Every major virtual reality platform has its pros and cons at this point, but one of SteamVR’s clear leads is space. Right now, owners of the HTC Vive can set up two of its infrared-powered “base stations” and move, dance, shoot, sculpt, and adventure around a maximum of 132 square feet—assuming you have that much to spare in your den or basement, anyway.
But as more commercial groups (from arcades to industrial design firms) bite on VR’s most extreme use possibilities, Steam’s VR design side has clearly been working to give them more extreme floor space to work with. On Tuesday, the company hinted at an eventual SteamVR 2.0 product by announcing quite a leap in scope: nearly 10 times the square footage.
The catch is that the entire SteamVR pipeline must be upgraded to take advantage of this jump, including new “SteamVR Tracking 2.0” base stations that will begin rolling out to developers at the start of 2018. Developers will need to test these tracking boxes with head-mounted displays (HMDs) that are compatible with the new trackers’ standard, dubbed TS4321—meaning, not the HTC Vive currently on store shelves. These tracking boxes work the same as the original infrared-crazy base stations, and they add support for “modulated light carrier input.”
The new base station protocol will only support two tracking boxes at first (just like the HTC Vive), but Valve promises that they’ll receive an update in “early 2018” to support two more tracking boxes to grow the total tracking range to 10 meters squared, or 32.8 feet squared (1,075 square feet). That’s quite the jump from SteamVR’s current max of 11.5 feet squared—and it could mean a revolution for industrial and entertainment VR applications, should people have the warehouse or retail space to take advantage. How long those boosts will take to reach average consumers is still unclear at this point.
Valve has been pretty busy with VR this week, in fact. It took the wraps off a new licensing plan on Monday to begin selling custom-built VR headset lenses to any company wanting to produce its own headsets.
Part of its statement hinted at one way VR headsets could get a lot cheaper very quickly: switching from OLED panels to LED ones. Valve is now publicly confident that LED panels have caught up to OLED technology in the ways that are crucial for VR performance and comfort, though clearly, they’re more interested in letting other, more experienced companies produce those specialized parts. With the exception of its own custom-made lenses, Valve’s end of the SteamVR chain remains associated largely with licensing its SteamVR tracking technologies to interested companies. Valve certainly wants more companies in the SteamVR space to bring costs down (not to mention reducing the dangers of linking too closely to one troubled company).
It’s not surprising to see Valve show up with VR news this week, considering Oculus has its own major conference taking place in San Jose, California, this Wednesday and Thursday. Ars Technica will be on hand at Oculus Connect 4 to report on any developments Oculus (and likely Facebook) have in store to combat Valve’s obvious push for the second SteamVR generation.