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Valve's big announcement should get you excited (and terrified) about virtual reality

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We knew Valve would be showing some form of virtual reality something at this year's Game Developers Conference, but a surprise Sunday announcement blew the lid off the device and gave us more than enough details to get excited.

Here are a few reasons this is a very big deal.

The specs are impressive

The device is called the Vive, with a developer edition coming in the spring and a consumer version getting a release within the year. That's already exciting. With both Sony and Oculus refusing to give much in the way of a solid release window for their VR products, knowing companies as large as Valve and HTC have a product that will ship in calendar 2015 is great news. Also, people will be able to buy a VR headset instead of reading about a series of interminable "dev kits" and hands-on demos at events.

The hardware features two 1200-by-1080 pixel resolution displays refreshing at 90 frames per second, which means you'll be given a clear, impressive image with little stutter. It also means you're going to need to own a very powerful PC to run VR games at that resolution and at that framerate. If reports that the display will wrap around your entire field of view are true, that's also an impressive leg up on the Vive's competition. We'll be able to test all this when we go hands-on during GDC this week.

For now, we have a release window and some very promising specs on paper.

This is an active experience

Most VR works best as a sit-down, look around experience, but Valve and HTC are hyping the "Steam VR base stations" that work with the Vive, and with two of these devices you'll be able to walk around and explore a space of 15 feet by 15 feet.

Wherever Valve goes, developers follow

Oculus allowed devs and the press to get up and walk around during Oculus Connect demos of Crescent Bay, their latest prototype, but that was achieved through a wall-mounted camera, a much smaller space, and someone in the room with you to keep you from tripping. Valve is offering an interesting wrinkle with these base stations, but the safety issue is likely be a concern.

That's also assuming you have a place in your house that size that you can clear of all obstructions, but combining that technology with HTC's hand-tracking, wireless controllers and you have a product that seems to have licked some of VR's challenges about interaction and personal space.

There's always a but, right?

Yeah, that's right. It seems like you're talking about a high quality VR headset, a set of wireless, motion-sensing controllers and two base stations for the whole experience. That's likely to be an expensive package, and if you have some players with some, but not all, of that equipment you risk fracturing your user base and games that don't support the technology to its fullest.

This is something we plan on asking more about when we use the technology ourselves. Right now we're reading the reports and getting excited — then looking at the hardware it's going to take to make all this happen, and getting depressed. VR is already a niche thing, at least for now, and requiring multiple pieces of equipment for one platform, along with a large amount of space, will keep it niche.

Valve is the most powerful force in PC gaming

In many ways Valve is PC gaming, Steam commands an overwhelming share of the PC gaming space. Oculus has the Gear VR, sure, but users of that device are still waiting for a functioning store to use to purchase games. Developers are also waiting for that store so they can sell games. Valve doesn't have that problem.

By using Steam to push, promote and sell VR games, Valve has a huge advantage in this space, and pairing with HTC means they have the help of a company that knows a little bit about shipping high-quality physical product.

That's all well and good, but Valve enjoys a friendly, mutually beneficial relationship with the developer community, and there have already been rumblings about smaller developers using the hardware. Those meetings seem to be ending with games going into development.

Here's Team Meat's Tommy Refenes with a cryptic blog post that's likely referencing the Vive:

What I really want to talk about today, I can’t until Wednesday. Basically, on Thursday I went to [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] presented [REDACTED]’s GDC presentation to me. Everything in the presentation was amazing, super forward thinking and will definitely make news headlines next week. But after the presentation I got to [REDACTED] and the only way to describe it is lifechanging. On Wednesday I will expand on this and on the things I realized. Things are about to get crazy I think.

The VR community on the software side is already much stronger than many assume unless they're using existing hardware, but Valve has the kind of connections and knowledge of game development and sales that anyone else on the market would kill for. They have a product that's ready for people to try, a control solution, and technology that allows users to get up and walk around. There's also a launch window, and wherever Valve goes, developers follow.

Virtual reality is now an arms race, with multiple huge, well-funded companies fighting over a market that may or may not even exist. Buckle up.