Detailed Information about Valve’s Virtual Reality Prototype and Technology Emerges, Sounds Amazing

on February 27, 2014 4:15 PM

Yesterday NeoGAF user and developer at Iridium Studios Feep went to Valve’s offices in Seattle to check out the prominent developer’s virtual reality prototype.

Before you read his full write-up below, Feep mentioned that the company plans to support virtual reality extensively with its marketplace, also sharing a lot of their work with the folks at Oculus, so while the prototype will never be sold commercially, developing the tech still has a clear purpose:

Steam is fully supporting VR as a standard library, and they have a vested interest in making their marketplace the “go to” place for VR experiences. A lot of their work is shared with Oculus, as well.

Below you can read the full write-up, and it definitely sounds awesome, even if a little saddening since the unit will never hit the shelves:

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Hi! I’m Feep, and yesterday, I went into Valve’s offices in Seattle because we’re like totally bros now. The primary reason for the visit was to try their fancy VR prototype, which will not be for sale anywhere ever for reasons I can only assume involve them already possessing approximately 3% of the national GDP.

I own an Oculus Rift dev kit, and I also did a writeup awhile back on VRCade, one of the first solutions to have positional tracking. I haven’t tried Crystal Cove or Sony’s solution (dear Sony: invite me to try this at GDC so I can write a hype thread for you too), but I hear Crystal Cove is only *slightly* behind Valve’s solution in terms of fidelity.

Technology

Valve’s solution is lightyears ahead of the original Oculus Dev Kit. Resolution, while not at “retina” level perfection, was no longer really a significant issue. The screen door effect was almost completely negligible, thanks to a shiny 1080p display. (Not actually shiny, shiny like in Firefly.)

Just as fantastic was their low-persistance display tech. The display ran at a blistering 95 Hz, and the pixels only flash for approximately 20% of that 10.52 ms refresh time. You don’t notice any flickering or lack of brightness, and the plus side is that ghosting and smearing were drastically reduced. Not *completely* eliminated, mind you, but gone.

Latency? Low. Approximately 25ms. Not noticeable.

Positional tracking is an absolute must for any VR set, as lack of said tracking is the biggest cause of motion sickness, the one thing that could kill VR in its tracks. Valve’s solution was, as expected, extremely accurate. It involved sticking QR Code-like papers on the walls (so anyone visiting your home, without prior knowledge, would instantly assume you were a crazy person) so that a camera mounted on the headset could get an optical read on its own position. There was a downside (literally), though…because there were no QR codes littering the floor, looking straight down caused the system to lose its positional tracking.

There was, unfortunately, still a tether attached to the set. This never seems to be talked about with VR, but still concerns me greatly, especially after messing with VRCade’s wireless backpack system. I didn’t feel as free to roam or jump or twist as I did at VRCade, and presumably the wireless transmission back and forth to a base computer would add at least a few milliseconds of latency, but that’s a trade I would gladly make.

Okay? Cool. Now to the fun part.

Demos

Valve ran me through a series of 15 short little demos. None of them were even remotely close to a “game”, and existed mostly as visual experiences. I’ll try to recall as many as I can.

– The first demo stuck me in a simple room, whose walls were textured with financial data for Facebook from some website. An odd choice, yeah. There was a little red cube bouncing around the room, and the desire to avoid it was *extremely strong*. A dodgeball / laser field game immediately popped into my mind, but as I mentioned before, a tether really hurts this type of idea.

I want to point out how strong the positional tracking is, here. *I was moving around and dodging something with absolutely zero issue.* Jumping, ducking, Matrix-dodging, whatever. It’s bizarre how compelling this demo was, as it could be knocked up in Unity in approximately seven minutes.

– Next was the same room, but now I was placed high up on a ledge. This is what Valve likes to call “presence”. I have no fear of heights; I’ve been skydiving, and I have a fairly strong ability to separate reality from unreality, but my body did NOT want to step over that edge. I did it, eventually, it just took me a couple seconds, and it was uncomfortable.

Neat.

– An outdoor environment featuring massive columns, spiraling up into the sky. My first sensation of scale, which I’ll go into a bit more detail later. The room we were in was very reverb-y, so it kind of killed the sense of really being outside. 3-D audio will go a long way for the elusive sensation of “presence”, I think.

– Next were some spheres orbiting each other. Once again I felt the need to dodge the spheres’ movement, which I did, but I thought this demo showed off the pixel clarity of the display: the spheres were extremely anti-aliased, and damn if they didn’t look hyper smooth. Nothing much else.

– Next was a reflective surface showing a hilariously crude version of my head (basically a plank with two spheres for eyes) bobbing about. This demo really made me long for full body tracking, but it’s a tough problem…the Kinect, for instance, doesn’t have anywhere near the latency required. You’d likely have to get special boots and gloves and maybe even a belt, and then use inverse kinematics to determine an approximate body skeleton, but that still wouldn’t be perfect. Valve said they were “working on stuff”.

– Starting to lose track of order…at some point was a room (with some sweet global illumination bakes from Maya) with low-hanging pipes. Moving around the room basically forced me to duck my head under and around the pipes, which was extremely compelling. There was also a glowy pit in the floor and I wanted to lean over and look inside, but the positional tracking break kind of threw me off.

– TRON DEMO. Oh, it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Basically just a glowy grid and a sweet holographic Portal Turret display, but so cool. I was mad they weren’t playing Daft Punk, but I forgave them, because I’m just that kind of guy.

– A scene featuring tons of giant textured cubes, almost like the “behind the scenes” bits of Portal 2, with rainbow lighting fading off into the distance. Kinda neat.

– The next demo was quite interesting…a perfect recreation of the actual room I was in, which let me walk around without having the niggling fear I was about to smash my face into a wall. One of the lamps was “out of sync” with the in-game model, so I physically moved it to match up with the virtual space. You’re welcome, Valve. They then flipped a switch, and only two things changed: the lighting became blue, and the in-scene computer monitor had crazy holographic circles coming out it. Very minority report, but due to lack of hand-tracking, I couldn’t do anything with them.

– Two Portal 2 demonstrations: one featured Atlas, one of the co-op robots from Portal 2, in three different sizes. Directly in front was a human-sized version, then off to the right was a tiny little figure model, and then directly behind me was a five-story tall version. Scale is *extremely impressive* in VR, and apparently several people actually instinctively tried to get out their phones and take a picture. Heh. Not gonna work, nerds. The next was the really cool “turret building” from Portal 2, an extremely intricate animation. It was cool to get up close and really see it from different angles.

– As cool as “big things” are in VR, though, “small things” are equally impressive. Someone had taken the set from the Portal 2 Valentine’s Day advertisement, moving stick figures and all, and placed it down as a miniature model a la Beetlejuice in front of the player. Tiny desks, tiny people, tiny coffee mugs! In a normal game, you could manipulate the camera to get close enough to the tiny coffee mugs so that they appeared to be large, but that simply isn’t possible in VR: you matter how close you got, they were still little tiny coffee mugs, because your perceptions of distance and scale are accurate. It would really be an incredible sensation for any “god game”, towering over and examining your creations from a giant’s throne above. And you know what? The stick figures looked great in 3-D. Really cool.

– Next was something genuinely horrifying: a mechanical moving toddler’s face, complete with gears, sprockets, pistons, servos, everything. I immediately questioned the mental stability of Valve’s modelers, but I soldiered on, getting up close and personal with absolute nightmare fuel. It’s important to note here that whatever the brain uses to ascribe the “this is a real object” tag to things, it isn’t related to textures: every material in the contraption was entirely untextured, only possessing a color and a soft specular highlight, but it sure looked real to me. I called “next” on this one a little quicker than the others.

– Next were three “skybox” scenes, created from the types of 360 degree cameras that Google Street View uses. These were, unfortunately, not stereoscopic, so they weren’t quite as convincing as they could have been. Still, the photorealism was pretty impressive, and it’s obvious the see how incredible VR “tours” could be in the future. There was a beach scene, St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican (which I’ve been to, and the sensation was eerily close to deja-vu), and a jungle somewhere.

– Everything I’ve written down is purely from memory, so I might have forgotten something? I don’t know, I have a pretty strong memory. But the last one was unforgettable: a four-minute, zen-like trip through this very scene, created by some folks in 2010 as a 4k demo. There’s a rocketing forward effect in the beginning that threw me for a loop, and the roller coaster Oculus demo does *nothing* for me. I’ve never done acid, but I imagine it was something like this. Remarkable, special, incredible, pick your adjective, bro. It was kind of like I time-traveled to the past and got on a dinosaur and used it to stomp robot zombies, or something.

We talked for awhile afterward about the future of VR and some specific ideas I had for implementation, but those are going to remain secret, because they are awesome and I might actually end up doing one of them. Will my next title, There Came an Echo support VR? Almost assuredly.

First person to say “I remain unconvinced” is going to get a digital punch in the face. Look, just give a system like this a shot before spiraling into a pit of cynical negativity, because this is an incredible, potentially world-changing technology. There are obstacles to overcome, but many of them have already been conquered. The use cases for these devices are almost literally infinite. This is the future. Tron is the future.

This is where we’re going.

Special thanks to Valve for inviting me in and letting me talk freely about my experiences. Greatly appreciated, guys.

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Feep also included additional details, that you can read below:

It seemed like one display, but I could be wrong.

It’s important to note that regarding the screen door effect, resolution is important, but so are the “borders” between pixels, how much black exists between one and the next. It was very low.

He finally added a tidbit about the unit’s wearing comfort, that wasn’t exactly the best you could find, predictably:

It was a prototype unit (circuit board and wires and everything), so I don’t think it was really built for comfort. It wasn’t *great*, but it was alright. The Oculus Rift version 1 is a little more comfortable, and I have no problems wearing it for long periods of time.

I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling quite sad about the fact that this prototype will never reach our homes. From what Feep shared, it sounds really great. Never say never, though, this kind of decisions can easily change with the swinging of market trends.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.