Another world

Today I finally got to see the virtual reality demo at Valve Software. And it completely blew me away.

The standard I had been used to was what I had seen before — experiences on the order of the Oculus Rift, which people in our field have been seeing for many years, and which is far inferior.

What is different about this demo is that they have all the little details right, and this is an area in which all the little details really matter. As you move your head, the world moves around you as though you are really there, with none of those little delays that tell your subconscious that what you are seeing is fake.

On the contrary, wherever I looked, it simply felt as though I was in the place I was looking at, whether those objects were creatures, walls and floors, mountains or spaceships. Which was pretty remarkable, because some of the places I “visited” were utterly fantastical.

The very last “place” was a journey through a giant abstract world from the Demo Scene — beautiful and mysterious and utterly alien, yet somehow completely real. It was this demo, more than the more practical ones (e.g.: you are in a machine room, and you can stick your head inside the machine to see how it works), which really filled me with awe about the possibilities — the sense that our experience of possible universes is truly limited only by our imagination.

But perhaps the most important thing was the absolute confirmation that the details really do matter. In this demo, unlike all the others I have seen, a threshold has been crossed, and I have seen another world.

14 thoughts on “Another world”

  1. Yes, that’s the one! Except that when you are actually within the world itself, surrounded by it all, the experience is completely different — far more majestic and powerful.

    The sensory experience of actually being immersed in such a place reminded me of the first time I ever heard Roy Batty’s dying soliloquy in “Blade Runner”, words so beautifully crafted and performed by Rutger Hauer:

    “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

  2. Have you tried the DK2? I’m curious if Valve’s demo is a better experience than that, or on par with.

  3. Welcome to the club. Did you shed a tear in the “place” ? I couldn’t help myself. I had to fight back the tears. The music tipped me over! It was so cool to glimpse the future.

  4. @Noah: Like everyone else I know who preordered, I’m waiting for the DK2, since shipments have been delayed.

    One fundamental difference at this stage: It was a very important part of the Valve experience that I could look anywhere. The world was all around me in all directions; I was completely immersed in it, with no restriction on where I could look. My understanding is that the DK2 tracking is designed for looking forward, not for full 360 exploration.

    On the other hand, even if that’s true, it should be easy enough to hack on it to make it into a full 360 immersive experience. I would love to be pleasantly surprised!

  5. @Infinite-Realities: I don’t think I literally cried, but it was in a way better than that. While I was flying through that world, looking everywhere and letting the vistas and the music wash over me, I was already starting to design worlds of my own in my head. That’s not something I do with every new technology!

  6. @admin

    That’s what we would love – for CV1 to allow for several cameras to be added at opposing angles to create 360-degree positional tracking. That being said it’s a consumer product and the average person doesn’t have meters and meters of free space in their home to treat like a mo-cap studio, so it being primarily forward-facing makes sense.

  7. Perhaps, but then again the average person happily pays the extra price to see an iMax film. Once you’ve experienced a world being all around you, you really don’t want to go back to mere forward-facing. As this sector matures, it’s going to be a lot bigger than just gaming. It’s also going to encompass home theatre, and a new kind of home theatre at that.

  8. You had me at “dying soliloquy in…” – i had a feeling it was about blade runner, and then goosebumps kicked in 😀 the future is amazing 🙂 i wonder if the DK2 will keep you from wanting that experience again…you should write a blog post about that once you get your DK2 – along the lines of: how valve’s demo curbed my experience with DK2…or not.

  9. Did the Valve demo have a visible screen door effect / were you able to see the pixels at all?

  10. That’s a good question. Yes, I could see little pixels when I looked for them, but they didn’t call attention to themselves.

    My conjecture is that this was because there was no perceptual price to pay for moving my head and eye gaze around, so the pixels tended to fade from attention. There were two aspects to this:

    (1) Because of the very high frame rate, zero latency, absence of geometric lens distortion and lack of smearing, there was no perceptual cost to moving my head.

    (2) Because of the custom lenses (maybe the trickiest part for a commodity headset to match in the near term), the resolution was the same everywhere in my field of view, so there was no change in pixel size or image sharpness as my eyes would saccade and fixate from place to place.

    And of course the antialiasing was properly tuned for the display gamma, which is what you’d expect from Valve.

  11. No, they have no intention of turning it into a consumer product.

    Their purpose in creating this demo has been to demonstrate a level of performance that will help spark development in an area which is relevant to their core business as the developers of Steam: Delivering high quality content for PC games.

    They are indeed working actively with Oculus and others to make sure that there will be a consumer product as good as this in the next few years. But that product is not going to come from Valve itself.

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