Valve Tests "Left 4 Dead Goggles"
September 10, 2012 11:34 AM
It's the 1990s and virtual reality all over again
Valve Corp., the famous game maker who brought the world the popular franchises
Left 4 Dead
, made waves last week when it posted a job listing seeking hardware developers to
help it design first-party hardware
. That led to fervent speculation -- was Valve designing a gaming console? Was it making a "brain controller"?
I. Valve, the Hyper-Google
The New York Times
may answer some of those questions, as well as provide a bit of insight into Valve.
Founded by ex-Microsoft Corp. (
) employees, Valve has no bosses, despite being incorporated. The company's employee manual, obtained by
The New York Times
reads, "We don’t have any management, and nobody ‘reports to’ anybody else."
Valve's free-form atmosphere puts even Google Inc.'s (
) policy of giving employees 20 percent of their time to work on pet projects to shame. At Valve employees make their own way (supposedly) 100 percent of the time.
New employees aren’t even told where to work in the company. Instead, they are expected to decide on their own where they can contribute most. Many desks at Valve are on wheels. After figuring out what they want to do, workers simply push their desks over to the group they want to join.
Valve's Gabe Newell has a tough time letting employees go. [Image Source: Windows 8 Update]
The Seattle-area company zealously retains its employees. Gabe Newell -- who
says is "CEO" of the company, but only by empty formality -- comments, "I get freaked out any time one person leaves. It seems like a bug in the system."
II. Building Gaming Goggles
The report says that Valve has hired Jeri Ellsworth, a self-taught inventor and chip designer, whose early work includes circuits for pinball machines that Valve has in its headquarters’ lobby. To make her prototypes at Valve Ms. Ellsworth employs 3D printers, laser cutters, and other bleeding edge modular manufacturing tools. Comments Ms. Ellsworth, "At one point, I said a hardware lab could be very expensive, it could be like a million dollars. Gabe [Newell] said, 'That's it?'"
Ms. Ellsworth is working on a team led by Michael Abrash -- a former id Software veteran -- to produce augmented reality goggles, somewhat similar to the
Android-powered "Google Goggles"
(officially dubbed "Glass Explorers"). Wearing the Valve goggles, gamers will be transported into the world of the game.
A prototype of Valve's gaming goggles sits in their lab.
[Image Source: Stuart-Isett for The New York Times]
Valve is reportedly still ironing out how it wants to produce the designs -- but it already has working prototypes. According to Mr. Abrash, the goggles will likely first be employed in virtual reality gaming (where the entire scene is animated), then 3 to 5 years down the road will be upgraded to support augmented reality gaming (where game world objects are overlayed on real world settings).
There are both technical and social hurdles to the augmented reality gaming vision. For one thing, someone walking down the street playing
might be a bit dangerous. And then there're technical challenges, like how to popular "glue" faux billboards onto real world buildings to enhance the fantasy.
Thus far all attempts to produce a virtual or augment reality console have failed for the most part. While some smartphone apps are
now offering mild augmented reality
, perhaps the most ambitious virtual or augment reality device was Nintendo Comp., Ltd.'s (
) ill-fated "Virtual Boy", which
as the "#1 video game console flop of all time".
Virtual Boy, the most famous virtual reality console, was a massive commercial flop.
[Image Source: TopTenz]
III. Valve is Drifting Apart From Microsoft
Gabe Newell, in his interview preached radical anti-authoritarianism, saying he would rather dissolve the company than sell it. The report claims that Electronics Arts Inc. (
) was keen to purchase Valve years ago for $1B USD. Valve rebuffed the offers, and according to the report is today worth $2.5B USD.
But Valve has some big concerns ahead. Its
ubiquitous "Steam" digital distribution service
is facing hurdles in Windows 8 -- the biggest of which is Microsoft's decision to offer access to many operating system features only to
apps purchased through Windows Store
. That means apps distributed by services like Steam may be effectively crippled, potentially killing such third-party services.
Valve has grown increasingly critical of Microsoft, and says its games play faster in Linux than Windows.
strongly resents this approach
from his former employer of 13 years (Mr. Newell was among the "Microsoft Millionaires" of the 1990s). In a comment to
he stated, "We would say to Microsoft, we understand all these frustrations about the challenges to your business, but trying to copy Apple will accelerate, not slow, Microsoft’s decline.'"
(But don't worry Windows fans -- despite Valve selling games for Macs, it's
also been a harsh critic
of Apple, Inc.'s (
) similar "walled garden" iOS methodology.)
Incidentally one thing not mentioned in the piece was what operating system the wearable goggles use. Given Valve's anti-Microsoft sentiments of late, it seems likely they're built on Linux. That hypothesis would make sense as Valve recently ported its source codes to also use the open graphics interface OpenGL, instead of just Microsoft's proprietary PC graphics API DirectX. The port allows Valve's software to run on Linux and Apple Mac computers. Valve claims that
Left 4 Dead
running faster on Ubuntu 12.04 Linux
(OpenGL 4.3) than on Windows 7 SP1 (DirectX 11).
Microsoft is also reportedly
considering augmented reality goggles
for use with its upcoming Xbox 720 console.
The New York Times
Valve [Linux > Windows]
"We’re Apple. We don’t wear suits. We don’t even own suits." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs
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