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VR and Steam days

January 21st, 2014 19 comments

Just got back from Valve’s Steam Dev Days. Definitely the best held conference I’ve ever been to – best chance for networking, great parties, and of course the best swag bag I’ve ever received. But the core thing I took away from it was that virtual reality really is going to take over the world.

Micheal Abrash talked about this on the second day, how he felt it would ‘transform the entire entertainment industry’, hitting mainstream culture with a larger impact than the movie industry. And at Palmer Lucky’s talk, he said he believed it was literally the most important invention in the history of man kind (he might have been slightly joking). Having only tried the Oculus dev kit I viewed VR as really interesting, and potentially a game changer, but mostly just another game peripheral like the Wii, or Kinect – basically just another way we would interact with games in the future.

But then I was able to try Valve’s VR tech. I put myself on the waiting list late on the first day so didn’t expect to get a chance to try it – it was a half hour demo, they had only 2 rooms, so out of 2000 people at the conference only about 40 people could be fit in. At the end of Abrash’s talk they announced the last 4 slots, and luckily the last person they announced wasn’t at the talk, so then I was next on the list (I kind of wanted to find that guy and thank him). So my opportunity to try this tech was unbelievably lucky.

For the demo, you walk into a small side room covered in what is somewhat like QR codes all over the wall (this was for positional tracking of the head mounted display in the room, since the HMD has a camera on it. Not actually QR codes but that was the best way I could understand it). Here is a image of Valve’s VR room to get an idea. In the center of the room is a rectangle rug about 4×4 feet across – this is so you know when you are stepping to far from the center (since the headset only has a certain reach, and they don’t want you running into walls). The Valve employee that gave me the demo was one of the engineers on the system (who was able to answer any question I had in incredible depth).

It took a few minutes to get the HMD positioned on my face right – I imagine just due to my massive brow, I had to tightened it to the point of constant pain to get rid of the blur (this isn’t a consumer ready product, so it isn’t surprising it isn’t designed for everyone’s face yet). There was also a slight hole on the bottom where I was able to still see my feet, again I imagine this is just due to the HMD not being designed for everyone.

The first impression of the tech, was that the current dev version of the Oculus Rift in no way compares. The resolution difference is massive, I couldn’t detect any visible latency, but most importantly the head position tracking seemed perfect. The actual feeling of presence was there – something I don’t imagine Oculus will have for years (Edit: What I mean is anything released for consumers commercially by Oculus. Based also on talking to developers who’ve tried the new HD version and Valve’s to compare).

The first demo scene was just a few cubes I was able to walk around and view. The first thing I noticed was how I was the same height off the ground virtually as I would be in normal life, which really added to feeling like I was actually in a room. It also helped get a scale of things – there is a massive sense of scale I found in these demos that I’ve never experienced in a game on a screen. When I saw a very large tower, it felt giant, I could feel it’s scale and really understand it’s size in relation to myself. There was a scene with these massive tree like objects I would have loved to climb.

The first few demos were pretty basic scenes – rectangles, some animated spheres – one with a ledge attempting to give some vertigo. I tried to lay down over the ledge (to see if that would increase the sensation more) but the camera jerk back since apparently my HMD could no longer see the codes on the wall/floor (this was the only time during the demos I had any sort of problems).
They showed a few skyboxes to show its use for 2d pictures and video (Appears to work well for scenes where nothing is too close to you, so you can’t see the parallax changes too easily, but still not at all an immersive experience, any content in the future will have to be 3d real time rendered.)
Other scenes had very detailed models and animations (with familiar Valve characters and scenes). Main thing I took from this was the detail you could see when you got close, moving your head to see the very detailed lighting on a character’s head was definitely different than just trying to walk close in a FPS game.
Another scene was an office space of various stick like men (and some more Valve characters thrown in). It was surprising how well it would work for overhead camera games such as RTS and god games – you literally felt like a god overseeing everything. Rather than zooming in and out you would just move closer to of one of your subjects, and would just stand back to get an overall view. I loved how detailed this office seemed – I could just kneel down to get a better look at the papers on one of the desks, and look around the virtual office at their level.
The last scene of the demo was without a doubt the most incredible – Valve used the cdak demo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RCh3Q08HMfs. There isn’t really anything new I got out of this – was just incredibly beautiful and surreal. It was the only demo where my camera was moving, and I think they might have slowed down the demo scene’s camera movement.

There really was a sense of presence with the tech that I didn’t think was possible (or at least for decades). It’s possible my brain was just more easily tricked than others (and also maybe the extreme hang over and lack of sleep also added to this), but looking back my memories of it are like I was actually there and not just viewing pixels on a screen. It was better than real life – people will get lost in this and not want to leave. Nothing else gives the same escapism – I can imagine becoming completely lost in games for an entire day (something I in no way do currently). Linear non interactive experiences also will be more impactful and meaningful. I understand how VR will take over entertainment because nothing else has such a deep and visceral impact. I have no doubt VR rooms in houses will become a common thing in 5 years.

After the demo was over I talked to the Valve employee for a few minutes afterwards about the tech. And while standing and in the middle of a sentence, I had an incredibly strange weird moment of comparing real life to the VR. I understood that the demo was over, but it was if a lower level part of my mind couldn’t exactly be sure. It give me a very weird existential dread of my entire situation, and the only way I could get rid of that feeling was to walk around or touch things around me (or sit down, basically just get in a situation where I wasn’t just standing still like I was in the VR demo). I tried to walk it off but alcohol was really the only thing that made me shake the feeling completely. Unfortunately since I had to get away from the Valve employee having a bit of a existential crisis because of this I wasn’t able to actually discuss it with him.

It was so incredibly weird that it got me worried about the tech in general – people have worried about us not being able to distinguish reality from entertainment, but in my view there was never really an issue (the absolute lack of found correlation between use of violent video games and violence in real life is an example). But I am worried this will be different – that the line will blur and the entertainment we consume will not just feel like a story we read – it will be something our brains think we actually experienced. I think all entertainment before required some effort for us to be immersed, with reading the most effort, but even with TV and current tech we always have to try to pay attention and form the environment in our heads – I think this makes it naturally different. With this sense of presence, it literally puts you in the environment, I worry that will cause us to not understand the difference between reality and the virtual world.
I don’t just think that will mean desensitization to violence, I actually wonder if psychological problems distinguishing VR from reality will have an impact in the future. When I felt as if I was still in the VR room, that wasn’t a logical conclusion my mind made, I just started to question what input was real. It worries me that while virtual reality will have very little consequences for your actions, reality does, and while I may be able to logically understand the differences I am worried my entire mind won’t.

Even with those concerns, I still do plan to switch to entirely VR focused development in the near future. With a actual market still being at least 2 years away though I don’t feel rushed – and I am fine with others being first and discovering how it’s actually done.

Other Steam Dev Day takeaways:
– The Steam controller will take time to get used to, and will definitely be a worse experience for some games compared to a controller. But for FPS games it’s a massive improvement – the tactical feeling of the track pad makes a large difference – I think with practice I would prefer it over a mouse and keyboard.
– Thanks to some awesome Finnish developers I met, I took a tour of Valve’s offices. Definitely seems like a amazing place to work, very open and comfortable. I can understand how Valve and Google are able to innovate more than others in their industry – they pamper their employees to free them of distractions, and give them the freedom to work towards problems without thinking about the bottom line (Or at least, Google in the past)

Edit: For more comments on this there is a lot of great discussion on Hackernews and Reddit:
http://www.reddit.com/r/oculus/comments/1vu87i/some_of_my_thoughts_on_valves_vr_tech_i_tried_at/
https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7104251

Categories: VR