Friday, January 24, 2014

Valve's VR Technology - seen @ Steam Dev Days!

I was lucky enough to not only attend Steam Dev Days recently, but to also get a demo of Valve's VR Technology. Michael Abrash told me in person that I was free to discuss my experiences. I've been wanting to weave a story out of it, but I simply don't have the time. That being said, here are my notes on the experience. It was very interesting, and very exciting!

Valve’s VR Technology
  • I got a private demo of Valve’s VR Technology - this was a very limited-access thing unfortunately, but I was told I could communicate my experiences to the public!
  • Preface: I’m writing this many days after the fact - memory is a fickle thing, and this a very busy time period for me. I may have some big details wrong, I may be forgetting something very important - I’m not sure!
  • Saw many different demos within a 30 minute time period. From simplest to craziest.
    • Room was covered in QR-Code looking symbols
    • Camera on the headset tracked the codes in the room for positioning
    • I could actually walk around the room and explore the space
    • There was a special carpet with raised areas so I could tell when I was leaving the space / reaching the end of my cable / reaching the walls of the room.
    • With Oculus Rift - I’ve gotten dizzy within 30 seconds of my first try while standing. With Valve’s demo I stood and walked around for 30 min without getting dizzy.
    • Valve stated explicitly that this was not an experience for consumers - this was meant to show what VR COULD be.
      • This is the standard to hold consumer-ready tech to - “we have to get consumer tech to be THIS good!”
      • They have built one of these rooms for Oculus.
  1. Space with matrix of Cubes, textured with websites
    1. Cubes were perceptually very small, say six inches cubed.
    2. I could walk up to a small cube and put my face into it. Text was super crisp.
    3. Resolution was amazing!
    4. Tracking was amazing - fast head movements worked well.
  2. Website room with raised platform
    1. I started out standing on a very high platform.
      1. I do not have a fear of heights: I have done rock-climbing, hot-air ballooning, etc.
    2. I immediately felt like I was in danger, my body wanted to spread out, balance myself.
    3. I was asked to step off the platform and into space.
      1. I was way more anxious than I should have been. I had to spread my legs out wide and tip-toe my way out into the open air.
      2. Once out there, I was told I was one of few percentage of people who successfully did this without freaking out.
      3. Standing in mid-air was extremely uncomfortable - my body wanted me to go back.  Eventually I went back and felt much better.
  3. Standing on a street in a downtown like space with many skyscraper-sized boxes.
    1. Sense of space and perspective was nuts
    2. Boxes really felt like they were insanely huge.
  4. Warehouse room with animated spheres
    1. Warehouse was just a huge empty box, but the huge space felt really impressive.
      1. I spent a lot of time staring at the huge space i was in instead of focusing on what I was supposed to.
    2. There were two large spheres rotating around - they felt like they were perceptually 100ft diameter and 30ft diameter or so.  I was very close to them.
    3. There was also an animated light, and my head was casting a dynamic shadow, which was cool.
    4. Seeing them glide through the air effortlessly was disconcerting. It’s hard to describe, but it felt very surreal.  My conscious mind did not want to accept that what I was seeing was real - my brain was believing that it WAS real.
    5. Just walking around and staring at the spheres was very strange feeling...weirdest part of the demo.  My brain was just very confused.
    6. They added a mirror so I could see my head. It was just a box with two simple spheres for eyes. It was extremely bizarre to see it mirror my movement so well. It really made me question what I was looking at.
  5. Portal 2 turret assembly
    1. Valve guy mentioned that they noticed Normal maps don’t work with VR - you can tell they are fake.
    2. Machine arms were building a turret from Portal 2.
    3. Arms were rotating wildly fast, and I was very close. It felt dangerous.
    4. This was the first demo with textures, I could look closely at the machine arms and tell the normal maps were fake, they broke down very badly.
  6. Photo pano (beach)
    1. I was standing in a 360 degree photo. I could look around. There were nearby palm trees, with a beach on one side and buildings on another. Looked like LA or something.  Photo was high resolution but felt flat and fake compared to previous simple demos of real 3d geo.
    2. Valve guy explained this demo was missing a lot of important depth information, but they felt it was interesting because of it’s high fidelity.
    3. The palm trees broke down badly because they were close but lacked parallax.
  7. Photo pano (woods)
    1. I was on a stone path in the middle of some woods. Didn’t look american.
    2. Nothing was too nearby...this helped make the illusion a little more convincing.
  8. I spawned in front of Atlas model from Portal 2
    1. This one was immaculately detailed, I could get close and examine all the joints, bolts and frame, model was very nice.
    2. It looked a little taller than myself, 6’5” maybe.
    3. I turned around and there was a giant 100ft tall atlas in front of me! HOLY SHIT I almost fell backward, It was shocking to see one that big, it really felt like it was huge!
    4. Looking up at the model was extremely impressive.
    5. There was also a tiny one nearby that I could walk up to and look down at. 2’5” to 3’  maybe.  It was funny to see one that short.
    6. This demo really drove home how crazy it can feel to believe that something is ACTUALLY gigantic or tiny in VR. Scale is very important.
  9. Pipe room
    1. Valve guy told me that from here on I’d be seeing art made by valve guys specifically for the VR demo.
    2. I started in a small walled in space. Ceiling was open, but there were pipes overhead and around me which made it feel very cramped.
      1. my first instinct was to crouch in the small space, which I did.
    3. The pipes were immaculately detailed. Super smooth details of pipe connections, valves, etc.
    4. There was a porthole window on a nearby wall eminating blue light, I was able to walk over and look in. The porthole window had a crank on it that was very intricately detailed.
    5. The combination of the high-poly geometry and the whole VR experience was a bit mind-boggling at this point.
  10. Animated robot face
    1. Didn’t spend much time here but there was a very high-poly animated robot face. It was just opening and closing it’s mouth like an automaton.  I was able to push my face INTO it and clip into it, seeing the inside workings of the face.  This was a bit creep and weird TBH.
  11. Portal 2 office
    1. I was looking down at a board-game like space. It was an office space full of the little guys from portal 2
      1. These little guys:

    2. They were all animated and had little behaviors they were performing around the office.
    3. I was able to get way down low and put my head INTO the space.
    4. It was amazing how real, how believable these little guys felt. These guys are 2d paper-cutout-like characters, and the environment was just flat-shaded with some small textured details that were very stylized and simple - but it felt like they were really there and alive!
    5. I saw lots of funny little details
      1. There was one desk with papers strewn everywhere, everything was knocked over. Little guy was passed out with a bottle next to him. hand-written note said “I QUIT!”
      2. I saw a little guy leaning back with his feet up, rocking back and forth. He toppled over when I got close to him, and scrambled to get back up.
      3. Saw two little guys walk over by the water cooler, stop, start to chat with each other.
    6. Strangely enough this was one of the most compelling demos. I felt like these were really little people! I wished so much that I could interact with them!
  12. Cockpit interior
    1. I was inside of some kind of cockpit. There were cool animated dials and pipes all around me.  It felt cramped.
    2. There was a window in front of me with portholes to look through. I had to move my head around quite a bit to look outside. There was some kind of desert outside.
    3. It felt really compelling and interesting to feel like I was really in the cockpit!
    4. Discussed with Valve rep. how compelling this was! I was sold! I want to spend 50 hours in this cockpit!
      1. They responded that they like to hear this. (paraphrasing) They are very wary of whether VR could be compelling enough to overcome the “stage fright” of the general public to try VR.  It will take very compelling experience, both on behalf of the hardware and software, to overcome this problem.
  13. Office room
    1. I was in a small office room. Computer on one side, a lamp, a door, etc.
    2. Valve told me this was a room at the Valve office.
    3. If I was at the Valve office, this room would be a 1-to-1 perfect experiental match. I could walk up to the lightswitch in VR, and flick the lightswitch in real-life. The tracking was that accurate.
    4. The room was immaculately detailed.  I was able to peek behind the computer on the desk and see every cable going into the back of the PC, every screw modeled incredibly well.  I was able to peek inside the lamp and see the lightbulb inside, or put my face up to the plug in the wall and see every detail of the outlet.
    5. The valve guy was able to toggle the lighting - which turned off the lamp lighting and made blue light from the computer monitor illuminate the room. This made the room feel totally different!
  14. Demo scene
  • I flew through a crazy demo from the 'demo scene'. Lots of odd changing shapes and such, but it was very cool to see the space, perspective and parallax of everything. It was fairly surreal but at this point I was getting used to it. Even though I was flying through space, I didn't get nauseous or dizzy.  Some things flew very close to my face and I had to duck out of the way.

  • The concluding statement from Valve - This is where we think consumer tech could be in a few years! This is the bar to reach for!
    • My mind was blown!


  1. Thanks for sharing. Exciting stuff!

  2. Thanks you some much for sharing!!!!!
    Lots of the comments on reddit /r/oculus have a look!!!

  3. Thanks for the quick bullet point run through, easy to read and very valuable, cheers!