Purveyors of new tech are always going to get caught up in a Catch 22 situation. Anyone remembering that Kevin Costner movie can relate to the worries of manufacturing companies – if we build it, will they come?
And so it is with virtual reality headsets as we take a good look at the Valve Index, the people behind the Half Life saga amd Team Fortress. It costs around the £1,000 mark making it somewhat problematic. The Valve Index is, without a doubt, utterly sensational with the quality it produces inside of VR games, but there is still that price and a shortage of a plethora of top notch titles, even on Steam. Not enough people are playing VR – simple as that. More people play VR, more games will be made.
There is no doubt in the world that this works – put the Index on, and you may as well be in this new world being presented to you, but it will cost you £1,000 and then some more biggish bucks to have a PC to drive it all. Unfortunately, that means you’ve got to have a pretty hefty budget behind you, to get yourself up and running.
But if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in that situation, then you can expect to receive an enormous box that’s got a staggeringly slick design. Inside is the fully adjustable headset, thanks to the velcro head strap and rear dial that tightens the headset to your face. Theres’s three cables hardwired to the headset: one is a USB 3.0 for the headset cameras and the other goes into your graphics card’s Display Port, while the third goes into power. You don’t need a HDMI per se, though plug your monitor or TV into an HDMI port and others in the room can see what the player is seeing, which is nice feature. Take note, the cable from the headset to desktop is only five meters long, so you are limited on how far you can be from the headset.
The headset itself is extremely comfortable to use, weighing in at around 800 grams, and I never felt any kind of pressure from the weight on my head. The only fatigue I found is with my eyes, but that was only after extended periods of play.
For the whole thing to work, you need to place the two included satelite radar receivers either side of your play area, which in turn will pick up the sensors of the controllers and headset. Both sensors need power, so ensure you’ve got power outlets close by. We can’t help but notice the satellites do have an audible whine to them. No worries when playing, but you would not want to leave them switched on in a very quiet room.
They’re compatible with SteamVR 2.0 and they do a superb job of tracking you in your play area. It’s a bit of a shame that something like this still uses sensors to detect movement, but I was extremely impressed at how accurate they were inside of games. I never experienced dropped connections.
The controllers, which have been branded ‘knuckle controllers’ due to the plastic which surrounds your hands needed to be charged from the box. Cables are supplied but they do use USB Type-C connectivity, and are compatible with fast charging from a mobile phone plug. Once fully charged, they’re ready to go for about eight hours of game time. They’re fairly sturdy and extremely light, but I wouldn’t go throwing them around the room. There’s an adjustable hand strap you can tighen to your hands.
When you first set up the Index, you’ll need to go through an initial setup process. Follow all the steps on screen, which included running through some pretty long updates and also needing to trace out your play area, and you’ll be good to jump into your downloaded games.
As soon as you fire up the Steam VR app, you are placed in a very stylish room, which is worth exploring on its own. One wall has your available Steam games which you have already downloaded. You’ll see a list of recent VR games that you have downloaded, but you can dive into the actual Steam app to purchase new titles, rather than taking off the headset and using a mouse and keyboard.
If you have never used a VR system before, the first time you put on the headset can be a major shock to your balance system. You can literally walk around and if you ignore your traced out safety zone, which is clearly marked on-screen with a blue warning grid, there is a good chance you are going to collide with some of your furniture or walls.
There’s a sliding control on the underside of the headset that alters the width of the dual-element lenses so you can easily pick the right position for you, and a dial on the left hand side opens up the field of vision up to 130-degrees which isi breathtaking in itself, and a major improvement over other VR headsets on the market. Be cautious though, this could play tricks on your brain, and those suceptible to motion sickness may feel uneasy. The dual element factor inside the headset also provides better edge to edge focus and clarity which also allows you to look around with just your eyes, rather than HAVING to move your head.
Sound is delivered through the built-in adjustable ear speakers. Stick them up close to the ears and you will not hear anything in the real world, including warnings from friends and family that you are about to march into a wall. They’re very loud, but definitely add to the immersion of the game you are playing. The quality isn’t bad either. The music in Beat Saber was punchy and clear, while cutscenes and characters talking to me in Half Life: Alyx was very present.
Playing with the Valve Index gets the adrenalin going for sure, especially in more action packed titles or even horror games, and because of this, a player may sweat. A normal human function. We all do it. A nice touch though is the magnetic removable eye piece which can then easily be wiped down, or even replaced. We don’t know if you can buy spares but would be a nice idea.
So how about some tech specs. Each eye can see a resolution of 2880×1600 combined with a display refresh rate or 120 Hz and an experimental 144 Hz mode. To compare, the closest priced headset to the Valve Index is the HTC Vive Cosmos, which will give you a 2880×1700 pixels combined and a 90Hz refresh rate, so you do lose out on that super smooth action with the Vive Cosmos. The field of vision on the Valve Index is a deeply impressive 130 degrees, while the Vive Cosmos comes in at 110 degrees. Both headsets mentioned here have audio supplied by internal off-ear speakers and there is a built-in microphone for some multiplayer fun.
Keeping the chances of barfing while playing down, Valve Index say they displays have a reduced illumination period of 0.330ms to 0.530ms which is framerate dependent, allowing imagery to remain just as sharp when your head is in motion as when you’re standing still. They say this is a 5x improvement over first-generation PC VR HMDs.
Everyone of all ages need to sample this quality of VR – the immersion is truly breath-taking. Join us again soon when we have a chat about some of the VR titles out there.