valve-index-photo

ian-hamiltonThe Valve Index officially launches today, and it provides a strong vision for the future of high-end PC VR with solid tracking, fidelity, and hand-tracked Index controllers that provide a deep sense of hand presence. Valve sent me hardware to review and I share my full impressions at the end of this podcast, but the bottom line is that Valve is releasing high-end hardware that will surely provide the absolute best high-end virtual reality experiences on the PC for the near future.

Facebook and Oculus have decided to completely move to inside-out-tracking as the default for the Rift S, but this has been providing some first-person shooter PC games tracking issues because of occlusion issues with the trigger hand as documented in this video by BauerMECH. Moving completely to inside-out tracking suggests that Oculus is prioritizing mobility and portability for the Oculus Quest, which is much more likely to become Facebook’s breakaway success as a tetherless VR console system. Energetically, Oculus is putting more engineering resources and efforts in creating a rigorously polished Quest platform, but the Rift S is getting deprioritized as a platform, which is symbolically represented by it being outsourced to Lenovo to produce.

So it’s within this context that Valve is doubling down on helping to shape the future of PC VR gaming by releasing the Valve Index. At a Valve Index launch party video, Valve founder Gabe Newell says that the next steps are for the Index to get wider distribution, for the next iterations to lower the cost, make it lighter, make ergonomic improvements. They’re also doing a number of speculative and forward-looking research into different untethered methods, experimenting with different revolutionary display & optical technology, expanding the tracking volumes, & of course developing some new Valve VR games.

Valve timed the official announcement of the Valve Index to happen on April 30, 2019 at 10:00am Pacific Time, which is precisely when Facebook’s F8 opening keynote was starting. The VR journalists had early access to both the Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift S, and the embargo for those reviews was about to lift later that morning at 10:30am. But Valve had flown a selection of VR journalists to Seattle the week before F8 in order to get a briefing and to get a sneak peak at some of the experiences, and then time the release during the official beginning of Facebook’s developer conference.

I ran into Ian Hamilton, senior editor of UploadVR.com, about 10 minutes before he was about to publish his early impressions of the Valve Index while he was also simultaneously going to be covering the Facebook F8 keynote. I had a chance to talk to Hamilton a few hours afterwards in order to document this unique moment in VR history as these two major platforms that will be shaping the VR industry for the discernible future, and to have an opportunity to really compare and contrast where the PC VR market is heading with the Rift S versus the Valve Index. But in terms of top priorities, it’s really the Quest versus the Index, which are completely different markets and are serving different purposes. Facebook/Oculus seems to be optimizing for scale, untethered portability, and cost, while Valve is optimizing for fidelity, high-end quality, and precision of external tracking technologies.

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Ian shares a bit of meta points of what it’s like to be a VR journalist and to have to be able to distinguish your own subjective perceptual experiences with what’s happening objectively with the technologies. This is not always easy to do especially when it’s happening within the context of embargos. So now that the Index embargo lifted this morning at 10am, I can also elaborate on my own impressions after having an opportunity to have early access to the Index HMD and controllers. Tune into the full discussion in order to hear my full thoughts on the experiences of hand presence with the Index controllers (formerly called “Knuckles controllers”), the tradeoffs of comfort and safety with the controllers, the amazing graphical fidelity, being able to read text, long-term comfort, key binding dependencies not always being in place, minimum and recommended specs, the weight distribution, audio, and haptics.

I also try to add quite a bit of deeper context of this dynamic between Facebook/Oculus and Valve in terms of their closed vs open platform strategies. Overall, I trust that Valve will be continuing to iterate on the Index, but it looks like they’re completely committed to future of PC gaming. I can’t say the same for Oculus as I suspect that the success of the Quest and the lack of quality assurance and polish on the Rift S is creating less of a high-end and polished PC VR experience. They’re both moving the VR industry forward in different ways, and both are vitally important. But Valve doesn’t seem interested in sacrificing quality for price while the Oculus seems to be aiming for a more middle tier price point and performance with the Rift S that’s likely good enough for certain games for a certain audience. But in terms of creating the best in class PC VR where price isn’t a concern, then Valve Index seems to be emerging as the clear winner here.

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Disclosure: Valve provided me with a Valve Index for review

Full video of the Valve Index launch video featuring Valve engineer Jeremy Selan (see my oral history interview with Selan here) and Valve founder Gabe Newell

Video detailing Rift S tracking and occlusion issues in first-person shooters

Here’s a survey of the other coverage of the Valve Index launch.

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Music: Fatality

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