For Make: Magazine volume 52 (available late July), I got to go to a place I had dreamt of for many years; Valve Software. If you’re not a video gamer, that name might not mean much. If you are, then you’re probably cursing at your screen right now out of jealousy.
Valve is a unique and wonderful creature. They consistently put out amazing games and push the boundaries of how gamers interact. Not only do people play the games, but there are entire ecosystems in place where gamers can create, sell, and buy digital goods around those games. For some, these ecosystems are more lucrative than their day jobs.
While I was marginally let down by the fact that Valve does truly exist as an office building, and not some other imaginary science fiction based facility, I was quickly reinvigorated by glimpses at top secret prototypes.
The magazine articles always feel criminally short since there’s only so much space on the paper. I felt like we needed a ridiculously long gallery to satiate the curiosity of our readers.
Before I get started, I want to say a special thanks to the folks at Valve who took time to talk with us. Valve doesn’t use titles, so just know these folks make awesome stuff.
- Alan Yates
- Christen Coomer
- Monty Goodson
- Scott Dalton
- Jeremy Selan
- Phil King
- Yasser Malaika
There were a few more folks who stopped by from time to time and shared some anecdotes, but I didn’t capture all their names.
I also want to thank two of our internal crew who helped make this happen:
- Tyler Winegarner, who made this beautiful video
- Hep Svadja, who took these fantastic pictures
Yes, Valve has normal offices. They have normal walls, normal fluorescent lights, normal windows, normal carpet, etc. I know, it would be cool if it were some kind of lair like a villain from James Bond might have, but it just isn’t.
As you’ll see below, there are plenty of cool things to look at anyway.
This was probably my favorite part of the facilities. These markers were what were used in the initial VR prototypes for motion tracking. They’re called fiducial markers and they’re more or less randomly generated before being printed and taped to the wall. A camera on your headset (or whatever needs to be tracked) sees these on the walls and uses them to determine its own position. It is how Valve did their first VR rooms that allowed you to walk around.
As employees looked at these, they began to see shapes in them, and labelled them as such. These touches of human interaction are so wonderful and I couldn’t help but smile ear to ear as I read them. My favorite was “ghost + trashcan fire”
The funniest part is, these little names will probably ensure that the fiducial markers stay on the walls even though the systems have moved beyond that technology.
Random Hardware Hacking
Before Valve settled into the product path of the HTC Vive, they were exploring other random facets of AR and VR. Here are some examples of random prototypes as well as some custom tools that were created along the way.
My favorite prototype was this gnarly contraption called “The Susan”. That is a gaming monitor that has been disassembled and mounted to a lazy susan so that you can grab a handle with your teeth and rotate the entire assembly. Pieces were missing from this, but Alan Yates graciously agreed to model it for us.
This is the prototype headset that used the fiducial trackers you saw above. Note the little camera mounted on it. You can also clearly see that it utilizes two screens in portrait mode.
This controller design looked really cool. It turns out that these sensors were all initially placed by hand by Yasser Malaika, guessing where they should go. Later they created an algorithm for optimal placement and found that this prototype was surprisingly well placed for being a guess. This design, while neat looking, was dropped for the current style.
Update: Yasser clarified this point for me a bit.
At the time I did have software made by Gordon Stoll that simulated and evaluated my CAD designs as I iterated, so it wasn’t completely manual. Would have taken forever otherwise… It didn’t take occlusion into account, but it gave use a sense of which design directions might work better than others.
It was only much later, as we were doing the final design with HTC, that we started using the automated sensor placement utility that Ben Jackson created for that purpose.
Lighthouse Base Stations
The lighthouse base station sends a fanned-out laser beam across your room over and over. The best way to do this is with a rotating system. This prototype uses a pair of hard drives sawed in half. Hard drive motors are very reliable for long term spinning, and a convenient item to prototype with.
I may look deep in thought, and I sort of am. I was wondering if some Valve employee has to periodically grease the bearing in the prop to keep it spinning smoothly.