We sat down with Chet Faliszek, games writer, self-proclaimed Mr. Awesome, and the public face of Valve’s SteamVR efforts at CES. He was at the show to help demonstrate the latest iteration of HTC's and Valve's VR hardware, the Vive Pre (which we liked enough to make one of our Top Picks for CES 2016), and after we got a chance to try out the Pre, Chet was kind enough to answer some of our questions.
Tom’s Hardware: So, about the Mura correction: We assume it’s combination of hardware and software. and obviously you can’t disclose any details, but is there any involvement with the GPU vendors in the technology, or is it strictly something HTC and Valve worked on?
Chet Faliszek: We’re only really talking about the result of it then, not the technique and what we’re doing. And the result is just that we want to have richer and more vibrant colors. [Since this interview, we discovered this interesting Reddit thread that speculates what the Mura correction is, and if it is correct, it has to do with calibrating the OLED displays to fix “subpixels having non-uniform brightness,” and this is something Oculus is already likely doing on the Rift]
TH: Because prior to what you showed today, people were speculating that HDR was the “breakthrough” feature. I know AMD has been talking about HDR in its next generation GPUs -- what’s your opinion on HDR being part of the VR imaging stack?
CF: Well, that’s just one piece. It’s got to be all the pieces of it, right? And I think if you look at our visual system now, it’s brighter, and if you do it comparatively, how much brighter it is and how much that adds to it, I think the logical conclusion is that down the road it will keep getting brighter.
Look at it this way: We’re in this weird place where we actually started super high-end, and then we’ve kind of brought other people on, but if you look at how VR has been progressing, it’s gotten all these other things… We keep adding things to it, and it’s coming to a place where...room-scale VR is going to be the standard in three years. And it’s going to be brighter – we’re not going to get darker, right? We’re just going to get brighter. If you look at all these things, they have a trajectory to them, and one of them I would say would be brightness, yeah.
TH: Valve’s Source was the first graphics engine to introduce HDR, so it’s interesting that HDR may become part of VR, given your history with it.
About the Chaperone: From what I understood, when I first tried the Vive at MWC, the cameras were there, and with HTC’s experience with camera technology, I always thought that they were there for that reason, for the very reason we’re seeing here, and do I remember seeing in the setup guide that there was some mention of the detecting foreign objects?
CF: No, we’ve always known…like, we’ve been working and thinking about room-scale from the very beginning. This is always what we wanted to do, so we always knew we were going to have this and how it was going to work. We had separated it out, by greater degree of experimentation [and] flexibility, to see what we really needed. We had a bunch of speculation, but until you start using it and seeing “What can you really do? And what can actually work?,” you don’t know. And so we disengaged the camera iteration from the headset iteration.
TH: When I first tried to explain the new Chaperone system to people after I tried it, they didn’t seem to get how revolutionary it is. But when I thought of playing Elite: Dangerous, and the fact that it will enable you to get out of, walk around, then return to your virtual cockpit (your desk chair in real life) without taking off the HMD and breaking presence, I realized how significant an innovation it is.
CF: So if it’s the first time you’re playing Elite: Dangerous, it says [to] sit down in your chair. Okay, and now stand behind it, and now [the Vive knows where you are]. In the same way that it took everyone to see VR the first time to get how special it was, I think it’s the same way with this. Because it’s so obvious, you miss how obvious it is.
TH: Being from Valve, you are working closely with developers -- any inkling of what developers have said that they’ve seen from the new tech of the Vive Pre?
CF: So there are some developers that already have it and have been getting ready for CES and the upcoming Valve Content Showcase in Seattle, but not everybody has had a unit where the camera has been working, so it’s going to be interesting to see what they do with the camera when they get a Pre.
So that’s one of the reasons why we’re going to have 7,000 dev kits go out. The idea is that every developer will get a new kit, [and] we’ll expand that group out, and the idea is to make sure that they can play with it, and to see [what] comes from it, right?
TH: What about the new Chaperone system and multi-headset usage? Can you think of a way that the new Chaperone can help in that environment?
CF: Well, I think that most people are going to have multi-player be in separate instances, and people will still need to attach [the HMD] to a separate computer.
Like at work, we work in squares, so you have two and two. And two base stations which can track up to eight people. The way we work now [at Valve], our desks are setup near these squares, and you can be seated working in VR, then just stand up and walk over to experience room-scale VR. With the new Chaperone system, instead of having to check if someone else is in the space by announcing your intentions [or removing the HMD], you can just double-click into the Chaperone to see if the space is in use. And we are going to keep progressing with improving the functionality of that.
TH: One thing I’ve been interested in is how you get people to communicate with you from the outside world without breaking presence. If something important happens and you need to interrupt them, do you tap someone on the shoulder when they’re in VR when they don’t know you’re there…
CF: It would scare the shit out of them, yeah.
TH: With the new Chaperone system, you could have a pop-up notification that says someone needs your attention. You simply double-click on the button to enter the new Chaperone mode, and you can have a conversation with them without taking the headset off.
CF: All of this -- if you take a step back -- all of this is about presence. So we [Valve] had, back in 2013, room-scale VR, but if you were by yourself doing it, you were doing this all the time [makes motion of lifting up HMD] and checking for walls. You had no Chaperone system. The first thing we thought was that “We need something to keep us safe.” And the first thing everyone says is, “That’s going to break me out of presence -- that’s going to make me feel [outside of VR],” but no, it’s giving you that safety net.
So you think, “I can do anything, because if I see anything come up, I can see that, and I can feel safe.” And now, you can do the thing where you use the control [to activate the new Chaperone] and see, “Oh that’s my desk down there, I can do this, and I’m safe,” and it lets you feel safe, because your brain can only juggle so many things at a time.
TH: Yeah, subconsciously [your brain] feels free…
CF: Yeah, until you start using it for a while, you just don’t understand how much it frees your brain to just be in the moment and not worry about these other things. And we don’t like to do VR this way [the way the demos were set up at CES], not because we don’t think you can’t do it in an open room, it’s that we think having your time alone [in an enclosed space] lets you not have to think “Am I leaving my mouth open and is someone taking my picture? Am I looking weird?”
You do that [demo in a closed space] because you want to limit the things that people are worrying about and thinking about.
TH: Does Valve think VR enthusiasts are going to have to buy a new HMD every year? Is that going to be what you need to do [to keep up with the tech]?
CF: We didn’t ship today, even though we have these new systems, because we want to make sure that you have the complete solution. Because what we dreamed up back in 2013, of you being in real VR, in the sense of what we saw on the Holodeck, that you’re in a volume, and its contents are all around you and you’re interacting with it...
All of that was our dream of virtual reality, and people talk about the competition -- our competition is not delivering that. So we’ve been waiting to deliver that [vision]. This April, people are going to be able to get that, and it’s going to be the full thing that we’ve been shooting for: It’s a full system, [and] they’re going to have everything they need. Nothing they have to add on to that, nothing they need to replace.
The crazy thing is that our original “negative one” prototype HMD is compatible with the current Vive systems [controls, content]. That the old hardware is still relevant is important to us.
TH: How did you go from Old Man Murray, to writing some of Valve’s most iconic games, including one of the funniest and popular games of all time [Portal], to being such a passionate evangelist for VR?
CF: I don’t know about the other stuff, I got lucky! [laughs] I used to give someone a ride home from work that worked on the [Valve] VR team. I gave them crap for working on VR because I thought VR – I didn’t think it was stupid, but I thought where we were just wasn’t there yet.
And they were [like], “Hey, we got this demo loop down," (this is end of 2013), "why don’t you come down and see it,” and in the third room, you go in the demo, there’s these white spires. Programmer art. Ugly. Bad. And I just stopped. And I’m like, “This is it.”
I wanted to create worlds like this, and bring people to these worlds, because I am in this bad program art world more than I’ve been in any game world I’ve ever been in in my life. I am here in a way I’ve never been anywhere else anytime in my life.
TH: The first time I tried Aperture Science [Vive demo] at MWC, I cried, because I’m a longtime gamer, and the very moment I stepped into that space, I was there. I could have never imagined that, even ten years ago, that could ever happen to me.
CF: You are the second who's -- two people who have cried. Two!
TH: Tears in my eyes. I was blown away.
CF: [After the first demo], I joined the team then, it’s just been incredible. To work with all these different developers and see all this content...we have this upcoming Content Showcase [at Valve], and I can’t wait to start sharing some of that, because when I go home, that’s what I play.
TH: It’s so exciting for developers now. The games industry was stagnating, [but] with VR, they’ve been freed to explore new things.
CF: And the really great thing was the community around that, right? They all talk, they all interact. Like, if someone is working in locomotion, you can send them to Denny [Unger] from Cloudhead Games, and he’ll talk with them and tell them everything he’s learned. And they’ll go, “Oh, I tried doing this here,” and they’ll have feedback, and they’ll work together. It’s really great that way.
TH: I’m part of the Toronto VR community. There’s a bunch of developers down there, and I know a lot of people, it’s like we’re all part of a VR “happening.”
CF: I think it is! I think it’s that crazy thing of -- like I said, I was first dismissing this round of VR, [and] then you have that experience…the crazy thing is, if you go back to two years ago, to the SteamDev days (next week would be the anniversary), if you look back at everyone that got a demo during those first few days, it was the first time we showed a lot of people room-scale VR demos. You can trace those people...they’ve started the VR club, they’ve started the VR evangelists in their company, or they’ve started a VR company.
It’s just incredible, and it’s fun to see with developers I’ve known for years, I see more excitement right now than I’ve ever seen. It’s partially like that dream I’ve had in my head, where I’m taking someone to this place, and there’s no hand waving [makes gesture that indicates that the place isn’t as real as promised], and now, I’m taking you to that place. I’m putting your ass in the middle of it.
Alex Davies is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware and Tom's IT Pro, covering Smartphones, Tablets, and Virtual Reality. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow Tom's Hardware on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.