In a recent interview with Rock Paper Shotgun, Valve Software programmer Michael Abrash talks about the company's exploration into virtual reality. He started out actually chatting about the original Quake (1996) and how it pushed hardware changes on the Internet. Its multiplayer portion caused servers to be established, clan sites to go live, modders to create bots and Capture the Flag, and consumers to install better modems and add-in GPUs.
Oculus Rift, the upcoming VR headset, could spark a similar revolution in virtual and augmented reality applications. Abrash even compared the headset to the first-generation smartphone -- most notably Apple's iPhone -- and how it changed the way people communicated, played games and carried out their tasks each day.
"So I think if we went back to 2005 and said, 'I’m gonna give you this phone, and it’s gonna have as much processing power as a computer and a touch interface,' I don’t think you would’ve immediately said, 'Oh, these are the games that are going to end up being successful.' You probably wouldn’t have even predicted that there’d be so many people buying and turning it into such a huge market. So I don’t know what VR will turn into, but I’m pretty confident it’ll turn into something great if the hardware can be good enough. That’s the thing that has to happen. I think [Oculus Rift creator] Palmer Luckey’s stuff will be good enough to get that started, and then it has to evolve rapidly," he said.
He goes on to offer a checklist of goals VR headsets must meet in order to change the market just as Quake and the iPhone did. First, it needs display technology that gives you an image both your brain and eye are happy with. Second, if you want to do augmented reality, you have to know exactly where you are and what you’re looking at.
"So you’ve seen iPhone apps where you can make people look silly – mess with their faces, put hats on them, whatever," he said. "Well, if I want to put a hat on someone, I have to know exactly where he is. As I move, as he moves, the hat has to do the right thing or it doesn’t work. So tracking’s a really hard problem. Both John and I talked about that. Knowing your angle isn’t that hard, because you can get it out of a gyroscope. It does drift over time, though. But knowing your position is actually very hard."
The long-term solution, he said, is something very similar to the way humans work. "Humans have this three axis center, and then your visual system corrects for that. So if we have a gyroscope and a camera, and then the camera does the correction for that, I think it’s a long-term solution. But doing that processing, I think, requires a camera that can do things fast and in a higher resolution. It also requires processing that information, and that’s a power issue, a processing issue, an algorithmic issue – these are hard problems," he added.
In addition to the visual input, VR will need haptic devices so that users can feel the experience as well. "My guess is that there’ll be some sort of form-fitting, shirt-like thing, and it’ll have some kind of percussive devices so it can tap on your chest and arms. That seems like an obvious and manageable thing. But there are so many ways that could go," he said.
To read the full interview, head here.