One of the barriers to VR adoption among the public is access for hardware vendors. Often, getting into something like the Oculus VR or Microsoft Hololens programs costs money and resources that hardware developers might not have, and if you just want to jerry-rig a contraption to see if your perpheral prototypes will work you probably don’t want to spend the moolah to get a development kit. That’s why Valve recently announced that they’ll be giving anyone access to the SteamVR API and making public documentation about its tracking technology, so that anyone can build and test hardware for a head-mounted display like the HTC Vive that will have built-in SteamVR support. Not to be confused with the OpenVR initiative, SteamVR is a closed-source API for now, so the only thing that’s really free is the SDK software and access to the developer’s documentation about how SteamVR works.
Part of the free licensing deal by Valve is also access to the tracking technology that they developed in conjunction with HTC for the Vive headset. This could mean that anyone could make a peripheral that works with the rest of the Vive peripherals, or alternatively anyone can make their own HMD that has native support for SteamVR, with the same level of tracking capability as the Vive. For Valve, this is an important step towards preserving the user experience – while HMDs may differ in terms of display technology and visual fidelity, the important thing is that every peripheral works in a standard framework and does its job properly.
“We believe that the largest value for our customers and for Valve will come from allowing SteamVR Tracking to proliferate as widely as possible,” stated Valve’s Joe Ludwig in a FAQ posted on the Steam VR community. “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.”
“All SteamVR devices and hardware components will become cheaper if more of them get made,” added Ludwig.
Valve’s plan is to use the tracking technology in use on the Vive to enable tracking on all future peripherals. Since this is done using infrared sensors, the tech is very low-cost and quite cheap, but there are limitations to it. Chiefly, bandwidth over the wireless interface is very limited, so future peripherals that may need extra functionality, like a light gun that includes switches and triggers for different things in-game, or a removable clip for reloading action, may not have full functionality on old base stations. Valve wants to work out those issues now, instead of address them when they suddenly pop up, possibly threatening the fragile ecosystem they’ve managed to build up to this point.
It’s an interesting decision, and is very similar to a decision made by Tesla Motors in 2014 to freely license out their previously proprietary battery technology as well as several key patents to interested stakeholders in the electric car industry. Valve’s intention is quite similar, but not the same – they want anyone and everyone to make SteamVR peripherals and they even list where you can buy the infrared sensors for your products or prototypes. With time, not only will the barriers of entry be low, there’s also the chance that the SteamVR API and the rest of the OpenVR initiative goes completely open-source.
If you want to make SteamVR-compatible products today, there’s even a hands-on course that you can take that is offered by Valve in partnership with Synaptics. Unfortunately, not only does it currently cost $3000, it also requires you to fly to Seattle to attend the course inside Valve’s offices. Perhaps that’s why they’ve recently bought new office space – all that room-scale hotness happening in the VR world wasn’t going to work with their old offices!