Valve’s Vive Knuckles Controllers revealed

Today is a good day: thanks to an online documentation update published by Valve and spotted by UploadVR, we’re able to get a better idea of how the upcoming Valve’s Knuckles controllers will look like!

First of all… if you forgot: what are the Knuckles Controllers? Knuckles are the second generation of controllers for Vive headset. Vive is a great headset, but has something where it is weak with respect to Oculus and this is the controllers: Oculus Touch controllers are really more comfortable and offer pseudo full-hand tracking. You have emulation of the thumb, index and middle fingers, so you can actually take objects and then throw them away in a natural way; you can shoot, like in Robo Recall and have an insane amount of fun; you can see your hands and make thumbs up gesture (Facebook likes this). Valve has an excellent tracking technology, but its controllers are a bit more rough, they are like magic wands with which you can make various actions.

virtual reality Oculus Touch review
Oculus Touch controllers don’t like the present Vive ones

Valve tried to answer to Touch announcing that it was working on a second version of its controllers, that would have been able to offer full-hand emulation as well. These controllers are called the Knuckles and have been announced in October 2016, when a VR influencer has been able to test them. After that, we have had no more infos about them. Until now.

Some days ago, on Twitter, appeared for the first time the 3d models of the Knuckles controllers, spotted by a Twitter user in the latest SteamVR update.

We immediately felt that something big was coming… finally we could have the chance to have a look to the final form of this input device. Then, today, Steam has published a preliminary guide for Knuckles, offering initial details on them. The guide begins with

You or your company will receive the Knuckles Dev Kit directly from Valve.

So I guess that some beta testers are going to receive them (I’m so envious, of course!). The guide comes paired with the release of a driver for them, that features support for all SteamVR platform (Windows, Linux, Mac). Everything is ready, then.

Vive SteamVR knuckles revealed
SteamVR page dedicated to Knuckles controllers

The guide specifies how to use this version of the controllers. It is specified that it is only a dev-kit and that everything is just in preliminar version.

To use Knuckles, you have to use SteamVR beta (of course, since this is an experimental feature), then pair the devices and install their driver.

SteamVR knuckles controllers released
SteamVR beta showing that there are Knuckles controllers attached: notice that hexagon with a C inside (Image by SteamVR)

After that, the user can wear the magical controllers. Instructions are like this:

  1. Slip your fingers between the body of the controller and the soft strap
  2. Tighten by pulling on the looped cord at bottom of the controller
  3. Loosen by pressing the release button near the bottom of the strap
SteamVR knuckles controllers release
How to wear the knuckles controllers (Image by Valve)

The thing that I appreciate a lot is that the controllers are completely tight to the user’s hand. This means that finally we’ll be able to open and close the hand freely. With Oculus Touch, you have to keep at least one of the fingers closed (like the pinky) to continue holding the controller… otherwise it just slips away. With Knuckles this is not necessary: look the above GIF: the user completely open his hands and the controller stays firmly inside it! Throwing objects will surely be amazing…

There’s one issue I’m thinking about: comfort. How will be comfortable to have something that “squeezes” your hand? I mean, usage for 3-4 hours of something so tight can be comfortable? At this moment, I don’t know… I would like to try them to discover that (Vive, if you’re reading this… send me one!)

At current stage, Knuckles require a calibration stage to be used. Calibration is performed simply by opening and closing your hand around the controller. Again, copying the instructions:

  1. Make sure your controller is cinched comfortably
  2. Close your hand around the controller for one second–don’t squeeze! Make sure your index finger is resting on the Trigger.
  3. Quickly open your hand and hold it open for one second.
  4. The last three calibration events are stored in the controller’s memory, and the median result is used for finger tracking. So, from a cold start, two good calibrations will fill the buffer and finger tracking should begin working.
SteamVR Valve knuckles controllers revealed
Calibration stage of the Knuckles: it’s very very simple (Image by Valve)

What is this calibration useful to? We don’t know, but my guess is that it serves the device to detect:

  • How the fingers of the users are (some users have little fingers, other big ones; some have fatter ones, some have slimmer ones, etc…)
  • Understand for this particular user how each finger is when open and when closed

So, after having seen for a particular user how each finger is when it is closed and opened, then the controller can detect the pose of the hand, so exactly which fingers are opened and which ones are closed. This calibration process is very simple, but Valve is studying how to remove that for the final consumers release (maybe it’ll gather calibration data from all the beta testers and try to reconstruct a best-case calibration for the majority of users?). Anyway, in this moment it is necessary and from the guide it seems that the device will have to be recalibrated quite often.

Recalibrations will occur automatically over the course of a play session as you reach out to grab items, throw things, etc. This is both expected and necessary, as your skin capacitance will change over time. The intent is for the controller to adjust to these changes automatically after the initial calibration has been performed.

It’s normal, they’re experimental, so detection is still far from optimal.

Once the controller is set up, it’s ready to be used for instance inside the new Steam VR Home Beta, where finally our avatar can do some rock and roll hand gestures!

SteamVR Home beta Knuckles controllers
Yaaaaay! Full hands tracking! (Image by Valve)

The controllers can be used up to 3 hours, then they need to be recharged via USB (1 hour of recharge needed). This data of course is relative to this dev-kit version… we don’t know if consumers’ one will be like that (I hope not). Vive controllers will continue to be rechargeable and I love this: I hate of Oculus Touch the fact that I have to replace my batteries…

If you want a scheme of the controllers… well, here you are!

Knuckles controllers Vive
SteamVR knuckles controllers scheme (Image by Valve)

As you can see, all five fingers are tracked and this is a leap forward, since the Oculus Touch actually tracks only 3. As in the Touch, the thumb controls a trackpad (in Touch actually it is a thumbstick) and some buttons; the index finger controls a trigger, that is ideal for shooting games. What actually changes is the control for the other three fingers: here there are three sensors to detect if middle, ring and pinky fingers are opened or closed (I guess that the calibration is necessary especially for these ones). My only question is if these sensors will be able to detect only finger open/finger closed, in a binary state, or if will be able to estimate the exact pose of the fingers. My bet is on the first one.

This will mean that we’ll have an improved version of Touch, but IMHO it will not be a dirsruptive innovation… to me it seems more like an incremental one. Knuckles offer more features, but to me they do not look like game-changing controllers. They still have the same problem of not-offering real full hand emulation and I still think that Leap Motion is at the moment the only device offering an exact emulation of the hand pose (even if it has other issues, like the absence of haptics). About haptics, it is still not clear how Knuckles offer them… but I think that it will be emulated with some kind of vibration.

As a final detail: the Status LED that you see in the picture can have different colors, to indicate different statuses of the controller:

SteamVR Knuckles controllers Valve
Different possible colors of the Status LED (Image by Valve)

And that’s it with the latest info on Knuckles controllers. As you can see, they seem a very interesting device. About the release date, we don’t know. We are all wondering if they’ll be associated with the new upcoming SteamVR Tracking 2.0… and so if they’ll be released paired with the Ligthouses stations of this new tracking methodology. Or if they will be released with the LG headsets. (Don’t think so, LG has its own controllers…) Or… will they be bundled with the Vive 2? We’ll see…

Hope you liked this news, if it is the case, share this article and subscribe to my newsletter to not miss my next ones! Cheers!

UPDATE: news on these controllers are coming out, in a next post I’ll write them. Here I’ll leave you a video recorded by a Knuckles developer!

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AR/VR developer, startupper, zombie killer. Sometimes I pretend I can blog, but actually I've no idea what I'm doing. I tried to change the world with my startup Immotionar, offering super-awesome full body virtual reality, but now the dream is over. But I'm not giving up: I've started an AR/VR agency called New Technology Walkers with which help you in realizing your XR dreams with our consultancies (Contact us if you need a project done!)

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