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Valve experiments with augmented reality ‘wearable computers’

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Valve’s list of franchises reads like a page torn from the first-person shooter hall of fame: Half-Life, CounterStrike, Left for Dead, Team Fortress. Now, the software company is ready to take the term ‘first person” a step further. In a recent blog post, Valve developer Michael Abrash has revealed that he and his Valve R&D team are researching and tinkering with wearable augmented reality gaming devices.

The announcement of Google Glasses made apparent that a demand exists for AR devices, and of course it comes with criticism. But as Abrash explains, “In the Internet age, software has close to zero cost of replication and massive network effects, so [if] there’s a positive feedback spiral that means that the first mover dominates.” With this in mind, there’s particular value in moving the gaming industry to wearable computing devices, especially when Valve could itself first to make the leap. That could pay off if next-generation devices are not consoles, but wearable devices.

To clarify, there are neither promises nor any product announcements in the near future, but a team devoted to augmented reality is steadily growing, and they’re “making good headway.”

Abrash explains:

To be clear, this is R&D – it doesn’t in any way involve a product at this point, and won’t for a long while, if ever – so please, no rumors about Steam glasses being announced at E3. It’s an initial investigation into a very interesting and promising space, and falls more under the heading of research than development. The Valve approach is to do experiments and see what we learn – failure is fine, just so long as we can identify failure quickly, learn from it, and move on – and then apply it to the next experiment. The process is very fast-moving and iterative, and we’re just at the start. How far and where the investigation goes depends on what we learn.

We wouldn’t be surprised if the team comes up with a testable product two years down the road. Besides Google’s augmented reality glasses, companies like Innovega, which recently signed a contract with the United States Department of Defense, are cropping up. Innovega’s iOptik system is a multi-focus contact lenses that allow users to focus on near-view augmented images, typically superimposed onto glasses, and more distance field views. The same system, according to the company, will be applied for the purpose of augmented gaming.

Augmented reality has been a gamers’ dream for the better part of the last several years, but the secret to how far Valve is from completing a retail-ready device remains behind the doors of Gabe Newell’s castle (that is unless you end up working there). Yet we’re willing to wait.