Valve Updates its Iconic VR App ‘The Lab’ to its Latest Tech Stack
In the spring of 2016, HTC Vive had launched “The Lab” as an experimental virtual reality playground. It was created to give novices a fun and clever way of experiencing room-filling virtual reality. Valve is now upgrading the app and bringing it up to date for both old and new users.
The company has today announced that it is upgrading the app to get it up to speed with HTC Vive’s latest SteamVR tech stack which now includes the spatialized audio, Index controller support, upgraded physics and much more. The new update is known as Hands-On.
The Lab is regarded by most users as one of the best “first time” virtual reality experiences due to its impeccable art and sound, the simple and straightforward interaction design as well as the a collection of mini-games designed to showcase the vast potential of virtual reality to end users. These games have room-scale environments along with plenty of objects that users can grip and interact with.
Initially, it was an impressive virtual reality showcase but with time, many of its launch features started to get a bit dated, outpaced by more cutting-edge virtual reality experiences, many of which borrowed from The Lab’s original ideas and expanded on them to create more compelling virtual reality experiences. The Hands-on update improves several features in the app.
Firstly, The Lab adds support for Valve’s Skeletal Input. This is a SteamVR software that enables an optimal hand presence across all the available virtual reality controllers. This means better support for the finger tracking functionality on Index controllers without any restrictions. It also supports SteamVR Input, enabling end users to configure the keyboard layouts for their virtual reality controllers. With the system now mapping any controller tracking inputs which are available onto the virtual hand model, it will now be possible to animate any controller more realistically.
With the update, Valve has totally redesigned the game’s physics-based interactions such that the interactive objects in The Lab are now behaving more realistically. The same also applies to the game’s audio effects. The Lab is now compatible with Steam Audio thereby enabling it to work seamlessly with the latest 3D surround sound technology.
The SteamVR Input also makes The Lab future-proofed so that it can work with the virtual reality controllers of the future. This system enables games to define the controls in a way that is controller-agnostic. Players can even create and share their own controller bindings.
According to Valve, the physics interactions in The Lab have also undergone a complete overhaul. Almost all the interactable objects in the game can be thrown, poked freely, smashed, toppled, stacked or even bashed against one another. As a user, you won’t feel like a ghostly visitor in virtual reality; your hands will be physical like all the other objects in the virtual environment thereby grounding you in the experience and taking you to a deeper level of immersion.
The new update also includes the upgraded audio through the VR-based Steam Audio system. The new audio system boosts the spatial accuracy of the audio in The Lab. The audio update also creates real-time sound modeling to the experience; the sounds heard by the user are more accurately simulated by factoring in the geometry of the scene.
Valve has stated that it has also “smoothed over the few bumps” in The Lab to make it friendlier for new users. This has been accomplished through various changes in the gameplay and performance as well as support for arbitrary refresh rates. The physics system of the game was initially designed to run at 90Hz but it could go off the rails at lower or higher framerates. The latest headsets however cover a wide variety of refresh rates which has prompted Valve to make the physics system framerate-independent.
It is possible that Valve could add a similar tech stack to its upcoming flagship virtual reality game which was slated to launch this year. The specifics about the game, including the title, are yet to be revealed.