Virtual duality: Two new hardware offerings show how Valve and Sony are mapping VR’s future on PC and console

At E3 2012, John Carmack had a demo room devoted to a custom build of Doom 3 running in VR. It was in that room that many people experienced Oculus Rift for the first time. The headset was literally held together by duct tape. The display was low resolution and slow to refresh. But it was real, genuine virtual reality. It has advanced an incredible distance since then, but almost every word written about VR in the past three years has been speculative. When you put on a prototype VR headset, you see the potential of greatness: of what it may be capable of in another six months. It’s new and thrilling, but, well, just think how good it’ll be when it’s at a higher resolution. And the refresh rate is faster.

And the headset is lighter. It seemed that Oculus’s consumer headset would be the device to make that promising vision a reality, but after trying the SteamVR headset, it looks like Valve, not Oculus, has the best chance of turning PC VR into a successful consumer product.


Valve’s prototype VR headset, built in partnership with HTC for eventual launch under the name Vive, is pockmarked with strategically placed sensors that are key to its tracking technology. Unlike Oculus Rift, which uses an IR camera to track headset movements, SteamVR uses lasers for extremely precise, extremely fast positional tracking. Not only is this tracking method quicker and more accurate, it covers a greater space. SteamVR works in concert with a pair of laser emitters placed in opposite corners of a room, a system Valve calls ‘Lighthouse’. When those lasers make contact with the sensors on the headset, the user’s exact position in space can be determined. This system is SteamVR’s defining feature: Valve wants you to walk around in virtual reality.  It is selling the dream of the Holodeck.

SteamVR includes software for scanning a room in order to map its walls. When you approach those walls, a neon-blue grid fades into view on the headset’s display, warning you that you’re close. It’s in this context when you see that cautionary blue grid, reach out your hand, and touch a wall precisely where it should be that the VR goal of ‘presence’ is achieved more convincingly than anything else seen to date. Valve will also let you program a ‘safe’ area that’s displayed around your feet, giving you a smaller zone to stay within for less physically active applications.

Outside of its tracking technology, SteamVR is fairly similar to Oculus VR’s latest headset, Crescent Bay. Both use a pair of displays refreshing at 90Hz, though their resolutions differ slightly. To our eyes, the Oculus display is slightly higher resolution and clearer, but Valve’s pair of 1080x1200 panels are pixel-dense enough for comfortable use. It’s the precision of tracking that makes the difference: for the first time using a modern VR headset, we experience no motion sickness whatsoever with SteamVR. While it’s overly optimistic to say that Valve has solved the problem, nausea is simply a non-issue in the SteamVR demos we try. 

These demos, which last about 15 minutes each, have us walking around a 4.5x4.5-metre room and completely losing our sense of (physical) direction. In one, we stand underwater on the deck of a dilapidated shipwreck, looking around the ocean floor and watching fish dart across our field of view. In other demos, we’re not just looking, but interacting.  The lynchpin of Valve’s project is its VR
controller, which looks like a combination of a PlayStation Move controller, Steam controller thumbpad, and satellite dish.

The dish-like array on top of the controller wand, which weighs about the same as a Move controller, houses sensors that deliver precise positioning via laser emitters, just like the headset. The controller has several inputs: a trigger for most interactions, a squeeze grip for the palm, and the thumbpad, which can be divided into a number of ‘buttons’ or serve to replicate an analogue stick.

With controllers in both hands, we’re able to move our hands in VR and interact with the virtual world. In one cartoony demo, we prepare a sandwich by picking up ingredients lying around a kitchen. Big, white gloves float in space at the position of our hands. We squeeze the triggers to pick up and hold objects. In the best demo, set in Portal’s Aperture Science Facility, we pull levers, listen to some characteristically honed Valve dialogue, and use the controllers to open up Portal robot Atlas and rotate its parts as they’re suspended mid-air. Before the SteamVR demo, we knew normal PC controllers were ineffective input methods for VR, but now we’ve finally experienced something that feels appropriate.

It’s unlikely that SteamVR controllers will ship using this precise design in November, but functionally they feel final. Valve will be putting SteamVR in the hands of developers this spring, which gives plenty of time to fine tune every aspect of its technology.

Though it’s clear that the base technology will be ready for the proposed late-2015 release, it’s impossible to know if its games will be. How will game developers design for different-sized rooms and the ability for players to walk around? It’s difficult to oversell how much being able to stand cements the feeling of presence in VR, and to neglect this feature would run against one of SteamVR’s core design principles. It seems likely that the first VR killer app will harness this experience  in a game something with simple exploration but rich environments and puzzles, perhaps, a kind of natural descendent of Myst but most complex VR experiences will remain seated while developers wrestle with the prospect of marrying physical and virtual spaces.

What does Valve’s laser-based tracking system do to the price? Will Valve and Oculus play nicely and deliver a glorious era of virtual reality together, or will they splinter the userbase? We don’t know, but since Valve is the first to announce a date for a consumer product, we at least know when we’ll find out.

Head Cases
One area in which Sony is inarguably ahead of its rivals is hardware design. Morpheus was already a good-looking device on its debut, but the latest model is even more stylish at least within the narrow parameters allowed by strapping a block of plastic and circuitry to your face. More importantly, it is also the most comfortable of the three major headsets, the combination of the hardware’s contoured design and an easily adjustable strap addressing the front-heavy sensation usually associated with VR hardware. Morpheus is also the only current device  to properly take into account players who wear glasses, a button mounted under the display housing allowing for a surprisingly accommodating adjustment of  the whole unit.

Given that Vive and Oculus Rift are able to lean on the relatively unrestrained power of PCs, Sony’s VR endeavours appear to be at a significant disadvantage. But while PS4 can’t go toe-to-toe with a decent gaming rig when it comes to processing power, you’ll be hard pressed to notice once strapped into its newly redesigned Morpheus headset.

Even though none of the demos we try attempt Vive-style full-room movement, they provide evidence of how seriously Sony is taking VR. Indeed, SCE’s Shuhei Yoshida recently stated that PS4 was designed to support 120Hz VR games from the outset, something confirmed by SCEI senior staff engineer Chris Norden. “The PS4 has supported 120Hz from day one,” he tells us. “It was just a matter of a software change to enable that feature. In terms of developing Morpheus games, ideally we’d like developers to target 120Hz, but obviously they’ll be some reduction in the visual quality [at that refresh rate] reduced shaders or scene complexity, for example. But as you can tell in the demos we’ve shown, the visual fidelity is actually really nice. There’s a lot you can do, and an amazing amount of games you can create, at 120Hz.”

Although Sony is providing several demos to show off its revamped kit, only one is running at 120Hz. It’s called Magic Controller, and sees us sitting in front of a table within some kind of science bunker. This particular demo is operated using a DualShock controller, and has been created to show off a virtualised controller presence in-game.  As soon as we begin, we’re able to look down at a polygonal pad which perfectly replicates every movement of the real-life counterpart sat in our hands.

The floating UI highlights the Square button on the pad one of many ideas being explored by a Sony Japan Studio team led by EyePet creator Nicolas Doucet which we dutifully press, raising an aerial and transforming the controller into a personal TV, broadcasting ‘ShuTV 24/7’. Another button press reveals a hatch under the touchpad, which opens up to reveal a robot from The Playroom.  It beckons for us to carry it closer to the table, and when we do, it leaps out of the controller along with 11 friends.

The one-to-one response of the in-demo controller is mesmerising, and results in the same sense of reinforced presence that playing Elite: Dangerous with Saitek’s X52 controller achieves.  The relationship with the virtual world is strengthened further when the room’s lights dim and our DualShock becomes a torch. The robots recoil and cover their eyes when we aim the beam at them, but the revelatory moment arrives when we lean forward and push the light behind the first row of chuckling machines in an effort to break the demo: rather than trip up Sony’s programmers, we instead break into a grin when the first line falls into gloom and the light bounces its way through the complex shapes of the second two rows. It might all be coming at the cost of less complex geometry and fewer shaders, but this charming toy looks and feels no less lavish for it.

Another demo discards the virtual pad and shrinks The Playroom’s robotic cast, in the process upgrading their status from cute to adorable. We’re sitting in a child’s bedroom under a large skylight, and in front of us is a detailed dolls house full of tiny robots. Some are using exercise machines, one’s working on a car outside, and another lounges on an inflatable ring in the accompanying pool. Brilliantly, one room contains three of the blighters wearing Morpheus headsets and clattering into each other as they attempt to walk around. We lean in closer to the diorama to get a better look, and trigger contextual animations with our presence. The pool dweller gets attacked by a shark, while the mechanic bangs its head and nearly falls off the edge of the counter on which everything’s balanced.

Bedroom Robots is perhaps more representative of what we can expect from the early wave of Morpheus titles. “That actually renders at 60Hz, and the image is reprojected to 120,” Norden explains. “It’s kind of like frame interpolation, similar to how movies upscale from one framerate to the other. That’s a software process that’s running on the PS4, and it’s a service that’s provided by the SDK that we’ll give to developers so that they can turn it on and have a choice of targeting 60Hz in their game if they want more graphical fidelity.”

Both demos demonstrate the considerable improvements delivered by Sony’s new Morpheus headset design, which uses an OLED rather than LCD display. There’s none of the disorienting blurring that we encountered while playing an early Morpheus build of EVE: Valkyrie last year, the results more in line with Oculus’s Crescent Bay prototype.

The final demo we try is Sony’s newest attraction, and also a vehicle to showcase how Move controllers work in a VR context. Called London Heist, it begins with us standing in front of Frank, a burly gangster, who barks: “Sit down!” Assured by Sony staff on hand nearby that they have a real chair waiting, we do as we’re told. We glance towards the exit, which enrages Frank further, and we shrink into our chair a little more as he shoots at the illuminated exit sign. Then, just as he’s about to acquaint us with a blowtorch, a phone rings. Frank answers, and after a quick chat begrudgingly hands the phone to us. We instinctively reach out our right hand, squeeze the Move trigger to take the phone and hold it up to our ear. “Tell us what happened,” says a voice. Every technological trick being played on us is easily understood, but in the moment it might as well be magic.

Our near miss with a flame segues into the titular heist. Our gloved hands float in front of us as we rifle through drawers in an ornate cabinet. We’re looking for a diamond, but so far we’ve only found a gun, a stack of ammunition clips and a flashlight. Then the inevitable occurs: a guard arrives and suggests that we give ourselves up. Without thinking, we place the flashlight down, grab the gun, take aim, and pull the trigger. Click. No ammunition, of course. So we dart our left hand to the nearest clip, and load it into the base of the gun. This time our response is more forceful, and as more guards join the fight the presumably priceless cabinet we keep ducking behind gradually splinters into smaller and smaller pieces.

It’s rousing stuff, offering some guidance as to Morpheus’s real-world application in full-blown games, not  just tech demos. Compared to Valve’s free-moving extravagance, Sony’s comparatively more familiar, rooted-to-the-spot designs feel undoubtedly limited, but that does little to diminish their capacity to entertain, nor tarnish any excitement around PlayStation-powered VR. For all the additional processing headroom behind Rift and Vive, it could yet be Sony’s closed-platform solution that takes the most prominent position once modern VR makes its final steps out of the lab and into the home.

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