Valve's virtual reality headset is great, but its controllers are the real story
So many new ways to move your hands52
Valve has a lot of trust to regain when it comes to hardware. The Steam Machine concept — a fusion of consoles and gaming PCs, running Valve's own OS — was huge news in 2013 and early 2014, then dropped almost completely off the map, as it became clear that the strange, slightly yonic controller needed a redesign and manufacturers could just release their products as traditional gaming PCs. A year later, though, we've got a new game plan, a final controller design, and a virtual reality headset made in partnership with HTC. And Valve is doing something that no other major headset company is: trying to genuinely, practically reinvent the way we use our hands in virtual space.
The HTC Vive (rhymes with "hive") headset was announced earlier this week at Mobile World Congress, where we tried it for the first time. It builds on years' worth of virtual reality research, focusing specifically on creating an experience that's ambulatory and interactive. Unlike the Oculus Rift, the Vive is very explicitly meant for moving around in. It's paired with laser base stations that can track both your location in a room and the rough dimensions in it, warning you if you get too close to a wall. Though this wasn't in evidence at GDC, the base stations can supposedly support multiple headsets, so you'll be able to share a space with friends, though at this point you'd probably get tangled in the many wires of the prototype version.
Beyond the freedom of motion, the real standouts are the controllers, VR and otherwise. Over the past year, Valve has refined its fusion of mouse and gamepad for its final Steam Controller, which will ship in November. Like the first iterations, instead of a right analog stick, there's a ridged circular trackpad that you can use as a mouse or swipe your finger across to look around in a 3D game. The early controllers had another trackpad on the left, which was used for motion in most games. This worked far less well, and there's now just an actual analog stick below the second trackpad, which now doubles as a set of directional arrows.
For any game that supports a gamepad, there's not much reason to use the Steam Controller instead of just plugging in an Xbox or PlayStation peripheral. The trackpad can give you more fine-grained control, but it's not an inherently better system, and the giant trackpads mean that your face buttons are stuck awkwardly at the bottom of the controller. I tried a few minutes of Shadow of Mordor, The Talos Principle, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and I'd rather have had a traditional controller for all of them.
Instead, its strength is in its versatility. Valve had precisely one non-controller game on display, and it was late-'90s shooter System Shock 2, which has a particularly weird mouse-and-keyboard interface; it's the kind of game where you equip a weapon by hitting one of a half-dozen hotkeys or physically dragging it onto your character. And, surprisingly, it was pretty decent. The right trackpad worked precisely as a mouse, and Valve has designed an impressively customizable control-mapping system; not only can you change the binding of any pad or button, you can control things like trackpad sensitivity, vibration intensity, and the inertia of a finger swipe. Valve will let you share custom binding systems, which solves a lot of the setup problems for any game with a substantive fan base.
Even so, this comes off as more of a prelude to Valve's real achievement: the motion-tracking wands of the Vive. They're essentially one heavily modified Steam Controller, split in half and (as someone at Valve put it) equipped with little plastic hats. The hats are covered in sensors that allow Vive's base station to detect them accurately, and each controller includes a trackpad, a trigger, a couple of buttons, and a grip that can detect squeezes. Compared to most simple motion tracking systems, they're absurdly accurate and responsive; I could walk around and pick up objects confidently, expertly examining them and tossing them around.
While Oculus is still coming up with a motion control system that's worth showing off, Valve has made visible progress in interactivity — something that, more than any boost in graphical fidelity, is what we need to spur new, innovative uses of virtual reality. If we can throw around tomatoes and paint with fire this GDC, hopefully by next year we'll have the start of an honest-to-god VR revolution.