Valve's 'Sea of Cubes,' and the challenges of working with augmented reality

Valve Software’s experiments with virtual reality, most recently exposed as a “VR Mode” of its popular free-to-play shooter Team Fortress 2, are actually just an offshoot of the company’s longer-term goal: augmented reality. The dozens of AR markers plastered to the three walls of Valve programmer Joe Ludwig’s shared office are testament to that (seen above). “We’re mostly looking at a software level. We’ve talked to a bunch of different display vendors on the augmented reality side, and none of them are quite ready to go yet,” Ludwig says when we prod him for more on Valve’s AR efforts. One thing’s for sure: we didn’t spot any Google Glasses on-site, nor products from other companies producing wearable computers, not to mention in-house glasses.

“We’ve done some gameplay prototypes,” he says. “We’ve done some test pattern type stuff. But that’s basically it. There’s an application that we call ‘Sea of Cubes’ that fills the room you’re in with cubes just to basically test a bunch of different tracking methods and displays.” Thus far, though, Valve isn’t much deeper than that. A variety of different cameras mounted on tripods can be seen throughout Ludwig’s office. A $30,000 3D camera, which looks an awful lot like a giant Microsoft Kinect, sits in one corner. Ludwig tells us it can pinpoint specific objects with incredible accuracy, though he wouldn’t share much more. It’s not clear what all of this means for Valve’s AR work, but it’s clearly still a work-in-progress. Indeed, when the company first started talking wearable computing, Valve’s Michael Abrash called it “more research than development.” So, what fruit has come of that research since last April?

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