BELLEVUE, Washington—The Valve Index, a new virtual reality system from the makers of beloved video game series such as Half-Life and Portal and the mega-popular Steam game store, is an ambitious product. The sales pitch, as explained by several Valve employees, revolves around tomorrow’s VR experience.
|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||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||One Piece Custom Cable 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)|
That’s a fancy way of saying that Valve is going for features and dreams rather than affordability with its $999 Valve Index kit, which will ship “by the end of June” after “limited” pre-orders go live on May 1. users in the contiguous US and most of Western Europe (the UK is excluded for now).
But during Valve’s reveal event, his ambitions for the future of VR became abundantly clear — and plentiful. conservative† If you saw last month’s news about Valve’s VR headset and started dreaming big, today is the day to scale back those dreams.
The Valve Index doesn’t read your brain waves, track your heart rate, or track the movement of your eyeballs. The Valve Index does not innovate with an “inside-out” tracking system. It contains no array of secret cameras or sensors and does not bounce sound waves through hidden or built-in speakers. The Valve Index doesn’t use a shrunken, “infinite pixel” panel or introduce a revolutionary new take on foveated rendering. The Valve Index does not contain a built-in processing unit. It needs to be plugged into a gaming-grade PC with a long cord extending out of the back of your head.
Also, the Index was not introduced alongside a new Valve video game. We learned in February 2017 that three Valve VR games are on the way, but this week’s Index event was not used to premiere any of them. That bad news got even more bad news: only a The Valve VR game will launch in late 2019 and we haven’t been able to see or test it. (For better or worse, this game won’t be an Index exclusive.) Valve’s Doug Lombardi says there’s “no announcement at this time” about the other two games.
And then is Valve’s big ambition for the future of VR as far as the Index is concerned? The answer is long-term comfort. In Valve’s view, that goal doesn’t (yet) include features we’ve dreamed of, such as reducing the clutter of an average PC VR experience, lowering the price, optimizing performance with eye-tracking systems or liberating users with true wireless freedom. Valve wants to convince us that Index is as good as VR users at a price of $999 in 2019 – and that it will deliver $999 in VR quality in 2019.
“Often people want to say what’s ‘good enough’ with virtual reality,” a Valve representative said during an informal Q&A. “And their sample size for ‘good enough’ is five minutes [of VR use]† One of the driving factors for our game teams, and externally for our partners, is that we want long-lasting VR experiences.”
Another Valve employee interrupted and said, “I don’t use VR for 30 minutes a day. I use VR hour one day. This is where we ended. What’s good enough for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, is dramatically different from an hour, two hours. We think that tracking, optics, displays, ergonomics, input fidelity, the comfort of your hands – all these things are very important.”
“They’re all coefficients too!” added an engineer. “They are all related.”
But Valve didn’t give us an Index box, a “long VR experience” (like, you know, a Valve game in development), and hours to test that hypothesis. Until that day comes, we’re left with spec sheets and an odd array of hands-on, eye-on impressions.
Vision of Dreams
The interesting elements of Index are the following: a pair of fast-switching custom LCD panels, with a combined pixel resolution of 2880×1600; a wider field of view (FOV) compared to most VR headsets, up to 130 degrees; new handheld controllers, finally launched after years of public teasing; a pair of floating speakers above the ear; an empty compartment on the front of the headset, which contains a USB 3.0 Type-A adapter and no promises of future attachments; and a reliance on “lighthouse” tracking boxes already used in systems like the HTC Vive. (We’re also in familiar Vive VR territory with the dangling cable plugged into a gaming PC.)
Let’s start with the index’s pair of pixel-filled panels, which Valve’s staffers have detailed in detail. Instead of a single OLED panel, Index comes with a pair of fast-switching LCDs that are custom built with an emphasis on sub-pixel density. They are positioned to spread the visible VR-FOV further than in any consumer-priced VR headset we’ve ever seen. And they’re rated to work at incredibly high frame rates. In addition to the Vive-esque speed of 90 Hz, the displays can clock up to 120 Hz or 144 Hz.
Most consumer-grade VR headsets use a single display panel, which is then translated through a pair of large, curved lenses. The Valve Index twists this convention by using a pair of LCD panels, each with a resolution of 1440×1600. That doesn’t make them a combined 2880×1600 panel. Instead, the panels are physically separated and then placed individually at an angle of about 5 degrees.
The result is a wider peripheral distribution by default, but the system also allows Valve to implement a new type of slider. Valve insists that no matter what face shape or glasses you put in the Index, you can turn an “eye relief” dial to bring the Index lenses as close to your face as possible, and the device does this in a way which guarantees a greater effective FOV. After describing most FOV sales pitches as “dishonest” due to many users’ faces or glasses hindering that full field of view potential, Valve insists that the eye relief button guarantees a “20 degree” increase in FOV for all users compared to traditional ones. “110-degree” systems. (This works in tandem with a standard interpupillary distance slider, or IPD, found in most VR headsets.)
Additionally, Valve is insisting that its SteamVR platform will tweak the rendered images of VR games and apps to translate into a pair of non-parallel lenses so developers don’t have to factor in this Index-specific difference individually.
What sold me on the FOV boost wasn’t a particular game demo, though. The demos I’ve been through focused on front-and-center content, probably because the games in question need to be compatible with other 110-degree headsets. No, it was a VR cinema moment, where I virtually sat down and watched 1080p movie trailers streamed straight from YouTube. That’s not a great resolution to beam to a high-resolution VR headset, made worse by YouTube’s compression. Still, I was surprised by the full widescreen ratio of this video, as opposed to the letterbox in a tighter 16:9 square.
I could see most of the virtual cinema screen, as if I were sitting in a comfortable lifelike theater. I had to look a bit left or right for the most peripheral content, but otherwise I could always comfortably take in a giant image. That is not how most VR headsets work. This moment stayed with me and helped me realize how amazing Index’s FOV boost was when I went home and tried the same demo on my Vive Pro, constantly having to swipe my eyes in both directions to get a full cinematic view .