Steam Dev Days made VR enticing, now it needs to be convincing

20 Jan 2014  by   Peter Parrish
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Thanks to the information that’s been flowing out of Steam Dev Days since last week, we have a much clearer idea how two big names will be approaching virtual reality on PC. Valve will (for now) be opting out of hardware manufacture and distribution, just as they are with Steam Machines, but have spent a substantial amount of time testing and refining VR prototypes that show what the technology is capable of. Oculus (makers of the Rift device,) have enjoyed the benefits of Valve’s expertise and gave a talk about the problems with porting existing games to VR.

Valve’s prototype and software demos got rave reviews, including one comparison to a Star Trek holodeck. But before we get carried away with dreams of a Doctor Leah Brahms sim where you have to avoid the clumsy advances of Geordi La Forge, let’s remember the substance of the reports. One demo had the player flying through the world, another placed players over a deep chasm and a further offering had people dodging mechanical arms in a Portal turret assembly process. These are efforts specifically designed to maximise the sensory effects of the device and show off the technology, but they’re as far from being a complete game as those classic Amiga demoscene releases of the 90s.

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The guts of a Valve VR prototype.

Of course that doesn’t mean they should just be written off. They may end up as vital to gaming history as the first demos of a guy walking around a 3D maze in first-person. The potential is there for something astonishing to be created, but in Valve’s own words they’re “just figuring out what’s fun” about VR at the moment. For example, they’ve discovered it’s fun to construct a ground-breaking VR simulation and then say “we’re not going to release it to the public though, lol.”

The term repeated throughout Michael Abrash’s talk was ‘presence.’ It’s this sensation, the illusion of being transported to another place by a VR headset, that Valve feel is the hook that will keep people fixated. It’s the hats of VR. Abrash stressed that a convincing feeling of presence is only possible when a variety of factors (tracking, resolution, latency, FOV and the like) are at optimal levels. Valve’s Dev Days prototypes met these specifications, but are non-commercial research and development projects. Oculus isn’t quite there yet with the Rift, although the latest version (Crystal Cove) is said to be a step closer.

Valve speculates that a manufactured headset with decent presence parameters and a sensible price tag is still around two years away. It’ll almost certainly be be a seated device. So more of a chair-based holodeck, then.

valve vr 03

Now you can be abused on the internet in whole new dimensions.

If and when that does occur, it seems likely that Oculus will be the company to sell it. Their Steam Dev Days presentation pushed the idea of creating new, innovative designs tailored for a VR device rather than simply adapting older titles. In fact, one of the slides used in Palmer Luckey’s talk quite literally stated “stop thinking about porting existing games.” The company thinks the next two years should be about experimentation. What kind of art styles work inside VR? Will genres that aren’t based in first-person transition well, or will there be whole new spin-off genres? Should we just let the porn industry take it from here? And so on.

Both Valve and Oculus seem aware that they’ll need to convince the cautious adaptors. People like me, in other words. I’d love to give a Valve prototype VR demo a show-floor test run, and if I found myself on the Isle of Man and Tim let me in his house I’d be interested to mess around with his Oculus dev kit too. But right now I have no plans to buy one of these things. Even the Crystal Cove version still sounds too far away from what Valve has outlined as an optimal VR headset. It’s the same reason I don’t tend to jump on Early Access games; I’d prefer a finalised version to the thrill of being an early adaptor.

If Oculus is hoping to expand beyond the specialist market and make VR a true alternative gaming experience, a VR headset needs to be as crucial a component for a new PC as a keyboard, mouse or glowing sense of hardware master race pride. Sharing expertise with Valve could vital in achieving this. It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of using a proprietary program like Steam to purchase, store and run our games would’ve seemed ridiculous. Now, Steam is on 75 million PCs worldwide. If anyone knows how to make something appear as indispensable as a DOTA 2 item with a particle effect on it, it’s Gabe Newell’s wizards.

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Hopefully you won’t need quite such an eccentric decorating scheme.

At first I was surprised that Valve were collaborating rather than competing with the Oculus team, but after thinking about it a little more I’m pretty much in favour. ‘Competition’ is often waved around as some kind of business panacea, but it’s far from a universal truth that competition is good for the average customer. The British public were sold that lie by energy companies back in the 1980s and are now (quite literally) paying the price for it. In the US, telecommunications giants are now out shilling the same line in the face of changes to net neutrality.

In any case, Valve seems happy to share its research findings with other hardware companies too, so it’s not locked in to a monogamous relationship with Oculus. It would make no sense to horde this data away from VR-focused companies just for the sake of some petty competitive edge. Valve just wants Oculus (or anybody else) to manufacture a VR headset at a customer-friendly price, so that they can reap the rewards of the inevitable software sales.

While I’m still cautious about this fresh drive towards VR (after all, like with 3D movies, we’ve seen it before,) it’s definitely enticing. Oculus appear to be iterating on a solid foundation and have the ability to summon former id Software founder John Carmack at will. Valve is offering the benefits of their own research, with, no doubt, an eye on Steam becoming the main platform for delivering VR games.

oculus-rift-crystal-cove.jpeg

The Oculus Crystal Cove poses for a vanity shot.

You only have to look at the sheer amount of time dedicated to VR talks at Steam Dev Days to understand what kind of a push Valve is giving to the technology. The majority of day two was all about VR, and Michael Abrash was unequivocal in his belief that the PC was the only platform flexible and powerful enough to support virtual reality.

Only the events of the next 24 months or so will show whether the faith placed in VR is going to amount to much this time. At worst, I’d guess that the modern headsets will become a tool beloved by specialist gamers (though this may leave them undersupported with software.) At best, we’ll see a return to the pinnacle of VR. A holodeck-esque demonstration of presence unlike any other. By which I mean a new production of Craig Charles’ Cyber Zone. Awooga awooga, my friends.

You can read Michael Abrash’s Steam Dev Days talk in full, here. Valve has stated that all conference talks will eventually be online in some form.

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