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The Valve/Oculus Layered Compositors (Magic Glue for VR)


UPDATE: The speculation didn’t last long. Valve has just released their OpenVR SDK which includes documentation for the Compositor. The actual implementation differs in some interesting ways, but the Use and Features section, below, is still a good summary of what Valve and Oculus are trying to achieve here. More details are at the end of this article.


INTRODUCTION

In March, Valve released a new concept into SteamVR called the VR Compositor. Like everything else at this point, the specification is not yet public. (So insert the standard speculative disclaimers here. If I flubbed something, please be forgiving, but let me know.) It shouldn’t be too hard for us to tease together what its function and purpose might be.

VR Compositor:

  • This is a new component of SteamVR that simplifies the process of adding VR support to an application.
  • Continues to draw an environment even if the application hangs.
  • Simplifies handing off from one application to another without full screen context changes by owning the window on the headset.

-Programmer Joe (Valve)

Let’s break that down a bit. The compositor grabs the VR display, owns it, and continues running. When a compositor-aware application wants to use the HMD, it goes to the compositor to request access to the HMD. The compositor hands a buffer to the application and tells the application to render into that buffer. Read More…

Is Valve Flirting with Augmented Reality?

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.

The Lumus DK-32 Wearable Display Development Kit

The Lumus DK-32 Wearable Display Development Kit

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 While the API remains unpublished, an examination of the new component revealed a very curious set of strings…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_NVIS_ST60,
STEREO_DEV_NVIS_ST50,
STEREO_DEV_NVIS_ST50_MARK2,
STEREO_DEV_VUZIX_STAR_1200,
STEREO_DEV_LUMUS_DK_32,
STEREO_DEV_LUMUS_DK_32_DUALCB,
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.


A Review of Earlier Articles… and a Return to Metaverse Issues

Nine months ago, I wrote my last article on the Metaverse.

It was a short piece, mostly referencing an email from Fabian Giesen, a demoscene coder (and more) who was doing some VR work at Valve as a contractor. I’ll be honest, his message was a real downer for me, and I had my own Notch moment. Why was I working towards something that, if successful, would ultimately be used just to provide value to Facebook?

Over the past nine months, a surprising number of you have told me how those early Metaverse articles had actually been very helpful to you. A few of you said that you had a Metaverse effort going, but most of you were creating multiplayer virtual environments. Thank you all for your feedback and support!

I think the moment that it all crystallized and brought me back to Metaversing was seeing the return of Valve with the HTC Vive. Suddenly, it seemed like there were possibilities once again. Thanks, Gabe. I’m looking forward to learning more about your shared entertainment universe… perhaps a non-traditional Metaverse? Read More…

Alan Yates of Valve is Taking your Lighthouse Questions

As a quick update to our previous stories on Valve’s Lighthouse technology:

For the next few weeks, Alan Yates (Valve Lighthouse expert) is accepting questions about Lighthouse technology. Only questions about Lighthouse, please. No questions about Vive or the controllers will be answered.

If you have a question for Alan, tweet @vk2zay. He is going to let the questions accumulate over the next few weeks, and then respond to them all in a posting on his blog.

Valve’s Lighthouse as USB: Anything More than a Bunch of Spin?


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.


Quote from Gabe Newell's interview in The Nerdist Episode 306. Image source: unknown

Quote from Gabe Newell’s interview in The Nerdist Episode 306. Image source: unknown

Introduction

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)

Read More…

Examining the Valve/HTC Vive Ecosystem: Basic Sensors and Processing


This is the second article in a series on the Valve/HTC Vive Ecosystem. If you have not already done so, please begin with the first article in the series.


Introduction

Today’s article will provide additional information on the Lighthouse units, explain the Lighthouse sensor system, and take a brief look at the sensor processing which is used to return the absolute position of a tracked device.

Strong Disclaimer

This particular article will try to tread carefully. There’s no way around it, folks. This article is going to contain facts, rumors, innuendos, and outright lies about the operation of Valve’s Lighthouse sensor system.

Why?

  • We’re working with publicly available information, which is scarce.
  • There is no documentation.
  • It is still in development and very subject to change.
  • There is no need for regular users to understand the underlying details.
  • Software developers can expect to be given an API that reports position without knowing any of the underlying hardware details.

Finally, for the time being, Valve employees are busy getting this stuff ready, and their time is better spent working on the product than answering all the outside questions. See page #9 of the Valve Handbook for New Employees for more details on how that process works.

We’ll have to assume that we’re on our own, for now.

Back to the Lighthouse for a Moment

I’m going to use the earlier research and development model for a reference.

An Early Lighthouse System. Image source: UploadVR

An earlier model of the Lighthouse. Image source: UploadVR

Towards the middle upper left of the enclosure is a panel that has been mounted with LEDs. The apparent purpose of these LEDs is to widely emit a flash of infrared light which could have something close to the same perspective and range as the laser beams. Read More…

Examining the Valve/HTC Vive Ecosystem: Basic Lighthouse Operation

Introduction

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably already aware of the Valve/HTC partnership where HTC will manufacture the Vive, a virtual reality head mounted display, powered by Valve’s SteamVR platform.

As part of the reveal, one new piece of technology was introduced to the public: the Lighthouse. This is a brand-new-to-VR technology which will be used as part of a system to track the position and orientation of a user’s head mounted display and controllers throughout an entire room.

With Lighthouse, instead of using VR in a chair or standing in place, its room-scale VR feature allows you to use the space of an entire room as a stage to physically walk around in a virtual environment.

Valve Lighthouse

Image Source: Valve Lighthouse Slide from “Advanced VR Rendering” at GDC 2015

Disclaimer

This article is based on publicly available information. Be aware that we are trying to explain a system that is unreleased, subject to change, and has very little publicly available information. Some elements of this article may prove inaccurate at a later date.

With any complex system, there are many rules, details, and exceptions to explore. This first article is just going to cover the tech basics (but will still be plenty meaty for many). We’ll consider more detailed issues in later articles.

A Basic Operational Review

The purpose of this first article is to clear up some of the common misconceptions concerning the Lighthouse technology. It will also serve as a starting place for additional articles on Lighthouse and on the various aspects of the HTC/Valve partnership.

By understanding how this one component works, we can understand much more about what HTC and Vive are trying to deliver to consumers. They’re not just cranking out randomly incremental or independent technological solutions here; Valve is running a very deep and highly integrated game plan.

Read More…

Competitors with Different Goals: Valve versus Oculus

The recently announced HTC Vive looks to be a strong technology competitor against the highly anticipated consumer release from Oculus in the PC space. While Oculus has long-ago stated that they are working to deliver their consumer VR headset at a lower margin, possibly even at cost, HTC/Valve has announced their entry of a premium VR experience.

A Different Focus

What is overlooked by many is that while these two companies compete in VR hardware and software, their focus couldn’t be any more different. Read More…