Valve won GDC

In a year all about virtual reality, Valve and HTC's Vive stole the show

People left GDC in one of two states, either raving about Valve's Vive virtual reality demonstration or raving that they weren't able to get in to see Valve's Vive virtual reality demonstration.

The usual VR demonstration goes something like this: you're guided into a small room, a very nervous public relations type tries their best to place the headset on you without ever actually touching you, and then shouts like a nervous new mum at the beach every time you take more than a step in any single direction.

With Valve I was shown two sensors, placed on strategically located bookcases in the demo cubicle, which would create a 15-foot by 15-foot space on the floor I could move around in. The headset was placed on me, a weight was tied around my waist to balance the wires and headset (doing a Gwyneth and eating only avocado flavoured air before the show must have really paid off) and a controller was placed in each hand. Roll demo.

And then my brain exploded. You know when you first try to talk to civilians about VR and they say "like Star Trek?" Well this is like Star Trek. This is the full Wesley Crusher. First of all, the sense of freedom (despite the cables trailing behind you like a tail) is totally new, even in such a small square, and yet you feel safe because if you reach the boundary a grid flashes up to warn you that you're not IRL.

Then, I have to talk about the controllers, which looked and felt like a more complicated and pressure sensitive version of the PlayStation Move. No matter what I was doing--picking items up, using handles, painting--they felt intuitive and natural. Immediately I knew what I had to do when I was opening a fridge (to get the eggs to make a sandwich for a robot) or picking up tools or painting 3D images with oil paints and rainbows.

And it was this interactivity, the potential of the controls and the showcase demos that Valve had put together that really showed me, and everyone I spoke to at the show, that VR could offer more than a beautiful world to stare at passively. More than a shooting gallery. One friend was genuinely moved by the potential for creative play with his children, another saw a massive return for tabletop gaming thanks to projects like Skyworld.

Oculus VR's Crescent Bay proved to me that VR could be immersive, it was what turned me from a skeptic to an evangelist. Their acquisition of Nimble's hand tracking tech has huge potential for controller-free experiences. What leaves Oculus just behind Valve right now is its focus on technology not content, a smart move for a company owned by a social network rather than one focused on games, perhaps, but a move that has left even the biggest virtual reality fan hungry for a proof on concept. And Valve made it with Portal robots; I mean, well played.

"You know when you first try to talk to civilians about VR and they say 'like Star Trek?' Well this is like Star Trek"

I've no doubt that the VR device with the biggest commercial potential is Sony PlayStation's Morpheus; its plug-and-play nature and Sony's marketing capacity means it will be on everything from soccer sidelines to Christmas commercials. Sony will be the smartest about showing it off to consumers too; expect pop-up shops and demo stations anywhere there might be gamers. The content they showed was also ahead of Oculus on interactivity, there was shooting with a Guy Ritchie-style gangster scenario: hiding behind a desk, popping out to shoot enemies using the Move, searching drawers for more ammo. There was a doll's house full of PlayStation's tiny Playroom robots that reacted when you looked at them... or they were meant to. What actually happened was I stared at them while a developer shouted at me to move my head left, down, up, down again, and the robots ignored me. I tried not to take it personally.

The truth is not everyone has a home suitable for a virtual reality room and not everyone can enjoy the exquisite agony that is PC gaming, drivers, software conflicts, and video cards that will happily play Assassin's Creed: Unity, but a $4 puzzle game that would run on a calculator is suddenly an issue. For most people, a PC that is for more than Facebook and Microsoft Word is still a terrifying technical challenge. That huge portion of gamers is where Sony will sweep up.

But it's still Valve that have put out the strongest showing, cleverly letting everyone else whisper about their "virtual room" before they decided to let media try it. Waiting until they had the perfect experiences to show just what that tech could do. Oculus VR was the medium's champion, Sony will be its break into the mainstream, but Valve just might be its leader.

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Latest comments (2)

Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve6 years ago
It's quite an odd but exciting time for VR. It feels like the race has been going on for a long time but truthfully it hasn't even properly started. We're having new headsets and innovations quite frequently, but other than DIY kits like Google Cardboard we don't actually have a headset widely available to the public yet. Seems like everyone is holding back to refine and iterate, but how long will it go on for until someone finally opens the gates? I think it's a good thing that all companies are waiting until there is an amazing line up of hardware and software before launch though, if a product goes out too early and flops, it can seriously damage the potential of VR as a whole.

It is a really good point about Morpheus being most likely to clean up on numbers though. It's easy to forget that the number of people that actually own PCs powerful enough to run high end VR apps is quite limited. A VR headset that attaches to common consumer devices like the PS4 is much more likely to have high uptake, in the short term at least.
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Peter Caddock Head of New Technologies, Studio Liddell Ltd6 years ago
Hey Thomas,

I'm not sure if you were aware...

We started with Google Cardboard, just to prototype a couple of ideas, which was fine for a few weeks. We moved onto ColorCross which can be purchased for about 12.00 on Amazon. Its a plastic headset with an open back, large plastic lenses and can hold an iPhone 6+ (that is what I use).

Beyond this Durovis Dive have a 3D printer file you can download and print yourself, with a link to lenses ($6).

After that there are various with backs, plastic, more robust, better lenses, right up to the Zeiss lens headset for about 99.

So there's actually plenty of headsets around catering for all budgets (Google Cardboard can be found for 3.00), but these have to be fed, with content. Which is where we come in (you and I guess). There are plenty of places you can download content from already, and many YouTube videos listing the best out there right now, justice a peek.

We're onto our 7th demo right now, and interest is amazing, it always draws a crowd where ever we show it, and the results are pretty much always the same - people are wowed by it. Of course you may need a bluetooth joypad, headphones, and iPhone 6+ along with the headset, but the outlay (apart from the phone in your pocket) is easy to justify when you see your first work in action.

I can't wait to try this HTC / Valve kit and software combination, it sounds like they have approached it very well and the potential is awesome, so where do I sign up for the developers kit?


Edited 1 times. Last edit by Peter Caddock on 11th March 2015 3:54pm

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