Valve and HTC to launch Vive: A 3D Marvel

by Dan

Valve, the people behind the Steam gaming platform, are not resting on their laurels. They may be surging ahead with their existing products, but the company knows better than most that in the tech sector you are only ever as good as your next product release.

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Sales of Steam have increased by an astounding 50{71b550cbed0aca3fea2335d26076176dc834a5ad6e765af844b2cea64fe7483b} over the past 12 months and the company’s president, Gabe Newell, has publicly vowed to continue building on that remarkable momentum. It is no surprise, therefore, to report that Valve are on the point of bringing their version of a 3D gaming headset – Vive – to the marketplace. The commercial release is promised before 2015 is out.

A marriage of software and hardware

A tie in with HTC has enabled Valve to compete head-to-head in the 3D headset market with Facebook’s Oculus Rift. HTC have delivered the hardware whilst Valve’s Steam VR team have produced the tracking and input technology. Valve has ventured into hardware previously with the Steam Machine Console, but the marriage with HTC looks to be a sensibly streamlined focus on the software side of the business.

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The commercially packaged version of the headset will be shipped with two wireless controllers although movement sensors in the headset itself will enable users to experience full motion immersion. A pair of base stations will translate the user’s physical movements in space directly into the gaming software. The system has much in common with Microsoft’s Kinect. Clearly, it is this fully immersive experience, rather than the handsets, that is the headset’s real selling point, although the two are inter-compatible as the Steam handsets are integrated into the VR delivery. The base stations are set to map a gaming area of 15 feet squared – big enough to move around in without feeling overly constrained.

Laser tracking

That movement tracking is based on laser-generated data via those base stations, and as a key safety feature of that technology, the scanners will also be sensitive to the physical dimensions of the room and furniture layout in which the user is playing. The problems of falling over a wholly tangible coffee table or walking into an all-too-solid door whilst immersed in a virtual world are thus ameliorated as those objects are layered into the display should the player get dangerously close to them.

The headset will incorporate two 1080 X 1200 pixel displays and a by no means unimpressive 90-frames-per-second refresh rate. That level of functionality ought to make for an ultra-smooth gaming experience. Likewise a screen ratio of 19:9 gives a taller, more convincing image than the more standard 16:9.

A Gaming Heart

In contrast to many technology developers, Valve were in the happy position of being able to integrate the insights of games designers at an early stage – and indeed at every stage – in the development of the headset. Vive, therefore, is finely attuned to the intuitions and expectations of gamers. There are very few obvious workarounds where the technology has had to be re-engineered. The entire design is informed by that gaming sensitivity. The company insists that Vive is not merely technology for its own sake, but that at every turn the emphasis has been on what the technology can deliver to the gaming experience. It is a design logic that so far has had the critics purring with appreciation. That said, Valve are already working to deliver a second iteration that entails higher screen resolution, less weight, less power and even more nimble.

Expanding Horizons

That capacity to integrate physical movement into the game offers an intriguing range of possibilities. So far, for example, the highly lucrative and rapidly expanding online gambling sector has shown an appetite to move out of what is, in effect, a technological silo. For example, live casino games already entail the televisual presentation of real life dealers and croupiers in real time. But the potential for online players to interact with those dealers and croupiers in 3D and to fully immerse themselves in the all-round casino experience, physically moving between tables and switching between games, is already generating a buzz within the industry.

Playing a Great Hand

So far the roll out of the device has been a textbook demonstration of how to manage a successful launch. The prospect of a market launch ahead of Oculus Rift and the Sony Project Morpheus is a guaranteed attention grabber and, of course, the prominence enjoyed by Valve has been leveraged to the full. Games designers have been quickly persuaded to deliver Vive-compatible titles. Cloudhead Games (The Gallery), Fireproof Games and Owlchemy Labs (Job Simulator) are amongst those to have devoted serious resources in that direction.

The fact that, courtesy of the Steam Store, Valve has a ready-made, fully-scaled distribution platform puts it in an ideal place to achieve serious early sales. The momentum that Valve president Newell was talking about seems unlikely to slow over the months ahead. So far they are undeniably playing a great hand.

Market Caution

3d gamingOne development that is shaping the emerging 3D headset marketplace is the fact that games developers – perhaps wary of the lessons of earlier technologies – are making a point of designing games for both Oculus Rift and the Vive. It seems that in an uncertain environment where there is every possibility that one product will rise to become the default brand for the technology, that games designers would rather play it safe and – effectively – put a bet on both horses in the race.

Gaming is Just the Beginning

Of course, the online poker industry is just a token example of the industries that are eying the possibilities that such a highly calibrated and wholly immersive 3D experience might fulfil. In fact, the headset’s developers are acutely aware of the potential utility of their device away from recreational activities altogether. In the fields of medicine and the military in particular – albeit for very different reasons – the possibility to train and assess the performance of personnel in a virtual environment offers considerable, and potentially life-saving, benefits. The momentum that 3D technology has already generated is impressive. What Valve and HTC are about to deliver could be out of this world.

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