When contemporary virtual reality headsets first started gaining momentum a few years ago, a whole gaggle of people thrilled at the idea of playing an immersive open-world game like Skyrim with the technology. (I was one of them.) And now, kinda sorta, that's going to be possible.
Saturday Valve announced an upcoming beta test for its SteamVR Desktop Theater Mode, which apparently lets players play every game from Valve's massive existing game library on Steam through any virtual reality headset that supports SteamVR.
The catch? It'll all take place on a huge display within the virtual reality interface, sort of like watching a movie in a movie theater. In contrast to the standing-oriented "room-scale" mode Valve's own HTC Vive headset is designed around, the desktop theater seems built around SteamVR's seating mode—meaning, you'll be back to hoarding calories in a chair with a gamepad or mouse in your hands. Presumably, to continue our Skyrim fiction, that means no whipping our heads around while battling a Viking zombie to spout hearty insults at a charging bear.
We currently have no idea what the interface even looks like. That'll have to wait until Valve shows it off at GDC 2016 this week. But it's possible to make some guesses, based on similar technology that's been developed by third parties for both the Oculus Rift and the Vive.
A latest trailer for Virtual Desktop, a similar technology to what Valve seems to be on the verge or revealing.
Take Virtual Desktop, which presents such visual wonders as a curved screen floating in the user's line of sight or the recreation of an entire movie theater where a film plays flatly on a virtual screen. Appropriately enough, there's even a game being played through the recreation of a vintage arcade cabinet. There's also Oculus Cinema, which pulls off a similar effect to Virtual Desktop's theater. The big difference is that Valve's theater will be built into the SteamVR operating system itself, and Valve being Valve, it's possible they could treat us to something that's far more stunning than any of the aforementioned examples.
So why can't we just jump into a 3D game like Skyrim with the constrictions of a screen removed, even if we just play it without the depth virtual reality brings? Leaving aside technical hurdles like appropriate resolution, the answer springs from design of such games—the way they grab the camera at certain points and force you to look in a certain direction when your body wants otherwise. Translated into virtual reality, I know from experience that'll spark motion sickness in seconds. Things like cutscenes also complicate matters as their similar forced direction also tends to induce nausea.
Xbox's Major Nelson shows how to switch between 2D and 3D with the Oculus Rift.
Even then, there's the question of whether a massive screen floating in front of your face will complicate the peripheral aspects of traditional onscreen gaming, such as reading menus or keeping track of health bars.
The good news is that it isn't impossible, as long as the game's developer is ready to make the port to virtual reality themselves. The potential of such technology was recently showcased at an Xbox event in San Francisco, where users of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset could play Minecraft either on a 2D screen in a virtual theater (complete with Minecrafty floor tiles) or by jumping in and playing as though they were actually moving around in the world. Minecraft even solved the health bar problem by making it stay within your line of sight as you move around, demonstrating that this kind of thing isn't too difficult with a little work. Get Bethesda Softworks in on similar action, and boom, we have our virtual reality Skyrim.
But these are all dreams and wishes. We'll have to wait until Valve shows off the technology to see what it really has in store, and hopefully it'll live up to the promise. If it pulls it something special, it should be a massively compelling reason to pick up one of the pricey headsets.
If nothing else, hey, it's probably a good alternative to buying a wall-hogging TV or monitor.