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Hands-on: Valve's The Lab on Vive is VR's Wii Sports

On the eve of VR, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on something I experienced at GDC 2016 — Valve's demo of the HTC Vive in a variety-hour display of ideas known as The Lab. In order to do that, I think our journey begins in 2005.

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In truth, 2005 was the public unveiling of motion controls via the Wii, and while slashing through a full Legend of Zelda or was an exciting idea, few seemed to understand the practicality of swashbuckling for hours on end. What's the feasibility of playing shooters with a surrogate weapon always in hand? And really, who cares? The fact was, these things were possible. Motion control was such a striking idea that it seemed, for a moment, audiences forgot themselves for the notion of unlimited possibilities. They were lost in imagination, and swept up in a time when Nintendo had already had their epiphanies years prior — learning not just to demonstrate, but navigate a new technology.

And so we got Wii Sports, an unassuming minigame collection based around common sports.

While Wii Sports is an iconic pack-in of ideas for the Wii, it's easy to underestimate the workload which Wii Sports handled for introducing mass audiences to motion controls. Players were in new and unfamiliar territory, and only through careful instruction would the value of motion control be apparent to both the creative and consumer sides. The little minigame collection demonstrated proofs of concept that were not only functional, but fun. Even more importantly is how aware of they were of spatial limits, delivering experiences that excelled in a living room — utilizing the confined space as a repurposed tennis court and adapting built-in behavior that folks are naturally used to, such as lobbing a bowling ball or swinging a bat.

It's almost Wii Sports to blame for showcasing motion control so well that most other developers failed to capitalize on the groundwork laid for them. Perhaps Nintendo was the company with a vision that only they understood, as we eventually received Metroid Prime 3 and Skyward Sword, full-on motion controlled shooting and action games from traditional design, still just as thoughtful as Wii Sports' simple concepts.

What no one can deny is that Nintendo gave the world Wii Sports, and with it, Motion Controls 101. Just as any coursework could instruct, what others gleaned was interpretive.

11 years later and I'm in a walled-off room with Valve at GDC. It's not my first time with the Vive, but it may be the first time I've seen anything that Valve's created for the head-mounted display. It's called "The Lab," a previously-announced collection of VR experiments set in an Aperture lab, and while it's not a pack-in with the Vive, it's actually one better than the limited-time offers of Tiltbrush or Office Simulator — it's simply free on Steam.

The Valve employee boots up what's expected to be a 30-minute demo, beginning with an empty VR space presumably meant for calibration, if the markings on the rendered ground are any indication. For anyone unfamiliar with the Vive's main attraction it's the room-tracking cameras in tandem with two motion-tracked controllers, at which point a sphere shows up and I'm asked to grab hold of it — tracking at the top of the controller. To enter the world, they need only draw their hand near for closer inspection to find themselves slipping into a new environment — in this case, it'll be Aperture-themed.

Right away, it's clear that Valve has been refining methods of navigation to suit VR. Without taking a step, users can transport themselves between worlds with simple movements that don't ask for unnatural behavior, such as staring intently at an item for some duration, or disengaging the sense of immersion by use of a traditional controller. It's all meant to be as natural as walking around, which I haven't felt an impulse to try just yet.

These VR experiences were unnamed to me, but as I remember, we began with a catapult simulator where users fire Aperture "calibration cores" into a distant warehouse. It's cute, and laden with Valve's affectionate apathy toward AI personalities, but more notably had a striking amount of microdetail that demonstrated wonderful use of the Vive hardware.

To begin, users must lower the machinery by a simple up/down cargo switch hanging from the ceiling in Terminator 2 fashion. While the Vive controllers are precise, Valve takes the guesswork out of fine motor skills and allows quick snapping of objects to a controller with trigger buttons on the back, and once "in hand" the haptics come alive, as pushing up and down on the D-pad responds with a vibration to match similar sensory response one might expect from traditional machinery.

Here we are in 2016 and I'm talking about how fantastic pressing a switch feels, but in execution, Valve has adapted hardware to software, presenting digital items not too far removed from their physical counterpart, and smartly mapping controls to acknowledge those relationships.

Another demo was simply sightseeing, placing the user atop Vesper Peak, someplace in the mountains of Washington state. Using photogrammetry, images were stitched together to recreate a sense of place along the rocky spine of the Pacific northwest. I'm told that developers in house will sometimes load this build and enjoy sitting quietly, enjoying the ambient breeze and distant horizon. Sure, I buy that. It's a half-removed representation of the real thing, plus or minus a day's trek to get there and back. In the hubbub of GDC, this blend of VR with real-world imagery was tempting to absorb, and serves more to suggest the possibilities of travel brochures form the future.

Regardless of how well executed Vesper Peak's identity was (and come on, it's no Mt. Ranier), a solution for navigation takes the center stage at this point. Users may be confined to the space of their room, and may walk around pre-defined locations plotted along the mountain, but in order to travel between those points can aim outward with a controller to visualize a virtual trajectory that can be leapt to. It's a slick visualization for what's no more than teleporting, but displays one of VR's greatest obstacles — locomotion beyond the living room. Granted, I wouldn't want to be scrabbling and sweating around a digital precipice any more than I want to physically walk across the world of Skyrim, and in this case there's a sense of gratification in being able to determining a point to warp to.

So Valve's answer to a living room, for now, appears to be fast travel. When asking how they decided on the location of these points, the Valve guide said they were chosen based on flat surfaces which you might stop and walk around on at the location. Even in the least engaging demo, there's a continued theme of keeping players partly in reality, relating to their tactile experience.

Another demo was a first-person tower-defense setup. Poised at the corner of a castle, players can arm themselves with bow and arrow (again, quick-snapping to position both on the controller, but also relative in relation to bow and arrow when pulling to shoot) to defend the keep from 2D Aperture human figures. Again, haptics reflect sensory feedback where you'd least expect it, until realizing it's exactly what you should expect. The sensation of a bow's string tensing — or plucking when letting loose — are both present and faithful in recreation.

I decide to test the mechanics themselves, turning the bow upward and firing into the air; lightly, a little higher, and with each arrow pulled more deliberately watched an accurately rising reflection of velocity. When a stray arrow hits the ground sever dozen digital meters away, a light tap of wood to brick reminds me that audio is accounted for.

It's worth noting that the whole of my VR experiences have been from a first-person perspective — save for Lucky's Tale, kind of. The Lab's final demo tricked me into forgetting that there are other ways of utilizing VR, and they did it with an arcade shooter.

Housed in what feels like the inside of an arcade cabinet, players are encapsulated in an metallic room alight with neon and pumping techno to amplify the atmosphere. Small orbs appear before me, repeating slow glowing shots in my direction, as I maneuver the little craft sitting atop my right hand and fire back. As the shots creep closer, I sidestep to avoid them, finding the inevitable to be unavoidable, or I'm simply not thing enough — I'm going to be hit. And then my hand explodes, or at least the thing above it does.

A split realization hits me between pity and eureka, where it's suddenly clear that these bullets are agnostic to anything but the ship on my hand. I'm not even here, I'm just in charge of maneuvering the 3-inch craft as well as I can while fending off an alien race (or robots, it's tough in arcades). And here was the analog control of bullet-hell shooters from my iPad in a 3D space, with the idea clicking that VR isn't you-centric in just one way. I love this approach to a traditional genre, and secretly hope for a fuller realization of this idea.

After a quick Star Wars thing from ILM, my time with the Vive is over, and I find myself with a dozen questions about each demo, nobody to ask, and a better perspective on the possibilities of VR within the limitations of VR. There are still issues with walking around essentially blind while being tethered to a computer, a lack of fidelity, and as sophisticated as the hardware is, it's still unwieldy as any other headset. There's also no solution for intersecting with geometry, as users essentially have a noclip hack simply by being in two worlds at once, and while haptics recreate sensory feedback, there's no sense of weight to any virtual objects.

Furthermore, and this may sound contrary to any enthusiasm I have, but there's still no compelling reason to use VR except that it's new and not yet proven to be successful or otherwise. The Lab hasn't convinced me that there's anything I'd seen or experienced that was exclusive to VR, although maybe a bit more engaging. Despite some concepts that were well-adapted, there's nothing yet that's tailored to VR as an exclusive event.

In 4 of a proposed 30 demos in The Lab, valve sets some ground rules for ideal VR experiences, and for once, to me, VR kind of makes sense. I'm still highly skeptical of its future, but as an outsider looking in, VR has always been a narrow concept of the head-mounted display to me. It's easy to see how anyone could get that idea — the headset is the main draw. We've had motion controllers for over a decade now, and body tracking has been mulling around on the Kinect for almost just as long.

What Valve understands is that VR is a sum of parts, between the HMD, having control in a full range of motion, and tracking the hardware with a camera system. It's easy to read the list of bundled items in what folks will find with a VR headset, but taking the big picture and designing for that will continue to elude what seems to be a majority of developers. Unlike the industry in 2005, however, the exploration of VR is a more collaborative process than the quick cash mentality of motion controls. We can hope that issues are sorted out more easily in that regard.

What impresses me about The Lab is Valve's capacity to think outside the box while pioneering technology at the same time. They're also not afraid to acknowledge that people are stupid and lazy, and accommodating that with methods such as quick-snapping digital items and not going too high-concept with concepts. My optimism could just be from a demo that's more thoughtful than rushed, for once. Maybe the process is self-evident, as Nintendo best ushered motion controls in and out of the industry's wheelhouse by being the creator themselves. Just as Wii Sports plotted a course for motion controls, Valve's Lab on HTC Vive is the best candidate for VR 101.