Let’s cut right to the chase: Yes I saw Valve’s VR demo, and yes it was spectacular.
You probably gathered as much if you were following my post-viewing Facebook ravings which I posted minutes after the demo. I doubt I could recreate the same feeling of enthusiasm so I’ll just quote myself:
I just kneeled [sic] down to peer into a little office building teeming with little peoples tapping keyboards. I crawled under a mess of metal pipes in an abstract factory. I stood inside a diving suit on the surface of an alien planet. I flew into what can only be described as the inside of a glitch techno song. And unlike the dev kit it didn’t just ‘seem’ like I was there – I was THERE, in the same way that I’m standing here now.
And it’s only going to get better!
Now that I’m not typing on a phone I can elaborate on the ‘seems like it’s there‘ vs. ‘really there‘ thing. Expectations and context figure into this so I’m going to ramble on for a bit.
(Not) More of the Same
I’ve had the Oculus Devkit 1 for several months and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed developing on it. Even with the low resolution and lack of positional tracking there’s a visceral feeling of reality that no movie (not even the most well-executed 3D movies) can match. The nausea is a huge downside but the folks at Oculus continually assure us that this will be diminished as the display quality & tracking improves. (This is true, by the way.) Overall I dig it.
What I expected from Valve’s headset was more of the same, just better – an Oculus++ that improved on the already great thing I had experienced. What I got was something I was unprepared for – ironic given that Michael Abrash had just given a Dev Days talk preparing us for it! In his talk he discussed the concept of ‘presence’ in VR and went over all the different technical hurdles you need to clear in order to accomplish it. (There are many.) Even though he emphasized that this feeling of presence can’t be achieved in the DK1 (or any non-VR form of media) I still assumed I ‘got’ what he was talking about. I’ve had plenty of moments using the DK1 where I’ve ducked in response to a flying object or jumped at the sight of an enemy. I figured that had to be at least foundation of ‘presence,’ right?
After his talk my name was called for the VR demo and I spent the next hour in a haze wondering if I’d hallucinated it.* (Given wanted to hash out some details about the project before he left and I could barely concentrate on what he was saying.) After what felt like a year of waiting the Valve folks led me into the VR room for the demo.
I’m going to skirt around the actual hardware and tracking system because Valve insisted that the point of the demo was to show off a result, not a method, and I think that’s a good philosophy. They had plenty to say about the specific displays they were using and all the hoops they’ve had to jump through to get it to refresh quickly enough (an odd-sounding 95hz) etc. etc. but it’s obvious they plan to swap it out the instant something better comes along. (The guts-on-the-outside look of the headset itself supports this notion.)
The headset itself was comfortable and popped on without much fuss. It was slightly heavier than the Oculus but it also had beefier straps so I had no complaints. They threw a switch and *boom* I was in.
The Demo Begins!
The first demo was a set of flat-lit, flat-colored cubes floating in space. I remember feeling a surge of disappointment after all that buildup. Cubes? Really?
But it only lasted for a moment. When you’re looking at stuff with the DK1, you’re thinking, ‘Wow, that looks really real.’ When I was looking at these cubes – keep in mind we’re talking about cubes that looked like this – I thought ‘holy shit that’s real. That cube is right in front of me.’ Knowing intellectually that it wasn’t in front of me made no difference – I felt its… well, presence. All at once I got what Abrash was talking about. The urge to touch these things was overpowering and the fact that I didn’t have hands was really frustrating, especially as I started to move around and experience parallax.
(To be continued…)
*(I was EXTRAORDINARILY luck to get into this demo. I don’t know the exact number of developers who got to see it, but it couldn’t have been more than 50 out of the roughly 2500 in attendance. I was one of the last 4 developers randomly chosen.)
Read more here: 1/20/2014 – Steam Dev Days PT 1