Valve have been teasing developers and the public with
Half-Life 3 their own approach to virtual reality for some time, with thus far typically Valvey vagueness. But this week, things changed! Valve have brought their headset to the Game Developers Conference* in San Francisco, where the HTC-produced goggle-box is already causing a stir.
It’s called the Vive. If you buy one and already own a PS Vita, you can assemble them into a Coldplay album.
Visualising virtual reality for the average consumer is tough, though - awareness thus far has been confined to tech and game nerds - so in their announcement ad, Valve and HTC opted for the approach of “people standing in places looking at things”. Which is a fine illustration of what VR can do, but it’s hardly a full demonstration of the potential of the technology. They’re selling, as their marketing teams likely cooed to them, an idea, rather than a product.
That the idea is, for the moment, distinct from the product raises an important issue of fragmentation. The Vive, the Oculus Rift, the castAR, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear, Sony’s Project Morpheus, Razer’s open-source OSVR, even Google’s cardboard headset - they all operate on the same basic principles, but in slightly different ways and with slightly different capabilities. We could easily end up seeing applications that perform better on one headset than on others, or worse, don’t support certain headsets at all - which is death to any new technology of this kind. The Vive, for example, features 15-by-15-foot spatial awareness to track users’ movements in 3D space, as well as optional handheld motion controllers and a much higher-definition display than its competitors. How will this even work in a marketplace with half a dozen or more VR solutions out there?
It’s important to avoid such confusion and incompatibility not just because it’s bad for consumers, but because it’d be a shame to fuck up such a groundbreaking technology with capitalism-driven proprietary shenanigans. My first impression of VR was one of an imperfect but boundlessly promising paradigm shift in the way we interact with virtual worlds, and it’s only continuing to improve. The potential applications - not just in games, but in filmed entertainment, education, design, communication, and more - are profoundly exciting, and hopefully Valve and HTC can help bring it visibility outside the Poindexter set.
Perhaps the most important element of the Vive announcement is the “Holiday 2015” release window. Oculus in particular have been coy with their release plans, seeking to finish the hardware first but seemingly succumbing to feature creep and subsequent delays. Assuming they stick to the bold release date they’ve staked out (not something Valve are known for, admittedly), Valve and HTC could be first to market in what could be a bona-fide technological revolution.
* I am not attending GDC, largely on account of not having thousands of spare dollars to spend on international travel, but rest assured that I am insanely jealous of all the group sex and class-A drug use that is likely going on in its SJW-infested Collusion Pits.