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gdc 2015

Valve's First Foray Into Virtual Reality Is A Convincing One

by Matt Bertz on Mar 04, 2015 at 02:27 PM

Three days after Valve announced its virtual reality partnership with HTC, we finally had a chance to test out the technology we have heard rumors about from giddy developers for a couple years. Though the initial setup is much more cumbersome than the other VR demos we've tried, once you drop into the virtual demos created to showcase the possibilities of the technology, those concerns fade away.

The vast majority of VR demos I've experienced to this point have involved a headset, a chair, and a controller. Valve's is considerably more complicated. Two base stations positioned on the top of shelves in the corners of the room are set up to track the player location with laser sensors. The headset isn't considerably different feeling than the Crystal Cove version of the Rift, with straps that hold the goggles in place on your face. The player also uses two wand-like devices that are currently tethered to the Vive with cords. The final retail model will be wireless. I also had to wear a belt that keeps the cords from tripping me up.

The tech demo took place in a wide room to allow some freedom of movement for the user. Valve ensures the player is kept safe while on the move with a clever technology that creates a virtual barrier that appears if you move too far in any direction. Our Valve rep says these boundaries could be set by the user to accommodate a variety of rooms.

The first Vive demo I'm thrown into is The Blu: Encounter, which begins with me standing on the deck of a shipwreck deep in the bottom of the ocean. The deck has been designed to create natural barriers for my movement. Railings surround me on three sides, and behind me a downed support beam blocks my path. Looking around the environment, I see schools of fish swim close to my position. Like Sony's The Deep demo, the attention to detail is impressive. Not long after I examine a small fish that is swimming centimeters away from my face, the main attraction arrives. Over my left shoulder a gigantic blue whale swims into the area, lumbering closely to my position so I can truly appreciate the beast's sense of scale.

For the next demo, Job Simulator, I'm placed into a virtual kitchen and tasked with making a batch of soup. I see onions, mushrooms, and tomatoes in front of me. I walk to the other side of the kitchen to grab a chef's knife, but when I try to make the Barefoot Contessa proud with my knife skills the blade shatters. With no other options for prepping the meal properly, I just throw all the necessary ingredients into the pot. This transforms the soup into a large can of soup, which I place on the serving tray and hit the dinner bell. The fidelity of control felt lacking in this demo, not unlike most motion devices I have used in the past.

I have absolutely no talent for drawing or painting, but that didn't stop me from marveling at the impressive Tilt Brush demo that followed my culinary exploits. This 3D painting simulation allowed me to draw in a 3D space, changing brush types and colors with the palette in my other hand. The controller seemed to have more fidelity than the last demo as I scribbled fine lines into space. I filled the space around me with snowflakes and watched them dance in the virtual environment. 

Valve saved the best demo for last, leading me into an Aperture Science test facility for my new job as a robot repairman. Following the direction of the robot voice booming into the room, I walk over to a series of drawers. The first drawer holds a set of robot blueprints, which the voice kindly tells me is not what I'm looking for. The next one down has a moldy, half-eaten cake, which again is not my primary objective. The third  drawer had a colony of paper people working diligently in their office cubicles. As I stare at them they react as if they are seeing a godlike figure, some bowing down to me and others running to safety. The voice tells me I have ruined this experiment and that my drawer opening responsibilities have been removed. 

I am now instructed to walk across the room to open a bay door. Doing so reveals a busted up ATLAS model, which starts lurching into the room. I physically move to get out of its way, and a series of devices appears from above to grab the ATLAS and hold it in place. The arms manipulated the robot to expose all of its intricate guts, and the voice overhead starts barking a series of commands so fast I can't keep up with the directions. I manipulate two parts of the robot, which only makes matters worse. Suddenly every part of the robot falls to the floor, and I'm informed that my robot repair responsibilities have been removed. At this point, GlaDOS appears to revel in my worthlessness, telling me that given my performance perhaps it's better I die. As the floor falls away around me and GlaDOS hovers above, it's hard not to feel insignificant and helpless.

The Portal demo is the best VR experience I've had at GDC so far, selling the vision of being one of the test subjects at the infamous lab. I'd love to see how the Portal team could extrapolate this into a full experience. 

The Vive's impressive technology certainly makes it a player in the VR space, but we still have many questions that must be answered to truly know where this product will fit in the VR landscape. With two sensor stations, two controllers, and the headset itself, it wouldn't be surprising if the Vive ended up being the most expensive VR option on the market when it launches at the end of the year. But if Valve and its partners can deliver more experiences like the Portal demo, it could end up being the fan favorite.