Gabe Newell: Index VR Headset Is A ‘Critical Milestone’ For Valve

Gabe Newell: Index VR Headset Is A ‘Critical Milestone’ For Valve

“Throughout the history of Valve we’ve had a lot of significant milestones,” Gabe Newell, President and Co-Founder of Valve Corporation, said at the Valve Index launch party on June 27, 2019. “We had Half-Life, which was our first single player game, we had Source, which was our first engine, we had Counter-Strike, which was our first multiplayer game, then we had Steam and the Workshop…and Index is another one of those critical milestones for our company.”

The launch party was a very small-scale event in which Valve employees, including Gabe Newell himself, gathered to showcase the Valve Index headset and its controllers to a small group of randomly selected Index buyers. Those that attended received their headsets on the spot and got a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of Valve’s innovative lighthouse tracking technology.

You can watch the entire speech right here:

During the event Newell reflected on the history of the company and what the future looks like with Index releasing publicly.

“It represents a tremendous amount hard work and creativity on your parts,” Newell said, addressing Valve employees. “As you know Index represents a significant breakthrough in the field, the visual fidelity that implies in terms of optical design, panel design, industrial design, all that’s a real breakthrough. Knuckles is hugely important not only for how it’s going to help ourselves and our game partners make their games better, but in how it enables entirely new kinds of games.”

Notably, Newell then took the opportunity to twist the dagger in the heart of millions by making a Half-Life 3 (or Portal 3, to be honest) joke almost too casually.

“But milestones aren’t really the end of anything, they’re really the beginning,” Newell said. “Half-Life led to Half-Life 2, Source led to Source 2, the experiments we did with Team Fortress 2 are what enabled us to build DOTA, Artifact is the reason that we’re able to do Underlords, and so maybe someday the number 2 will lead us to that shiny integer glowing on a mountain someplace. We’ll just have to see.”

The Valve Index headset is starting to arrive on door steps now and you can read our full review on the site. We’ve also got about four hours of streamed content from this week including an Aperture Hand Lab playthrough, footage of Index updates in games like Vacation Simulator, Blade & Sorcery, Onward, and many others. It really does feel like a milestone moment for the whole VR industry.

Newell then alluded to future improvements such as the potential of lower cost, broadened distribution, better ergonomics, and even untethered, wireless support. You can read more about those plans here.

“What [improving on Index] is gonna enable is the best part of this: when you start seeing new VR games from Valve and from our other partners,” Newell said. “And that’s really where you guys come in. You see it’s very hard for us to develop a product, to work at Valve, without customers. We have to guess. What’s important? What are the tradeoffs we should make? Will this be valuable to you? And we can sort of run a simulation in our head, but it’s so much better when we actually have real customers we can engage with.

“We’re really entering the best time as creators. We’re reaching a time when you guys are involved, you’re not only telling us how we did with Index, you’re teaching us how to make Index better–and that’s awesome. It’s such an exciting time for all of us.”

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Valve Index Pre-Launch Livestream: Blade & Sorcery,

Valve Index Pre-Launch Livestream: Blade & Sorcery,

Curious about how we livestream the way we do? Then look no further than this handy guide for general tips and this guide specific to our Oculus Quest setup.

We’re livestreaming with the Valve Index PC VR headset today!

Now that E3 is behind us we can look at the VR gaming landscape as it exists today instead of being pre-occupied with what isn’t out yet. The Index is shipping this week from Valve Corporation and we’re be previewing some gameplay with the new Index controllers and head-mounted display. We’re planning to show off Aperture Hand Lab made by Cloudhead Games as well as Hot Dogs, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades from RUST LTD. We’ll probably make our way into other apps with support for the new Index controllers as well, including the experimental Moondust testbed.

Here is where you can find today’s stream once it starts:

Thursday, June 27th:

And we livestreamed yesterday (June 26th) for two and a half hours already. Here is yesterday’s if you want to check it out.

Wednesday, June 26th:

Tune in live to ask use any questions about our experience with the Valve Index. We are reserving our final judgment on the hardware for a full review Friday morning but more apps are getting support for the Index controllers every day, so we wanted to show off the new hand interactions ahead of the launch.

You can see our most recent past archived streams over in our YouTube playlist. There’s lots of good stuff there so make sure and subscribe! You can also now Join our YouTube Community as a member to get special perks like in-video shout outs, custom emojis and badges in chat, and the ability to vote on future video content.

And please let us know which games or discussions you want us to livestream next! We have lots of VR games in the queue that we would love to show off more completely.

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SteamVR Adds Full Support For Oculus Rift S

SteamVR Rift S

Valve just added full support for the recently released Oculus Rift S PC VR headset to the SteamVR platform.

When the Rift S launched, haptic feedback on the Touch controllers wasn’t working in SteamVR. Valve released a hotfix less than 24 hours later to resolve this.

Over the last few weeks, Valve has been expanding support for Facebook’s new headset in SteamVR Beta builds. SteamVR now visually shows the new Touch controllers in the Dashboard, Home, and apps which use the default SteamVR controller model.

Before this release, SteamVR (non-Beta) detected the Rift S as a regular Rift with three sensors. This is how the Oculus runtime presents the VR hardware to apps built on older SDKs. Now that Valve is using the latest Oculus SDK, Rift S is detected as its own headset, with its own (higher) default resolution and no external sensors.

The Steam store has also been updated to consider Rift S compatible with all games marked as compatible with Rift. Beforehand Rift S users would see a message warning them that their headset was incompatible.

With the Rift S, users can redraw their Guardian boundary from inside VR using the black & white Passthrough+ mode. SteamVR now detects when this happens so as to position VR content in the center of the space without the need for restart.

The release is also supposed to fix “numerous stability issues and bugs”.

Valve Index Improvements

Of course, Valve is launching its own PC VR headset later this month. The company has been polishing up the Index software experience to get it ready for consumers.

This release improves the Hidden Area Mesh for the Index, which Valve claims will “better account for canting, increase stereo overlap” and “better accommodate re-projection”. It also claims to have improved AMD support for Index, “across all frame-rates”.

The update also adds auto-detection for VirtuaLink, likely for the Index VirtualLink adapter the company intends to ship at the end of July.

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Valve’s Flagship VR Game Coming In 2019 ‘To Any SteamVR Compatible System’

Valve’s Flagship VR Game Coming In 2019 ‘To Any SteamVR Compatible System’

The good news? Valve Index is shaping up to be a truly impressive VR headset when it ships in June. The bad news? We still don’t know much about a Valve-made VR game.

At least not yet.

Valve is still keeping the project under wraps for now. Though the new headset and its flashy controllers will both be arriving in June, we wouldn’t hold your breath for a big Valve VR game to arrive with it. The company did tell us, though, that it will have a “flagship game” arriving in 2019. No word on exactly what that game is yet; Valve wants to keep the rumor mill spinning.

We also know that the game won’t be exclusive to Index. Staying in line with Valve’s anti-exclusive messaging, you’ll be able to play it on any SteamVR-compatible headset. That means Rift, Vive and Windows VR owners will get to enjoy it too.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any Valve VR software to talk about, though. During our trip to the studio we did try Aperture Hand Labs, a technical showcase for the Index Controllers set in the Portal universe. We don’t know if that will arrive alongside Index but it’s quite possible.

We have heard, though, that this flagship game could be a new entry in Valve’s legendary Half-Life franchise. It might not be the now-fabled Half-Life 3, but it could be another story set within the universe.

Valve fans will have to demonstrate just a little more patience once Index arrives, then. Fortunately, you’ll have plenty to play in the meantime; Index is set to work with the entire library of existing SteamVR content and we saw some pretty exciting new additions to it this month. That includes the upcoming VR port of No Man’s Sky and Stress Level Zero’s Boneworks.

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Valve Index Headset Is $499, Bundle $999: 1440×1600 LCD Panels, 120-144 Hz, Wider FOV

Valve Index Set Full Kit Controllers Base Stations Headset

Valve today announced preorders and revealed the specs for its Index PC VR system. Index is not made in partnership with HTC, the company Valve first partneted with on the first SteamVR headset (Vive). It’s a first party product from Valve Corporation.

Index is a PC VR headset powered by the SteamVR platform. It should be compatible with all existing SteamVR games. However older titles may not be optimized for the Index Controllers as they were built with HTC controllers in mind.

Preorders are available tomorrow, and the product will ship some time in June. No games are listed as being included.


The full Index bundle is $999. This includes the headset, the two VR controllers, two SteamVR Tracking 2.0 base stations, and all required cables and mounts.

Owners of the HTC Vive or Vive Pro can purchase the headset alone for $499, the controllers alone for $279, or the headset and controllers for $749. The Index headset and controllers work with any HTC base stations.

Valve base stations can be purchased individually for $149 each. Note that they will not work with 1.0 hardware such as the original Vive headset and controllers.

High Refresh Rate RGB LCD Panels

Valve partnered with HTC to launch the Vive back in 2016. It had dual 1080×1200 PenTile OLED panels. The Vive Pro released in 2018 increased this to dual 1440×1600.

The Index uses two custom 1440×1600 LCD panels. While they are the same resolution as the Vive Pro, they have full RGB subpixels instead of PenTile. This means each pixel has three subpixels instead of just two.

This provides a higher detail image with reduced “screen door effect”. However, you don’t get the deep blacks of OLED since LCD displays use a backlight.

The refresh rate of the Vive and Vive Pro was 90Hz. Index increases this to 120Hz, with an optional “experimental” 144Hz mode. Valve claims full backwards compatibility with 90Hz content.

The pixel persistence is down to just 0.33 ms, which is the lowest revealed of any headset we are aware of. Valve claims this achieves subpixel scale persistence at typical head rotation speeds. In theory, this should entirely eliminate motion blur.

Dual Element Lenses, Wider Field Of View

Most current VR consumer headsets have a binocular horizontal field of view of around 100°, give or take around 10°.

Valve is not disclosing the exact field of view of the Index, citing the lack of industry standard measurement. The company did however say that it should be “20 degrees more than Vive for the average customer.”

Given that the Vive’s maximum binocular horizontal field of view has been measured at 110 degrees, the Index maximum field of view should be somewhere around 130 degrees.

Valve managed to increase the field of view without adding distortion and while maintaining optical sharpness by using dual element lenses. The lenses are also canted, meaning pointing slightly outwards instead of directly forwards.

The lenses have a wide sweet spot, meaning the center is not the only area of sharpness. This lets you use your eyes to look around as well as your head.

Wearable Controllers With Finger Detection

The Index Controllers were codenamed “Knuckles” during development. Since they are strapped to your hand, you can fully let go of them. This allows for more natural grabbing and throwing of virtual objects.

The controllers also feature basic finger tracking for each finger. The concept of finger tracking through capacitive sensors was first shipped in the Oculus Touch controllers in late 2016. But whereas Touch only tracks the thumb and index finger, Valve’s controllers track the other three fingers too. This allows for a much wider range of gestures and should increase the feeling of hand presence.

As the Index Controllers are worn, users have two adjustments to get the right fit for their hand size. You push in a tab at the top of the strap, then pull a cord at the bottom to tighten the fit.

Each controller features a thumbstick, a small touchpad, 2 buttons, an analog index trigger, and a system button. Additionally, the main body of the controller can detect the force of the user’s grip, allowing for squeezing of virtual objects.

The controllers are charged by USB Type-C and have a battery life of 7+ hours.

Full Optical & Ergonomic Adjustment

Valve’s goal is that each user can adjust the lenses and comfort of Index to get an optimal fit.

To achieve this, Index has a total of four adjustments: interpupillary distance, lens-eye distance, the rear strap knob, and the top strap adjustment.

Unlike most headsets with lens-eye adjustment, Index’s lenses move independently of the facial interface. This allows the lenses to get much closer to your eyes, enabling the Index’s wide field of view. A 1 centimeter adjustment of the lenses results in a 30 degree difference in field of view.

Valve claims that Index comfortably fits 95% of adult heads.

Nearfield Off-Ear Speakers

Valve has gone all-out for the audio solution. Instead of headphone drivers, Index features nearfield off-ear speakers.

When we tried the Index we found the audio quality to be excellent, with precise spatial positioning.

The speakers don’t touch your ears, so you can still hear people in the room with you and they don’t get uncomfortable to wear. However, like other non-contact VR audio solutions, people in the room can also hear what you’re hearing.

SteamVR Tracking 2.0

Both the headset and controllers are tracked by the SteamVR Tracking 2.0 system. Two base stations are included in the $999 bundle, or can be purchased separately for $149 each.

Base stations are required to use Index. The front cameras are for passthrough, they do not perform inside-out tracking.

Compared to the original 1.0 used on the original Vive, the new base stations are smaller, quieter, and use less power. Valve claims they’re also more mechanically reliable and less expensive to produce.

Whereas the old system had a maximum of two base stations per play space, 2.0 increases that limit to four. So for $298 extra, Index buyers can upgrade to the absolute maximum VR tracking quality currently available anywhere.

While old base stations work with new devices, the new base stations will only work with hardware supporting them, such as the Valve Index or Pimax 5K+.

PC Requirements & Cables

Valve recommends using an NVIDIA GTX 1070 or better, but says a GTX 970 or AMD RX 480 will work as a minimum.

The headset connects to your PC via DisplayPort and USB. If you use USB 3.0 you’ll get access to camera passthrough mode, but the heaedset will work in USB 2.0 without that feature.

You’ll also need 3 power sockets in total. One for the headset and one for each base station. The base stations do not connect to your PC in any way however, so you can just cable them to the nearest socket to where you’ll be mounting them.

If you own a GPU with VirtualLink support, you can buy a VirtualLink cable for Index for $39.99. This negates the need for the DisplayPort, USB or power cable- it’s all done through a single USB Type-C connector.

Index will also work on macOS and Linux, but currently only a tiny fraction of SteamVR games support these operating systems.

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Latest Valve Index Controller Firmware Brings Noticeably Improved Finger Tracking

Latest Valve Index Controller Firmware Brings Noticeably Improved Finger Tracking

Those lucky enough to have their hands on Valve’s upcoming VR controllers are reporting noticeably better finger tracking thanks to a new firmware update released yesterday.

The changelog reads:

Finger tracking: This update adds logic for detecting and adapting to a wider range of hand sizes and finger placements based on finger activity over time.

Some developers with prototypes of the controllers had previously reported issues with the finger tracking. Based on the changelog, this seems to be related to the difficulty in supporting the wide range of human hand sizes.

This video from YouTuber Bradley Lynch shows the combined hardware and software improvements from November to today:

The Index Controllers were codenamed “Knuckles” during development. The main selling feature is the ability to fully let go of the controller, which allows for more natural grabbing and throwing of virtual objects.

An early protoype was first shown back in 2016. Over the past three years Valve has continously improved the prototypes. Back in June, the company reduced the touchpad to a small strip and addded a thumbstick for better gaming.

The concept of finger tracking through capacitive sensors was first shipped in the Oculus Touch controllers in late 2016. But whereas Touch only tracks the thumb and index finger, Valve’s controllers track the other three fingers too. This allows for a much wider range of gestures and should increase the feeling of hand presence.

Valve is launching its own PC VR headset alongside these controllers. But since the controllers use the SteamVR “Lighthouse” tracking system, they will also natively work with the existing HTC Vive and Vive Pro. That means if you own one of those headsets, you can preorder these controllers in May. Valve says they’ll ship in June.

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Editorial: Oculus Cross-Buy Strategy Is Facebook’s Path To Platform Lock-In

Editorial: Oculus Cross-Buy Strategy Is Facebook’s Path To Platform Lock-In

Facebook is on the path to platform lock-in with Oculus Quest.

In case you are unfamiliar with the concept, “customer lock-in” is an economics idea that “makes a customer dependent on a vendor for products and services, unable to use another vendor without substantial switching costs.”

With the standalone Oculus Quest, Facebook is funding Oculus Studios projects for both Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift and enabling cross-buy between them. For people who own both an Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest, this means the same Facebook-funded title should be playable on either headset with a single purchase. Third-party studios not funded by Oculus can also opt into the feature should they so choose.

It makes sense strategically — the move is a good one short-term for people buying any of Facebook’s low-cost headsets. If you’re an Oculus Rift owner today, for example, and you’ve purchased Apex Construct you should find the game already waiting in your library when you buy a Quest. Great, right?

Short term? Sure.

Long-term? That’s a bit more complicated.

Steam’s PC Store vs Oculus’ VR Store

Valve Corporation’s Steam is the storefront of choice for millions of gamers with PCs. Valve is a privately owned company based in Bellevue, Washington and, in 2016, it partnered with HTC to invest in the launch of a VR headset that would encourage people to use Steam to purchase VR games.

Critically, owners of Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset (and Microsoft’s Windows VR devices) could also play games from Steam through a Valve-controlled software bridge. If you owned an HTC Vive you could buy games from either Valve or from HTC’s Viveport and play them on the headset. If you owned a Rift, you could buy and play games from Oculus, Steam, or HTC.

Essentially, Valve established Steam as the default place for people to buy VR games because that’s where they already bought their PC games. The only exceptions to this, generally speaking, are Rift owners who buy their content from Oculus because it is the default store. The bottom line? Oculus essentially made their store a walled garden for Rift while Valve made Steam a place for all PC VR headsets.

Facebook, meanwhile, paid for a number of exclusive games like Robo Recall and Lone Echo to be sold only via the Oculus Store. Games on the store only officially work for Facebook headsets. A hack called “Revive”, though, made it possible for some Vive owners to run Oculus-exclusive content they purchased from Facebook.

How Oculus Quest Changes The Game

Things are changing in Facebook’s strategy after the departures of Oculus founders Brendan Iribe and Palmer Luckey.

In Blake Harris’ book The History Of The Future a set of emails are disclosed offering insight into Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s strategy in VR and AR. According to the book, Zuckerberg was in favor of a “closed” approach to the Rift while Oculus leaders pushed for more openness. An email in the book attributed to Brendan Marten, Facebook’s head of finance for AR/VR, provides a sense of Zuckerberg’s strategy in 2015.

From the book:

  • Zuckerberg “sees that there are risks to closing the platform, but does not believe they are that great or irreversible, and is willing to take that chance. He believes that you can open it once closed, but going the other way is much harder.”
  • “Mark believes that some Oculus employees will be unhappy with closing the platform, and even that it goes against the culture and could cause unhappiness across the team, but considers that a reasonable price. . . For example, how many long-time Oculus employees (the ones most likely to strongly object to closing the platform) will walk away from their RSUs? If they don’t, how many will do their jobs worse as a result? Would even highly-principled John [Carmack] walk away?”
  • “Unless we present Mark with a long-term plan for Rift success that he thinks makes sense, I believe Rift is probably going to be somewhere between resource-starved and orphaned soon.”
  • “Either: a) we come up with an explanation for openness that Mark can believe makes sense, b) we decide to go closed, or c) there is going to be a head-on collision. And remember, even if we win that head-on collision, Mark controls budget and head count, so the Rift may find itself starved regardless.”

The many billions of dollars Zuckerberg spends on VR and AR boils down to something very simple he laid out in a message to employees: “We are vulnerable on mobile to Google and Apple because they make major mobile platforms. We would like a stronger strategic position in the next wave of computing.”

This is where lock-in comes into play. Right now, the most successful non-mobile VR platform is the wired PlayStation VR system which sold more than 4.2 million headsets since late 2016. PSVR is also home to many of the best VR games centered around intuitive hand interaction. We believe Oculus Rift’s low prices, quality content and significant marketing help Facebook’s headset outsell HTC Vive for PC systems, but have no hard figures to confirm that feeling.

Yet, for many buyers, Valve’s Steam store remains the default place to buy most content.

Zuckerberg does not want that dynamic to continue in the second generation of PC VR. So he’s taking the curated content approach that worked for PSVR and applying it to the Quest VR console. Thus we have consumers ready to experience this:

I believe Fineman’s comment represents the position of a lot of early PC VR buyers.

Platform Services And Lock-In

Buying a VR PC and mounting sensors on your walls to have a top quality VR experience is an enormous undertaking. Given the cost and effort involved, it makes sense that most buyers who picked up PC-based headsets between 2016 and 2019 carefully researched and planned their decisions to protect their investment long-term.

Many VR buyers with a personal computer view it as an “open” platform. In practice, though, “openness” is a more complicated concept than it seems at first.

For example, you generally need Microsoft’s Windows today to enjoy VR apps on PCs. Nonetheless, Valve’s SteamVR underpinnings are supported on Apple computers too and engineers at the company have been working to make it easier for developers to make their apps work fine on Linux as well. In other words, Valve is aware of the “lock-in” both developers and consumers have related to Microsoft’s Windows and they are actively working to weaken those ties.

In comparison, Apple support for Oculus was killed off years ago. Last year, Rift devices worldwide went offline for a full day because somebody (apparently) forgot to renew a security certificate with Microsoft. That sort of thing doesn’t inspire confidence in PC buyers.

Now with Quest, Facebook is poised to enable cross-buy which could begin the process of locking in Quest buyers to the Oculus “platform.” Do you wake up one day and you can’t enjoy a great VR game without logging into your Facebook account first? That reality starts to take shape when people enjoy their Oculus Quest so much they decide they want to upgrade to the increased graphical fidelity of Oculus Rift S.

Differing Paths Detailed

Valve and Facebook are on different paths in 2019.

Facebook’s path offers low hardware prices to consumers and money to developers to build projects first for Oculus and implement features like cross-buy with Rift. Since Facebook is positioning Quest as a standalone VR console, they expect it to appeal to a different set of buyers. Over time, we can expect Facebook’s networking, avatar, analytics, and identity services to become a larger part of the package the company is pushing out to developers and consumers across all VR devices.

Valve’s path is likely more expensive up front for consumers but continues in a direction they’ve stuck to for years — increased immersion leading to better VR games and more satisfying experiences. For example, with a Valve Index Controller you can “wear” a VR controller for the first time rather than “hold” one.

That change comes from years of focused effort developing games, and hardware, in collaboration with trusted developers. We’ve yet to feel the result of that effort, or the effect it has on the value proposition of Valve Index and the Steam ecosystem compared to Facebook’s, or even Microsoft’s. As soon as we have that experience we’ll boil down the differences in clear language so everyone interested in this market can understand the dynamics at play.

For now, though, consumers should keep in mind the decisions made now about which headsets you buy is a vote in favor of something larger than the headset itself.  Likewise, the decisions developers make now about which headsets to support, services to use and features to activate in their games could influence the creators who come after.

The VR market is still small enough that there’s a weight to your choices over the next month that could have a lasting impact on policies at these companies for years to come. Choose wisely.

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Valve Teases ‘Index’ VR Headset For May

Valve Teases ‘Index’ VR Headset For May

Valve is teasing its VR headset for May.

You can check it out right now on Steam, although there are currently no other details listed.

The site at least partially confirms our report from late last year. Though we can’t see the full headset, the image does seem strikingly similar to leaked images of Valve’s headset.

At the time, sources told us that this was indeed Valve’s very own SteamVR headset. We also heard that it would have wider field of view with resolution around the same as the HTC Vive Pro.

Last week at GDC Valve told us that it did have VR updates to share “soon“. GDC also saw Oculus announce its Rift S headset, which replaces the original Rift. It utilizes a new inside-out tracking system, whereas Index is expected to deliver the next generation of Valve’s outside-in tracking via SteamVR.

We brightened the image and see what appears to be Valve’s SteamVR Tracking system embedded on the headset

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Valve Psychologist Explores Controlling Games Directly With Your Brain

Valve Psychologist Explores Controlling Games Directly With Your Brain

Mike Ambinder, a psychologist and researcher at Valve, packed a room at the Game Developers Conference with a talk on whether you can control games directly with a brain-computer interface (BCI).

Increasingly, game developers are asking whether a 17-button controller or a mouse/keyboard are the best possible interfaces for interacting with games — or if there is something more “naturalistic” that could improve the connection between what we want to do in a game and what actually happens.

It may be the stuff of dreams, but Ambinder said many researchers are working on solving the problem today, and it’s hard to predict how soon someone will make a breakthrough.

The whole point is to cut the middleman, in this case the game controller, between the intention of the player and the game simulation.

Above: Mike Ambinder is the experimental psychologist at Valve.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

“In the long run, this will give us the most bang for the buck,” said Ambinder, in terms of directly wiring into our brains.

For instance, we know there are both verbal and nonverbal parts of a conversation. The nonverbal includes the change in someone’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and where someone is facing.

“With games, we have traditional inputs, but we might be missing the nonverbal part of the conversation. There might be other data that can be provided to us as game designers that we’re not acquiring.”

Current interfaces

Above: Xbox One controller.

Image Credit: Astro Gaming

A mouse and keyboard has lots of different inputs that can be very precise, but they might be very hard for humans to remember them all.

“Memory is actually a fundamental limitation,” Ambinder said. “How many possible combinations you can remember off the top of your head when you’re playing a game? What if you didn’t have to remember everything? What if you could just think about what you wanted to do and it happened? Wouldn’t that change how you play games?”

Gamepads can be simpler, but they still have all those buttons. There are also gesture controls — for things like swinging your arm and boxing. Those can be more intuitive, but they also make you tired. In the case of both controllers and keyboards, you have to think about a movement and translate it into a movement that triggers an interaction in a game.

A new kind of controller might be able to help people play better, including those who are disabled in some way. Microsoft showed that with its Xbox Adaptive Controller for people with limited mobility. They could perhaps even help people see again who can’t see, Ambinder said. Maybe we could send data that bypasses the eyes and goes straight to the brain.

An ideal interface?

Above: What’s the ideal game interface?

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Valve

“What happens if you didn’t have to use those things?” Ambinder asked. “What are better ways of interacting with games?”

Ambinder thinks we can come up with things that can make us respond quicker, give us a broader set of input commands, achieve more complex patterns of input like chaining together commands, and being able to undo things that we’ve done more quickly.

With a brain-computer interface, Ambinder believes game designers can get more data from the player.

“What I’m really fascinated by is what happens [when] we get additional data from a player we are not getting with current-generation interfaces,” he said.

Developers know what players are trying to do. But they don’t know how they are experiencing it.

“So are they happy? Are they sad? Are they engaged? Are they detached? Are they challenged? Or are they bored? Or frustrated? Or are they exploring and solving puzzles?” Ambinder said.

There are privacy reasons around this kind of access to a player’s thoughts, for sure. But Ambinder said that knowing the internal thinking and emotions of a gamer could help game developers respond and make a game adapt to the player’s state of mind.

Above: Mike Ambinder’s research-focused brain-computer interface.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Valve

Ambinder (and many other researchers) has used an open-source headset with encephalogram capability — or the ability to detect the electrical activity in your head using sensors attached to the scalp. That kind of contraption isn’t comfortable, but it could fit inside some kind of helmet — like a virtual reality headset.

Neurons are nerve cells, the atomic units of the brain. If you put them together, and you organize them in various functional and hierarchical ways, you get a brain. They need to communicate by firing, or sending electrical signals down various pathways. There are about 100 billion neurons in the brain. There are one quadrillion connections, or synapses, that connect those neurons.

And when neurons fire, they produce every single aspect of conscious and unconscious experience — every thought you have, Ambinder said. Every feeling you have is a consequence of neurons or bundles of neurons firing together.

“So, in some respects, we’re actually already inside the Matrix. What we see and experience and feel right is constructed by neurons firing up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “There is a neurological coordinator origin for every single thing that happens in our brain. And our reality is constructed by these patterns environments. So, if we can reliably measure them, and then we can start doing useful things with them.”

Above: Maybe a VR headset can house a brain sensor.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Valve

If we can measure patterns of activity, whether they are temporal (happening over time) or spatial.

“We simply want to understand like, locations have increased levels of activity in the brain and hopefully what they are,” Ambinder said. “If we can take these patterns of activity, and describe them in terms of something a player is experiencing,” then we can understand whether a set of electrical impulses means the player is happy or sad or something else.

Since we can’t really drill into our heads, the tools for measurement are crude. There are the EEG monitors, as well as infrared spectroscopy (which measures scattering of blood flow), and expensive magnetic resonance imaging machines, which measure oxygenated blood flow.

There are also sensors for measuring your heart rate, galvanic skin response (sweat), muscle tension, and posture. These things might help decipher what someone is thinking. And there are our hands. One researcher estimated that it could take a signal 100 milliseconds to travel from your brain to your finger.

Above: Smarter enemies are a consequence of the BCI tech.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Valve

But what if you could shave off 10 to 30 milliseconds from your reaction time? That would matter a lot to competitive gamers. What if you could predict movement before it happens?

“There are people investigating this right now,” Ambinder said.

You can do this noninvasively or invasively. The latter would mean we would have to wire something into the brain, which conjures up the image at the top of this story.

“How many of us are willing to have someone drill a hole in our head,” Ambinder asked.

The encephalograms can detect different kinds of waves — like delta waves or beta waves. If you could correlate what’s happening to a player’s feelings, then the measurement could detect something useful for game designers.

Right now, the sensors can measure if someone is learning something, if they’re surprised, if they’re excited or relaxed, whether they have a positive or negative growth in emotion, if they’re engaged or bored.

Ambinder noted that a lot of people are concerned about the capabilities of artificial intelligence, and whether humans can keep up. But if we create better brain-computer interfaces, then maybe we could keep up better. That means this research could have uses beyond games.

A VR headset could be outfitted with electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors, Ambinder said.

Valve’s research in playtesting games

Above: Different waves to measure in a brain.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Valve

Valve has been testing its theories in this space by watching the way people play games. It can do so by watching people play, running surveys, and doing other kinds of tests. But if you ask people questions about their gameplay, they may rationalize their answers or make them up.

That’s because we don’t understand what we do or why we do it. Measuring helps but it is pretty hard to measure a lot of people right now. If people wore BCI headsets, they could generate a lot of data that generates moment-to-moment insight. Maybe then, developers could measure what a player thinks when they choose a character, kill a character, get overwhelmed, or die in a game.

The chance to do this in real time has Ambinder really excited. If we can get this data, Ambinder said, “We’d be much better game designers.”

If a game designer could measure the feeling of a player when they get a kill in a game, then they could compare that feeling to other parts of the game where the player has a similar reaction. That might be a good measure of a highlight in a game.

What if?

Above: Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve, clowning around with a brain-computer interface.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Valve

For instance, if a part of a game is too easy, the developer could adapt that part on the fly, making it harder. If someone is about to quit, the developers could predict that and do something about it or adjust the game balance. If an enemy gets more challenging within a game, how would a player react?

Right now, a vocal minority of players has undue influence on game designers.

Designers could learn about the emotional peaks and valleys in their games, and they could reproduce them if the game turned out to be a popular one.

“So think about adaptive enemies. What kinds of animals do you like playing against in gaming?” Ambinder said. “If we knew the answers to these questions, you could have the game give you more of a challenging time and less of the boring time.”

Difficulty levels could become a thing of the past, as a game will adapt to your skill. Matching people with multiplayer teammates could be easier. And it might get easier to identify toxic players, who could be separated from the other players more easily.

Rewards could also be adjusted based on your reaction to the reward. Developers could figure out what kind of reward you like and give you more of those. (That can also have a dark side, making a game more addictive.) What keeps you intrinsically motivated?

Above: Do you want to drill into your brain?

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Valve

Ambinder also said that developers could create avatars that mimic your mood, so other players in a multiplayer came could read your expressions better. What if a player is in a state of flow? What if a game needs to be more accessible for someone? What if you were playing a spy game, and you had to actually act like a spy, deceiving other players who could read your emotions?

“All of a sudden, we start becoming able to assess how you’re responding to various elements in game,” Ambinder said. “We can make small changes to make big changes.”

Gameplay becomes adaptive and personalized. And everyone gets a different experience as games respond to a player, not the other way around. Games could also augment your own memory, helping you to sense things you wouldn’t otherwise detect. Developers could stimulate your nerves and put you into the Matrix directly, Ambinder said.


Above: It won’t be easy doing BCI.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi/Valve

But there are challenges. Ambinder knows we have to be realistic. So much of the sensory technology is in its infancy.

“Data is incredibly noisy, especially inside the brain,” he said. “There is so much we don’t understand.”

Analyzing it isn’t easy. And it’s pretty hard to get past someone’s skull and find out what is going on inside a person’s brain without being invasive. It’s like being outside of a football stadium and trying to understand what is happening inside the stadium, based on the cheering that you hear, he said.

I’m looking forward to the day when Ambinder can do everything he talked about in his speech. Maybe then, I’ll be able to beat Ninja in a game. Ambinder is optimistic that brain-computer interface technology will deliver better experiences and play, but we’ve got a long way to go.

This post by Dean Takahashi originally appeared on VentureBeat.

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No Valve VR Updates At GDC But News Coming ‘In The Not Too Distant Future’

No Valve VR Updates At GDC But News Coming ‘In The Not Too Distant Future’

Valve Corporation employees are delivering updates during a presentation today at GDC about Steam features. The talk focuses on how new features and services in Valve’s Steam storefront got more people using it over the years. VR is one of the features listed in the presentation as building on-ramps to more growth on Steam.

That is the only mention of VR in the presentation.

Valve representative Doug Lombardi confirmed to me there would be no VR updates at GDC from Valve but that it remains an area of interest and investment for the company.

“We still see VR as being really important, we still see a lot of people adopting it,” Lombardi said. “In the short term, or the not too distant future, we are going to be talking more about…what’s happening on Steam with VR past, present and future, but it just won’t be happening here at the show.”

Late last year photos leaked showing what appeared to be a Valve-made head-mounted display. We heard from sources Valve could be targeting early this year for broader availability of the system with Knuckles controllers and perhaps a Half-Life VR game. In December, Valve started shipping fresh developer kits for its several-years-in-the-making hand controllers. Last month, Valve laid off 13 people including some working in VR — a prepared statement said it “does not represent any major changes at the company.”

The reveal of Rift S from Facebook means after three years of work the company committed to shipping a follow-up system to its first PC VR headset. Valve partner HTC is developing a range of headsets but none of them appear to use Valve’s SteamVR Tracking technology that was so critical to the appeal of the original Vive.

With certain compromises apparent in the design of the Rift S — it is heavier than the original, for example — we are extremely curious to see what choices Valve made in developing newer versions of its VR technology.

It sounds like we should get those updates soonish.

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