An old Valve augmented reality HMD prototype based on the NVIS ST-50
An old Valve augmented reality HMD prototype based on the NVIS ST-50. New York Times, 2012

Last week we saw the latest Oculus Rift prototype, dubbed ‘Crystal Cove,’ and this week we’ve been waiting patiently for info on Valve’s prototype virtual reality head mounted display that the company showed yesterday and today at the Steam Dev Days conference. Here’s a roundup of initial accounts from those who have tried the HMD.

Reddit user Harabeck is at Steam Dev Days and got to try the prototype Valve VR headset. Below are Harabeck’s impressions with some Q&A from the comments:

Posting from an iPad so forgive me if I’m not very verbose. I was lucky enough to grab a time slot and try it out. It was set up in a room plastered with patterns that were tracked by cameras on the front of the unit. Each eye had its own display. I didn’t catch the resolution, but they said they pulled [the screens] off high end phones. Having tried the DK1 and gotten sick, I was worried about simulator sickness. The demo lasted a full half hour but I felt fine. The motion tracking seemed damn near perfect, but I haven’t tried Crystal Cove so I can’t compare there. The Valve rep claimed the motion tracking was a bit better than [Crystal Cove] though. This prototype was purely for their research purposes. They made it pretty clear that it wasn’t meant as a consumer product.

They had a bunch of demos showing off various ways to use VR. One had me on a small platform over a pit. It actually felt a bit scary looking down. Another showed massive block structure that made me feel like I was peering up in a cyberpunk mega city. A few actually startled me. There was that was a room full of pipes and I was ducking to look around them, I looked down to see that I was at the edge of a hole. I actually jumped back. Then there was the one that showed portal turrets being assembled and I was trying to dodge the mechanical arms. One had a giant Atlas from Portal 2 and if it had been animated to walk, it would have been pretty crazy. Gives me ideas for great boss fights. I was able to completely lose myself in the demos and felt as if I was in a much larger space. It felt very strange when they took the headset off.

Q: Was the field of view any different from the DK? How was the level of immersion when compared to the DK? Did you really feel like you were in a different space? Is this experience what you would call a great VR experience and do you think most gamers would use it without complaints? And lastly, did you have any complaints?

A: [Field of view] seemed about the same. The immersion was incredible, far superior to the [Oculus Rift] DK1. I really felt like I was somewhere else. If something moved past me I naturally moved to avoid it even though I knew it was immaterial. I ducked beneath and around things instead of going through them. In one demo, your [point of view] was moving and I actually felt like my body was moving. It was a fascinating experience but nothing was truly interactive. The unit was kind of heavy but it didn’t become uncomfortable over the half hour. Worrying about the cable would be my biggest complaint.

Q: Did you notice any pentile screen patterns? They kind of look like a checked pattern, as opposed to a standard grid screendoor of the 720p RGB DK1 screen.

A: It looked like a standard grid. There were points I did notice screen door, but I could also easily ignore it.

Q: I’m assuming it was wired and they just kept the cord out of the way?

A: Correct, there were cables going to a pc and a carpet to help you feel when to stop.

Q: Would you say that you believe that VR is fundamentally a standing experience, even if limiting to how far you can walk in a room? And did you feel any awareness that you could bump into something even though you were near completely immersed in the demos?

A: I would say this demo was, but in general I think sitting VR can work as well. A part of my mind was always monitoring my risk of tangling the cable or moving too far.

Q: Did the cameras on the unit track your hands / the rest of your body while in VR?

A: No, that was the biggest missing element of the demos. I kept trying to reach out and touch things and got no feedback for it. One demo did have a mirror that showed a representation of your head though.

Q: How was the graphics quality beyond resolution of screens? I’m mostly curious how far they have gotten using VR to push the “I’m in a video game” feeling to “I’m in a weird looking room” to “matrix” as far as immersion goes.

A: Many of the demos used high quality assets that valve artists made specifically for this. The models had extremely high detail and excellent lighting. I felt that I could lean in close to things and not notice too much bad texture or modeling geometry.

Q: How was movement, and how did it work?

A: The head tracking worked in all axis and seemed almost perfect. I could tilt my head and walk around and my view would move accordingly. It used gyros corrected periodically by tracking the patterns on the wall with the front mounted cameras.

Q: What in your opinion was a bigger factor in terms of immersion over DK1; resolution, tracking, or, something else?

A: Low persistence and motion tracking in all axis made the difference.

Q: Sounds awesome. Can you give us a bit more specifics how the experience compares to the DK? Or if you had the pleasure of trying it out, how CC holds its own againt what I believe they call the Valve ‘Vortex’? Thanks!

A: Compared to [Oculus Rift] DK1 at least, the screen was much sharper and the tracking more robust. It was also set up as a whole room experience you walk around in, so that was an interesting aspect compared to the rift’s sit down implementation.

Q: What did the actual device look like? Was it sleek or boxy like [Oculus Rift] DK1? Also if you could guess what was the resolution of the screen?

A: It looked like an [Oculus Rift] DKK1 with circuits and cameras bolted onto the front.

Valve’s Gabe Newell and Michael Abrash pose with Oculus co-founder and Rift inventor Palmer Luckey prior to the launch of the Oculus Rift Kickstarter in August, 2012

TheSonicReblog is also at Steam Dev Days and has been posting impressions from the event. The author got to try Valve’s prototype HMD and offers up the following thoughts:

Today is the big day for VR but I wanted to begin by addressing Valve’s VR solution since I woke up to dozens of text messages from friends asking if this really was “better than Oculus.” Well, first thing to understand is that what Valve demonstrated isn’t a consumer product and likely won’t be for a while. It was using custom tech, was uninhibited by the need to even approach a consumer price point, and needed an entire (small) room for tracking. Prior to trying it I was told it blew away Crystal Cove and it really does. That said, Oculus has prototypes that blow away Crystal Cove as well. The statement isn’t meant to be “console warrior fanboy” fodder, but rather an indication of how rapidly VR is improving. Today we’ll see a lot from Oculus. They are a central cog in Valves VR plans, and the two companies are clearly working in close proximity. Count them out at your own discretion.

And a few tweets for good measure:

Stay tuned to this article for more unofficial accounts, and a forthcoming article once we get some official info from Valve or our insiders on the ground.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • eyeandeye

    Oh, to be a fly on the eye of one of these guys. I feel like one of the millions of kids in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory who DIDN’T find a golden ticket.

    Waiting for VR to get here is like…is like waiting for a thousand super bowls, Christmases and rock concerts at once.

  • kevin williams

    Getting on the plane back from SteamDevDay, lots of photos and lots of information in new developments – watch this space!

  • Paul James

    Look forward to reading and featuring your experiences Kevin. I’m in no way jealous of course. :)