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Playing games on a 19-foot TV, climbing mountains and shooting bows

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Virtual Reality was the major topic of last week's Game Developers Conference with roughly 100 games and "experiences" on show for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR.

But the one I found most compelling was the most mundane creation for Vive: The SteamVR Desktop Theater Mode.

Slip on the black plastic headset and instead of dropping into a fantastical world of mouthy orbs, atop a mountain with a robot dog or inside a game, I found myself sitting in a chair in a fairly non-descript room facing a big television screen.

To be specific, in this case big means about 19 feet.

To give me a sense of what the early beta of what SteamVR Desktop Theater Mode can do, a Valve employee loaded up a copy of Broforce from the Steam library.

Despite the (virtual) size of the screen, the game looked amazing, just like it does on my home computer running a GTX 980 TI. Because I was in a virtual room sitting in a virtual chair staring at a virtual screen, I could behave as if I was playing on a massive screen. That meant looking around, focusing on whatever I wanted, even moving my chair back a bit if I felt too close.

My time playing a game within an experience was limited, but I quickly forgot I wasn't in an empty room playing on a giant television. The floor, which seemed to be highly polished, lit up with a light reflection of the game playing on the television. It was surreal.

The concept behind the mode is to allow users to play non-VR games within VR systems like the upcoming HTC Vive. While the room is fairly generic right now, I was told that it's very likely that new takes on the room could be released. The system will support "most" games I was told.

While visiting Valve's booth at the show, I also got a chance to check out the company's latest version of The Lab. The Lab starts you off in a big room filled with all sorts of momentos. Imagine a museum created by a game developer. Each of the dozen displays feature floating globules of water. By picking one up, you can gaze into it and if you like what you saw you just dunk your head in and you are there.

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My first visit took me to an experience that Valve refers to as a postcard.

This postcard was created by a Valve employee that took a bunch of pictures from the top of Washington State's Vesper Peak. The team used photogrammetry to recreate the mountain top in VR. I was able to teleport short distances to different spots on the peak and look around at my surroundings. It was stunning. The devs also dropped a little robot dog into the setting, giving me something to play with if I was up for tossing the sticks scattered around the peak.

In the next experience, I tried out a game called Slingshot, which placed me inside some secret factory in Portal calibrating robot personality cores. The cores, it turns out, are all ball shaped and calibrating them involved launching them with a giant slingshot across the mammoth factory and into teetering towers of explosive barrels and stacks of crates. Each core also has a personality and chatters on a bit as you set about finding a target. The variety of bots and dialogue absolutely made the game. My favorite of the personality cores was the spider core which promised to release spiders upon activation. I shot that one pretty quickly.

Next was a game called Longbow, which had me fending off an army of flat enemies from the walls of a castle with a boy. Despite being fairly straightforward, the sensation of nocking an arrow, drawing and loosing it on an enemy felt so physical that I found this one of my favorite experiences.

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Finally, I tried a 3D shoot-em-up called Xortex. The game has you holding a spaceship in your hand and moving it around to avoid the increasingly thick cloud of fire coming at you from basically everywhere. The entire game takes place inside a sort of big virtual sphere. You fire by pulling the controller's trigger. Because Xortex is played in a 3D space, I found myself spinning around and swooping up, down, forward and back as I played the game. Initially, without even thinking about it, I was actually trying to avoid the incoming fire with the ship and my body. But after realizing that wasn't necessary (and how stupid I must look), I focused on maneuvering the ship.

Xortex has the sort of pick-up-and-play, hard-to-put-down feel of Geometry Wars or, really, any good SHMUP.

With just a third of the dozen experiences sampled, I'm sure that this freebie for the Vive is going to be one of the system's first early hits. Paired up with a program that gives you access to most of your purchased Steam games on an unusually large television screen, these certainly aren't programs that will drive sales, but they could make dropping $800 on a computer peripheral a bit easier to excuse.

VALVE AND HTC'S VIVE STAND AT THE PRECIPICE OF VR'S FUTURE, BUT THEY MAY HAVE A LONG WAIT