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SteamVR: A Chat About What Worked And What Didn't

Alec and Graham have both had a go on SteamVR, aka the HTC Vive (as described here and here). Yes, aren't they glorious, beautiful, shining examples of humanity? You can touch them if you like. No, not there. And not for that long. What are you.. ew, no, no, get off.

Actually, just stand over there and avert your eyes while they have a big old natter about what worked best, what might go wrong in practice, where this might all lead to, whether this is basically MAGIC, Valve vs Oculus and whether the hell we should let children use this thing.

Graham: Alec! Alec! Alec! We've both used Valve's Vive, which mean we can finally have insufferable conversations about the transformative, unrelatable experience we've had that none of our other friends will tolerate us talking about.

Tell me, which of the magical demos you played made you feel most like a giddy child?

Alec: The painting one stays with the most, I think. The moment when I stepped to one side and these flat squiggles I’d drawn suddenly became these floating, three-dimensional shapes was, well, as much as it pains me to say it, magical. It was like some 80s cartoon movie where a kid’s drawings come to life. Although I guess these only hung there like neon balloon animals rather than became elves or something. But most of all, it’s because I was doing something in this alternate world, rather than just oohing and aahing at sights. I do regret just drawing squiggles though. I had the opportunity to draw a massive, 3D willy and I didn’t think to do it.

(Which says quite something about how mesmering this stuff is - the instinctive urge to draw cocks just wasn’t there, because my brain was in a place of pure wonder).

What about you?

Graham: I did draw a massive, 3D willy. But I knew the Valve employee was watching and so I disguised it by continuing to wave my arm afterwards, as if innocently squiggling. Then I drew a giant face. It was quite something.

I'm torn as to which was my favourite. The whale in BluVR blew me away; it was the first demo I saw and I was euphoric. It's maybe the Google Earth demo I'm most keen to return to, however. It placed me as a giant standing above a 3D modelled landscape of an American city, and a spectacular mountain range, but I want to visit more exotic locations from that same perspective, stoop to see the detail down on street level, and spy sunsets between the skyscrapers. I want to squat atop the world and see the Arctic stretch out before me.

That said, Job Simulator seemed like it had the most potential to expand into a traditional, 'full' game experience - it was funny like the Portal 2 vignette, but where Valve's own was entirely linear, there seemed space for experimentation in Job Simulator. Did the seemingly limited nature of the other demos worry you at all, or is the gimmick good enough that you don't care?

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Alec: Yeah, I’m a little worried. Nothing lasted more than five minutes, you didn’t get a chance to catch your breath or push at the limits. I mean, early experiences with the Oculus Rift had me similarly believing in magic, but now that I’ve played huge sections of ‘proper’ games with a Rift I basically don’t want to use it anymore. What’s gained in Gosh Wow is lost in ease of play and er, not having headaches. But even aside from the discomfort issue, it’s pure practicality - playing whilst blind, plus the gigantic bloody hassle of setting it all up, incompatibility issues, etc. It remains to be seen quite how versatile the Steam controller is, and more importantly whether people can find a vein of games which successfully balance reduced controls with massively heightened Gosh Wow and walking support.

Equally I don’t want to inject cynicism where it need not be, but let’s not pretend we’re experts because we spent 20 minutes being shown carefully-controlled demos.

Graham: Agreed. I think it's worth reiterating at every opportunity that the Vive doesn't seem particularly well suited to traditional game experiences. If the Rift is a device for games with cockpits, then the Vive is a device for cockpits and games set in 15'x15' rooms. It doesn't seem likely that you'll be using it to play the next Elder Scrolls game, for example.

That said, I'm inclined to think it's convincing enough and straightforward enough to control that a lot of smart people are going to try to be making things designed specifically for it. One developer I spoke to mentioned there being around twenty prototypes for different methods of moving distances larger than the physical space you're within, and Valve mentioned working on other things, including multiplayer. It seems likely we'll get a bunch of interesting things set in 15'x15' rooms, just as smart people once found ways of making use of the Nintendo DS's second screen.

I suppose I feel similarly about the Rift, too. However, do you think the Vive - with its motion controllers, walkabout abilities, and 2015 release date - makes the Vive the current VR frontrunner?

Yeah, right now - of the stuff I’ve tried - there’s no contest. And as you say, we’ve barely scratched the surface. I mean, most of the most interesting Oculus stuff happened post-release and from unexpected places too.

Actually, I think an Elder Scrolls game could be ideally suited to it - fireballs from one hand, sword in the other, head craning skywards to track a dragon, that sort of thing. But they’ll need to master this idea of making the room bigger than it is, somehow leading you to walk in lazy circles but believing yourself to be walking ever-onwards.

But man, I’m dying to know what Oculus are up to right now. Has this blind-sided them, or just beaten them to the walkabout punch? The VR arms race has started properly now, and also - hopefully - reached enough of a watermark that whoever buys a Vive isn’t thinking oh shit, I should have waited for the next thing three months later.

I think it says much that the Valve thing was worked on as much by game designers as it was techies. Oculus was, in its initial conception, primarily the latter, right? For Valve, the focus has surely been as much on make it usable, get the feedback loops right and all that, as it was make it wonderful.

OK, thought experiment. Another friend who tried SteamVR jokingly said to me that, this time next year, we’ll at home, drinking in Santorini, rather than going to some cold British pub. Do you think that’s just wild exaggeration? I mean, I didn’t try the Google Earth one, but also you seem a little more mind-blown than I overall.

Graham: It's, at the very least, exaggeration in terms of the timeline. Right now, I'm convinced that virtual reality has the potential to seep out beyond the confines of games and bedrooms and - to use Silicon Valley's word - disrupt broader culture. Do I think it'll definitely happen? No. Do I think it'll happen in twelve months? Not a chance. Do I think it needs to happen for VR to be considered a success? Not at all. I think people too often compare everything to mobile phones, but VR can be a success while selling considerably fewer pieces of hardware than Apple.

But yeah, I think there's a chance it could seep out, because I can imagine myself using it to tour real world places. I didn't get to use it, but one of Valve's demos had you walking around Valve's offices which they'd recorded with a 3D camera. I'd use that if it was the Louvre or the roof of a building in Manhattan, doubly so if a friend could be there with me. I'd use it to watch sporting events from time to time, assuming camera tech existed that made that possible and worthwhile in real-time. I think, as I've written before, that kids ought to be using it to learn about the world and the solar system and many other things.

Alec: Yeah, I mean the Santorini thing - I don’t need it to be photo-real, absolutely believable Santorini, but if it can muster enough of I’m In A Wonderful Place And I Can Just Look Around And Coo/Laugh At Stuff With A Friend, I’m so on-board. Space exploration stuff is going to be magical too; idly spinning planets around suns, tracking comets across galaxies, fast-forwarding to the heat-death of the universe…

The education possibilities are enormous, but then again people probably said that about TV and I sincerely doubt too many kids are watching Stargazing Live even though it’s got handsome Dr Cox on it. This is the other thing to be aware of in any futurology - VR will become commonplace and boring. I already get that with my Rift to some extent. Yes, yes, very nice, very big, very 3D can only be said so many times, surely?

Graham: If only we lived in times as enlightened as the late 1940s, and the BBC gripped VR with both hands and poured funding into making sure there was cultural works of humanising value being made for it.

But yeah, it'll become ordinary very quickly. It all depends on people's ability to make compelling, lasting experiences for it. I think for me - yeah, caveat: after only thirty-five minutes use - that seems somewhat inevitable, though. It's good enough that it just works, both as a visual and interactive tool, and at that point it would seem absurd that people couldn't find something worthwhile to do with it. It's just a question of whether that's entertainment, in which case it'll be very much a sometimes experience in light of the way it cuts you off from the outside world, or whether it finds other uses that allow it to knit itself more into the social fabric of life.

Which is why you shouldn't count Facebook and Oculus out, yet. As much as being able to walk around and smoothly pick things up is a wonderful thing for its potential as a gaming device, Facebook have, well, Facebook and its 1.2 billion monthly users. Maybe we'll end up putting on the Vive once a fortnight for a spot of Half-Life 3, but you'll be using the Rift once a day to sit in a room with your distant relative for half an hour and catch up on your day.

Alec: *Shudder*. Though Facebook might have the numbers, it doesn’t have this clearly-identified purpose for VR As yet. People who game are already down with using technology to go to amazing places, people who Facebook just want to moan and cheer - it’s a huge conceptual leap in the way that a PC gamer > Vive isn’t.

I wonder about quality of life benefits, potentially. Clearly, going out into the world with this stuck to your face - presuming someone came up with a system to let you see around you too - is monstrous, but I spend my working day watching some grey houses slowly rot in the cold British air. If I can stick a headset on and do my typing with images of galaxies or palm trees around me I’d probably feel a bit less bleak, y’know? Changing life’s desktop wallpaper, as it were. I don’t have any fear that my consciousness would disappear into some non-existent world, but just of changing up my surroundings for kicks.

What about the whole base station/room size aspect? Does that concern you at all? I do worry that this was created by Americans with massive offices and massive lounges.

Graham: It does. They suggested to me that the minimum practical space was 4'x6', but the only room in my house where I have that floor space already free is in my living room. My PC is upstairs in my study, which is barely 7' across and full of furniture. Now, maybe in-home streaming makes that less of a problem, and probably I'll haul my computer downstairs or throw out all my clothes to make room, but neither option is very practical or suited to everyone. I guess I can always revert to using it as a chairbound experience for certain games, but this alone seems like it'll limit its world-changing potential.

I am prone to using YouTube videos and music and sound effects to make my work environment more varied, but I admit I find the idea of using the VR for the same equal parts appealing and dystopic. Obviously this is all a bit science fiction and holodeck comparisons abound, but the alienation inherent in strapping something over your eyes coupled with the likely first wave of experiences, makes it all a tad… Terrifying. As a parent, are you excited to share worlds of wonder with your kid, or worried that Peppa Pig is going to be streamed directly to her brain?

Alec: Right now, I’m more comfortable with little Connie playing iPad games than I am her sitting in front of television (within reason, of course). It seems to me that the more interaction your device is encouraging, the less pernicious it is for a young mind than a primarily passive one. If VR has her running about waving hands in the air, I’m not hugely worried. (Her mum will feel differently, I’m sure, and so should she!)

Speaking parentally, the world has already changed so much from when we were kids that resisting what’s clearly on the horizon is futile. I’ll make sure she does plenty of reading and outdoor stuff, but I guess the rules of human existence have already been rewritten anyway. And, without our generation’s pre-conceptions about what tech’s for and how to use, just imagine what today’s two year olds will be up to with this stuff in 15 years’ time.

But there is real sadness that, in just a few years, she’s clearly going to want to use stuff like this far more than she’ll want to do traditional kiddie stuff. That yeah, she may want to strap on a headset at the dinner table instead of talking to us. I don’t know what to think. Futureshock.

In conclusion, future generations will definitely agree that Valve are directly responsible for destroying childhood and I think we should bring about the class action lawsuit right now.

The HTC Vive is due to go on sale in the tail-end of this year, in theory.

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