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  (Source: Carolco)
It's the 1990s and virtual reality all over again

Valve Corp., the famous game maker who brought the world the popular franchises Half LifeCounterStrikePortalTeam Fortress, and 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

new report in 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. (MSFT) 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 (GOOG) 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.  The NYT describes:

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 The NYT 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.

Valve Goggles
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 Half Life 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 (TYO:7904) ill-fated "Virtual Boy", which TopTenz lists as the "#1 video game console flop of all time".

Virtual Boy
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. (EA) 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.

Gordon from Half Life
Valve has grown increasingly critical of Microsoft, and says its games play faster in Linux than Windows.

Gabe Newell 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 The NYT 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 (AAPL) 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 2 is 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.

Sources: The New York Times, Valve [Linux > Windows]

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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By TakinYourPoints on 9/10/2012 4:26:16 PM , Rating: 2
Working where you want to work isn't hype, its real and somehow it works.

A friend of mine who works at Valve took me on a tour of the office when I was in the area recently. One of the first things I noticed there is that the hallways are wide. I mean, SUPER wide. The reason: to roll desks around.

As for how no bosses doesn't devolve into chaos, its simple. People gravitate towards projects that they feel they can contribute to and that will impact customers in some way.

The most recent example is DOTA 2. The project started off as just two guys. Over time it ballooned into hiring the original DOTA WC3 mod designers and about 60 people total working on the project. The same thing happened with projects like the Mac and Linux ports, it seemed like a cool project for some employees to do so they just did it. Others agreed and they rolled their desks over.

If a project is cool, it will gain momentum.

There is a hivemind mentality at work there that only seems to be possible by hiring the right people, people who are not just talented but also simultaneously independent (can set personal goals and deadlines) and highly collaborative (can function within this hivemenind setup by actively helping on projects they can contribute to).

Half Life 3 will happen when it happens. It is either being held up in development and Valve isn't ready to announce it, or it is conceivable that enough people at the company aren't interested in working on it at the moment.

RE: Valve
By Bubbacub on 9/10/2012 5:25:45 PM , Rating: 2
i think they must be nearly finished with hl3 - they are probably just waiting for new consoles that arnt running on 2005 tech.

(shame as i would buy a new pc just to play this game if they released it)

RE: Valve
By TakinYourPoints on 9/10/2012 6:36:15 PM , Rating: 2
I think it is that and the game design. The linear on-rails cinematic shooter that Valve pioneered with Half Life and perfected with the sequels has become standard formula now, and it is a tired one.

They added unique mechanics and improved writing/storytelling with Portal and Portal 2. Whatever it is they have cooking for Half Life 3 will go beyond mere tech, that's a given. The game design itself has to be next level or it is pointless to ship, and I'm sure Valve is going to sit on it until they crack whatever innovations the game needs.

Half Life 3 being a mere engine update to the same old on-rails shooter formula is probably the most boring thing Valve can be doing right now. That's 100% what would have happened if they sold the studio to a publisher like EA or Activision, yearly or bi-annual Half Life sequels. Yawn. I love that they've instead shipped Portal 2 and DOTA 2 in the mean time, both amazing games. DOTA 2 is by far my most played game in the last couple years, so excellent.

RE: Valve
By TakinYourPoints on 9/10/2012 8:20:53 PM , Rating: 2
Happened upon this quote in the article:
(But don't worry Windows fans -- despite Valve selling games for Macs, it's also been a harsh critic of Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) similar "walled garden" iOS methodology.)

He may be a critic but he sure as hell likes it. All the times I've seen Gabe he was glued to his iPad, and his main laptop right now is a Macbook Pro.

"If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion." -- Scientology founder L. Ron. Hubbard

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