My introduction to the Index, Valve’s first-ever top-to-bottom virtual reality system for PCs, was a whirlwind of numbers and demos. Valve’s three-hour hands-on event in April came with a significant amount of specs, claims, and pre-release software, but while those ranged from puzzling to impressive, none of them stuck with me as a casual note of the day.
In an informal Valve Q&A after my testing, I shared how impressed I was with the Oculus Quest’s “good enough” performance as a wireless standalone VR headset. How would the more expensive, wired, more demanding Valve Index fit into that kind of market, I asked?
“I don’t use VR for 30 minutes a day,” said a Valve engineer in response. “I use VR hour one day. What’s good enough for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, is dramatically different from an hour, two hours.”
This engineer was on to something that couldn’t be sold in a whirlwind press event: the home index difference. I’ve been testing that angle for almost a week thanks to an early Index shipment that Valve has the press discuss in a “preview” capacity, meaning this is not a full-fledged review prior to the system’s June 28 launch ($999 for the full Index system, $499 for the headset only without the required “lighthouse” tracking boxes or any controllers). A lot can change in a month.
Instead, this piece revolves around that Valve engineer’s implicit suggestion: pinning it to a Valve Index for hours on end, making it a part of my workday, and seeing the resulting difference. These tests (which included typing most of this preview with an index as my “monitor”) were telling. Valve Index isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s definitely the first VR system I can use for a long time without feeling ‘VR swimming’. Until someone else shows up with a system that surpasses Index’s weaknesses and benefiting from the best improvements, can’t see myself switching back to another PC VR headset.
Playing the playing field… or view
|valve index||HTC Vive Pro|
|Display||2880×1600 (1440×1600 per eye) “fast switching” LCD panels||2880×1600 (1440×1600 per eye) AMOLED panel|
|Refresh rate||80Hz, 90Hz, 120Hz or 144Hz||90Hz|
|Field of view||130 degrees with integrated FOV “eye relief” button||110 degrees|
|audio||Near-field off-ear speakers with support for 3D directional audio; built-in microphone||Integrated adjustable earcups with 3D directional audio support; built-in microphone|
|PC connection||One-piece custom cable (USB 3.0 Type-A, DisplayPort)||One-piece custom cable (USB 3.0 Type-A, DisplayPort) with PC junction box|
|Optional Bundled Accessories||Two wireless motion controllers with rechargeable batteries, two room-scale SteamVR 2.0 tracking stations||Two wireless motion controllers with rechargeable 960mAh batteries, two room-scale SteamVR 1.0 tracking stations|
|modularity||Trunk expansion port (“frunk”) with USB 3.0 connector; front-facing stereo cameras||Front Stereo Cameras|
|Price||$499 ($999 with two tracking stations, two controllers)||$799 ($1,099 with two tracking stations, two controllers)|
In summary, the complete Valve Index package includes a headset, a pair of controllers, and a pair of “lighthouse” tracking boxes. These are all compatible with other existing SteamVR devices, meaning you can mix and match the headsets, controllers, and tracking boxes of the HTC Vive, HTC Vive Pro, and Valve Index (reducing the need to buy Index hardware if you’re reinstalling elements). want to use). you already own). In very good news, I was able to plug and unplug elements from all three of those systems on the same PC, reboot into the SteamVR software and enjoy full compatibility even in the very early preview. period of the Index.
[Update: There’s one exception to the above mix-and-match scenario. The original HTC Vive’s controllers will not work with SteamVR 2.0 tracking boxes. The Vive Pro’s wands do support SteamVR 2.0. If you want to combine old Vive wands with newer Valve Index hardware, keep your SteamVR 1.0 tracking boxes handy.]
I’ll start with the headset, which I’ll call the “Index” from now on for convenience. You’ve seen headsets like this before, with a strap for ski goggles, floating speakers, and a pair of high-resolution panels translated through a pair of curved Fresnel lenses to simulate a virtual reality sensation. Connect it to a “gaming” quality PC, strap it over your head and stand up straight in a room with clean floors or settle into a comfortable chair. Use a pair of handheld controllers or basic hardware like keyboard, mouse, and gamepad to play with software while being transported to another world.
The index difference starts with a noticeably improved field of view (FOV) compared to the competition. VR users can generally expect their peripheral vision to be obscured to some degree, thanks to the inherent limitations of a few lenses. The Index is no exception, but Valve promises a “20 degrees more” field of view than any existing consumer-grade VR headset on the market, regardless of the face size or goggles you put in the headset.
If you strap on an Oculus or HTC headset, you can expect a “maximum” FOV of about 110 degrees, but that number shrinks if you have thick glasses or an awkward face in the headset. Index, on the other hand, has placed its pair of LCD screens on a mechanical array that does two clever things: it applies a 5-degree “tilt” angle to the screens, and it includes an additional FOV-specific slider to guide users. let’s bring those lenses as close to their cheeks or glasses as is physically comfortable.
Index’s FOV difference is definitely noticeable for average users without glasses. As I noted during the Index unveiling, the best showcase for this difference comes from widescreen ratio videos, and I’ve watched quite a few of those in my Index since. I’ve gotten into the habit of booting into SteamVRs Virtual desktop app (which I prefer over SteamVR’s built-in desktop mirroring option), loading videos at full 4K resolution and positioning them to simulate the feeling of being in a “perfect” cinema seat – not too close, not too far. I can do this with the Valve Index and expect to be about two “rows” closer to the video image than with the HTC Vive Pro.
Add my big Seattle hipster glasses to the mix, and that difference jumps another two rows. Index accommodates glasses more comfortably than any other consumer-grade VR headset, period.