Valve's $999 Index VR headset promises 'high-fidelity virtual reality' with revolutionary controls

Valve's $999 Index VR headset promises 'high-fidelity virtual reality' with revolutionary controls

Busy day for virtual reality, eh? This morning Oculus announced preorder dates for its Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S headsets today, and we posted reviews of each. Seemingly to undercut that momentum, Valve then released details of its in-house Valve Index headset, a day ahead of the May 1 date it’d originally teased.

“High-fidelity virtual reality” is the tagline Valve’s gone with, and that’s certainly supported by the price tag. Whereas Oculus has chosen to aim for mass-market appeal in its second generation, with both Quest and Rift S retailing at $399, Valve’s going for the hardcore adherents. Index will cost $1,000 for a full kit, which includes the headset itself, two of its upgraded base stations, and the long-rumored “Knuckles” controllers—though they’ve ditched that moniker for the comparatively boring “Valve Index Controllers.”

Name aside, it’s pretty damn exciting though.

Vive Pro

Starting with the headset: Valve says the Index will feature dual 1440×1600 screens, for a total resolution of 2880×1600. That’s the same as HTC’s similarly premium Vive Pro, but there’s a key difference: The Vive Pro uses AMOLED displays, while Valve’s opting for LCDs.

And Valve spins this as an improvement on the Index’s website, arguing that “the fill-factor is three times better [with LCD], greatly reducing the screen door effect.” This is true, a side effect of subpixel rendering breakthroughs with LCDs—but the tradeoff is the loss of the true blacks you get from AMOLED. It’s not quite as simple as saying Index’s display is better than the Vive Pro or vice versa. (As a side note, Oculus is moving to LCDs as well starting with the Rift S.)

One realm where Index is unequivocally the winner though is refresh rate. The Vive Pro tops out at 90Hz, the Rift S at 80Hz, and the Quest at a paltry 72Hz. None of these come close to the 120Hz VR enthusiasts used to throw around as the ideal—but Index does. Upon release it will default to 120Hz “with full back-compatibility to 90Hz.” There’s also an “experimental” 144Hz mode, though most graphics cards are going to struggle hitting those numbers reliably in VR experiences.

Valve’s posted quite a bit about the Index’s optics, but it’s hard to know what the experience will be like until we’ve tried it. The only stat that stands out is “This headset provides 20 degrees more field-of-view than the HTC Vive for typical users,” which comes from physically adjustable IPD, a second adjustment that moves the lenses closer to or further from your eyes, and the way the displays are mounted. It’s worth noting some of these features, like IPD adjustment, already exist on the Vive, so I’ll be curious to see how Valve’s improved on them enough to boast such a wide FOV.

The built-in headphones look like the usual fold-down type, but Valve’s quick to note that they’re actually an “innovative off-ear audio solution.” In other words, like Oculus’s latest headsets it’s more akin to small speakers than headphones. This helps games sound more natural, as if they were happening around you and not inside a pair of headphones, but as an apartment dweller I’ll say I hate this new trend. I’ve been very aware this week how much noise Quest and the Rift S make, and so it’s felt like a return to the old days where I’m constantly plugging in a separate pair of headphones.

The rest is fairly standard. Index uses the same “bicycle helmet” adjuster as every other modern headset, including the Vive Pro (and the original Vive’s Deluxe Audio Strap upgrade). It looks comfortable, though that’s hard to judge. It also has two front-facing cameras, though I haven’t seen the community do literally anything with the equivalent cameras on the Vive Pro, so who knows what’ll happen there?

It’s worth mentioning the Index is a tethered headset, meaning you plug it into your computer by way of a 5-meter tether, with a passthrough box with another 1-meter cable beyond it. That’s the same as the Vive, and I’ll be curious whether the boxes are interchangeable when Index ships.

And before we move on to the controllers, let’s just cover the base stations because there’s not much to talk about. In short: They’re overkill for any home use, each covering a space 7 meters long (nearly 25 feet). Do you have a room that large? I don’t have a room that large. Anyway, Valve’s changed the name from Lighthouse to “Base Station 2.0,” which is a shame, but you’ll get two of them and they should provide rock solid tracking.

That’s always been the Vive’s strong suit, and this is the same hardware that shipped with the Vive Pro. In fact, if you have both headsets you can swap between them—though the original Vive will not work with the upgraded 2.0 hardware.

Plastic knuckles

Valve’s real coup is its controllers though. We’ve seen prototypes of the “Knuckles” controllers floating around since 2016, before the original Vive even launched. Now they’re finally ready for consumers.

The “Knuckles” nickname comes from the unique shape. You actually push your hand through the controllers, wearing them like…well, brass knuckles, sort of. Since you’re wearing them and not holding them, this allows you to completely open your hand to drop or throw an object, something neither Touch nor the original Vive wands can replicate.

But there’s more to it. From the website: “Each controller uses 87 sensors to track hand position, finger position, motion, and pressure to determine user intent. All of these signals, combined with fine-tuned software and algorithms, give us a better understanding of how a player is holding and using the controllers.”

In other words: Index tracks all ten of your fingers, making them the most advanced VR inputs on the market—even more advanced than Oculus’s wonderful Touch controllers. Touch splits your hand into three zones: Thumb, index finger, and everything else. You can give a thumbs up or point, but you’re still limited to a few simple hand gestures. But with Index, Valve demonstrates making horns with your index finger and pinky, as well as opening and closing your fist one finger at a time. There’s still only one trigger and one grip button, but Valve’s using software to figure out how many fingers are actually on the grip at a time.

The grip is also force-sensitive, “tuned to detect a wide range of forces from a light touch to a firm squeeze.” Developers can use this added sensitivity to program in physical actions like crushing cans—though given Oculus doesn’t have this functionality, we’ll see whether developers take advantage. Usually developers aim for the least common denominator when there’s a discrepancy, to ensure the largest audience.

Still, it’s an exciting leap forward. Both controllers have analog sticks, two game-related A/B buttons, what looks like menu buttons, and a small trackpad as well—but it’s clear Valve’s prioritized natural input. It wants people to use their hands in VR, because that’s what’s interesting, and I can’t say I disagree.

Bottom line

The question is whether Valve’s name can sell virtual reality better than Oculus or HTC. As I said, Index costs $1,000 for a full kit—though if you have a Vive or Vive Pro, you can get away with buying just the headset ($499) or the controllers ($279) or both ($749) and skip the second-gen base stations. There’s really no reason to upgrade those. In fact when we reviewed the Vive Pro, HTC sent over a headset and controller package without base stations.

Still, $749 for even the “cheap” kit is a lot of money. When HTC released the Vive Pro for $1,200 I compared it to the Bugatti Veyron. Sure, it’s the best headset on the market, but it’s a luxury. Nobody can afford it, and even those who can afford it aren’t likely to buy it. Index is a slightly better deal, but Valve’s aimed for the same hardcore niche of enthusiasts, and I’m not sure how large that market is—especially since most of them likely own a headset already. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Index controllers far outsell the headset itself, because they seem the more innovative part of Valve’s package.

We’ll have to see whether Valve has any further aces to reveal though. Rumors were swirling about new Valve games, maybe even a Half-Life tie-in for VR, but none of that was announced today. If you’re good going on faith though, then preorders begin tomorrow with the first headsets due to ship at the end of June. We’ll keep you updated.

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