Virtual reality

Science fiction has promised the world a gaming experience that feels like the real world for decades. Whether it’s the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation or the full-body suit and headset of 1992 film The Lawnmower Man, we’ve constantly considered the implications of a digital representation of reality.

Valve thinks we’re only about a year away from virtual reality for consumers.

Valve's Michael Abrash showing off his prototype virtual-reality headset.

Above: Valve’s Michael Abrash showing off his prototype virtual-reality headset.

Back at the Steam Dev Days conference in January, Valve’s VR visionary Michael Abrash held a talk called “What VR Could, Should, and Almost Certainly Will Be Within Two Years.” He detailed the challenges that the technology faces while also speaking on the potential for the medium.

“A great VR system at a consumer price in 2015 is more than just possible — it’s sitting there waiting to happen,” Abrash said. “And it will happen. If not in 2015, then soon after. Virtual reality on the PC over the next few years may be as exciting as anything that’s ever happened in games.”

Abrash built Valve’s own prototype, but the company currently isn’t planning on releasing its own product to consumers. Instead, it shared what it has learned with other companies working in the space. That includes Oculus VR, the technology startup that seems the closest to releasing a consumer VR headset within the next 12 months.

Valve’s interest in VR is another one of its forward-looking prospects. The company thinks this tech has the potential to change the relationship between people and media, and it wants to take part.

“Not only could VR rapidly evolve into a major platform, but it could actually tip the balance of the entire industry from traditional media toward computer entertainment,” said Abrash.

Basically, once your grandma can visit a digital re-creation of her childhood neighborhood, she’s not gonna have much use for reruns of NCIS anymore.

SteamOS and Steam Machines

“The PC is successful because we’re all benefiting from the competition with each other,” Newell said at an event in Las Vegas, where he introduced the Steam Machines to the press. “If Twitter comes along, our games benefit. If Nvidia makes better graphics technology, all the games are going to shine. If we come out with a better game, people are going to buy more PCs. That has been the engine of [PC’s] growth.”

Valve’s CEO believes in the openness of the PC platform. Anyone can make software for the PC. You don’t need to get permission from Apple. You don’t need to give Google its cut. It’s survival of the fittest. Newell’s dedication to that openness was the impetus behind the creation of SteamOS and Steam Machines.

Valve's SteamOS logo. It's coming to your living rooms "soon."

Above: Valve’s SteamOS logo. It’s coming to your living rooms “soon.”

Image Credit: Valve

You see, Newell believes that the PC’s openness is in danger, and he thinks the best way to counter this is by expanding the platform to the living room.

“A couple of years ago, we started to get pretty worried that maybe that openness was going to be challenged — that there was success in proprietary platforms in living rooms and in mobile, and that was going to cause the entire industry to step away from the opportunity of openness,” he said last month.

Newell’s concerns are directed at Microsoft. Back in July 2012, Newell called the newest Windows operating system at the time (Windows 8) a “catastrophe for everybody in the PC space.” He thinks that Microsoft may attempt to close its grip on the distribution of software on PC through its Windows Store, which would make the platform more like Apple’s iOS walled garden.

“If that’s true, it’s going to be a good idea to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality,” Newell said.

Back in Las Vegas, before the International CES last month, Newell showed off how Valve is hedging.

“[We asked ourselves] what can we do,” he said. “We picked three things to look at.”

They didn’t just look. Valve is building an operating system, an open console platform, and a new input device — also known as SteamOS, Steam Machines, and Steam Controller.

These devices solve a few issues. First, they cut Microsoft’s Windows out of the equation. Second, Valve is building the SteamOS software to work with televisions and a controller. Third, it is working with hardware partners to offer a variety of form factors that make more sense for the living room than a traditional, office-bound PC.

Together, the OS, the machine, and the controller form what is essentially the first open, PC-based gaming console.

This isn’t without its own issues. SteamOS’s Linux kernel isn’t compatible with most of the Windows games currently on Steam. Valve has a plan to solve that in the short term with local-streaming technology that will enable gamers to play their Windows games on a Linux machine. That adds a layer of complexity that might turn off some, but the real plan is to convince developers to port their games to Linux going forward. That will require significant investments from companies making large games.

In all, Valve and 14 hardware partners showed off a whole line of Steam Machines at CES. Any PC that ships with SteamOS and the Steam controller is essentially one of Valve’s new open set-top boxes, and consumers can actually download SteamOS for free right now and put it on their home PC.

Valve doesn’t care how SteamOS gets out; it just wants it to spread. Of course, nothing guarantees that it will.

As concerned about the openness of the PC as Valve is, this is not necessarily a fear that gamers share. Most are happy with their Windows rigs, and they aren’t ready to deal with compatibility issues to stave off some threat that they don’t perceive as imminent.

Valve knows this. It is going to keep moving forward with the project. It has enough money to support it, and it could prove a wise investment in the long run.

What’s clear is that Valve anticipates consumer trends better than most, and it understands the power that games has over a market. If its plans for the living room, free-to-play, and virtual reality play out as it expects, little could stop Valve from reaching much more than 100 million users. It could also create the first real threat to Windows in the PC space.