Game company Valve was the pioneer of VR as we know it today, creating an advanced tracking system and prototyping different headsets. It runs on the popular SteamVR platform and has partnered with HTC on the Vive system. But it has not really delivered a VR headset. That changes with the Valve Index: a high-end, PC-tethered headset that starts shipping today.
The valve index is specialized and expensive, even according to VR standards. It costs $ 999, which is more than twice as much as the $ 399 Oculus Rift or $ 499 HTC Vive. Just like those systems, you need a gaming PC to use it. If you need convenience and portability, this is not the right choice. You can find headsets with higher resolutions or larger image fields. But for people who spend a lot of time in VR, it offers solid visuals, sophisticated hardware design and the coolest VR controllers on the market.
The Index uses the same "Lighthouse" tracking system as the Vive, so it comes with two laser-emitting base stations that you must mount in opposite corners of your playroom. These are second generation base stations and Valve promises a number of advantages over the Vive's 1.0 beacons – in the first place an extended diagonal range of up to 10 by 10 meters if you use four. If you already have a Vive, you can save $ 250 by using the 1.0 base stations, but I didn't try that mix personally.
I had fewer synchronization issues with the 2.0 base stations than the 1.0 models, but they are still frustrating to set up, especially since Microsoft and Oculus have switched to easier front & front cameras, eliminating that installation completely . Valve has long refined its base station design, and the Index is for people who have been using these uncomfortable systems for years, so it makes sense to stay with Lighthouse. But for everyone who has just entered Valve & # 39; s system, it is a frustrating bump.
Furthermore, with standard home use, the new lighthouses have not delivered significantly better experience than Oculus inside-out tracking. I can reach fully behind my back without being afraid of losing track, but that is a fairly rare situation. And the tracking was not perfect – the controllers occasionally strayed for no apparent reason, although they usually recover quickly.
A few index functions seem intended for developers. There are two front & front cameras that can show you the outside world, but that is really not enough to justify the extra weight. So when Valve says they can also be used for computer vision experiments, that makes much more sense. The front contains a small box (officially called "the madmen") with a Type-A USB port, so that key figures can connect other devices.
But the Index also uses some great overall design elements from other headsets. It features a comfortably padded, helmet-like headband that is reinforced with a dial on the back, similar to the alternative Vive head strap from HTC. You can adjust the distance between lenses to find the best focus, which is an excellent feature that Oculus has controversially removed from the Rift. With a dial you can change the distance between your eyes and the lenses, giving you even more control over the image.
Some people don't need these features – I'm usually fine with less versatile headsets – but they live up to the Vive's promise to offer the best experience to the largest number of users. The padded belt design simply feels great. The headset isn't the lightest I've tried, but I felt good after an hour or more in VR.
Just like various other companies, Valve is also experimenting with speaker-based audio systems. The Index has two speakers that look a lot like headphones, but they are about an inch from your ears and project sound without actually pressing your head. This is very comfortable during long VR sessions and it sounds richer and more realistic than the loudspeakers of the Oculus Rift or Quest.
However, these headsets share one basic problem: everybody can hear exactly what you are doing from a distance of a few meters. I am willing to accept that offer for a cheaper product and you can always connect your own headphones to the Index. But since the Index is a top model for people who want to have loud, intense gaming experiences or who work in professional environments, I wish that Valve was looking for a slightly more discreet solution.
The Index makes no appearance of coziness, style or minimalism. It is a large, striking black helmet covered with dials and sliders. The front has a light RoboCop-like strip of shiny plastic that you can pull off to reveal the frown. It is not my favorite aesthetic, and with his two cameras, he shares the "sad robot with giant forehead" look of the Rift S. But Valve justifies more than its size. And while the design may be clumsy, it certainly doesn't look cheap – although on a nearly $ 1,000 headset that really should be taken for granted.
I have previously written about the unique yet extremely practical new controllers from Valve. The Index controllers (formerly called "Knuckles") are attached to your hands instead of being held and they look more like a sci-fi weapon than a remote control or game pad. A central stock detects individual finger movements and pinch pressure, and the sensors can even see when your hands are close – but not completely touching – the controller. A more traditional upper part contains an analog joystick, two face buttons and a small trackpad groove.
When used properly, the Index controllers can feel incredibly natural because you can open and close your hand naturally instead of relying on abstractions such as a grip or trigger. The index controllers make some great interactions possible. There is an official Valve demo in which you play rock-paper-scissors or test your handshake grip strength with a robot.
Like I said before, most game developers will probably would not add many index-specific interactions. It is more likely that you will get the same control scheme & # 39; s in a slightly different package. Fortunately, Vive and Rift games can be translated fairly well into the Index based on titles that I have tried with official support. You can play games apparently without optimization, although they sometimes translate the controls in strange ways. Doom VFR for example, put his weapon wheel on the actually two-way trackpad of the Index.
The only major hardware problem of the controller is the lack of tangible feedback. If you use it as a basic handle button, you will not receive a solid confirmation that you have pressed hard enough. So if you fail to get something in a game, it is not immediately clear why.
The Index screen easily surpasses the Rift or Vive; at 1440 x 1600 pixels per eye, it has the same resolution as the high-definition Vive Pro. You can find headsets with a larger number of pixels, including the HP Reverb. But as Way to VR pointed out, the Reverb is not a consumer-focused headset and uses clumsy Windows Mixed Reality controllers. Images on the Index look smooth and clear, especially with refresh rates that can run up to 120Hz. (There is an experimental 144Hz mode, which did not seem to be a noticeable improvement for me.) I have seen some complaints about gray blacks due to the LCD screen, but it is still a very impressive screen.
I used the Index with a recent, high-end Lenovo Legion gaming laptop, so I can't speak about its performance with a less powerful gaming PC. In theory you can use it with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD RX480 graphic card on the bottom, but a GTX 1070 or higher is recommended.
Valve also promises a "typical" field of vision up to 20 degrees wider than the standard 100 to 110 degrees. In short, the field of view depends on how far the screen of the Index comes from your eyes. When you print it all out, the Index has the same goggle-like effect that you will find in other headsets. As it gets closer, your peripheral vision begins to fill. Totally chosen in, the only compromise from the Index is a black semicircle all the way at the edge of the screen.
I couldn't keep the lenses that close. The plastic rims dug too much in my forehead, despite buffering the lined mask of the headset. But even at a comfortable distance my field of vision felt more natural and less limited.
In general, however, the Index still offers first-generation VR. It is not qualitatively different from the Rift or Vive. You will not find functions such as eye-tracking or exotic displays-in-displays to improve resolution. After the wireless Oculus Quest, the cable feels more limited than ever. And unlike a gaming PC or other hardware with a predictable development cycle, the index is not future-proof. We are approaching the end of Oculus & # 39; first generation headset line-up, for example. So in a few years, people might want something completely different from a VR system.
The index is not necessarily the "best" VR headset – at least not for everyone. Unless the price drops in the future, it is a product for people who play VR games very hard, use headsets for professional work or have a very large disposable income. But within those limitations, it delivers a high-quality virtual reality with very few compromises.
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