Sonic headset, Knuckle controllers
Are you ready for another VR headset to hit the market? Kinda? Too bad! Valve thinks so, and I’ve been putting the Index headset through its paces for the past month.
My verdict? It’s mostly a win for Valve, even if it isn’t a massive shift forward for the industry as a whole. I covered a lot of the fundamentals in this writeup, but here goes.
Input: One USB 3.0, one DisplayPort
MSRP: $999 (two base stations, two Index Controllers, Index headset) / $749 (Index headset, two Index Controllers) / $499 (Index headset)
Setup and tech
Although setup doesn’t feel nearly as smooth as a modern VR headset should, it was a lot simpler than my experience with the Vive. The new base stations feel much more receptive in terms of their field of view, so placing them around the room wasn’t too much trouble given that they’re wireless and just need their own AC adapter plug. If you want, you can also go up to four base stations as a result of the 2.0 shift.
Given that I already had SteamVR up and running it was a matter of just plugging in the headset (one USB, one DisplayPort, and yet another AC adapter) and I was good to go. Steam picked up the Index, new base stations, and the Knuckle controllers. I even tried setting up on a brand new machine that did not have SteamVR and it was relatively painless. If you have a compatible GPU you can use the VirtualLink system: it is not included.
With all that in mind, I’m hurting on space. The Index and the Oculus Rift S are competing for space right now and the Rift S is winning with its built-in headset tracking (which I haven’t had any major issues with so far). If you’re just replacing your Vive with your Index it’ll be more manageable, but note that multiple VR setups could be unwieldy. We should be getting away from more cords and wires if possible, as that’s the direction VR is going.
Here’s the tech breakdown: two panels with RGB LCD (not OLED) to help cut the screen door effect at 1440×1600, and a 120Hz refresh rate. This beats out most tech on the market (the Vive Pro has the same resolution with OLED, but a lesser refresh rate of 90Hz – the Rift S is 2560×1440 at 80Hz), which should please early adopters.
The Index might be the best-designed mass market VR headset to date when it comes to day-to-day usage.
It feels great on my head even throughout long term sessions, and although I’ve used a PSVR, Rift, and old school Vive for extended periods of time (read: over 10 hours) without a major issue in terms of comfort, the Index beats them all.
A lot of it is due to its built-in headphones, which rest over your ears but still pump out high highs and low lows. It’s night and day using the Index and any other VR headset in terms of how great the sound is, and Valve managed to accomplish this without forcing users to grab an third party solution. That’s a big win and one of the best aspects of the Index.
The actual design of the headset itself is stellar, as it’s super easy to slip on and off and doesn’t feel like a cheap piece of plastic. You can see where the money went.
Outside of the confines of the headset, the Knuckles (Index) controllers are another crowning achievement for Valve. I swear by the Oculus Touch remotes; I think they’re one of the best controllers ever made, but the Knuckles really won me over this past month.
It’s amazing to play something like Aperture Hand Lab (more on that in a moment), flick a robot off with individual finger movements, and have them react to it. See all that blank space where your hands wrap around? Sensors are picking up your fingers, which actually matter in games where you’re gripping objects, climbing walls, and reloading weaponry.
Charging them is also a breeze given that it’s easy enough to plug them in after a daily session, and there’s no concern over battery life. The Knuckles inputs are a metaphor for how the Index is pushing the envelope as a “generation 1.5,” similar to what the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X achieved in the console market.
So how far does Valve and the rest of the market really push the concept with actual games? Not super far, which leads us to our next point.
No, Half-Life VR is not a thing yet, and may never be a thing. The closest you’re going to get is Aperture Hand Lab: a parody of sorts of Portal, droids and all, that works as a sort of tutorial for your Knuckle remotes. In all you’re looking at around 15 minutes of Valve hilarity, then you’re done. There are a handful of Knuckle-updated games like Arizona Sunshine, Climbey, Vacation Simulator, and more are confirmed to be on the way like Boneworks.
So what’s left? Pretty much any existing HTC Vive enabled SteamVR game is at your fingertips. At this point, that’s a fairly hefty catalog you have at your disposal, all made better by the massive upgrade that is the Knuckles remotes when directly compared to the lacking Vive controllers. Even without full-on Knuckle support they still work as emulated Vive inputs and make every game with hand motions that much better. Fruit Ninja VR, Pavlov, Moondust, and Shadow Legend were all better when playing with Knuckles.
The only thing you’re really leaving on the table is the Rift store. Here are the games optimized for the Index right now.
How it stacks up against the Rift S and final thoughts
I’m in love with what the Oculus Quest is doing for VR right now. The tetherless approach is huge, and I know folks who are just now getting into VR for the first time because the Quest offers them a fairly powerful, self-contained machine, complete with the (still great) Oculus Touch remotes. It’s kind of a watershed moment for the industry as a whole.
That said, there is still plenty of room for VR experiences that demand a massive rig, and Valve is catering to that crowd hard with the Index. Part of the big sell of the headset is how open it is for tinkering, as Valve even made a special port just for long term support.
The Rift S also just came out, so it’s still fresh, but I’ve been splitting my time between the Rift S and the Index. The Oculus store has some really strong first-party games, but the Index isn’t a slouch either given that so many VR projects are coming to Steam in favor of multiplatform releases: gone are the days where Oculus can throw money at every studio.
In that sense, I’m torn. The Index does look a little better than the Rift S: you pay for that privilege. And the Knuckles remotes are more impressive on a technical level. But in a way, the Quest actually moves the goalposts entirely: I’ve been using my Quest more than either. In the end, there’s no clear “winner,” as VR has progressed to the point where pretty much everyone wins due to fierce competition.
Games matter the most. If you’re okay with the idea of a tethered headset and have a gaming PC, consider both the Index or Rift S: they’re each pioneers in their own way.
[Hardware was provided by the manufacturer for this assessment.]