Valve, the Bellevue company responsible for computer gaming platform Steam and for the excellent Portal game series, has just announced that they will be teaming up with HTC and releasing a virtual reality (VR) headset called Vive. It will be in stores in less than a year, but I got to try out a prototype of Steam’s VR technology a few months ago, and it was incredible. Check out the dramatic Vive trailer below.
Back in August, a few members of the Pixelkin staff were invited to try out Valve’s prototype VR headset.
If you don’t know much about the company Valve, this is a good time to say that they have a very unorthodox way of doing things, which has worked out beautifully for them so far. Basically, every employee is given an incredible amount of freedom to explore what they feel is important for the future of game making. So, the exploration of VR tech makes perfect sense.
The demos lasted about 45 minutes per person, during which time Ken Birdwell, Valve developer and all-around awesome person, talked us through what we were experiencing.
Pixelkin’s publisher Linda Breneman had her demo first; I was dropped off at a sofa to wait for her to finish. On a small table in front of me was one of Google’s cardboard VR headsets. I asked Ken about it later, and he immediately explained that that headset was part of why he was working on VR now. He had tried Google Cardboard, and he’d known immediately that he could do better.
As I walked into the test room with Ken, the first thing I noticed was that the walls were covered in sheets of paper with printed images kind of like QR codes. These existed to help orient the computer to my exact location. In later models, though, they wouldn’t be necessary.
I put on the headset first without headphones, and Ken’s disembodied voice explained to me what I was seeing. In one of the first experiments, I was standing on a tiny platform above a thirty foot drop. It was incredibly realistic, and pretty darn freaky. Then, Ken asked me to step off the platform.
It took a few seconds of convincing, but I eventually slid my foot forward and felt the solid ground of reality. Ken told me that what I had just done was a great age test—little kids almost always leap off, whereas people over 40 can almost never convince their legs to move. I was somewhere in the middle. Ken himself had been unable to step off the virtual platform, despite knowing that he was standing on solid ground. The wall textures weren’t even realistic; they looked like a screensaver from 1999. But my brain had been totally convinced.
The experiments went on, and they were all amazing. I got to stand next to ATLAS, one of the robots from Portal 2. I got to walk through a massive forest of towers that made me feel like I was inside Inception. I was put inside a small cockpit, meant to make me feel claustrophobic. Many of the demos had moving parts. At some point, Ken helped me put on a set of headphones, and I drifted through open space.
When the demo was over, I kept staring at my hands. I hadn’t been wearing any VR gloves, so during the demo, I had been unable to see my hands when I held them in front of my face. Staring at them now was reminding me that I was back in the real world. It wasn’t until the next morning that I was really convinced, though. It was surreal, but I loved it.
VR technology has all kinds of amazing applications, and not just for gaming. People unable to travel can go and see the world. People who want to learn about a historical event can go and watch it happen. And now that there are several companies working on their own version of VR (you may have heard of Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus), chances are we’re going to get some pretty neat stuff coming our way soon.