Steam Dev Days Overview and More Valve Prototype HMD Impressions—Kevin Williams Reports

kevin-williams-steam-dev-daysGuest contributor Kevin Williams brings us a report from inside Steam Dev Days, where Valve held a number of talks on their vision of the future of virtual reality, and demonstrated a prototype VR head mounted display which wowed attendees. Valve believe their prototype HMD represents what consumer-available VR hardware will look like by 2015.

The Valve Corporation held for the first time a Steam Development conference for developers and supporting corporations during January in Seattle, Washington. The event was intended to promote development on Steam—Valve’s 2009 digital distribution and gaming platform, a service that is home to some 75 million accounts and some 7 million active players—but also to offer an opportunity for developers to share ideas and for Valve to offer their vision of the future.

Steam Dev Days took place over two days during the middle of January, and saw over 2,000 delegates attending the development event hosted in the heart of Seattle. This gathering was in celebration of the community that Valve have established round their digital delivery platform, but was also organized to promote Valve’s investment in their standalone Steam Machine platform, a forthcoming lineup of gaming computers aimed at the livingrooms of gamers. A third aspect of Steam Dev Days was a series of announcements regarding Valve’s support and aspirations in the virtual reality arena.

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Condition One

As one of a number of international visitors that were invited to attend Steam Developer Days, I was heartened by the atmosphere of innovation and originality that bubbled to the surface. The first day of the conference focused on the development of content in support of Steam, and offered a chance to embrace the opportunity of the new Steam Machine architecture. 14 different PC manufacturers presented their own configuration of the Steam Machine platform, which is powered by the Linux-based ‘SteamOS’. The likes of Alienware held a conference session to promote their vision of supporting the Steam Machine methodology as well as looking at future innovation this platform will foster.

But alongside the impressive lineup of Steam Machine designs in the main meeting area, and the ‘Steam Machines Demo Lounge’ for the PC system and its unique Steam Controller; an independent developer (Condition One) demonstrated game concepts on the Oculus VR Rift development kit (DK1). Another demonstration used a novel 3D viewer linked to a laptop screen and stereographic viewer.

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The crowd gathers just before Michael Abrash’s Steam Dev Days talk

But it was the second day of the event that held the main thrust for those of us that came to hear about all things VR. It was revealed long before the conference that Valve was considering a greater support of virtual reality—and with Valve’s Michael Abash presentation, the depth of the company’s interest was revealed, including full support of SteamVR (a version of Steam that will support game content for HMD’s including the Oculus Rift), as well as demonstrations of a Valve developed VR prototype head mounted display.

The close affiliation of Valve to Oculus was cemented by the following presentation from Oculus VR Inc’s Palmer Lucky, who gave a spirited and energetic session on developing games for VR—this included observations on the initial best practices and requirements for game development and the pitfalls to avoid. This presentation was followed-up days after Steam Dev Days by the launch of Oculus VR’s Best Practice documentation.

To ram home the considerations needed for VR game content, Devin Reimer and Alex Schwartz from Owlchemy Labs reported on their efforts (in a session called ‘The Wild West of VR’) in porting their popular Steam released PC game ‘AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!’ and creating an Oculus Rift version of the game called ‘Aaaaaculus!’; the team commented on the changes in interface and HUD to suit the application on an HMD.

Along with the SteamVR announcement, Valve also revealed their efforts to perfect the requirements of the best VR experience. In Michael Abash’s previous presentation he had revealed the bedrocks of performance that Valve felt were needed to achieve a suitable VR experience, and had even gone as far as stating that they feel this performance will be achieved in 2015. Another figure working on VR within Valve, Joe Ludwig’s presentation went further into the detail of the perfect VR application and lifted the lid on the Valve prototype HMD demo—a system that had been in operation in private demonstration rooms during the Steam Dev Days event.

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VR roundtable discussion

Finally a round table session was held between, Abrash, Ludwig, and Luckey, taking questions from the audience. It was interesting that in supporting the Oculus VR approach to the consumer market, Valve still felt that the performance needed to increase experientially—and had developed an image tracking positional tracking system; two demonstration systems in the private rooms at the event took half-an-hour to run through, with selected developers invited to try, though Valve was keen to point out that they had no intention of making their own commercial VR hardware, yet.

Technical Illusions' CastAR Prototype

Technical Illusions’ CastAR Prototype

The Valve event gathered a number of corporations off the conference floor—some publishers taking suites in hotels near the event discussing opportunities and promoting new initiatives. One of those that had their own hotel suite was Seattle based Technical Illusions, and we were invited to see the latest prototype of the CastAR AR and VR head mounted display system. A number of game and non-game presentations were given, including an interesting GUI application and a 3D dungeons experience, promoting the depth of view achieved with the projector based 3D glasses system.

The reflective material was set-up on a table along with its positional tracker system offering a compelling experience. Technical Illusions is in the middle of ramping up towards launch of the consumer system for the Q3-2014, and the newly appointed Business Development Director, Brian Bruning, was keen to point out that the company was looking at all opportunities to deploy their technology into the market, with VR and AR offering great possibilities.

Steam Dev Days opened a brand new opportunity for new content development—the event underlined the strength of User Generated Content (UGC) on the Steam platform, and how Valve looks at their support of the Steam Machine platform as a major step in redefining the gaming experience far beyond what can be achieved with the latest generation of consoles. The added string of VR support will take game development on Steam to a new level and the company sees this as a bright new future for all.

In conclusion, it was surprising to see the Steam Dev Days event take place a stones’ throw away from one of the remaining GameWorks—a mixed entertainment game facility that sees a bar, restaurant, and arcade venue all in one location-based entertainment venue. It was the possibility of a revived arcade experience built around VR that fueled many of the discussions that took place at the mixers organized during the event—suggestions were made that companies such as VRCade (also based in the Seattle area), are looking at a dedicated VR environment using themed environments.

This approach is expected to be a component of the installation of VR HMD’s in the public minds, with many seeing this technology at special venues and events. At Valve’s Steam Dev Days, a glimpse at the strong and vibrant development opportunity for new titles in VR was promoted, along with a monetized and robust distribution platform—now towards the first releases.

About the AuthorKevin Williams has an extensive background in the development and sales of the latest amusement and attraction applications and technologies. The UK born specialist in the pay-to-play scene; is well-known through his consultancy KWP; and as a prolific writer and presenter (along with his own news service The Stinger Report), covering the emergence of the new entertainment market. Kevin has co-authored a book covering the sector called ‘The Out-of-Home Interactive Entertainment Frontier’ (published by Gower). And is the founding chairman of DNA Association, focuses on the digital Out-of Home interactive entertainment sector. Kevin can be reached at kwp@thestingerreport.com.

Valve’s Prototype VR Headset Impressions from Cloudhead Games

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Cloudhead Games, the developers behind the forthcoming The Gallery: Six Elements game for the Oculus Rift, attended Steam Dev Days as well. In their most recent update, the company shares the exciting news that their game has recently been ‘greenlit’ for distribution on Steam and the developers had a chance to try Valve’s prototype VR headset at the conference. They share the following insights:

To prove out to developers what the ultimate end-game might look like in the very near future, Valve offered an incredible 30 minute demo of their internal VR hardware at Dev Days. We were lucky enough to try it out (thanks to Joe Ludwig!).

We were ushered into a bright room covered in printed tracking targets. On the floor was an orange throw rug roughly 8ft by 4ft and this represented a sort of “safe volume” of space that users could physically walk around in. The headset form-factor was close to the Oculus but it differed in a few respects. Custom cut lenses accommodated two 1080p panels (one per eye in portrait format) and a small camera sat atop the headset itself (not shown below).

After mounting the headset the immediate clarity of the image was apparent. Some very minor screen door was still visible but it was muted to the point that most consumers would probably look past it. The second impression was low persistence on the panels and as a result, throwing your head left to right rapidly did not cause any blurring or smearing of the image. These two qualities definitely helped with the feeling of presence but it was the third feature that completely sold it, and that was complete 360 degree, volumetric positional tracking. Having the ability to physically walk around the scene, albeit in a small 8X4ft area, and to crouch or even lay on the floor (which I did!) was a powerful experience and showcased the true endgame for virtual reality in an undeniable way. It would be VERY easy to imagine a scenario where just as today we have living room space dedicated to Wii or Kinect, that users could simply section off a small piece of carpet to walk around on. Throw some form of edge detection into the mix by augmentation or physical floor strips, which keeps players within safe boundaries and VR would definitely match its long held promise.

A number of experiences were presented, including a walk-around of a portal turret under construction, and a transcendental on-rails experience but by far my favorite and most powerful experience with Valve’s headset was laying on the floor next to a futuristic reactor pit. I stretched out on the floor propping my head up on my arm and peering over into the pit below, the sense of presence was truly a watershed moment and my mind was immediately filled with images of perching players on virtual beds in kingdoms far, far away. This also illustrated to me the importance of supporting (as best as possible) a wide range of potential positional solutions in VR. We are on the cusp of giving players true positional freedom within a limited volume, very much like a Holideck in your living room. Sixense STEM holds some promise here in the short term and although there are challenges yet to overcome, we are convinced that volumetric positional tracking will become the standard, the new normal. Perhaps not immediately but certainly within less than 3 years.

On the surface, Valve’s endgame seemed to elude to a specific kind of consumer experience. Offer users a living room component with enough juice to power a VR experience (Steambox), offer them a viable input device (Steam controller) and tie it together with an HMD that allows some latitude for volumetric positional tracking. There is a rich potential for both sit-down and stand-up VR experiences as the technology evolves, that much is clear and The Gallery: Six Elements will be well positioned to be one of the first games to attempt to support both.

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