Valve knew it needed to make a splash with its first entry into the virtual reality category, and based on the rumblings about the HTC Vive at GDC this year, it has succeeded in doing exactly that.
The final version of the hardware will offer two base stations, allowing you to walk around a 15-foot-by-15-foot room. The two controllers will be wireless, and the cumbersome belt we used during our demo will be removed.
That being said, we're still talking about a virtual reality system that comes with five pieces of equipment, and Valve demonstrated it using demos that require a large amount of space, showing off graphics that will require a high-end PC. This is VR for people who really care about VR.
This aggressive courting of the hardcore market is a very different strategy from companies like Oculus or Sony, who seem to be focusing on seated experiences, or demos where you stand in one place and merely look around or move up and down. That is how most people will interface with virtual reality: while sitting or standing near a desk, in front of a standard computer.
Why do anything halfway?
The HTC Vive is a virtual reality platform that's shooting for the moon. It will likely be expensive, or at least more expensive than its competitors. Even if you're not walking around, you're waving your arms in 3D space with the controllers, and that's going to require a decent-sized area that's clear of obstruction.
You'll need to attach the base stations to the ceiling or put them in corners, which could be something of a hard sell for moderate fans of the technology.
This is just the opening salvo for Valve. "You should think of the Vive as the first in the same way there are multiple Steam Machines," Valve president Gabe Newell told Engadget.
"We're building tools and hopefully they're valuable to hardware partners who want to do it. In some cases, we'll take the leadership role in shipping stuff. But we're really just building tools for other people to continue. So you'll see more headsets."
Everyone who walks out of the demo does so with a smile on their face
There will likely be headsets that aim for the mainstream that are also powered by Valve's SteamVR platform, but it's worth applauding the fact that these first demos don't bother at all appealing to a mainstream audience that wants something simple and easy to set up.
This is the hardware configuration for someone who wants to pay for the very best, and has an entire room's worth of free space in their house. Everyone who walks out of the demo does so with a smile on their face, and that love of virtual reality will create evangelists for the technology, even if people end up purchasing less intricate systems for their homes.
Valve likely doesn't care that much who "wins" the virtual reality game, as long as people buy games from Steam. Hell, you can already buy Oculus-ready content on the service.
What Valve is doing at GDC is attaching its name to the best consumer-aimed virtual reality hardware, and riding the ensuing enthusiasm into a thousand headlines and piles of good PR. Valve and HTC have a demo that's magical, and it will make people believe in VR. If this particular product doesn't take off, who cares?
Valve can power something else.