What that VR post was about

Last November I made a somewhat-mysterious posting which some people speculated was hinting at stereoscopic rendering in The Witness. Indeed it was, and Now It Can Be Told.

Last year I was pessimistic about VR systems in the near future, since the ones I had tried didn’t seem to offer much (certainly not enough to justify wearing a bulky headset all the time and fighting back feelings of nausea).

But I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at Valve’s virtual reality system. It is so much better than anything else I had used that I was instantly very excited by it. Right away I could see games you might design for this system that had been impossible before; so it isn’t just a matter of the system being very immersive (which it is) but that it can take video games in general to a new place.

We worked with Valve to get support for the system in The Witness, and that’s where those screenshots come from (but when I took the shots, an HMD was not plugged in, and as a result what you see is a dummy calibration that does not correspond to any useful image-warping; the screenshot was really more about just being happy about the stereo display capability.) In late November I spent a few days at Valve’s offices working with Atman Binstock and Doug Church to adapt the HMD’s input system more thoroughly for The Witness and to build a few scenes that are playable on the device.

(In theory the whole game is playable on the device, but when you are rendering for VR the performance demands become much higher, because you are rendering two scenes at higher resolution than you might previously have been rendering one scene. So the full game world with all content currently does not run fast enough for this device, but that is the kind of problem that gets solved over time).

We had to keep this under wraps, though, because Valve’s system was not announced. But this month at Steam Dev Days they revealed details of the system.

For more details on the Valve system, Lee Vermeulen wrote up a nice post of his impressions:

http://www.3delement.com/?p=332

So, we will be supporting this device (and any similar devices) with The Witness. But I am really looking forward to see what gets designed specifically for devices like this.

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20 Comments

  1. Posted January 24, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Great! Glad to get the real details and I’m looking forward to the interesting things you create for these systems in the future.

    How do you think this level of immersion can help with storytelling in games?

    • Dunabu
      Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Not Jon, but…

      Aside from the immersion it can add to storytelling, it’s going to utterly change the way we play and interact with games.

      I feel traditional gaming experiences will be re-written. A lot of what works now, even something like 3rd person over-the-shoulder perspective, will transform for better or worse with VR.

      Game design will transform. Environments designers may expend great effort in creating could get the attention they deserve. A cathedral, for instance, that you might otherwise had just run through, unaware of much of it, will become visionary experiences.

      All these thing and more will culminate toward the very way the stories unfold, I feel.

  2. Al
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    After using OR, I didn’t see much of a use outside of increased immersion and a couple of niche game types, like mechs or flying sims, althought the increased immersion is great. Are you getting inspired at the gameplay level for VR?

  3. Gregas
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Did you try the newest Oculus Rift prototype Crystal Cove as well? It’s supposed to be pretty close to Valve’s prototype (minus whole room positional tracking).

  4. Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Though I didn’t attend Dev Days I am very jealous of those who did, due to the tales from people who tried out Crystal Cove and Valve’s VR system. There’s no more exciting technology to me and I’m hoping that, once my current round of projects are completed, I can move onto “Full VR”.

    Adding Oculus Rift support to Discoverie was rewarding and there was a moment during testing where I killed a monster at close range. As its pixels spilled out across me I felt, for the first time, that I had built something “real”. Not sure if you had the same feeling.

    I had heard rumours that Doug had left Valve. Glad to hear he’s still there. Would give up a little finger to see the office and try out their system.

  5. Posted January 24, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    I am glad that Valve’s prototype was good enough to convince you of the potential of VR. I really do think it’s gonna be a big thing for games and the world in general. Also I had been very hopeful that you would support it in The Witness, since it seemed to be just the kind of experience I would enjoy in VR. (A calm and beautiful world where the details matter.)

    I do wonder what your thoughts are on using seated VR for something like The Witness, since it will probably be the first thing available. Do you feel like nausea will still be a significant factor if you are navigating the environment almost exclusively using a controller? Or are you confident that a workable solution is possible, either through slow walking speeds or teleporting or otherwise. Even with walking VR like Valve showed off, traversing larger distances on foot can become impractical based on the limitations of your living space.

    I suppose I wondered if you felt the main hurdles had been conquered by the fidelity of the experience, (resolution, motion blur, latency) or if the walk around aspect was a major factor in changing your outlook.

  6. dubee
    Posted January 24, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Awesome.

    I have a few points to raise though:

    1. “we will be supporting this device” – a device that will never be released to consumers. Valve may release an HMD in future but it would be very different.

    2. The biggest VR R&D is at Oculus, not Valve (although Valve did great things with displays). There would be no Valve’s VR without Oculus and their first simple prototypes. Abrash was using a crappy off-the-shelf HMD before a 19-years old kid showed him what can be done in a garage. The prototype Oculus had at CES offers quite similar capabilities and it still isn’t even the second dev kit. They used Valve’s idea with the low-persistent OLED, so there is a nice collaboration :-)

    3. “We had to keep this under wraps, though, because Valve’s system was not announced.”
    It actually was “announced” half a year ago, with all technical details (displays, refresh rate, low-persistence), by John Carmack in his Keynote at Quakecon.

  7. Posted January 25, 2014 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    I read somewhere, that Valve VR prototype was just a bit tweaked Oculus Rift. Is that right?

  8. Owen
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    You really think VR will take off now? I remember back in the ’90s, VR was just around the corner, it was going to be the Next Big Thing, but everyone ended up using keyboards, mice and nintendo-style controllers instead.

    What do you think about the viability of the Steambox as a platform? Games are the only thing keeping my on Windows at this point.

    • Posted January 25, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      Not to speak for Jon here, but since I had said I thought it would take off and he did not actually mention that as such, I figured I’d chime in. If Virtual Reality is going to ever take off, now will be the time because it is finally good enough to exceed people’s expectation rather than disappoint. The difference between the consumer level virtual reality headsets of the 90s (at ~$1500 adjusted for inflation) and what will be available in the next couple of years (for $3-400) is night and day. One is like having a screen strapped to your face, and the other is like looking through goggles into another world.

      I think VR will succeed because it is something people either know they want already, or don’t know they want yet but will once they try it. So I think it will be a very common device for people to have. Do I think it’s going to suddenly take over all media consumption? No. Televisions will still exist, just as headphones have not replaced speakers. I think it will grow to be an important and almost ubiquitous device over the next decade though. The first headsets will be relatively bulky, and require a powerful gaming PC for the best experiences, but several years from now an affordable headset will be possible that is a self contained platform that runs it’s own games wirelessly, and can also plug into an external source to access additional content or computing resources. At this point the barrier to entry will be low enough that anyone can use it and expect a good experience, not just geeky computer gamers. It is better to look at this technology as something like the internet or cell phones, it starts out being used by a small niche and has relatively limited applications, but essentially works. As time goes on, because it is such an useful technology, it grows to a critical mass where eventually everyone uses it all the time. It becomes commonplace. People will have a few HMDs laying around their houses, like headphones.

  9. Gabe
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    http://www.ign.com/articles/2014/01/17/valve-has-no-vr-headset-supporting-oculus-rift-instead ? So it’s next iteration of Oculus Rift, or they do have their own VR headset?

  10. Jonathan Blow
    Posted January 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Answers to some misc questions:

    How do you think this level of immersion can help with storytelling in games?

    I don’t personally are that much about “storytelling in games”. But if you are thinking about cutscenes and stuff like that, in the short term it is actually going to get a lot more difficult. It is *much* harder to do a convincing human presence in VR than it is on a flat screen, and most games are not particularly good yet at doing it on a flat screen.

    Did you try the newest Oculus Rift prototype Crystal Cove as well?

    I have not tried Crystal Cove but we have talked to Oculus a little bit and hopefully I will get to try it out sometime.

    I do wonder what your thoughts are on using seated VR for something like The Witness, since it will probably be the first thing available. Do you feel like nausea will still be a significant factor if you are navigating the environment almost exclusively using a controller?

    Actually, I think even with standing VR, you end up navigating the world largely using the controller. That is how I was doing it on The Witness. There has to be *some* blend of the two control modes, and if you are going to walk around a big island, well, the room just isn’t that big.

    I didn’t have any nausea problems with the Valve system. The most I could say is that I had a very very light headache after about half an hour. On the other hand, using the Oculus Rift Kickstarter kit playing TF2, I did get outright nauseous and that feeling stuck with me for an hour or two. The Valve kit, for me, is a tremendously cleaner experience. (I will reiterate though that I have not yet tried Oculus’ Crystal Cove).

    Anyway, I think if the game is in the habit of moving the camera a lot automatically, that is pretty bad for nausea-type problems. But when I was just steering the camera using an Xbox 360 gamepad, I didn’t have a problem. I don’t know if this will be true for most people or not.

    I suppose I wondered if you felt the main hurdles had been conquered by the fidelity of the experience, (resolution, motion blur, latency) or if the walk around aspect was a major factor in changing your outlook.

    The positional tracking was *major*. I don’t know how much of that is replicated by a seated experience but I don’t necessarily have a reason to believe being seated would kill immersion. However, it is very nice to be able to duck/kneel/etc. The game that I have in my head as a “this would be interesting for VR” kind of design would require these kinds of movements. I think if you don’t allow full body movement you are definitely losing something.

    1. “we will be supporting this device” – a device that will never be released to consumers. Valve may release an HMD in future but it would be very different.

    Sure, I just mean as a research effort. I am very interested in a high-quality VR experience and finding out what that means.

    I read somewhere, that Valve VR prototype was just a bit tweaked Oculus Rift. Is that right?

    Nope. If anything a lot of concrete influence has gone the other way (the low persistence and positional tracking in Crystal Cove). I am not sure exactly when the Valve VR effort started, but I saw prototypes of their AR stuff way before anyone knew about Oculus, so they have been thinking about these things for a while.

    You really think VR will take off now?

    I think eventually it will be a major thing. The question is just how far in the future that time is. There’s reason to believe it is not very far in the future at all, but that could be wrong.

    What do you think about the viability of the Steambox as a platform?

    I am as confused by Steambox as anyone, but I welcome healthy competition to Windows, which has not been doing anything I want for a while now.

    So it’s next iteration of Oculus Rift, or they do have their own VR headset?

    What Valve showed at Dev Days was their own headset. The article you linked is just saying that Valve is not productizing their hardware currently and that it is more of a research project.

    • Posted January 25, 2014 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for clarifying on the nausea bit. I have heard some pretty bad stories about the dev kit Rift in that regard. (Have not used it personally) And Crystal Cove was only demonstrated in games where you were essentially not moving, though no motion sickness was reported from the space flight sim. And since Valve’s setup was obviously capable of completely natural motion, I was concerned that the retrofitting of controller experiences just wouldn’t work without causing some serious barftastic moments. It’s good to hear there’s at least potential to adapt some more traditional experiences into VR.

      I do wonder if you think, based on Valve’s demo, that standing VR will be a compelling enough experience for people to set aside a “VR Room” in their homes so they can walk around safely.

      I certainly would, but I’m crazy. :)

    • Posted January 25, 2014 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Hi Jon.
      Thanks for fielding my question. What I was getting at is with good VR do you think you will be more able to portray your games’ messages through subtle object detail and player observation (ie. discovery) instead of conventional devices like voiceover and text (ie. showing / telling). It seems The Witness is heading in this direction already…

  11. Posted January 27, 2014 at 12:02 am | Permalink

    This album just got posted to reddit… it really reminded me of The Witness:
    http://imgur.com/a/VMSKX

    Could be a good source of inspiration :D. Awesome environment ideas in there.

  12. Alex C
    Posted January 28, 2014 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    The big problem I see with VR, is that it is limited to one person at a time. Someone above likened VR headsets to headphones, and I think that’s exactly right.
    You don’t see a bunch of people gathered in a room listening to the same music on headphones, even though they offer higher audio quality than speakers. I don’t see VR replacing, or even getting near, flat screens until it gets closer to something like that in Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt.

    • Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      I would agree that is a problem with VR, however I don’t really think VR has to replace screens to be a success. Headphones, though not common at parties, are quite popular and commonly used, so there is a lot of room for antisocial technologies. Augmented reality, on the other hand, if done effectively, will replace the need for screens entirely because the average person’s vision of the world will be naturally perceived through the augmented lens of technology. However that is much further down the line. VR is the first step.

  13. Joe
    Posted March 13, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    This is unrelated, but I was wondering if you (Jonathan) have seen the new Razer Blade unveiled yesterday? From memory your main problem with the last one was resolution which this one gets right.

  14. Posted March 19, 2014 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    @Jon: Are you planning to support VR on PS4 too via Project Morpheus? http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2014/03/19/introducing-project-morpheus/

  15. Stewart
    Posted March 22, 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    I was wondering about Morpheus support too, while it seems like a very natural fit game design wise, presumably Morpheus is coming a lot later than The Witness, and supporting it would be a notable technical challenge when compared to the announced PC VR support.

    I was also wondering about XBO support, I believe Jon has mentioned intending to bring the game to XBO at a later date, if that’s still the case, how has the ID@Xbox launch parity requirement affected that? It appears you’re able to make up for a delayed release by providing additional content, or maybe Kinect support, but I can’t imagine another area of the island being added.

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