Since announcing the ‘Knuckles’ controller prototype all the way back in 2016, Valve has been relatively quiet about its progress outside of a select group of developers who have been experimenting with early development kits. That changed this week as Valve offered up a major information dump, showcasing the latest Knuckles dev kit with a significant design overhaul, alongside a new tech demo designed to demonstrate what the controllers are capable of.
If you haven’t been following closely, let’s recap up to this point. While the HTC Vive shipped with its wand controllers back in 2016, Valve revealed later that year that it was developing a brand new VR controller, dubbed ‘Knuckles’, which aimed to make VR interactions more intuitive and immersive by rethinking how users should hold and interact with their input device. Though early indications suggested Valve was on a smart path with this new VR controller approach, it was apparently quite early in the development of the device, as its been a solid year and eight months since that initial reveal, with still no indication of when the controllers might come to market.
However, this week Valve made a major info dump on Knuckles, revealing the very latest dev kit, dubbed ‘EV2’, which brings big changes to prior prototypes while looking all around much closer to being a finished product. The company says “hundreds of developers” will soon have their hands on EV2 to begin experimenting with input and offering feedback for further improvements.
EV2’s most immediately apparent change is to its visible inputs. Earlier versions of Knuckles were built around the large trackpad paradigm that was central to the design of the original Vive controllers. EV2 on the other hand introduces a thumbstick and more centralized buttons, and significantly shrinks the trackpad down into what Valve is calling a ‘track button’: a smaller trackpad surface which rests between the stick and the buttons. From Valve’s latest posts on the new controllers, the decision to add a thumbstick appears to have been driven in a large part by feedback from developers—Oculus heard something similar when they made a large trackpad the primary input mechanism on early versions of the Santa Cruz controllers.
But there’s more to EV2, both on the outside and under the hood. The outward appearance looks much more polished and closer to consumer-ready than previous versions of Knuckles, now with SteamVR Tracking sensors hidden completely under the controller’s housing. An ergonomic overhaul aims to fit a wider variety of hands (Valve says they’re targeting hand sizes between the 5th and 95th percentiles); along with a ‘tracking fin’ which offers more room, the strap which holds the controller to the hand has seen adjustments to its shape and now has an adjustment which lets users change the position of the top mounting point for a customized fit.
Beneath its exterior, EV2 still has plenty of newness. While previous versions of Knuckles used capacitive sensing to track the position of the user’s fingers along the grip of the controller, a new force sensor, which detects actual grip force, further enhances the controller’s ability to understand what a user’s hand is doing, and its ability to bring that information into the virtual world.
The track button also has a force sensor which, combined with haptics, can simulate the click of a button (whereas the original Vive controllers have a trackpad with an actual button click). The thumbstick and face buttons also have capacitive sensing, making it easy for the controller to know where the user’s fingers are at all times, and represent that information in the virtual world.
Valve says they’ve spent significant effort to fuse all of the sensing information from the controllers together to make it easier for developers to understand user intent, especially with regard to actions like picking up, dropping, and throwing objects. The company has devised a system which dynamically interprets sensor input to understand the difference, for example, between a user wanting to drop an object vs. simply relaxing their grip on it. Thanks to the strap design, Knuckles is made to allow users to fully release the controller for a natural throwing motion. Valve seems very proud of what they’ve been able to achieve with regard to intuitive input, calling EV2 “a new step in natural and precise VR interaction.”
To demonstrate what the controller can do, Valve created a new tech demo called Moondust. Set in the ‘Portal’ universe, Moondust is a playground for EV2, where users can experience the force sensor by grabbing and crushing moon rocks, use the new thumbstick by driving a remote controlled moon buggy, precisely assemble a space station, and get a feel for natural throwing by tossing grenades in the throwing range.
Moondust won’t work without Knuckles controllers, which makes sense considering it’s designed to help developers understand the capabilities of Knuckles EV2 as they begin to experiment with how the controllers could enhance their own content.
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While there’s still no word on when Knuckles will launch to consumers, nor any indication of price, these latest details from Valve show a rapidly maturing device both in functionality and production readiness. And while we’d love to see them sooner rather than later, there’s a good argument to be made that they won’t debut until Valve is ready to launch one of their upcoming VR games, which may not happen for some time yet.