Valve hints at a new SteamVR controller, second-gen Lighthouse system for 2017

Kevin Parrish
Digital Trends

During Valve Software’s Steam Dev Days conference in Seattle, the company teased a prototype controller to be used with the SteamVR platform. While not much is known about the peripheral at this point, the company indicated users could pick up and drop virtual objects without physically releasing the controller. The device is presumed to attach to the user’s wrist and reportedly removes the grip buttons seen mounted on the sides of the current HTC Vive controllers.

Unfortunately, the press was not allowed into the conference, so the news arrives by way of attending developers hitting Twitter with screenshots and bits of information. They have actual hands-on access to the controller along with a demo called Call of the Starseed, reporting that it is something close to the new Oculus Touch controller. Users can actually open their hand, thus the presumed wrist-based form factor.

Valve lighting up a new Lighthouse in 2017?

During the first day of the conference, Valve hinted that new Lighthouse base stations will be revealed sometime in 2017. These are what track the movements of HTC’s current Vive headset and controllers for VR, the former of which is covered in 37 sensors. These Lighthouses contain an array of LEDs that flash non-visible light up to 60 times per second, which is captured by the sensors. These Lighthouses also have a laser that helps determine where and when the sensors were in physical space.

Although this tech is used with the HTC Vive, Valve Software began open-licensing the Lighthouse system to third-party hardware developers during the summer. Naturally, the catch was that VR headset makers must build their platform using SteamVR for access to a royalty-free license. According to Valve, the removal of licensing fees means the Lighthouse tracking system will “proliferate as widely as possible.”

Steam VR
Steam VR

Steam VR

“The existence of more SteamVR-compatible devices will make the SteamVR community more valuable for customers and developers. Having a wide community of hardware developers pushing the platform forward will result in innovations that we Valve would never think of or pursue on our own,” the company explains in a FAQ. “Also, all SteamVR devices and hardware components will become cheaper if more of them get made.”

Related: Let’s all go to the lobby: Update of VR app takes you to new locale in Valve HQ

The company stated that more than 300 partners have already jumped on the Lighthouse positional tracking bandwagon. One attendee added that the company wants this system to be as “ubiquitous as Wi-Fi,” meaning Valve wants to make its SteamVR/Lighthouse “OpenVR” initiative a standard in home-based VR experiences. That said, the company reportedly is working on an OpenVR-based software development kit and API that works on third-party distribution platforms as well as Steam.

Valve talks SteamVR numbers

Adding to the second-generation Lighthouse hint, Valve Software shared the latest SteamVR statistics. The company said that the online store now serves up more than 600 titles dedicated to virtual reality, which are supported by the HTC Vive and Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset. Even more, Valve is experiencing 1,000 new registered VR users each day. That number will undoubtedly increase significantly once the SteamVR-compatible headset hits the market.

While that 1,000-per-day registration number may sound like a lot of hogwash, Steam Gauge was used in May to determine the number of HTC Vive headsets that accessed Steam one month after its launch. According to the numbers, up to 30,000 units loaded up VR games on the Steam platform along with up to 15,000 developer kit units that are still in use. The kit originally came with codes for free games on Steam, throwing off the original estimate and inflating it to 45,000 to 60,000 units.

Valve talks OSX, Linux, and the state of SteamOS

On the software front, Valve plans to reveal first-party VR content in 2017. This may or may not be tied into the hinted second-generation Lighthouse system launch, but Valve Product Designer Greg Coomer teased that customers will not be disappointed when the software actually does arrive. Could that indicate Valve may be brewing up Half-Life 3 with support for SteamVR? That is totally possible and would fit the bill of Valve wanting the third installment to raise the bar of PC gaming.

htc-vive-steam-vr-virtual-reality-augmented-reality-ar-vr
htc-vive-steam-vr-virtual-reality-augmented-reality-ar-vr

Another software tease arrived by way of what Valve calls Asynchronous Reprojection. This may be similar to the Asynchronous Spacewarp technology Oculus VR added to the Rift headset. Because VR needs to generate 90 frames per second to keep viewers from feeling motion sickness, the running software needs to provide the same output. Thus, if a game generates 45 frames per second, then Asynchronous Spacewarp will fill in the gaps necessary for a 90-frames-per-second experience.

Finally, the software aspect wraps up with new support for OSX and Linux in SteamVR, and a screenshot of the SteamVR interface on Linux. The company also revealed that SteamVR runs on Linux using the new open-source Vulkan graphics API, meaning Valve’s own SteamOS platform for Steam Machines supports the API as well.

Shooting for the wireless, tether-free VR experience

Of course, we cannot complete the day without some kind of investment announcement. A Texas-based company called Nitero is currently working on a 60GHz wireless solution for virtual reality and augmented reality. This is important Steam-related news because Valve Software made a significant investment in the company and will likely use the technology in the future to provide a tether-free VR experience.

The Nitero website does not say much about its wirelessVR technology, only that it enables high bandwidth, low latency, and high fidelity. The technology reportedly comprises of two key components: the 60GHz transmitter that uses customized beam-forming technology and a special encoder to push all image data to the headset latency-free. Sven Mesecke, Nitero’s Co-Founder and Vice President, describes it as a “robust, low-latency solution that has been crafted for VR.”

Does Valve’s involvement mean Nitero’s wireless technology will arrive a bit sooner? According to Nitero, more information will be revealed at a later date. It is billed as a “current and next-gen solution” that has our “bandwidth and latency requirements [for wireless VR] covered.”

And then there is this tidbit…

A few more things popped up as we wrapped up the Day One roundup. First, Valve said that the company is adding support for all popular game controllers to the Steam API. Second, PC gamers will not have to purchase a Steam Link set-top-box to stream their installed Steam favorites to the living room TV. The company said Steam Link will be integrated into new HDTVs provided by Samsung. Of course, if you are not shopping for a new HDTV, then the Steam Link box is a great, affordable addition.

Is that it for for Wednesday? We think so. Be sure to hit this link to follow the events rolling out of the developer conference via Twitter and the #SteamDevDays hashtag.