Valve’s march toward launching new virtual reality video games—perhaps up to three of them—got more interesting on Thursday with the announcement of an update to the company’s next official piece of VR hardware. After a quiet 2016 unveil, the “Knuckles” controller is back with a major revision.
Dubbed Knuckles EV2, the mold-to-your-hand controller is still a developer-only prototype, but a huge dump of official information reveals how far Valve has gone to craft what might be the ultimate VR controller: a smart twist on how hands work in virtual space and a bonus slew of buttons for older legacy games.
Grab, squeeze, and release
The only part about Knuckles to survive Valve’s revision process is its basic concept. Unlike other popular controllers, Knuckles firmly braces to the back of your hand via a drawstring. In this position, VR users can wrap their fingers and palm around the primary wand portion or open their hands up fully and move individual fingers—whose motions are translated via sensors and rendered in whatever software you’re playing.
The first significant change comes from the grip portion, which has received a new “grip force sensor.” Calling it the VR equivalent of an “analog trigger” on a standard gamepad is accurate but also misleading. That’s because Valve is trying to solve a problem unique to VR: that sensation of picking up and operating objects with hands in a virtual environment. As Valve’s Lawrence Yang writes:
With the first generation of VR controllers, picking up objects was a button press or trigger pull. The nice thing about this is it is a known concept to gamers. This is pretty similar to how we’ve been interacting with objects in games for decades now. But we’re not playing games anymore, we’re experiencing realities, often with gameplay! But that brings with it significantly more complexity.
If I pick something up by pulling a trigger then I can either no longer use that trigger to release that object, or I can’t interact with that object using the trigger. Think about a fire extinguisher: if I pick it up with the trigger how do I spray it?
In that fire extinguisher example, a VR user can lightly rest their fingers on the new grip force sensor to simulate picking the object up—with a slight haptic-feedback jolt to confirm that physical “pick-up” action. Then, a free index finger can reach for Knuckles EV2’s trigger to activate the object. In similar fashion, picking up and throwing objects should feel more natural. Instead of simulating a pick-up with a single button press, users can more naturally use all of their fingers to grab a baseball—then let go during a throwing motion (which is aided by its firm hand-brace).
That grip can also recognize degrees of intensity, which Valve illustrates by way of a squeezy-doll demo. Here’s a nine-second video to illustrate its impact:
The VR possibilities for this grip-sensor range from explosive (feel specific haptic feedback when you grab a shotgun’s pump) to quirky (squeeze tubes to drop paint onto a canvas). For the most part, this upgrade appears to make existing VR interactions feel more natural as opposed to creating entirely new ways to play (and thus deprecating older controllers).
To that point, the thumb-driven top of the Knuckles controller has been totally revamped. Say goodbye to a giant trackpad and hello to a much smaller “thumbpad,” flanked on each hand’s controller by traditional buttons and a joystick.
This thumbpad will emulate the HTC Vive wand’s larger trackpad, though with a larger stress on Y-axis movement (and a “surprising” amount of left-to-right swiping recognition). It will also function as a pressure-sensitive “big button,” which is a significant upgrade from the binary on-or-off sensing of the Vive’s trackpad.
This is also Valve’s first-ever VR controller to include a joystick—which finally sees the company accept the value of a directional input that automatically centers itself, as opposed to demanding that VR games include faked joysticks or steering wheels for such VR use cases. Each Knuckles EV2 joystick is situated closer to the user’s palm, with a pair of buttons on the outside of the palm. Demo videos indicate that the thinner, centered thumbpad is set in such a way as to make thumb movement between these elements feel effortless.
Otherwise, the EV2’s range of design and aesthetic upgrades is likely more meaningful to anyone who went hands-on with the original prototype and felt its comfort, button placement, drawstring, and finger-sensing systems were lacking. Having never gone hands- or knuckles-on with these controllers, we only have Valve’s word when considering improvements to hand-size support, increased battery life, and other quality-of-life factors.
EV2 compared to original Knuckles, as posted by longtime VR developer Colin Northway pic.twitter.com/cRDAjG3QPo
— ColinNorthway (@ColinNorthway) June 21, 2018
But the biggest takeaway might come from this clear and lengthy EV2 reveal, delivered by Valve with explanations and demo videos. Comparatively, the first Knuckles reveal was largely filtered through SteamVR partners who’d gotten early hardware and posted their own impressions. (The above image is from one longtime VR developer comparing the old controller to the new one.) Valve’s PR moves may very well indicate that this product is ready for prime time, if not a slew of compatible, made-by-Valve games (finally!).
Update, 5:33 p.m. ET: In an email to Ars Technica, Valve’s Doug Lombardi confirmed that “a few hundred” EV2 prototypes have already been shipped to VR software developers, with plans to send more to “a small set of developers.” When asked why the company offered more public information about this prototype than the original Knuckles version, Lombardi explained that “we just want to inform as many creatives as possible who might be working in this space.”
“Iteration is a big deal at Valve,” Lombardi said about the controller’s current status. “So, we will definitely be making updates based on feedback. Whether that happens in the software or the physical hardware may vary depending on what we hear from the dev community.”
When pressed about an eventual consumer-version release, Lombardi told Ars that “more information will be made available soon.”
Listing image by Valve Software