Valve Index is a 120Hz-plus 'fidelity first' VR headset, and it isn't cheap

Valve's new VR system has been unveiled. The Valve Index headset and Index Controllers (formerly called 'knuckles' controllers) will be available for pre-order starting tomorrow, and will begin shipping by July 1.

By itself, the headset will go for $499. With the two Base Stations, which you'll need unless you already have an HTC Vive setup, as well as the new controllers, a full Valve Index kit will set you back $999.

The only mainstream consumer VR system more expensive than the Index is the HTC Vive Pro, which costs $1,399 for the full setup. But Valve's press briefing suggests that the Index is even better than the Vive Pro.

Before we investigate whether that's backed up by the specs, some clarification is in order for those who haven't followed the VR market closely. Valve created SteamVR, which is a hardware and software tracking system designed to support headsets and controllers from multiple manufactures. So far, the HTC Vive has been the primary SteamVR headset, so it's generally been considered 'Valve's headset' even though it's made by HTC. The Valve Index, on the other hand, was designed and produced by Valve. 

You can say that the Index is a first-party SteamVR headset, whereas the Vive is a third-party SteamVR headset.

The headset

Here's what Valve says the Index headset and new Base Stations offer:

  • 1440x1600 resolution per eye (same as Vive Pro)
  • Another factor to sharpness: "Custom full-RGB LCD" display with "50% more subpixels than OLED"
  • Persistence of .330ms, which "increases sharpness during motion"
  • High FOV with custom lenses
  • Lens adjustment is done "right"
  • "High geometric stability (straight lines stay straight)"
  • "Optical canting" which "balances inner and outer FOV" and software that ensures "devs don't have to worry about it"
  • 120Hz refresh rate with "experimental" 144Hz mode
  • Backward compatible with games designed for 90Hz screens
  • Built in speakers that don't touch your ears
  • "Modablility" through "Frunk USB space and stereo cameras" (We'll have more on that when we know more about it.)
  • Base Stations 2.0 (the sensors you mount over your playspace) have longer range, wider FOV
  • Index is compatible with 1.0 Base Stations, too

In short, Valve is all-in on fidelity—at least, as all-in as it can be without making the Index even more expensive than it already is. We haven't tested one yet, so we can't back up the subjective claims, but the first customers are likely to be enthusiastic and wealthy Vive owners, so all will be put to the test soon.

Valve says that minimizing the screen door effect—that is, perceiving pixels due to them being inches from your eyeballs—comes down to more than just resolution. Its custom display provides "great fill," says the company, which provides "minimal" screen dooring. That's illustrated in the slide below:

The custom lens also "achieves sharpness across large FOV and across large 'eyebox' (human eye range of travel)," says Valve. That's how it claims it can offer a perceived 20 degree larger FOV than the Vive while also appearing crisp. 

Valve also says that the Index is the first headset to get lens adjustment "right." The lenses will sit closer to your eyes with the Index, it says, and that will allow "all users to experience maximum FOV." 

(We'll see how it fits over my glasses, because none of the existing headsets have done that very well. I asked about it, and Valve's Doug Lombardi told me that the adjustability should still provide the full FOV even with glasses, assuming the glasses fit. The headset is "designed to fit most" glasses, he said, though there are "always exceptions." I guess my comically-oversized clown glasses are staying in the drawer then.)

Comfort is also emphasized with a phrase that made me laugh: "careful geometry targeting 95% of adult heads."

Also contributing to comfort are the "nearfield off-ear speakers" which actually use speaker drivers instead of headphone drivers. Valve says they offer more natural-sounding, higher fidelity audio ("big increase to spatial presence"), and are obviously more comfortable since there's no contact with your ears at all.

The controllers

The new Index Controllers, which were known as 'knuckles' controllers when they were being prototyped, sound very fancy as well. Rather than button presses, the Index Controllers use 87 sensors per controller—"optical, motion, capacitive, and force"—to figure out what your hands, and even individual fingers, are doing. 

The controllers "enable direct actions (pickup/drop, throw, grab, pinch, squeeze, gesture) simply by using your hands," says Valve.

The Index Controllers will work with older base stations and headsets, as well as older VR games, because they do have the standard buttons and a thumbstick on top of all the sensors. They also include a "track button," which is a "combination trackpad and force enabled button for a variety of functions."

Compatibility and pricing

Backward compatibility is a theme in the announcement. The new Base Stations will also work with the HTC Vive Pro, and the Valve Index and Index Controllers will work with older Base Stations. 

If you already have a Vive setup, that means you can opt to keep your existing Base Stations and just buy the Index headset, though presumably you'll want the Index Controllers, too. That'll still be a hit to your bank account. Here's the pricing:

  • Full VR Kit - $999 / £919 / €1,079
  • Index headset & controllers - $749 / £689 / €799
  • Index headset standalone - $499 / £459 / €539
  • Index controllers (2) - $279 / £259 / €299
  • Base Station 2.0 (1) - $149 / £139 / €159

For contrast, the Oculus Rift goes for $700 for the kit (update: right now, that is, but it was down to $400 before being discontinued), and the HTC Vive is $500, while a full HTC Vive Pro kit is $1,400.

With its next Oculus Rift, Facebook has opted to lower the price and reduce the setup and calibration hassle. The Oculus Rift S will only cost $400, and does not use external sensors. It will offer 1280x1440 resolution per eye, and lowers the refresh rate to 80Hz.

Valve, in typical Valve fashion, has gone the opposite route with the Index. Not only does the full package cost more than twice what the Rift S will, you'll need a reasonably powerful PC to hit 120 or 144 fps in VR games and take advantage of its high refresh rates. 

If we take Valve at its word, the Index will be the most advanced mainstream consumer headset available, and its controllers, if they work as advertised, will be significantly more advanced than the Oculus Touch controllers. It's a fantastic-sounding VR system that I look forward to trying, though certainly not a VR system for the masses.

As for games, we didn't hear anything about the three "big" VR games Valve has been working on, except that a "flagship" Valve VR game is coming later this year. The Index will work with any game built for the SteamVR platform (and any other games that can be hacked to work with SteamVR).

The Index will be available for pre-order in the US and EU starting tomorrow. There's no word yet on when other regions will be able to place orders. The hardware is expected to ship before the end of June.