At E3 last week Gaming Business Review’s senior technology editor, Rita Turkowski had a chance to sit down with the StarVR team who is behind the much talked about Walking Dead VR game for an exclusive interview and demo. GBR learned how this project came about, the challenges the team had to overcome, and what their goals are for their new VR headset.

Prior to E3, Gaming Business Review posted the news that Starbreeze was entering the VR race with the launch of StarVR. Then, at the show Starbreeze announced they would be demoing StarVR with OVERKILL’S  forthcoming Walking Dead game. The VR demo along with costumed Zombies drew some serious crowds and a waiting list over the three days of the E3 show.

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Walking Dead West Hall Exhibit at E3

Visitors sat in wheelchairs (reminiscent of Rick’s awakening in a Georgia hospital), holding gamer guns and wearing the StarVR headset Many came away visibly moved by the experience, its intensity fueled by the largest field of view of any currently known VR headset.

GBR chatted with Almir Listo, Global Brand Director of Starbreeze, to get the whole story of their origins, and to understand the chutzpah that lead Starbreeze to dive into the deep end of the VR headset pool.

A little background about the not-so-very-well-known Starbreeze, and their relationship to OVERKILL and distributor 505 Games. Contrary to other reports, Starbreeze AB is not an American company at all, but a public company in Sweden, whose meteoric success stems mainly from sales of PC game Payday and Payday 2, now one of the largest and most passionate gamer communities on Steam.  This success has enabled Starbreeze (who acquired OVERKILL a few years back, granting them ownership and control over their own content’s destiny) to acquire not only a technically outstanding VR company called InfiniteEye out of France, but also Orange Grove Media, a small and talented studio in Los Angeles (now also working on their Walking Dead title). 505 Games comes into play as the distributor of their titles on PS4 and Xbox One when the game comes out later next year.

Back to VR now…

In August 2013, the InfiniteEye core team (photo below) was founded and the first complete prototype of the InfiniteEyeVR headset was revealed online. It immediately drew the attention of the fast-growing global VR community.

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InfiniteEye Original Team

In September 2013, Paul James of the renowned blog RoadToVR had the privilege of being the first journalist in the world to try it. The FOV from two screens and the special Fresnel lenses absolutely blew him away.

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InfiniteEye prototype headset

Ben Lang, founder of RoadToVR, had the opportunity to try it at GDC 2014, and was impressed at InfinitEye’s unique approach to VR. It was also at GDC 2014 that InfinitEye caught the eye of Emmanuel Marquez, now CTO of Starbreeze.

Flash forward to today. With added technological innovations, InfiniteEye has now morphed into the StarVR headset. And now, at E3 2015, the video game trade will see for the first time how VR is being used to showcase a PC game prequel, and the first time The Walking Dead franchise has ever been portrayed in the medium of VR.

According to Mr. Listo, “Being able to leverage the entire Starbreeze ecosystem that comes with owning the content, the game development studios, the VR hardware, and the game engine (their Valhalla Engine) made taking StarVR to market feasible now.” In fact, Starbreeze has even bigger aspirations for VR: they would like to see their technology become the benchmark for virtual reality systems made possible by the fact that they have the ability to optimize anywhere in the ecosystem, from the content pipeline, inside the game engine, as well as in the VR headset technology – all to make the best possible VR experience for the consumer. No other company in the industry has this ability. Sony comes close with Project Morpheus, and with millions of PS4 console owners, will likely get to mass market faster, but only on console. Starbreeze has the ability and opportunity to become the definitive VR experience for PC gamers.

The technology behind StarVR is nothing short of stellar. The VR technology behind InfiniteEyeVR began when Lionel Anton, a resourceful young engineer from Toulouse, France (far right in image above of the original InfiniteEye team), became an active participant of the MTBS3D forums—a place for stereoscopic gaming and virtual reality enthusiasts. In fact, Lionel unveiled his first head-mounted-display (HMD) concept on the forums in August 2011, one month before Palmer Luckey posted his similar early Oculus Rift-like prototype. After witnessing the success of Oculus’ Kickstarter in 2012 and beyond, Lionel decided to focus on what he believed to be the most important factor for immersion, field of view (FOV), and began designing a new VR headset. With a completely different approach, the design was based on two full landscape-oriented screens set at an angle (one screen per eye), for a total resolution of 5,120 x 1,440, in lieu of Oculus’ single screen split in two. The wider field of view, thanks to two screens delivers a whopping 210-degree field of view, which, according to Emmanuel Marquez, CTO of Starbreeze, (in the white shirt in the title photo), covers at least 75% of our vision range.

 

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StarVR Team at Starbreeze today

This is higher than any other headset coming to market today.  When asked about the technical challenge of this approach, InfiniteEye’s Directeur General, Guillaume Gouraud explained, “When we first met with Starbreeze, the size and weight of the headset was a concern, and we were asked what we could do to decrease them. Since originally the lenses were each 7-inch wide off-the-shelf lenses, we set out to have custom lenses made that were smaller and lighter, but still offered strong enough magnification of the screen. StarVR was announced with dual 5.5 inches LCD displays. The foveal, instant and periphery vision view all needed to be just right which is challenging when maintaining a very small distance between the screen and the lenses, while most importantly, avoiding the screen-door effect.”

Meeting these challenges and succeeding at is evidenced by the reactions while playing the Walking Dead demo. Visitors were also asked afterwards to rate their experience, and it will be interesting to hear from Starbreeze later how they fared in their survey.

In light of talk of benchmarks and industry standards, GBR asked about the relationship between Starbreeze and Valve, which is promoting OpenVR. According to Mr Listo, “We are open to supporting OpenVR.”

Distribution of VR content remains an open issue (not just for Starbreeze but for the entire game industry) and according to Mr Listo, “We don’t yet know what the publishing distribution should be.” Perhaps VR will be used to showcase special episodic content pieces or as a marketing tool for previewing the game in its best light, or something else entirely, only time will tell.

Other challenges, such as how minimally powerful a player’s hardware needs to be to fully enjoy such high-end VR experiences are also unknown, but we think it’s safe to say, “buy the best graphics card you can afford.” That should make all the hardware vendors happy.

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Image courtesy of Starbreeze Studios, 2015