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VR and Steam days

January 21st, 2014 Leave a comment Go to 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
  1. January 22nd, 2014 at 10:46 | #1

    That was one of the best VR “experience” write ups I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Valve’s Tech. I do UDK development in my spare time and articles like this make it hard for me to focus on my 9-5 job.

  2. January 22nd, 2014 at 11:26 | #2

    Awesome post! I really liked the insight you were providing about the effects of the experience that you were still having after you were done. It makes me think of how I sometimes wake up while dreaming in a deep sleep and I’m awake but still sort of in dream mode.

    I agree that companies like Valve are going to figure out VR and it will be the new addicting tech for the masses.

  3. Fred
    January 22nd, 2014 at 12:12 | #3

    “With a actual market still being at least 2 years away though I don’t feel rushed”

    The consumer market isn’t going to have dedicated VR rooms in 2 years.

    In the 1990s I had the privilege to work with Virtuality, the main pioneer of commercialized VR.

    The magnetic tracking (by Polhemus and still $2000+ today) and custom lensing made the headset cost well over $5000.

    We tried to make LBE (Location-based entertainment) pay for it, but developing a ~$50,000 system fun enough to compete against $1500 arcade cabinets and $300 PlayStations is a tough business.

    The optical tracking of the unit you tried is certainly a good idea but this is not a mass-market option.

    On Reddit I’ve tried to contain the enthusiasm of the Occulus brigade; they’re going to have to learn from bitter experience I guess.

    In the home, full immersitivity has its own problems with eye relief, skin hygiene, being able to use peripherals, cable management, etc.

    The basic deal is that being “in” the game doesn’t make the game more fun.

    (Well it does until the novelty wears off.)

  4. Fred
    January 22nd, 2014 at 12:15 | #4

    @Fred

    “The optical tracking of the unit you tried is certainly a good idea but this is not a mass-market option.”

    * until they get it working in normal rooms, which shouldn’t be impossible.

  5. January 22nd, 2014 at 13:50 | #5

    Awesome experience! Man what would’ve given to try their setup :)

    Coincidentally I did a similar test last week where I tried out full body immersion inside Unity3D together with the Oculus Rift. Here’s an blog post about how it went down if you’re interested: http://tobis-world.tumblr.com/post/74181528133/explorations-in-full-body-virtual-reality

  6. Jonathan Harford
    January 22nd, 2014 at 17:19 | #6

    This was a great read. Thanks!

    (I found your piece via Reddit, if you’re interested.)

  7. Jonathan Harford
    January 22nd, 2014 at 17:20 | #7

    @Jonathan Harford
    No — it was Hacker News, come to think of it.

  8. January 22nd, 2014 at 19:13 | #8

    “And while standing and in the middle of a sentence…”

    What follows those seemingly innocuous words is by far the most profound, surreal and insight-provoking user experience I have ever read.

    If this isn’t a prescient window into a hitherto unforeseen future, nothing is.

  9. Joey LaRue
    January 22nd, 2014 at 23:31 | #9

    Since you haven’t tried out the Crystal Cove prototype from Oculus, how can you say “something I don’t imagine Oculus will have for years (Edit: What I mean is anything released for consumers commercially by Oculus).” Of course the Valve tech was amazing, but the CC version is also miles ahead of the Dev Kit.

    Other than that, great article and thanks for sharing. I too share both the excitement and concerns you have that VR is going to change things forever. Just think about how absorbed people get while texting…..texting!

  10. January 22nd, 2014 at 23:41 | #10
  11. Thaddeus
    January 23rd, 2014 at 01:13 | #11

    Thanks for sharing your experience with the valve vr. even watching the cdak on a laptop gave me an odd sense of ‘presence’. in-home bubbles are definitely around the corner.

  12. Joey LaRue
    January 23rd, 2014 at 02:56 | #12

    @Fred

    Gotta say that your negativity seems pretty misplaced in 2014 when we’re so close to having “pretty good” VR in an affordable package with the pace of development racing along like never before.

    That may have been your experience back in the 90s but it’s a whole different ball game now. So try and resist that urge you feel to “contain the enthusiasm of the Oculus brigade” as I don’t think they really need it…

  13. Name
    January 23rd, 2014 at 03:46 | #13

    “[...] I had an incredibly strange weird moment of comparing real life to the VR.”

    You may have experienced derealization: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Derealization

  14. Hibble
    January 24th, 2014 at 11:14 | #14

    The consumer market isn’t going to have dedicated VR rooms in 2 years.
    > Why not? It is just a room with very simple AR markers printed out and stuck randomly across the wall and ceiling. I’m making one today in fact, are you saying that this is too much hassle for a consumer? Surely that reward is quite high, and a lot lot cheaper than buying a new screen or sound system for your home cinema room.

    In the 1990s I had the privilege to work with Virtuality, the main pioneer of commercialized VR.
    The magnetic tracking (by Polhemus and still $2000+ today) and custom lensing made the headset cost well over $5000.
    > Virutality was really awful, I remember at the time being so disappointed in trying it out. But this is over 20 years ago now. Just compare the PS1 to the PS4 for an example of the technological changes since then. So it cost $5000 back then, how much do you think a PS4 would have cost in 1995?
    The main difference is with technology like Vuforia AR. This is why I can build a VR room like Valve’s today with nothing more than a copy of Unity3D, an OculusRift, a B+W laser printer, and a very cheap webcam.

    We tried to make LBE (Location-based entertainment) pay for it, but developing a ~$50,000 system fun enough to compete against $1500 arcade cabinets and $300 PlayStations is a tough business.
    > Yeh, I don’t think the 1990s was the right time.

    The optical tracking of the unit you tried is certainly a good idea but this is not a mass-market option.
    > Completely disagree with you here. I’ve made almost 10 different AR Apps and games over the last few years, the technology is astonishingly good now, and with Unity3D extremely easy to put together. The AR markers are used for position and slowly calibrating the O.R. headset, but the O.R. is used for sensing rotation on a frame-by-frame basis.

    On Reddit I’ve tried to contain the enthusiasm of the Occulus brigade; they’re going to have to learn from bitter experience I guess.
    > Well other than just saying you had the pleasure of working with some shitty VR company over 2 decades ago you haven’t explained to anyone why the technology available today is going to fail to deliver. Why not explain the details to the Oculus brigade on Reddit , I bet they will appreciate you saving them from the bitter experience of learning by themselves.

    In the home, full immersitivity has its own problems with eye relief, skin hygiene, being able to use peripherals, cable management, etc.
    > Cable management won’t be an issue when the device plugs into an iPhone or similar device. At the moment I have my macbook in a backpack, nobody thinks this is what the consumers will be doing !

    The basic deal is that being “in” the game doesn’t make the game more fun.
    > Yeh, those Virtuality games were really shitty. And being “in” them made it worse not better. At least if it was on a monitor I could have looked away.

    (Well it does until the novelty wears off.)
    > The novelty of the Virtuality games wore off in approximately 3 seconds. Just after I put the stupid helmet on. I love retro games btw, I’ve got thousands of MAME games, and emulators for all the old consoles and computers. The Virtuality stuff though, not so interested, that’s one bit of the past I’m happy to forget all about.

  15. Hibble
    January 24th, 2014 at 11:27 | #15

    This was the standard of the Virtuality games -> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6t69mp0ZhE
    Running off Commodore Amiga hardware in 1992.

    This was the standard of real arcade games around the same time -> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3PcHBFsjxg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=f7OarFWRXDs#t=8

    As an avid arcade regular in the early 90s it was clear that the Virtualty games were really just a con. It was all hype, but they were expensive and when you tried it out you realised that it was just shitty hardware, awful game design, awful graphics, and just a gimmick that it could track your head position.
    So what I’m saying, is that it was never about the failure of VR, it was about the failure of a company trying to push some gimmick to the consumer, who were already getting awesome smooth 3D experiences from SEGA and NAMCO.
    Why use an Amiga?? Is this were the $50,000 budget went to? ;)

  16. January 24th, 2014 at 19:05 | #16

    > 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.

    eXistenZ, man

  17. verokarhu
    January 26th, 2014 at 12:07 | #17

    >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)

    >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.

    You were suffering from the effects of alcohol withdrawal. Derealization (and a feeling of impending death) is one of the aftereffects of heavy alcohol intoxication.

  18. Lettuphant
    March 25th, 2014 at 20:10 | #18

    The existential experience is something I felt using the first wave Occulus : I visited a friend’s house and played the expected demos for a few hours. Walking home afterward, I was struck by how like the VR the experience it was. I stopped. A moment of reality-vertigo. Was I still wearing the headset? I recovered by thinking about the feeling of the pavement beneath my shoes, a sensation the Rift didn’t emulate.

    Humans don’t experience the real world. We never can: we emulate something similar enough to it that we can function, using electrical signals primarily from our eyes and ears. Now that we can intercept those functions and give the brain new inputs, we can experience whole other “realities”, as far as a human brain is concerned. VR is no longer a misnomer, and it is going to impact on more than entertainment: Philosophy is going to have a resurgence.

  19. ProdigySim
    March 25th, 2014 at 20:24 | #19

    First of all, thanks for sharing your experiences. These points of view are very important. While it’s unlikely that the course of VR adoption will change, how we as a society react to and deal with the technology is still up in the air. We can choose to use it as a tool for good or a tool for evil.

    Thus far we’ve been using games for many things. Some games help us learn, some help us be social, some help us hone our skills, and some just “convince” people to spend money.

    VR can just as easily be used to treat phobias (Exposure Therapy) as it can be used to create them. It can be used to teach and demonstrate truth as well as it can be used to demonstrate lies. And it can be used for hedonism just as much as it can be used for virtue.

    Hopefully together we can find healthy and helpful ways to use this technology.

  1. January 22nd, 2014 at 10:00 | #1
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  4. January 22nd, 2014 at 21:39 | #4