The Valve Index is supposed to be virtual reality without saving costs. The recently announced headset costs $ 999, more than double the price of competing Oculus and HTC devices. With that price tag you get access to various premium functions: high-quality headphones, an experimental super-fast refresh rate and a wider field of view "for typical users". But these are all effective upgrades. If you are looking for something completely new, the most exciting part of the Index is perhaps the input system.
Valve has sent a number of index units to the reporters for an example. It is still rolling out updates for next month's launch, so it's too early for full reviews. But that's good now – because, serious, let's talk about those controllers.
The Index uses the design & # 39; Knuckles & # 39; that Valve has been teasing for a number of years. In some ways, they look a lot like their HTC Vive and Oculus Rift counterparts, with a wide plastic tracking strip, a joystick, a small trackpad, a pair of face buttons, and a collapsible secondary input. But instead of having to hold them constantly, you attach the plastic handle to your palms. And instead of just measuring touches and presses, everyone uses 87 sensors to capture pressure, motion, touch and optical data.
Setting the controller bands does not necessarily seem more convenient than other design styles, because it is fairly easy to keep your hands curled around any light controller. But it gives the Index a much more detailed interactivity than your average VR system. With HTC Vive, you can move your hands and pull a trigger or press a side button to indicate that you need to point or close your fingers. The Oculus Touch controllers have capacitive sensors, so if the system does not detect your thumb or index finger, it is likely that you have extended them.
The Index, on the other hand, can see when each individual finger is extended. It can see when they are loosely curled around the hilt without actually touching it, when you hold the controller normally and when you squeeze extra hard. In a part of one Portalcalled demo Aperture Hand Labs, you must show a firm handshake with a blowhard-performing robot. Another "test" lets you play rock-paper-scissors with a trickster-bot. (The bot has won.)
Shaking someone's hand with the Index doesn't do that really feel like a handshake, of course. But it is exciting to have a whole range of new control options that reflect the natural movements of the body. And the system works, although not perfectly.
The index seems to tune specific areas of the controller to specific fingers. While reliably detecting my thumb and forefinger, it sometimes does things like confusing my little finger for my ring finger, unless I consciously keep my hands in the right place. This can be temporary: the padded belts of the controllers make it easy to adjust their position and angle, and over time I can snuggle into a good fit. But getting the "scissors" gesture required concentration – although I would not blame the Index for my defeat in Aperture Hand Labs.
The Index does a lot of guesswork with this system, and you could get more perfectly accurate results with something like a VR CyberGlove. But there are no regular VR glove controllers, perhaps because they have a lot of really destructive shortcomings. Gloves are difficult to assemble; often sweaty and uncomfortable; and whether they are made of fabric and are susceptible to dirt collection. The adjustable bands of the Index fit precisely around my small hands while the majority of the skin remains visible. They are sometimes almost reassuring, such as holding a few care stones. Conversely, old-fashioned buttons and joysticks offer more reliable input than you would get with a completely control-free hand control system.
It is seriously disappointing that these controllers are exclusive to SteamVR – especially the Index, although you can also buy them one by one for the HTC Vive. The Index is a niche, expensive device in an already niche, expensive category, and building game mechanics around its very cool advanced hand tracking would mean sacrificing access to much of the VR market.
And without these mechanics, the Index could just be another variation on today's standard VR hardware architecture. Your avatar's hands may move more realistically over the Index, but that would be a cosmetic upgrade, not a new way of dealing with the world. For now multiple games (including the known Holiday simulator and Arizona Sunshine) support for index controllers. But of the titles I have played so far, only the titles sponsored by Valve Aperture Hand Labs feels really built around them.
Valve should develop three major VR games, including a flagship title this year. These projects offer great opportunities to experiment with what the Index is capable of, and perhaps the results will be so exciting that they help create a new style of VR interaction. For now, I still have a month and lots of tests until the official release – so I hope I'll try more exciting virtual handshakes, clenched fists and finger glides before the launch.