Valve’s ‘Lab’ Opens To Welcome New VR Initiates

by Ian Hamilton • March 17th, 2016

I’m inside a gigantic warehouse and a few feet in front of me a small spherical robot is loaded into the business end of a tall mechanical slingshot. It’s pretty clear what my role here is going to be.

As a veteran of the Portal games by Valve Software, the scene inside the fictional Aperture Science Labs is familiar, but altogether new in VR. The sphere-bot is one among a seemingly endless string of colorful characters I get to launch into the far reaches of this warehouse. As I load each one into the slingshot I hear bizarre and hilarious commentary before launch. This cheeky little sphere-bot, though, seems to be taking credit for global warming so I’m enjoying the build up to launch just a little bit more. I walk up to the large slingshot, reach out and start pulling, taking three steps back to ensure I send it as far back into the warehouse as possible. Whoosh!

The few moments inside this virtual warehouse is, in a word, magical. I want to stay and robot-watch more. But, alas, a floating orb appears in front of me and it is time to move onto the next experience. Like Harry Potter at the pensieve, I lean in and find myself somewhere else.

This is one experience of a set in the consumer-ready tour-de-force of room-scale VR technology Valve Software is shipping for free this spring as the $800 HTC Vive heads to homes. It’s known as The Lab and it is going to sell a lot of VR systems in 2016 and beyond. Rift owners may get Lucky’s Tale and EVE: Valkyrie with their systems and those are certainly fun sit-down, fully realized VR games, but Vive owners will rearrange their rooms to make space and find themselves gaping in wonder standing at the top of a photorealistic mountaintop.

The giggling will start upon discovery that, in VR, teleportation works perfectly, moving from place to place along Vesper Peak. For those in the know, the teleportation system in The Lab works like a cross between the systems inside two very compelling room-scale VR games, Neat Corporation’s Budget Cuts and Cloudhead’s ‘Blink’ approach found inside The Gallery. That is, you can easily place the throw of your teleport, aiming the Star Trek phaser-like handheld controller and seeing a beam arch through space. Where it lands, there’s an outline on the ground where you can see a square showing your future walking space.

The mountain was captured using photogrammetry, an incredible technology that, at least in the Vive headset, multiplies the photorealistic qualities of captured 360-degree video by the volumetric immersion of walk-around VR. The product of these two factors is awe-inspiring almost beyond measure. That is, you can move through these hyper-realistic scenes. According to Valve, more of these captured scenes will be offered in The Lab.

If you’re unfamiliar with the technology, check out the below video showing earlier room-scale photogrammetry experiments:

Yet another demo in The Lab, while not providing the same kind of photorealism as the mountain peak, provides an unmistakably believable sensation I’ve never experienced in VR before — at least, never as realistically.

I stand at the top of a castle and pick up a longbow with my right hand. With my left I grab an arrow and nock it onto the bowstring. When I begin pulling back, each of the controllers vibrate in such a way that I feel the bowstring tension in my hand. I release the tension a bit and feel that, too. I pull harder and that feels right as well. After a few seconds I find myself volleying arrow after arrow at people heading for my castle door. A few seconds in I find myself leaning over the edge of the castle wall trying to fire downward as they march by. I naturally, carefully and realistically adjust the strength and aim of my shots to zero in on the enemies. The whole thing is completely captivating. But then an orb appears and I reluctantly move through the pensieve.

The last place I see in The Lab is Zortex. At least, I think that’s what it’s called. The game turns my hand into a small drone that moves as nimbly through space as a hummingbird. From all directions there are lasers, energy balls and craft zeroing in on my hand. Pointing the drone at enemies automatically shoots at them. Think Catherine Zeta-Jones sliding around a room to avoid lasers meets a classic arcade game like Asteroids. That’s Zortex and it’s a lot of fun.

I am anxious for the moment when I start putting people who have never heard of Valve or Oculus or Google Cardboard inside The Lab. I cannot wait to see what questions they ask while inside, and when they come back out. For me, it seemed like the ultimate demonstration of just how great consumer VR technology is and a compelling case for why a person would want to spend nearly $2,000 for a PC and headset while rearranging their room for VR.

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