Oculus dethroned: Valve's SteamVR is the new virtual reality frontrunner

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There’s a new frontrunner in virtual reality. At least for now. For the first time since virtual reality became “a thing” again, Oculus has been dethroned. SteamVR and the HTC Vive now reign supreme as the device I’m most looking forward to, following a demo during GDC.

For a lot of you, that won’t mean much. We haven’t had a single consumer-grade virtual reality headset yet, unless you count the GearVR which—while an impressive piece of kit in its own right—isn’t exactly on a par with wired, desktop-based solutions. So to most of you, virtual reality is still just a product that’s “on the way,” and thus who cares if behind-the-scenes there’s a jockeying for power?

And yet for me, the whole idea that Oculus is now the underdog? Unprecedented. Here’s what happened.

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Setting the scene

My demo took place in a room much like that I saw during Oculus’ Crescent Bay demos last September at Oculus Connect—one of those fake, cubicle-type rooms that are thrown together for trade shows. No furniture except for two small bookshelves, a stool in the center, and a PC tower off in a corner.

The headset itself was resting on the stool—a workmanlike prototype, with a hydra of wires sticking out of the top. The controllers in this demo were also wired, and a belt was fastened around my waist to keep me from getting tangled. To answer a question I had earlier this week: Yes, the final headset will be wired, though that version will require only a single cable instead of a whole mass. The final controllers will be completely wireless.

Even so, the headset was light. It definitely felt lighter than the Oculus Rift DK2, though I’d have to compare the two back-to-back to say for sure. Audio will be built into the final headset, though for this demo we wore standard headphones (an option in the consumer version also).

Then came my first surprise—when the technician held the controllers out for me to grab, I could see them.

It sounds stupid, maybe, but anyone who’s fumbled for their Xbox 360 controller or mouse while blinded by an Oculus Rift will understand what I’m talking about. I could see virtual representations of the two controllers, judge how far away they were, and reach out and grab them. It changed the whole experience immediately. This is how VR should control.

To some extent, this was what the Razer Hydra did back when that device was still easy to buy. The Hydra’s range was relatively small though, while the Vive’s controllers and headset can be tracked within a fifteen foot diameter.

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That’s thanks to two base stations, christened Lighthouse, that were settled atop the bookcases I mentioned earlier. The current versions are large blocks, like surveillance cameras almost, though Valve assures me the final versions will be much smaller and work on infrared. This requires line of sight though, which means higher will still be better. Those of us without high bookcases are looking at potentially mounting the Lighthouse stations on the wall.

It would be worth it.

Wandering virtual worlds

I started in a white room, with some pictures of various demos arranged along the walls. This was to get me familiar with the hardware—walk around, use the controllers, make sure I felt comfortable.

I held up my hands. I pulled the trigger. A big red balloon popped out of the end. I gasped.

The technician laughed. I judged that my reaction was pretty common. It was incredible though—more realistic than anything I’ve seen in VR up until now. That’s in part due to the two screens powering the Vive—1200x1080 resolution per eye and a 90Hz refresh rate. You can still barely see the pixels, especially in a plain white room, but it seemed better even than the Crescent Bay prototype I saw in September (though, again, it’s been a while and I’d have to compare both side-to-side to know for sure). Valve wouldn’t share any other details on the headset itself—I asked whether it was a PenTile screen or similar and was told Valve wanted to focus on the experience itself for now, with tech specs coming later.

Just know it was impressive. And I’m a VR vet so this might not mean as much, but not once did I feel nauseous during these demos.

First up was an underwater scene, titled theBlu (developed by Wevr). Like Ocean Rift, I was underwater—this time standing on the deck of a sunken ship. The “walls” were cleverly disguised by the ship’s railings and a fallen mast, though getting too close to the wall causes a white grid to pop up anyway, which Valve called the “chaperone” system.

I turned around just in time to see a massive blue whale float by, completely dwarfing any object I’ve seen in VR before except perhaps the dinosaur in the Crescent Bay demos last year. The whale’s eye alone was as big as my head.

Next up was Owlchemy Labs’s Job Simulator: The 2050 Archives, a tongue-in-cheek game where you work in a restaurant because in the future all menial labor has been taken over by robots. Each controller became a hand, and I was able to reach out, pick up items, turn them around, throw them into a pot, throw them onto the ground—whatever.

I spent most of the demo trying to juggle kitchen knives. Even more surprising? It worked. I could judge depth well enough to “snatch” the knives out of mid-air, although there did sometimes seem to be a bit of delay between hitting the trigger and the game recognizing the input. Whether that was hardware or software related, I don’t know.

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Cloudhead Games' The Gallery.

Cloudhead Games showed a demo of The Gallery, a game set in a fantasy/steampunk type world. Again, there were plenty of objects to pick up and play with. The coolest takeaway from this? A candle that I picked up and carried around to see how it would affect the scene’s lighting. Oh, and a pair of green-tinted glasses I held up in front of my eyes to see what would happen. Predictably, my view turned green.

Tilt Brush, by Skillman and Hackett, was actually my favorite demo—and it wasn’t even a “game” necessarily. It’s painting. In space. You remember that pen that was actually a mini-3D printer of sorts? It’s like that. Your left hand controls brush type and color, your right hand is the brush. I wrote “Wow” on the wall in fire. I wrote my name in blue leaves. I put stars in the sky. I danced around and made crazy spirals that wrapped around my body.

It was the most magical VR experience I’ve ever had. Forget all the rest—I could’ve spent the entire day in Tilt Brush and not been bored. Imagine drawing whole diorama scenes around you, or collaborating with friends on a massive art project.

Valve, of course, saved the biggest surprise for last—a demo set in Portal’s Aperture Laboratories, in the “Robot Repair Human Diversity Outreach Program.” This was the most technically impressive demo, given the fact that Valve’s assets were top-notch. One of the two robots from Portal 2’s co-op mode (the short, fat one) is broken and you need to repair him.

There were, again, various items to interact with—drawers full of moldy cake, doors to pull, et cetera. At one point you pull the robot’s face open and see all its internal components stretched out in front of you.

It was convincing—not least because it hints at the possibility for VR storytelling from a big-budget developer.

Further down the road

Now, there are still questions. For one, price. Like I said earlier this week, a VR headset, two controllers, and two base stations does not sound cheap, to say nothing of the hardware required to pump out these experiences at 90 frames per second to two screens. This is almost certainly not going to be a widespread technology at launch, if I had to guess.

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There’s also the question of how it’ll work in a real living room—you know, not a giant white cube devoid of furniture. Valve told me the system will recognize furniture in the final product similar to how it recognizes walls now, but we’ll of course need to test that before we believe it.

Another interesting point: What’s next? I asked Valve whether the HTC Vive would be the only SteamVR platform and was told that the agreement is not exclusive. The Vive is the only unit Valve is currently working on in 2015, but there’s a chance that partnership changes in the future.

Finally: Will it launch? This technology seemed surprisingly mature. More than I expected. But Valve’s track record on hardware isn’t exactly stellar, and despite both HTC and Valve swearing up and down that the Vive will hit a 2015 Holiday release...well, I’m not holding my breath.

Consumer VR is here, though. If you aren’t sold on VR yet, I guarantee the demo reel I saw today would change that. Price might be a problem. There might be some quirks left to work out. But in general this is the most polished, intense VR experience I’ve seen.

It’s funny, because I know I’ve written that a lot already, and most of you have yet to try VR even a single time. Perhaps that’s good though—it means by the time you do try it, it’ll be ready. I’m honestly excited to see what happens when you do.

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