Every E3 seems to have an overarching theme, be it the rise of new consoles, the arrival of new ways to play, or the way in which the announcements and reveals made reflect the current state of the videogame industry. With this year’s edition of the biggest show in videogames now just weeks away, it certainly feels as if it’s virtual reality’s (VR’s) turn to be the hot topic. This is, after all, the last E3 before true consumer head-mounted displays (HMDs) are released, with the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, HTC Vive and Gear VR all launching before next year’s show rolls around.
These are likely the last days of VR being an enthusiast topic; something that the brilliant-but-small group of passionate developers and players have raved about these past few years. The conversation is going to start spilling over to gamers that haven’t been following the technology thus far. Make no mistake about it; Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) is going to push as hard as possible to make sure everyone knows Project Morpheus is coming. Oculus VR will no doubt be using the full might of its owner, Facebook, to get the Oculus Rift into as many hands as possible. Valve will be taking advantage of its current status as the first to release to try and attract as many customers as possible.
With that in mind, VRFocus presents a brief history of the revival of VR, taking a look at each head-mounted display. We’ve already detailed the origins of the Oculus Rift, looked at Project Morpheus and talked of Gear VR. For our final entry we look at the most recent and surprising entry into the VR race, the HTC Vive from Valve.
Steam Dev Days and the VR Room
January 15th and 16th 2014 proved to be a rare two days for Valve. This legendary videogame developer, which is responsible for the likes of Half-Life, Portal and Left 4 Dead along with the Steam digital software platform, opened the doors to its Seattle office for 48 hours for its first ever developer conference, Steam Dev Days. The event may prove to be a one-off; it hasn’t yet returned in 2015. This was a rare chance to peek inside the studio, then, and anyone that looked behind a certain door would have found some hugely promising work in VR.
Shortly ahead of the event it was revealed that Valve had a ‘VR Room’ in which it was testing a VR HMD of its own. Any questions of a potential rivalry with Oculus VR, which at the time had just debuted its Crystal Cove prototype for the Oculus Rift, were quickly put to bed at the event itself as Michael Abrash, then of Valve, pledged to support the company rather than compete with it during his talk titled ‘What VR could, should, and almost certainly will be within 2 years’. This wasn’t news to Oculus VR; CEO Brendan Iribe would later reveal that he had tested the HMD long before the Steam Dev Days event, and described it as one of the first times he was truly capable of feeling that illusive sense of presence.
Of course, while this was the first time the public had become aware of it, the company’s work in VR had started long before Steam Dev Days. In 2012 Valve developed a system using head-mounted machine vision cameras that were pointed at markers. By January 2013, months past the Oculus Rift’s historic Kickstarter campaign, it had created a single-eye prototype display that it named ‘The Telescope’. The device was said to have a latency of 4 milliseconds. In the same month, it experimented with low-persistence displays, something that Oculus VR would later incorporate with the OLED panel for Crystal Cove and the second development kit (DK2).
The company was also paying attention to VR software, as two months later in March 2013 Valve ported one of its most popular titles, Team Fortress 2, into VR. Those in possession of the first development kit (DK1) for the Oculus Rift were able to try out this support for themselves. Another iconic Valve title, Half-Life 2, would also integrate support later on.
A month later, the company had its first low-persistence HMD with positional tracking. The company even used this early device to convince hardware and software partners to work with VR. The positional tracking was achieved using a fiducial system, essentially using markers as a point of reference. Valve was aware that not everyone would want to stick markers to walls and so work then began on the laser tracking that is now seen in the HTC Vive.
Until that system was perfected the marker-based approach was still utilised. The VR Room seen at Steam Dev Days was actually prepared by September 2013 with a demo known as ‘The Room’, which consisted of 18 virtual spaces, each providing a different VR experience. This was the demonstration that Iribe and other Oculus VR employees had enjoyed, and gave the team a new high bar to aim for. At this time Valve also developed a different HMD (seen below) that offered tracking with various dots placed on the device, which it would later show outside of the VR Room in 2014.
At the time surrounding Steam Dev Days the company also introduced its SteamVR SDK and the VR Mode for Steam itself. Following this, Valve would spend another year remaining largely silent on its work in VR, though behind the scenes its progress was escalating quickly.
The Road to the Vive
HTC is said to have spoken with Valve about the potential for a consumer VR HMD following its Steam Dev Days showing. Valve had obviously meant what it had said about collaborating with Oculus but, according to reports from the 2015 Game Developers Conference (GDC), found it increasingly harder to communicate with the company following its acquisition by Facebook in April 2014. That $2 billion USD purchase had somewhat ironically allowed Oculus VR to take on board some Valve staff, including Michael Abrash himself, who now acts as Chief Scientist and heads up Oculus Research. It’s not exactly clear when, but eventually Valve did begin to work with HTC on a consumer VR HMD.
In May 2014, four months after Steam Dev Days, Valve completed work on the first version of its HMD to incorporate that laser based tracking that it had begun working on in late 2013. From there, the company began to experiment with integrating new input solutions into this same laser-based system, including mocking up prototypes of its Steam controller. By November 2014 it had a new prototype HMD that it had labelled ‘V minus-1’, which was one of the first kits that the company assembled multiple units of. The odd name indicates that the kit preceded the first official prototype for its work with HTC, named V Zero.
By the end of the year the company had come up with its own prototype VR controllers for use with its HMD, which were close to the controllers that would be revealed just a few months into 2015. The final piece of the puzzle was to miniaturise the laser base tracking station, which was achieved by February 2015.
It may not read like the most exciting story in VR’s origins, but Valve simply had its head down, working on VR the entire time. And with that, the stage was set. Both the GDC 2015 and Mobile World Congress (MWC) were set to take place in the first week of March. A week before, Valve confirmed that it would be debuting new VR hardware at the former event, sending the VR community into a frenzy of anticipation. All eyes were on the first day of GDC on 2nd March 2015. As it turned out, everyone was looking in the wrong place.
The HTC Vive
HTC had its own small rumour about a VR HMD going into its MWC press conference on 1st March. Many had assumed that this would simply be another addition to the growing mobile HMD market that Samsung, LG and more were working in. Sure enough, towards the end of the show, HTC uttered the two magic letters. But no one had predicted what would happen next; the Taiwanese smartphone maker announced that it was working with Valve on the HTC Vive.
This was a lot of information to pack into one announcement. Valve was entering the market with legitimate competition to the Oculus Rift. It had the device ready to show, with a Room Scale user tracking system that was made possible with that laser based solution, now named Lighthouse. This tracking allowed players to walk around an area of up to 15 feet by 15 feet, with those movements them replicated within a given experience. This, combined with the tracked controllers, formed the hardware end of the SteamVR system.
And Valve had plenty of experiences to show; a long list of indie developers were revealed to have been working with the device, including the likes of Fireproof Games, Owlchemy Labs and Bossa Studios. Valve itself had its own tech demo to showcase, set in its popular Portal universe and tasking players with using the tracked controllers to repair a machine. All of these announcements were hugely exciting, but not nearly as much as the reveal that a consumer version of the device would be releasing this year.
The HTC Vive was given a holiday 2015 release window. What was most surprising about this was, while a lot of indie developers were aware of the kit, a whole lot more were not. Of course, Valve’s plan was to allow those working on Oculus Rift titles to easily port them to HTC Vive, as Room Scale tracking wasn’t a requirement. Developer Editions for the device have only been arriving as soon as last week, though Valve has smartly been sending them out for free to select applicants that have signed up for the kit.
It also sparked a lot of questions about the Oculus Rift, which at the time still hadn’t revealed its own release window. Many were even suggesting that Valve and HTC’s readiness to bring their device to market signalled real trouble for Oculus VR. With it now confirmed that the Oculus Rift will be launching in Q1 2016, it remains to be seen if that will really be the case.
Plenty more information trickled out over the GDC week. SteamVR may have been fully integrated into the HTC Vive, for example, but Valve confirmed that other, unrevealed HMDs would also support the system. Meanwhile, developers from all over the VR community were expressing their excitement for the HTC Vive and, more importantly, their intentions to bring their projects to it.
Since its reveal the Vive has kept a relatively low profile outside of the shipment of development kits and some other showcases including a recent development jam hosted by Owlchemy Labs. There’s still plenty more to learn about the device in the relatively short amount of time until its launch. A more specific release date hasn’t been shared and pricing is yet to be revealed.
The HTC Vive is perhaps the best example of just how quickly this new technology is growing. Just over three months ago this device wasn’t even revealed to the public and now it’s considered to be of the kits leading the charge for VR’s arrival on the market. The holiday season is now less than half a year away, and VR fans are that much close to finally getting their hands on consumer-ready virtual reality.