first use of genetically modified phages for treatment, and the first time phages have been used against an infection of the genus Mycobacterium, which includes tuberculosis, one of the deadliest maladies on earth. Within six months, the infection had been beaten back.
In 2010, Texas A&M University opened the Center for Phage Technology; the US Naval Medical Research Center began studying phages in earnest a year later. In 2018, inspired in part by Patterson’s recovery — detailed in a memoir Strathdee co-authored with Patterson called The Perfect Predator — UC San Diego founded the Center for Innovative Phage Applications and Therapeutics (IPATH). Strathdee is now co-director of IPATH.
Superbugs and scorched earth
Phage therapy’s biggest obstacle, Strathdee believes, was its poor fortune to be discovered before penicillin, in 1917. (That phage therapies’ discoverer, Félix d’Herelle, was widely disliked did not help.) When the antibiotic first arrived, with its broad-spectrum, scorched-earth ability to eliminate vast swaths of different bacteria, the phage — which could only attack one specific bacteria at a time — was deemed less useful. The continued research and usage of phages in Eastern bloc countries like Poland and Georgia helped put the nail in the coffin; geopolitical bias made phage research for the Communists.
The specificity which made phages once seem less desirable is now their greatest appeal. By overusing antibiotics, humanity unwittingly tipped the scales in an evolutionary arms race, leaving behind the strongest, most drug-resistant bacteria. The phage is now a potentially potent weapon against these so-called superbugs.
Hatfull says that phages have been locked in an invisible war with bacteria for potentially 3 billion years, predating most forms of life we see today and predating bacteria just as long. The typical phage depicted in science books and as phage centers’ mascots are from the family Myoviridae. Looking something like the love child of a spider and a syringe, they feature a thin body topped with a “head” like a Dungeons & Dragons die, and end in a protrusion which injects their genetic material into the bacteria. The virus replicates inside the hijacked host, eventually destroying the bacteria as it escapes. This process is called the lytic cycle, and hunter-killer phages are called lytic to distinguish them from other phages which do not kill their prey.
Working together as a phage cocktail, lytic phages can target and destroy superbugs. When the bacteria begin to resist the phages, biologists can genetically modify the phages to better attack the bacteria. The phages can even work in concert with antibiotics, applying evolutionary pressure from both sides. The bacteria must “choose” what to become resistant to, leaving them vulnerable to the other treatment method.
“We don’t know enough about this kind of synergy,” Strathdee says. But further study can reveal which phages work best with which antibiotics, opening new methods of therapy. “Many of us don’t think that phage are ever going to replace antibiotics. We think they’re going to be an adjunct to antibiotics.”
Mzia Kutateladze, director of the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, is excited to see phage therapy gaining traction and resources in the West. Whereas a few decades ago, Georgian scientists like Kutateladze and Sulakvelidze were viewed askance for their use of phages, they are now finding new acceptance.
“I really proudly can say, together with the Georgians, that we have many international patients who are coming to us,” Kutateladze says. “And we have very nice results with very, very desperate and chronic infections.”
Bespoke bacteria killers
While promising, there are drawbacks to phage therapy.
“The specificity is a double-edged sword,” Graham Hatfull says by phone. It’s advantageous for superbugs and for avoiding side effects. But that precision comes at a price: a phage that works for one strain of superbug in one patient may not work for another strain. Diagnosing the correct pathogen becomes absolutely critical, as phages not designed to attack the bacteria being treated are useless in said treatment.
Strathdee believes that a giant, open-source phage library is key to making phage therapy valuable. Scientists and physicians can use the library to match phages and bacteria, ensuring quicker treatment. With enough genomic information about bacteria and phages — and a large enough training set — Hatfull imagines a world where machine learning enhances therapies. One could sequence the pathogen, plug the genomics into the algorithm, and be told which phages to mix together in the most effective cocktail.
Jean-Paul Pirnay, a researcher at Queen Astrid Military Hospital in Brussels, takes this vision one step further. Pirnay believes synthetic natural phages, which are being worked on at Queen Astrid, may help alleviate the specificity problem. A system for producing custom-made iterations of natural phages would mean quick tailoring to particular pathogens and would remove the expense of storing massive stocks of phage. Eventually, Pirnay imagines a world where phages that do not exist in nature — truly bespoke viruses — are designed with the help of artificial intelligence to be as effective as possible, an infinite tool box.
Adding fuel to the fire is new investment by pharmaceutical companies, since genetically modified phages can be patented. Johnson & Johnson is in a partnership worth hundreds of millions with Locus Biosciences, a North Carolina-based company which specializes in using boutique phages to inject CRISPR-Cas3 into bacteria. CRISPR-Cas3 is often compared to Pac-Man: once inside the bacteria, it shreds the bacteria’s DNA like so many blue ghosts, killing it.
Locus’ genetically modified phages help alleviate one of the challenges of phage therapy, which is that lytic phages do not always kill every bacteria. Locus can engineer the phages to have a more effective “depth of killing profile,” helping to ensure that everything the phage hunts is killed.
There’s also potential in using phages as biological, targeted syringes. “In theory, you can deliver all different kinds of enzymes that do all different kinds of things,” Joseph Nixon, senior vice president of business development at Locus, says by phone. Nixon envisions phages being used to pinpoint cancer targets and — what he deems the “holy grail” — central nervous system targets.
Theoretically, phages could be used to target bacteria in other ways — potentially increasing their pathogenicity instead of killing them. Luckily, that’s unlikely, Pirnay writes. He says there are more practical methods available for weaponizing bacteria, including CRISPR-Cas tools.
Phages for thought (and food)
Memories of the senseless death of his mentor’s patient stayed with Sulakvelidze. He went on to found Intralytix, a phage-focused company currently based in Baltimore, which today is perhaps best known for its food safety applications of the viruses.
The phages, which target specific food-borne illness-causing bacteria, are not only effective at killing the pathogens, but are also certified kosher and halal, non-genetically modified, listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute, and are less abrasive than the chemical methods commonly used. The phages are sprayed onto the food, taking advantage of infrastructure which may already be in use, and cost slightly more than food safety chemicals, but are considerably cheaper than other non-chemical protections like irradiation and high-pressure pasteurization.
For similar health conscious and anti-superbug reasons, phages have veterinary applications as well; targeted phage therapies to treat sick livestock may remove the overuse of antibiotics from animals’ food supply.
According to Intralytix, the phages have applications in environmental sanitation and as probiotics — killing the bad stuff, keeping the good stuff. And the company recently announced a partnership with Ferring Pharmaceuticals and the Eliava Foundation, a Georgian nonprofit that is a separate entity from the Institute, to begin research for reproductive and women’s health. The researchers think phages could help with the management of bacterial vaginosis, Sulakvelidze wrote in an email to The Verge, and the treatment of pregnancy-related diseases. Once again, the specificity of phages is key; they could attack the “bad” bacteria without destabilizing the body’s invisible ecosystem.
Sulakvelidze imagines a near future where phages — for food safety, or perhaps dietary supplements — are readily available in the West, perhaps even over the counter, like in his native Georgia.
Bacteria hunter’s hurdles
All of the above work — the superbug bird-dogging, the research into and use of genetically modified phages, and their application in agriculture and OTC uses — are happening now, and will likely continue to grow as superbugs continue to kill, and novel uses for phages are discovered. And while all this is promising, there are real challenges facing phage research.
We are entering an arms race which long precedes us, and will go on long after we disappear. The recent discovery of a CRISPR-Cas defense which robs the phage of the machinery it needs to replicate is just one of the many ingenious defenses we will no doubt encounter as we continue to fight superbugs. Phage therapy will need to find ways to overcome these bacterial defenses to remain effective.
A current lack of basic knowledge needs to be addressed; the more information we have about the phages and their chosen prey, the better we will be able to utilize them, and the more applications we may find. Poorly run clinical trials have hamstrung the field before, and a headlong rush without more understanding could send it spiraling now. People that are using phages, Kutateladze says, should know how to use them, what phages are needed, and how they work in general.
The biggest challenge of all, however, may be perception — but that is rapidly changing.
Strathdee was invited to share her and her husband’s story at the annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Held at the very end of the conference on a Sunday morning, when many have usually gone home, hundreds of people packed the room to hear the harrowing tale. Many in the audience were crying, Strathdee said, and came up to her after to express their newfound interest in phages.
“We’re seeing more excitement than we ever have before, because our back is up against the wall,” Strathdee says. Superbugs threaten the entire world; we have interfered in the delicate balance between humanity, viruses, and bacteria.
“In my husband’s case, total strangers stepped up from around the world to donate phages to cure him. And if we can do it for one man, we can do it for the planet.”