After nearly twenty years of obscurity, one man managed to turn virtual reality (VR) on its head. Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift kickstarted a movement that would eventually see big players such as Sony Computer Entertainment, Google, Samsung and Razer take a stand. Of course, Luckey now has a small army behind him at Oculus VR, but now a new challenger has entered the arena: Valve.
The announcement of a partnership between Valve and HTC was certainly a surprise, though it’s long been known that the former had been experimenting with VR technology for some time. That it was so close to becoming a consumer product however, was perhaps the biggest shock of all. In VRFocus‘ time with the head-mounted display (HMD) and accompanying materials there were some slight issues but mostly to do with physical comfort. The VR experience itself was simply unlike anything else out there.
The demo took place in a very unassuming room. The HMD resting on a chair in the centre with a bookcase on either side of the otherwise sparse room. The first part of the set-up needed to be put in place is a belt with a large disc on the rear, used solely for the purpose of keeping the cables out of the way (as much as possible). Next was the HMD; still a prototype but very near the final version. Left and right controllers were then taken in each hand – these were further from final design by a significant margin – and finally headphones mounted. The final device will offer 3D audio on the HMD itself, VRFocus was informed, but as of now standard headphones simply connect via a port on top of the HMD.
The two laser emitters used to detect movement of the HMD, known as ‘Lighthouse’ currently, were mounted atop the bookcases. It’s not yet known if these require high placement or were just placed as such for demonstration purposes. Each of the emitters had a red glow and between generated a laser field which works with reflectors on the HMD to determine where the user is in the within the range. According to the Valve developer on-hand, a wide range of reflectors could be used and the Lighthouse technology is not necessarily restricted to those currently being used by Valve alone.
The Lighthouse technology is actually the most impressive part of the system at present. Adding such a degree of freedom of movement to the experience is nothing short of groundbreaking. In VRFocus‘ experience, there were many times when genuine presence was felt; not just in the suspension of disbelief that most VR experiences require, but actually forgetting that you’re standing in a room with developers looking on in a convention centre with thousands of other people present.
Another system in place thanks to the Lighthouse is that of the chaperon, a subtle light grid that appears when moving close to a wall and increasing in intensity with every millimetre. The chaperon was perfect in every regard, even mapping to the bookcases upon which the emitters were placed. The same could be said of coffee tables of chairs, VRFocus was told, and there’s even a possibility that it could detect the cables attached to the HMD to avoid tripping.
The HMD itself, at present, is fairly bulky. The weight of the device is rather uncomfortable and presses down heavily on the bridge of the nose. The visual quality however, is wonderful. Easily superior to the Gear VR and very close to Oculus VR’s CrescentBay, there is almost no noticeable ‘screen door effect’ nor screen lag in the available demos. Technical specifications are all well and good on paper, but it’s the experience we’re here for, and despite the current lack of 3D audio Vive is most definitely the leading HMD in that regard.
The final piece of the Vive puzzle is the controllers. Similar to PlayStation Move controllers, these handheld input devices will be wireless in the final version though were attached via cable in the press demonstrations. Flat handles and a touch dial interface, these controllers obviously evolved out of the Steam Controller research. A trigger mounted on the rear allowed for confirmation inputs, but many of the software demonstrations offered didn’t require them. In fact, most of the demonstrations were based on movement and gesture alone.
A VR solution is more than the sum of its parts, and that’s never been clearer than with the Vive. Though some of the technical specifications may be weaker than it’s rivals, the combination of technologies may be more confusing – and potentially troublesome for consumers to set-up in their homes – and the prototype hardware still needs some work, the experiences Valve are offering with the device are more than enough to convince that this is the direction VR should be taking. VR has been stimulating many people across the globe for well over a year now, but it would be hard to say that there’s ever been as exciting a time for the medium as since Valve played their hand.