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Opinion and Insight
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How Valve is Helping Developers Build Their Own VR Products

REWIND, 1 month, 3 weeks ago

Valve is allowing companies access to SteamVR Tracking without licensing fees

How Valve is Helping Developers Build Their Own VR Products

3D tracking is at the heart of anything you build in VR and now Valve is allowing companies access to SteamVR Tracking, without licensing fees.

Valve arguably has the best room scale tracking technology on and off the market. Its simple use of IR sensors, scanning IR emitters and simple trigonometry give sub millimeter accuracy across larger spaces than many, if not all, of its competitors.

The ‘watchman’ board that makes each SteamVR object trackable is essentially a mesh of up to 32 IR sensors arranged over the surface of whatever it is that you want to track. Arranged in such a way as to maximise the potential number of sensors exposed in any given orientation as well as covering a variety of planes to allow precise locating.

For us devs, our fascination/obsession with VR started on day one with our Oculus Rift DK1, but we wanted to push it. So we built our own room scale VR using a DK1, 3 XBOX 360 Kinects, 3 Tracking Laptops, 1 backpack laptop and a Razer Hydra.

Now this system was fraught with issues, skeletal averaging between the Kinects being one. It did give us a larger tracking space than the stock 360 Kinect space, but introduced a lot of lag and inaccurate results. Then the inherent latency with the wireless network and the Razer Hydra was hard to magnetically calibrate given a moving base station.

But we had seen the future and it was glorious. A couple of years later the technology caught up with our vision and Valve and HTC released the Vive Dev kits. The dev controllers contained hints at what was to come -  being relatively modular in construction suggested a separation of tracker and controller portions.

With time came the Pre and finally the release versions of the HTC Vive (ifixit teardown of the Vive for those who are curious).

Now SteamVR’s release of a dev kit and hardware specs will allow people to start designing their own bespoke interface hardware for use with SteamVR. The kit is free for developers, but in order to participate in the program, each company must send at least one person to a $3,000 training course held in Seattle.

Valve doesn’t give a definitive list of how people will use its tech, but it references tracking for "VR golf clubs," indoor drones, and custom head-mounted displays. The application that immediately springs to mind is custom peripherals for the HTC Vive itself, e.g. a more convincing weapon for a VR game.  Longer term, it could be used in any product that needs motion controls or motion capture options  like bats, rackets, tools and so on to give the VR experience a connected and complete feel. Rather than waving a weightless cricket bat you’ll have a full correctly weighted bat with haptic feedback to allow you to feel the satisfying crack of leather on willow.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, you’ll now be able to attach a tracker to your chair meaning that in your VR experience you’ll always be able to see where to sit down. As well as your position in space relative to the seat when seated meaning head heights in experiences can be more in keeping with the real world, accounting for height differences in players.

Physical control surfaces for flight simulators from people like Saitek will start incorporating these markers meaning that your physical cockpit layout at home will start appearing in VR in the correct locations allowing you to reach out and touch real switches and buttons instead of using pointing interaction mechanics using controllers.

Feet! Let’s not forget feet. The ability to walk in VR is powerful, but for some not being able to see where your feet are is disconcerting. Trackable shoes or watchman boards to go on your existing shoes will enable more precise tracking of the human skeleton in VR.

This is the first time that Valve has explicitly urged people to start building their own products based on Vive hardware... watch this space!  

Genre: Creative technology , Digital , VR