Valve Demonstrates the Future of VR Better Than Anyone
Look into my eyes.
Valve has experimented with virtual reality for years, but the Vive headset that it's designed in partnership with HTC is the first anyone outside the company and its tight-knit circles have seen of its efforts. It's an impressive piece of kit, featuring a high-res, independent display for each eye, and a chassis that's packed with sensors to monitor your movements so that they can be replicated in VR. It's a great VR headset, but so are the Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus, which have seen great improvements over the last year. Yet, after my demo during GDC this week, I can say one thing with certainty: Valve has taken the lead in the VR arms race.
VR isn't just about the headset, because for a VR system to work its magic, it needs to account for more than just what you see and where your head is. For a VR experience to truly shine, you need to be able to move and interact with your surroundings. Granted, I've experienced these capabilities on both Oculus Rift and Morpheus, but Valve's solution to these problems is far and away the best yet.
Valve set me up in an empty room about 15' x 15' in size. I was handed a belt in order to secure the Vive's cables to my waist, rather than having them pull down on the headset as I moved around the room. The Vive was placed on my head, and for a moment, I stared at a white landscape with pillars surrounding me, bobbing slightly in place. I began to walk around, and the pillars moved out of my way. Then the person running the demo told me to look down. There were one-handed, virtual controllers on either side of me. When he told me to grab them, I did so with ease, because they were exactly where my brain expected them to be.
Similar to Sony's Move controllers, Valve's prototype VR controller features positional tracking, but that's where the similarities end. It's closer to a Wii nunchuck than a Move controller, just larger and flatter. Where you would find the analog stick on a Wii nunchuck, Valve has placed a large touch-sensitive pad on the front, a trigger in the back, and two buttons on either side that you activate by tightening your grip on the controller. They're comfortable and simple; everything a controller should be.
I was then told to walk around to get a feel for my surroundings. When I came close to a wall, a virtual, wire-frame wall appeared to warn me. When I reached out to touch that, I felt the real wall. Even before I started the actual demos, I was already impressed with the clarity of the headset's screen and optics, the accuracy of the setup's positional tracking, and the feel of the controller. And then the demos began.
The first demo put me on the deck of an old shipwreck on the bottom of the ocean. I walked around and inspected the nooks of the wreck while tiny fish swam around me, actively avoiding me when I obstructed their path. Eventually, a massive blue whale appeared and circled the wreck, and the sense of scale hit home; I was small and it was incredibly large. So far so good, but this demo didn't do anything I hadn't experienced in other demos. On to round two.
For my next trip, I was whisked to a restaurant's kitchen, but it was rendered to look like a cartoon. My first task as head chef: make soup. A list of ingredients on a board in front of me gave me all the direction I needed. A tomato here, a carrot there, and with a pinch of salt, I'd made soup. Grabbing ingredients with the trigger came naturally with no instruction, as did squeezing the controller to squirt hot sauce out of a bottle when I decided to spice things up. Ready to serve, I put the soup on the service counter and hit the bell. "Ding!"
Moving on, my creativity was freed from the constraints of a recipe when I had the chance to paint in 3D space. Using various brushes, I created trails of color and patches of particle emitters that shed snow flakes and leaves as I drew. It was entrancing, and the sort of thing you'd imagine might go over well with psychedelic enthusiasts. The developers behind the game created a 3D flower that sprouts up when the demo starts, and while I wasn't as adept at drawing sculptures out of thin air, I'd like to be, because drawing a simple strand of light in space was all it took for my creative drive to kick into high gear.
The final demo starred none other than the cast of Portal: GLaDOS and Cake. I stood in a room lined with gadgets, and outside sat two robots that were quietly passing time as one might when waiting in reception at a doctor's office. As I tried my best to repair a robot, I was chastised and mocked for my ineptitude in classic Portal fashion. After my failed attempt to repair a robot, its remains fell through the floor. Quickly, the entire room was disassembled. I stood inches from a drop of what looked like 100 feet, and my brain hated me when I stepped into the void. Granted, I didn't fall, but my brain anticipated that I would. I've had a similar experience with Oculus Rift, standing on the edge of a skyscraper, but the context in this Portal demo was that a floor which was stable was now unpredictable, and that made me feel like I had even less control over my fate.
Valve's VR demos aren't a far cry from what I've seen before, but the hardware component coupled with the small touches in the demos was what sold me. I was able to move in a relatively large area and explore my surroundings, intuitively interact with objects, fall into a trance as I created color and shapes out of thin air, and revel in my ineptitude as I floundered in the world of robots and AI. Yes, the HTC Vive is a great VR headset, and Valve's controllers felt great, but it's the marriage of all of that tech with thoughtfully designed software that really sold me on Valve's flavor of VR. Valve has a reputation as the PC gamer's company, which is probably because they listen to their users and respond in line. If they manage to deliver what I experienced today before any of the competition catches up, both on a hardware and software level, it's going to be hard for anyone, Oculus or otherwise, to topple the current king of the hill.