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Valve Index VR headset to start at $499, ship before July

The company is looking to take on Facebook's Oculus, Sony's PlayStation VR and HTC's Vive with its high-end headset. Preorders start Wednesday.

Valve Index headset-17

Valve's VR headset launches this summer.

Valve

As if there weren't enough virtual reality headsets already, game maker Valve is preparing to release its own take on the technology.

It may see odd that Valve -- whose Steam online game store and popular adventure titles like Half-Life and Portal have made it a household fixture among gamers -- is choosing to release its first headset now. The device, called Valve Index, builds on technology the company developed with HTC for the Vive headset originally released in 2016.  It is available for preorder starting Wednesday and will ship by June 28, according to the company's store.

Valve said its headset, which brings two screens so close to your eyes that it tricks your brain into thinking you're in a computer-generated world, has sharper visuals and has controllers designed to be easier to use and better for gameplay than those of its competitors.

The new headset comes as Facebook's Oculus VR division prepared to release two new headsets, the $399 Oculus Quest and $399 Oculus Rift S, in the coming weeks. The Quest is designed to offer higher quality game experiences without connecting to a computer, while the Rift S promises sharper visuals and better sensors to track your movements.

Whether the new devices will draw users is anyone's guess. A recent IDC survey sponsored by PlayStation VR headset maker Sony found that VR headset sales in the US, UK, Germany, France and Japan rose 60% in 2018 to 3.9 million headsets, up from 2.4 million in 2017.

Here's everything to know about Valve's Index so far.

Valve's Knuckles controllers may look a little weird, but promise easier gameplay in the VR world.

Valve

It uses Valve's Knuckles controllers

There are already specialized controllers for Sony's PlayStation VR, HTC's Vive and Facebook's Oculus. Now, Valve is jumping into the game with its Knuckles controller. This device wraps around your -- you guessed it! -- knuckles and has sensors that track your fingers. Valve says there are 87 sensors in each controller, including for motion, force and finger placement.

The result is that you'll be able to reach out and grip something in the real world, and you'll see your hand grab something in the VR world. 

Index uses Valve's new Base Station sensors

Valve's original "Lighthouse" sensors, announced in 2015, were a hit among developers for more precisely tracking a person's movements as they walked around a room. The next generation of its sensors, called Base Station 2, can track you over a bigger area, Valve says.

Valve's Index has an unusual set of "off-ear" speakers that don't actually touch your ears.

Valve

Valve will sell you just the headset, just the controllers or just the sensors, if you like

The Valve Index headset alone will cost $499. A pair of the Knuckles controllers are $279. And a single Base Station 2 sensor costs $149.

You can also mix and match. A headset and controllers, for example, will cost $749. And a package of all the new headwear (the Valve Index headset, two room sensors and two Knuckles controllers) will cost $999.

The Valve Index has an unusual headphone setup

Most headsets offer headphones attached to them, like the Oculus Rift, or for you to plug in headphones of your own, like with the HTC Vive. The Valve Index has an unusual earpiece that it calls "near-field off-ear" speakers. 

The company says this technique produces more natural audio sounds and none of the typical discomfort that comes with wearing headphones for extended periods.

It's not Valve's first VR headset

While Valve may not have sold a VR headset before, it's been developing the technology for years. For example, the Base Station technology that helps power the HTC Vive was developed in part by Valve.