OPINION

I love VR, but Valve’s potential standalone headset leaves me cold

I love VR, but Valve’s potential standalone headset leaves me cold

Valve continues to work on VR hardware in secret. But if and when a new product will be launched is an entirely different story.

Since Valve Index (2019) and Half-Life: Alyx (2020), it has been quiet around Valve’s VR efforts. No new hardware, no new games: Lately, this has led to SteamVR barely penetrating the consciousness of the VR bubble, let alone that of the gaming public.

So it’s no wonder that VR studios have largely turned away from the PC VR platform. The present and near future belongs to Meta Quest and Playstation VR 2.

Valve’s VR lethargy is clearly reflected in Steam user statistics: SteamVR users account for just 2 percent of the total Steam user base after almost seven years. In other words, PC VR is vanishingly small and, accordingly, is hardly supplied with software. A vicious circle.

Rumors about new VR hardware

It has been rumored for quite some time that Valve could get back into the VR business. Patents, code hints and job postings keep fueling the rumors about new VR hardware.

In September 2021, sources close to the company confirmed that Valve is working on a prototype codenamed Deckard, which hardware analyst and Youtuber Brad Lynch has been tracking for some time. Unlike Valve Index, the device could be standalone, following the trend of mobile VR gaming consoles since Quest 1.

Valve CEO Gabe Newell himself hinted in early 2022 that Valve’s next VR hardware could move toward a VR version of Steam Deck.

“A lot of the technology that we might be using and future versions of that comes, you know, from technology that we have to develop for VR. And then if you flip it [Steam Deck] around and you look at that as like a highly performant mobile PC gaming device, you sort of say, well, why can’t I have that in a tetherless integrated VR solution?” Newell told Eurogamer at the time.

Deckard is just a prototype

There’s no question that something is in the works at Valve. But that’s no surprise and doesn’t necessarily mean that a new VR headset will be released soon.

Valve has invested heavily in virtual reality and doesn’t want to be left behind when it one day maybe reaches a wider audience.

We don’t know the size of the hardware team working on Valve Deckard and other prototypes. At worst, it’s a handful of VR devotees whose projects don’t get much attention outside of the sworn group.

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Anyone familiar with Valve’s unique corporate structure knows that internal projects need collective support and enthusiasm to even get off the ground. And that’s rather doubtful after Valve’s SteamVR fiasco. Attention will turn to the more promising Steam Deck for now.

Even more important than the past is the present and near future. It will be very difficult for Valve to achieve significant success in the VR market.

Meta dominates the standalone headset market. A weighty fact that competitor Bytedance will still cut its teeth on, and one that Valve certainly won’t contest.

Valve is a rich but small company. It is waiting for an opportunity to achieve the greatest possible impact with the least possible effort. Permanent, costly investments in virtual reality, such as Meta is making, mean exactly the opposite and therefore do not fit Valve’s business strategy.

The time has not (yet) come for Valve

Let’s assume that Valve does indeed release a standalone VR headset in 2023 or 2024. What content can we expect for the device? In the best case, a new Valve game; in the worst case, VR classics from 2016 and “Half-Life: Alyx” downgraded to a mobile chipset.

The device will have a hard time because Valve may not be willing to invest heavily in software for its platform. This is where the company differs from other players in the gaming industry like Sony, Microsoft and Meta. The last seven years of SteamVR sufficiently prove that.

The time for Deckard is not yet ripe. In any case, I don’t see any gap that the headset could fill, any need that it could satisfy, other than being a Valve device. From that perspective, the company would have more to lose than gain.

The more interesting question is what market environment would prevail and what technological conditions would have to be met for Valve to once again smell opportunity. A breakthrough in VR technology that we can’t yet foresee? A brain-computer interface? Cloud streaming?

The latter is still the most likely, because if Valve launches a new attack on the VR industry, it will be from its own PC platform – without the limitations of mobile hardware.