Valve's Knuckles controllers aren’t just prototypes anymore. The company is beginning to offer the new VR input devices to select developers so they can prepare their content for the peripheral's eventual retail release.
During the Steam Dev Days developer conference in October 2016, Valve demonstrated a prototype SteamVR controller that could potentially bring finger tracking to the HTC Vive. Oculus Touch controllers already include sensors for tracking your finger movement, but Valve’s Knuckles controllers do it better because you don’t have to hold them in your hands. The Knuckles controllers get strapped to your palm, which frees all five of your digits to allow you to use natural gestures and actions to interact with the virtual world.
In January, we learned that Valve was serious about developing the Knuckles controllers into a real product. Gabe Newell told a room full of journalists that Valve is actively working on three VR games and that the company is designing the controller alongside the games so it could produce better experiences.
“The big thing right now is broadening the range of options we have in creating experiences,” Newell said. “We think investing in hardware will give us those options. The knuckles controller is being designed at the same time as we're designing our own VR games.”
Valve said that it would take the feedback from the development community and roll some of the suggested changes into the next iteration of the hardware. We’re not sure how many prototypes Valve went through in the last six months, but the company is finally ready to roll its controllers out to a wider test group. On June 7, Valve launched the SteamVR Knuckles Group, which hosts resources for developers that have Knuckles controllers.
“To gain access this community, you will need to set up the Knuckles controllers Valve sent you or your company. Once you've installed the Knuckles driver, you will be able to participate in the discussions. Only participants of the Knuckles hardware testing group be able to post in the discussions,” reads the welcome post of the community page.
The SteamVR Knuckles Group welcome post also includes links to resources for developers to help familiarize them with the new controllers' features. Valve shared links for the Knuckles Quick Start Guide, an overview of the Knuckles controllers' capacitive sense capabilities, and guidelines to help developers remap their existing content for the new hardware. Valve created these guides for developers, but they also give the rest of us insight into what we can expect from the Knuckles controllers when they eventually come to market.
Knuckles Controller Overview
We already knew from the images that have emerged from Dev Days and other events that the Knuckles controllers include large round touchpads like the Vive controller. We also knew that the new controller features a wrap-around design that latches to the top of your hand and your palm. Valve also demonstrated that the controller would track your fingers, so we could infer that the controllers include capacitive sensors for your fingers.
We can now confirm our suspicions. The Knuckles Quick Start Guide features a diagram that highlights the controller’s features. The handle of the controller includes three capacitive sensors to track your middle, ring, and pinky fingers. The controller also keeps track of your thumb through the trackpad and face buttons, and your index finger via the trigger switch. The Cap Sense Capabilities guide goes into detail about how to put the capacitive sensors to use.
The diagram also shows the location of the LED status light, reveals that the strap has a mechanical release system, and points out where the USB charge port resides.
Deeper into the quickstart guide, Valve explains what the status light's colors represent. A solid blue light means the controller is powered on but not connected, a solid white light means the controller is connected, a flashing red light means the controller is receiving a firmware update, and a flashing blue light indicates that the controller is pairing to the HMD. The guide also reveals a surprising detail about pairing extra controllers to the Vive HMD. If you pair Knuckles controllers to a Vive headset, the Vive wands remain paired as well. You can swap between the two controller types on the fly. You just have to turn one set off before turning the other set on.
The Knuckles Quickstart Guide also indicates that the current revision of the controllers includes a 500mA internal battery that provides up to three hours of run time. The battery specifications could change before the hardware goes on sale.
Valve has not directly indicated when we might expect to see the Knuckles controllers hit the market, though the company did say we'd see the three games it’s building sometime this year. If the games rely on the new input device, as Valve has suggested, we would expect to see announcements about the hardware and software at the same time. We suspected we might see Valve’s new content at E3, but that didn’t happen. Perhaps the recent rollout of Knuckles Dev Kits suggests we might hear some news from Valve on this front in August at Gamescom, or in September at PAX.