Making Room For The Vive – Valve And HTC Think They Have A Better Way To Do VR

by Ben Reeves on Dec 28, 2015 at 08:00 AM

Technology constantly reshapes the rooms in our homes. A few centuries ago, our living rooms were filled with fine artwork, musical instruments, and other worldly trinkets designed to impress and entertain dinner guests. But when the radio showed up – promising a steady stream of news and gossip from the outside world – we made room for it. When the television provided the opportunity to bring the cinema into our homes, we made room for it. When the personal computer promised to streamline our workload and plug us into a larger, connected world, we made room for it. Valve and HTC are banking on the idea that we’re ready to make room in our homes virtual reality as well.

For years, the creators of Half-Life and Portal have been developing a virtual reality system that is a little different than the technology Oculus and Sony have created. Valve’s VR technology asks users to open up a five-meter square of space in their home. In return it offers unparalleled head tracking and immerses users in unique virtual worlds. The technology is impressive, but will Valve be able to trade new worlds for a section of their users’ homes?

[This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in Game Informer issue 273]

Learning To Love VR
In early 2012, Valve established a hardware research group with the goal of developing projects such as the Steam Machine and Steam Controller. The team was also excited to work with augmented reality technology, but quickly came to the conclusion that virtual reality was a more exciting project. All the pieces for a great virtual reality headset were out there, but nobody was putting them together into a single headset.

The team spent 18 months buying pre-existing virtual reality technology off eBay and hacking them into a new patchwork VR headset. However, not everyone at Valve was convinced the project was worth the company’s time.

Ken Birdwell was one of the naysayers. A Valve lifer, Birdwell worked with Valve’s CEO Gabe Newell at Microsoft in the mid-‘90s, and was part of the initial team that founded the company. Birdwell created Valve's proprietary skeletal animation system, which allowed the characters in the original Half-Life to perform fluid yet complex animations, and then helped design the character Alyx for Half-Life 2. During his tenure at the company, Birdwell has had a hand in everything from Half-Life to Left 4 Dead to Portal 2. But he hated VR.

“I tried my first VR headset in 1985 at [the computer graphics conference] SIGGRAPH,” Birdwell recalls. “I waited in line for 45 minutes to put on that headset, and it totally sucked. It was a horrible experience. I got sick almost instantly. After that, I tried VR headsets every year or two for about 10 years, and then finally gave up on it in the mid ‘90s.”

Despite his inclinations Valve wasn’t giving up on VR, so Birdwell decided he should at least find out what his company was working on. Once Valve’s experimental hardware group had a working prototype, Birdwell walked into their office and demanded a demo.

“I was ready to say a bunch of blandly polite things and not discourage them too badly, but when I put on the headset it was just amazing,” Birdwell says. “I was standing in a badly textured room, on a badly textured box floating up in space. I could feel this heavy wired contraption on my head, and I could hear people talking behind me. Everything about it was wrong from a technical point of view, but when someone said, ‘Step off the ledge,’ I couldn’t. My leg wouldn’t move. I started laughing, because weird parts of my brain said, ‘No, it’s real!’”

That moment was a revelation for Birdwell. Not only did VR finally work; it was incredible. He knew he had to be involved with this project. Valve famously doesn’t have job titles, but Birdwell is now the closest thing the company has to a VR project manager. For the last three years, Birdwell has helped shaped the company’s vision for the future of virtual reality: a completely immersive world that players could physically walk around and even touch.

VR Evangelists
The word ‘immersive’ has been drained of much of its power in the gaming industry, but it’s hard to describe Valve’s vision for VR any other way. The company wasn’t content to allow users to simply look into virtual worlds. Unlike the Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR sets – which offer largely stationary experiences – Valve wants users to to stand up and walk around their virtual landscapes. Of course, this vision requires users to create a five-meter square of empty space somewhere in their home and then place at least two sensors on opposite corners of that room.

Walking through virtual worlds is only part of what makes Valve’s technology so immersive. The other half is an input system that allows users to reach into the digital world and manipulate its environment. To allow for this, Valve developed two motion sensing wands, complete with triggers and circular touchpads, which allow the developers to simulate everything from using a paint brush to firing a gun.

Valve wasn’t shy about sharing its VR technology, either. Early on, the company hosted a virtual reality day where it invited developers from across the country to come to its office and experiment with its new technology. To further help proselytize its vision for VR, Valve built several VR rooms across the country, which it used to demo the technology for companies like Starbreeze and Oculus.

“We demoed for everybody: senior executives, industry insiders, your grandparents,” Birdwell says. “We spent thousands of hours showing our VR setup to anybody who showed up. After the demo, most people say, “This is amazing!” But after HTC had done it, they said, ‘We want to build one.’”

A week after HTC’s CEO and president, Cher Wang, received Valve’s demo, the Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer sent 10 engineers from its Taipei headquarters to Seattle to work alongside Valve’s VR team. Six months later, HTC had early prototypes of a headset it was now calling the Vive to send to developers and game makers.

“They work with materials that we have never been able to solve,” Birdwell says. “They figured out how to make the headset adjustable. Ours was always rigid and the straps were really uncomfortable. They have a tremendous background in material science, so they can casually do things that we would never even attempt.”

However, as HTC’s production pipeline ramped up and both companies looked forward to a 2016 release, it became clear that Valve wasn’t done selling its vision. If the Vive was going to set itself apart from the Oculus Rifts and Sony VRs of the world, Valve would have to convince several developers to make use of the Vive’s unique technology. Valve seems pretty happy with the Vive’s upcoming slate of software, but most of these upcoming titles are indie projects or ports of non-VR games like Team Fortress 2, Final Fantasy XIII-2, and Pro Evolution Soccer 2015.

Fortunately, earlier this year Epic Games announced support for Valve's SteamVR software, meaning it will be easy for developers to create games for the Vive using Unreal Engine 4. Valve also says that it’s fairly easy for developers to port projects designed for the Oculus Rift over to the Vive, and the company plans to support Linux and Mac OS as well as Windows. All of this should make it easier for developers to get their games on Valve’s hardware, and hopefully attract new developers to the system, but only time will tell if developers actually make use of the extra room Valve has given them.

Touching The Future
In an effort to figure out what works in VR, Valve has created hundreds – if not thousands – of various tech demos, showcasing the strengths of VR. During my visit to the studio for this story, I got hands on with several of these experiences and experimented with the latest Vive prototype.

Room to Move

Some of the Vive’s critics have decried the fact that users must create a five-meter cube of space in order make proper use of the headset. However, Valve doesn’t feel like this will be much of an issue for most consumers. For one, the Vive’s set-up is reportedly less complicated than a traditional surround sound system. But more importantly, consumers who don’t have a lot of room in their homes can set up the Vive’s sensors with less than five meters of space. In fact, Valve says that their tracking system will work within a shorter distance than Microsoft’s Kinect.

“The five-meter by five-meter square is kind of the outer limit of where this system tracks really well,” Birdwell says. “The reality is even being able to walk around in a two-meter by two-meter space really adds to the sense of presence in a way that sitting in a chair doesn’t. That sense of being becomes an incredibly compelling experience, and people pay for compelling experiences.”

The headset itself is extremely comfortable even when it’s strapped snugly to your head, so it was easy to forget I was even wearing one, except when I occasionally stepped on the cord that ran to the computer. Going forward, one of the biggest improvements Valve can make to the Vive would be to get rid of that cord – or at least moving it up and out of the way. A second upgrade would be to add a built-in audio output; Vive users currently have to use their own set of headphones to hear what happening in VR space.

New users will initially feel nervous about walking around their house technically blindfolded, but you shouldn’t have to worry about running into walls thanks to Valve’s chaperone system. This silent assistant throws up a holographic fence whenever you approach the limits of your play space. After about a minute of adjusting to this feature, I was confidently strolling through virtual worlds.

Valve is also still working on a pass-through solution that will allow users to see the real world without taking off their headsets, but the Vive helps mitigate this need by tracking your controller wands as well as your headset. As soon as I put on the Vive, I could see digital versions of my wands sitting in the middle of empty virtual space. The placement of these digital models corresponds exactly to their real-life doppelgangers. So while it might still be a bit of a trick to find your soda while wearing a VR headset, you’ll never have to worry about losing your controllers.

The wands themselves are comfortable, but I wonder if they need more inputs. The touch pads can be programmed to function in a variety of ways, but the triggers are the only buttons on these remotes, which might make it hard for designers to create more traditional game experiences.

One of the Vive’s most memorable demos is Aperture Robot Repair, which features Portal’s familiar wit and charm (even if it lacks the puzzles). The demo begins with a computerized voice asking me to open a series of drawers. When I open a drawer that contains a miniature office scene featuring tiny stick figure workers typing away in miniature cubicles, the computerized voice informs me that, “You have just interfered with an Aperture Science pocket universe capsule. You are now their god. Please close the door to initiate pocket universe contingency protocols.” Once I close the drawer, the voice comes back and says, “Good. Contaminated pocket universe has been incinerated. Opening drawers has now been removed from your list of responsibilities.”

After the drawer incident, Portal’s robot co-op buddy, Atlas, enters the room, and I am tasked with repairing him. After spending a few minutes pulling apart his electronic guts, it becomes clear that I am destined to fail. Then the walls fall down, revealing the menacing form of GLaDOS, who has locks me away in a padded cell. Overall, interacting with Portal’s world in this new way was incredibly exhilarating. GLaDOS’s towering form seemed more threatening than ever before, and manipulating objects in the environment felt completely natural.

Some of the Vive’s other demos allow users to experience the daunting scale of a blue whale, experiment with cooking various recipes in a kitchen, and simply draw in the 3D space around them using light. One Valve programmer used photos from the Martian rover to generate a true-to-life model of the red planet’s landscape, allowing users to simulate humanity’s first walk on Mars.

Many of these demos sound simple, even benign, but they are a touch more immersive than many of the Oculus and PlayStation VR demos I’ve experienced; walking around a virtual world adds greatly to your sense of presence.

“We’re still in that mode of trying to figure out what do we do with this,” Birdwell says. “We have endless experiments, and they’re neat things, but we still have to figure out how we put this into a narrative. How do we pull the player through this immersion? If players actually did all of the actions from Half-life in VR, they’d be fatigued in five minutes. It doesn’t mean we can’t use that fiction; we just have to figure out a new way to approach it.”

A Brand New Experience
Valve is passionate about the future of VR, and it has built an impressive piece of technology to help make that future a reality. Its system allows users to experience a greater degree of immersion than its competitor’s technology, and if Valve properly leverages its Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, and Portal brands it could encourage consumers and developer to support its vision for virtual reality.

Unfortunately, a number of unknowns still surrounds the launch of the Vive. Will consumers be turned off by the Vive’s space requirements? Can Valve and HTC package all of this tech into a bundle that is priced competitively with other systems on the market? Has Valve convinced enough developers to make proper use of its system, or will the Vive’s launch lineup be full of Oculus Rift ports?

Valve wouldn’t share its answers to those questions yet, but its VR team seems sure of one thing. “When you show someone good VR, it changes their perspective on things,” Birdwell says. “Traditional video games are awesome, but I’ve played all of them and they are just refinements at this point. I haven’t really seen anything new in 10 years. It’s not that people haven’t been doing amazing work; it’s just that everybody already knows what modern video games look like. Everything that comes out now gets judged against every game before it. In VR you don’t get to do that, because it’s a stunning realization of, ‘I’ve never done this before!’

To experience Valve’s vision for VR, we will have to make a bit of a commitment. Not only will we have to set up two sensors on either side of our gaming rooms, but we will have to clear away our coffee tables and shoo away our household pets so they don’t get in the way while we explore VR’s digital frontier. We’re going to need to rearrange our homes to take full advantage of the Vive, but if Valve’s vision for virtual reality is as powerful as the company believes then we’ll make room.

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