Valve revealed surprising new details about the upcoming revision to Steam’s VR tracking technology. SteamVR Tracking 2.0 supports more than two basestations--but you'll need hardware with new sensors to use them.
Valve is telling its SteamVR Tracking Licensees to use an upcoming ASIC sensor design to build their upcoming SteamVR peripherals. The company announced that this fall SteamVR Tracking licensees would have access to new tracking hardware that would support additional basestations and larger tracking volumes. Surprisingly, the new basestations are not compatible with existing sensors, which leaves the HTC Vive high and dry.
Until now, Valve has remained adamant that Lighthouse hardware should be interchangeable and backwards compatible. Chet Faliszek, the former face of Valve’s VR business, told Tom’s Hardware during our visit to the SteamVR Developer Showcase in 2016 that the earliest Vive developer hardware is compatible with current basestations and vice versa. The departure from that mantra is surprising, but understandable.
We already knew that Valve was developing new basestations for SteamVR. The company revealed as much during the Steam Dev Days conference in October 2016 and made the information public in a YouTube video of the Steam Dev Days presentation released that November. Valve revealed that the next generation Lighthouse basestations would feature a simplified construction with fewer internal components. The company also said the new hardware would be lighter and smaller than HTC’s hardware, and more affordable to build thanks to the new single motor design (current models have two).
We learned a little bit about the upcoming hardware in February when Valve invited a select group of journalists to its headquarters for a Q&A. Valve didn’t extend an invitation to Tom’s Hardware for the Q&A event, but fortunately, the Valve News Network recorded the session about the SteamVR discussion and published it online. Valve revealed that the new basestations would feature a wider field of view than the current HTC Vive Lighthouse basestations. Gabe Newell also mentioned that the new basestation design would enable “house-scale” tracking volumes.
We weren’t sure how “house-scale” tracking would work, but Valve’s recent announcement gives us a whole lot more insight into the upgraded hardware and how it differs from the current lighthouse basestations. We now know how “house-scale” tracking would work, and we’re sad to say that the current HTC Vive won’t be able to support it.
Valve’s new tracking system relies on two things: a new type of IR sensor and a more sophisticated base station design. The current Lighthouse basestations emit a passive signal, which the headset and peripherals detect to triangulate their position. That system works well, but it’s limited to two basestations, because the sensors can’t tell which lighthouse is which. Having more than two basestations would throw the triangulation calculation off.
Valve’s new approach relies on laser-based data transmission to inject basestation identification information into the signal. This allows Valve to add extra basestations to extend the tracking space. Each basestation sends a unique identification signal, which allows the headset to determine where a given laser beam originated. The catch with this approach is that current hardware can’t support the new signal technology because the current sensor revision can’t accept laser-based communications.
The Vive Sensor
Valve developed the Vive IR sensors specifically for the Lighthouse tracking system. The company pieced together off-the-shelf parts to build the first generation. The company said the first-generation sensors comprise 41 individual parts. It managed to reduce the size of the first-generation sensors so they would fit into the Vive headset and controllers, but the final product remained complex and expensive to produce.
New Sensor Hardware
In September 2016, Valve started talking about a second-generation Lighthouse sensor that would be easier and cheaper to manufacture, which would make it possible to offer the technology to licensees at scale. Valve’s new sensor, which it calls the TS3633, is no longer a mishmash of off-the-shelf components. The new sensor hardware features an ASIC chip, which does the job of many different parts. Triad Semiconductors helped Valve reduce the sensor construction from 41 components down to 11 parts.
Following the announcement of the TS3633 sensors, Valve revealed that the sensors would be readily available for OEMs to purchase from Triad Semiconductor to use in their product designs.
It hasn’t even been a year since Valve and Triad Semiconductors released the TS3633 to OEMs, and third-party companies haven’t started shipping products with the sensors in them yet, but the sensors are already obsolete. In Late June, Triad Semiconductors will offer TS4231 sensors, which are cheaper to manufacture than the TS3633 because the company managed to reduce the assembly to five components. The new sensors also support laser-based data transmission, which opens the doors to the new basestation hardware. The TS3633 sensors are still viable, but they won’t support tracking setups with more than two basestations.
Valve’s new tracking technology is half backwards compatible. Vive headsets, wand controllers, and peripherals with TS3633 sensors aren’t compatible with Steam VR Tracking 2.0 basestations, but new peripherals with the latest sensors would still work with Steam VR Tracking 1.0 basestations.
Available Later This Year
Valve said that Triad Semiconductors would begin selling TS4231 sensors by the end of June barring any unforeseen challenges. The company also revealed that the next generation basestations would be “available in production quantities” in November 2017. Developers who would like engineering samples in the meantime should contact Valve, as those should be available this month.