Valve's astounding SteamVR solves big problems - and poses bigger questions
J Thoendell stashed this in Oculus
Valve saved its own show-stopping demo for last. Set in Portal's Aperture labs, and created in the new Source 2 engine, it's a hilarious and visually astonishing vignette that casts you as a human test subject of Aperture's implacably mad robot intelligences. It starts from a point of tangible realism - you're opening drawers and pulling levers in a small, sterile box room - and then employs a sequence of startling and delightful Gulliver-like tricks of scale to show off the spatial and emotional range of VR.
One drawer contains a society of tiny stick-men who scatter in panic at your presence; behind a wall you find one of Portal 2's co-op robots which staggers brokenly into the room. It's full-scale, as tall as you, and the sense of its physical presence next to you is utterly remarkable. When the walls fall away to reveal the vanishing-point enormity of the Aperture installation above, around and - sickeningly - below you, it's hair-raising. When GLaDOS' armature rears over you to dispense her trademark withering sarcasm, it's absolutely terrifying. The feeling of vulnerability engendered by this familiar, huge antagonist dominating my personal space is not something I will forget in a hurry. If you're looking for the value of VR as a storytelling medium, it's in the emotional impact and overwhelming physical presence of this demo.
What John Carmack showed me three years ago was an exciting new technology mapped, exhilaratingly if awkwardly, onto video games as we know them. What Valve showed me this week was a big leap forward in that technology alongside a series of tentative baby steps into a whole new kind of gaming.
As Rich pointed out in his piece, SteamVR sets even bigger challenges for game designers than the already considerable ones posed by fixed-point VR. But it's already clear from these demos that it might provoke more innovative and radical responses that are more willing to leave gaming as we know it behind. I have no doubt that the cutting edge of VR development will all take place on Valve's system - at least until its rivals offer the same freedom of movement to players.
Back in the real world, the practical challenges are great, too - not least in persuading players to clear enough space in their homes to use this device properly, and the potential for social stigma to attach to the goofy-looking headsets and the players' withdrawal into entirely private experiences. I still think that these present major obstacles to the widespread adoption of VR, which even more practical and commercially realistic offerings like Morpheus will struggle against.
But having tried SteamVR, I now get why Faliszek - himself a former VR sceptic - eventually rolled his desk over to join Valve's VR team. Over the next few years, this is where intrepid engineers and artists will get to grapple with big questions of design and technology, of psychology, even of philosophy. This is the new frontier.
In the three years since John Carmack showed that demo he joined Oculus as CTO.
He's going to keep pushing the limits.