Valve's Abrash: VR could 'cause a sea change in the entertainment industry'

By Alice O'Connor, Jan 20, 2014 9:00am PST

The Oculus Rift may be making a lot of waves, whipping cyberspace fans into a tizzy, but it's still far from mainstream--the goggles are still in prototype, and only available in a $300 "development kit." Virtual reality really is happening for real this time, we're to believe, with the backing of industry luminaries like John Carmack and Valve. According to Valve's Michael Abrash, we should see worthwhile consumer-level hardware "within two years" which makes users feel like they're really in these virtual worlds, and this may ultimately reshape the entertainment industry.

Abrash is part of the Valve virtual reality team, working with its own prototype hardware more advanced than current Oculus goggles to see quite what is needed to make VR tick. He detailed some of these experiments, and what Valve thinks VR needs to really succeed, in a fine talk on the subject a talk during Valve's Steam Developer Days event last week.

Valve's prototypes are in pursuit of ephemeral "presence," the illusion that the wearer really is inside the world. Currently available hardware may give a taste of this, but Abrash thinks it'll it can come a long way--and quickly. Valve hardware is beyond what Oculus has shown off, even the newly-revealed Crystal Cove version.

Valve has goggles with 1000x1000 pixel screens showing a 110-degree field of view, which run with 20ms of latency, a 95 Hz refresh rate, and millimetre-accurate head tracking. Crystal Cove, for comparison, currently has 30ms of latency. Valves are laboratory prototypes, though, and it doesn't intend to release hardware itself, so it's been sharing results with Oculus and others.

There's still work to do, mind. Optics are proving difficult, and a schematic Abrash revealed to display undistorted images would take a lens assembly over a foot in diameter, weighing over five pounds. Improving all the bits outside what players see would contribute to presence too: 3D audio; haptics; input; and how VR could interact with game design.

"We're researching those areas, but it's going to take many years and the combined efforts of the whole game industry to fully explore them," Abrash said.

Hardware like the Virtuix Omni treadmill is one approach to input, but is a bit silly.

Valve's interest in virtual reality is clear. PC will surely be where VR blossoms, due to the open platform and the speed with which hardware improves. Given that VR will always happily eat up more pixels, consoles will not be able to compete for long. The Steam mogul is the undoubted leader of PC at this point, and will be keen to secure this by helping PC gaming grow even bigger.

"Once hardware that supports presence ships, we think it has the potential to cause a sea change in the entertainment industry," Abrash said. "Not only could VR rapidly evolve into a major platform, but it could actually tip the balance of the entire industry from traditional media toward computer entertainment."

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