Hands-on With Valve Index: VR Passion Redefined

What do you want from your next virtual reality (VR) headset? That’s right your next one. For those that have been following the latest VR trends from the very beginning, possibly even buying developer kits before the commercial versions came along in 2016, there’s likely hunger for something new. 2019 is certainly the year to upgrade your kit, but which path do you take? Valve knows long term VR enthusiasts want more; improved visuals, audio, comfort and interaction. And with Valve Index you’re going to get it – at a price.

First Impressions

Valve certainly isn’t going for half measures with its new device. The company isn’t trying to pander to the mass consumer market with a cheap entry level headset, it wants to showcase what VR is and what VR can do – without going into the stratospheric realms of enterprise VR. Straight away Valve Index looks and feels like a premium piece of hardware – and that’s before getting to the rest of the system.

There’s still a cable but that really shouldn’t worry VR fans who are well versed in using any of the major headsets. It’s easy to put on, adjust and jump straight into upgraded VR, but there are a couple of factors to get used to (more on that later).

The Headset

First and foremost Valve has aimed for visual-fidelity rather than trying to keep the head-mounted display (HMD) cheap. So the system boasts a custom full-RGB LCD display which Valve says has 50% more subpixels than OLED. What this means in the real world is crystal clear visuals. Trying to actually spot the screendoor effect was virtually impossible, and once one of the titles Valve had on display at a special preview event got started then all memory of screendoor simply faded away.

But that’s starting to get a little ahead. Before even seeing the lovely screen quality the headset needed to be worn and adjusted. Valve has made sure its new device is as adjustable as possible, not only allowing for a great fit but to also ensure Index will be suitable for as many people as possible.

So on the back strap is a turn dial ratchet system which is starting to become much more commonplace, enabling quick and easy adjustment. There’s still a Velcro strap on the top, and underneath the headset is the manual IPD adjustment which looked to have a fairly substantial range. Much more unique was the adjustable ‘eye relief’ as Valve calls it, whereby a dial on the side of the device moved the lenses backwards and forwards. The feature is why Valve won’t release a field of view (FOV) figure, as those with glasses will want to lenses further forward (reducing the FOV), while those without or wearing contacts can have the lenses as close as possible; maximising the FOV. With the lenses as close to my eyes as possible (no glasses) the FOV certainly seemed wider than HTC Vive or Oculus Rift.

With everything twisted, turned and adjusted, the Valve Index felt like a very comfy headset. Play sessions were short so it was difficult to tell how an hour or more might feel but first impressions were good.

Valve has also taken the brave step by doing something rather unusual when it comes to delivering audio. Index features nearfield off-ear speakers rather than headphones (see image above). Rather than having audio forced into your ear, the design allowed for a much more natural flow of sound, creating distinct, well-defined audio which was a please to listen to. As they don’t touch the ear there’s no issue with comfort. On the flip side having that gap does mean other sounds can get in. The thing is it really didn’t seem that bad. In a loud VR arcade, this might be an issue, yet at home it probably won’t be noisy enough to matter.

The Controllers

Up until now the Valve Index has been a bit of a mystery apart from one little leak. The Knuckles controllers – now called Valve Index Controllers – have been fairly public for a couple of years, with Valve regularly releasing prototype updates. Actually trying these controllers for the first time was as exciting as you’d imagine.

Comfy to hold with the fabric strap tightened around the back of the hand, these things are packed with sensors to track all your fingers. Each digit was accurately tracked one by one, with the system only really struggling when multiple fingers moved in an awkward motion.

They may look big and bulky but they aren’t heavy or difficult to use. What’s initially difficult to get your head around is letting go. Grabbing a ball or any virtual item and then throwing it. It just feels weird when we naturally grip and hold controllers to let go of these, but it does work and works well. Another novel little feature is pressure, you can actually apply force – demoed by shaking a robots hand – which could have some interesting use cases for the future.

And thanks to the traditional thumbstick, A/B buttons, trigger and trackpad they’re completely compatible with SteamVR experiences and backwards compatible with the 1.0 base stations.

The Games

Naturally, to demo such an exciting new headset Valve wanted the best of the best when it came to videogames. And what better way to show how good the new 2.0 base stations are than frantic rhythm action title Beat Saber. Not only was it glorious to look at but the tracking was faultless. Four base stations had been set up to cover three Valve Index headsets – so great for multi-use spaces – and the tracking on Beat Saber didn’t miss a beat (pun intended).

A new headset needs to be shown off with some new titles, and Valve didn’t disappoint. Stress Level Zero demoed its physics-based experience Boneworks which expertly demoed the controllers’ grip features as well as looking like it’s going to be the studios’ best title yet.

Who also happened to be there, none other than Hello Games with its little videogame No Man’s Sky. Having never played the original flat screen version I had no frame of reference. First impressions, very good. In the five minutes available the demo allowed you to dig, wander around a planet briefly and take off into space. Teleportation was the only movement option available but the studio did state more options would be available including smooth locomotion.

Valve wasn’t going to be outdone and to help new players get used to the controllers the company has created Aperture Hand Labs. From shaking hands to playing paper, scissors, stone, the demo quickly and simply takes you through how diverse these controllers really are.

Because Valve will be selling the HMD by itself – for HTC Vive owners wishing to upgrade – the system is also fully SteamVR compatible so it’ll work with any VR titles on the platform.

Dressed to Impress

So how does VRFocus feel about the Valve Index? Quite honestly from this first unveiling, it has made quite the impression. Versatile, comfy and visually striking, Valve has managed to find a sweet spot between advancing VR and implementing decent usable features. While options like eye-tracking and foveated rendering have been omitted, they’re not missed. Coming in at $999 for the full kit, Valve Index is pricey, yet as an upgrade option for current HTC Vive users at $499 for just the headset it provides a tantalising choice for those looking for something better.

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