The story of how Valve let two of its engineers walk away with the company’s augmented reality tech is well known to the VR crowd. The impression we came away with was that Valve has shifted all of their attention to virtual reality and hasn’t looked back since. Or have they?
In last month’s series of articles on Valve’s Lighthouse, we reviewed what was known about their new tracking technology and covered some potential uses of the tech.
A curious finding was that not only was Lighthouse compatible with augmented reality, but that it actually helps solve some of the critical problems which continue to plague the fledgling industry. It was hard to think that this fact could have escaped Valve’s notice.
On April 23rd, Valve finally included their Lighthouse driver in the SteamVR beta. While the API remains unpublished, an examination of the new component revealed a very curious set of strings…
STEREO_DEV_DANHAT_EMAGIN_SXGA, STEREO_DEV_BENCRUSHER_MICROVISION, STEREO_DEV_BENCRUSHER2_MICROVISION, STEREO_DEV_DEANPHOTONBLASTER, STEREO_DEV_ST1080_FLIP_FORWARD, STEREO_DEV_ST1080_FLIP_UPWARD, STEREO_DEV_ST1080_UPWARD_GLUE_GUN_SPECIAL, STEREO_DEV_OCULUS_RIFT_FLIP_UPWARD, STEREO_DEV_JERI_RETRO_MARK1
We see references to the nVisor ST50 combination AR/VR head mounted display, the Vuzix Star 1200 augmented reality glasses, the Lumus DK-32 augmented reality glasses, the Silicon Micro ST1080 HMD with 10% see-through display, and a number of development units named after microdisplay manufacturers.
There are also “flip” models of various displays including the Oculus Rift. Could these be AR/VR combo devices? Finally, we have what seems to be a reference to one of the AR prototype displays that were created by former Valve employee Jeri Ellsworth.
To recap: with Lighthouse, we have a new technology which has the potential to offer breakthroughs in augmented reality. Listed inside the windows device driver (which actually implements the technology) are specific models of AR and AR/VR combo devices.
We still don’t have proof, but we have enough pieces to start asking the question: is Valve flirting with augmented reality?
EDITED May 16, 2015: It is possible that the flip models are made to allow the user to easily see and interact with the real world simply by flipping the display out of the way.
This is the third article in a series on the Valve/HTC Vive Ecosystem. If you you need additional context, please begin with the first article in the series.
A famous quote from Gabe Newell is about a lesson that Valve learned early-on when dealing with the Internet. You can find it in Episode 306 of the Nerdist Podcast at 00:12:14.
Don’t ever, ever try to lie to the Internet because they will catch you. They will deconstruct your spin. The will remember everything you ever say for eternity. -Gabe Newell
At this year’s Game Developers Conference where Valve announced their Virtual Reality partnership with HTC, and at that time, Gabe made an incredible claim about the Lighthouse tracking technology:
So we’re gonna just give that away. What we want is for that to be like USB. It’s not some special secret sauce. It’s like everybody in the PC community will benefit if there’s this useful technology out there. -Gabe Newell (Valve)
The story which accompanies the interview describes Lighthouse as a way of providing infinite input solutions into Virtual Reality. “As long as tracking is there, anything can be brought into VR, like how USB ports enable you to plug (virtually) anything into your computer.”
What the Technology Brings
In the previous two articles, we’ve dug into the technology itself, and it supports what we’ve been told. Spend perhaps $100-150 for two of Valve’s Lighthouse units and mount them in opposite corners of the room. At that point, you can almost forget about them. But any enabled device that you bring into the room can take advantage of:
- Rock-solid positional data with high precision and resolution
- Rock-solid orientation data with high precision and resolution
- Very low additional power use (passive sensors, undemanding electronics)