HomeGamingA new “standalone” Valve VR headset teased by deep SteamVR file dive

A new “standalone” Valve VR headset teased by deep SteamVR file dive

What might the next Valve VR headset look like? Will it resemble the existing Valve Index, complete with a
Enlarge / What might the next Valve VR headset look like? Will it resemble the existing Valve Index, complete with a “frunk” and giant, hovering speakers? And will it ever launch at retail? Those details remain unclear, but our reporting suggests something that features Oculus Quest-like “standalone” operability.

Aurich Lawson | Ars Technica

What’s in the future for VR headsets made by Valve, who launched the pricey, bulky, and impressive Valve Index in August 2019? The best information in the wild right now seems to be coming from Valve themselves—with datamining discoveries and patent applications adding up to something that looks like a brand-new Valve VR system with some form of built-in wireless functionality.

Sources familiar with matters at Valve have confirmed to Ars that information in the wild is legitimate—at least, in terms of products being made within Valve’s headquarters, though not necessarily seeing retail launch.

A new, unclear “ism”

This week’s information roundup comes courtesy of VR industry reporter and YouTube channel host Brad Lynch, who received a tip after tracking months of Valve patent applications. The tip came in the form of a code-named device, “Deckard,” mentioned in SteamVR’s publicly available branches from as far back as January. Ars can confirm the legitimacy of “Deckard” as a code-named device worked on inside of Valve’s headquarters.

The information gleaned by Lynch points to multiple iterations of this new code-named headset, including an updated “proof of concept” version referenced this June, along with the ability to activate a “Valve internal menu” that brings up two new SteamVR menu options. These options, dubbed “prism” and “standalone system layer,” have yet to be activated in meaningful ways, so their names and meaning remain a matter of speculation. The latter term, “standalone,” implies that the hardware might work all by itself—as opposed to, say, being plugged into a computer or tracked by Valve’s unwieldy SteamVR Tracking Boxes.

The word “standalone” happens to describe Facebook’s Oculus Quest platform, which can either wirelessly connect to a powerful PC or run software using its own weaker, built-in hardware. Lynch points to a DLL that can be found in public SteamVR filesets, which currently includes calls about 160MHz wireless signals. However, his speculation about this doesn’t necessarily confirm anything about an upcoming wireless Valve VR system, since that speed rating matches the WiFi 6 controller found in Oculus Quest 2 headsets.

Perhaps the most tantalizing mention of “Deckard” came from a string that Lynch discovered in a SteamVR Linux ARM binary, which hints to, but doesn’t outright confirm, some form of processing built into a new Valve VR headset—as opposed to sending calls to a connected system like a gaming PC.

Multiple VR concepts had been in the works

Sources have previously told Ars Technica that Valve had multiple VR headset design concepts in the works, and in the concept stage, these diverged. During this pre-production phase, one prototype concept more closely resembled the Valve Index, in terms of requiring some kind of connection to a PC and the existing SteamVR Tracking Boxes. The other revolved around a built-in processor a la Oculus Quest with aspirations to ditch external tracking boxes and adopt Quest-like “inside-out tracking.”

The sources also suggest Valve previously had trouble getting any form of inside-out tracking to match the performance of Oculus Quest, and the company brought on at least one outside firm to work on a competitive option. Such a system’s efficiency could very well have changed in the time since Ars heard these reports.

Lynch’s video tries to connect the dots of prior patent filings about what may come in a future Valve VR headset model, and in at least one respect, his report is on the right track: updated optics. Ars’ sources point to public documents filed by companies like Facebook about the future of VR optics technology, which revolve around lenses that can be closer to a user’s face—and offer better performance, better weight distribution, and more comfortable virtual movement. They suggest that Valve is moving in a similar direction for whatever shape its next headset may take.

Neither Lynch’s report nor any of Ars’s reporting has dug up any hint of Valve developing an upgrade for existing Index headsets through the front-trunk (“frunk”) port on its face. Valve representatives did not immediately respond to Ars Technica’s questions about the code-named Deckard device.

“These are some really interesting debug commands that [Valve is] throwing out there without encryption,” Lynch says incredulously at the end of his report—though Valve has a track record of letting its dedicated fans discover clues inside of Steam and theorize about what might be coming next. The fact that some of this information has hidden in plain sight since January suggests that Valve isn’t necessarily about to pull the trigger on a massive VR announcement, however. Additionally, Valve has already begun dedicating manufacturing lines to its Switch-like Steam Deck system, which is likely stretched thin by the realities of the modern chip shortage. Piling a new VR system on top of that doesn’t necessarily seem likely at this early point.

Still, the fact that Valve is moving forward with a compact, all-in-one PC, which revolves around an AMD SoC and a default install of Linux (specifically, the upcoming “SteamOS 3”), lines up neatly with Lynch’s discoveries about XRDesktop, a virtual desktop environment developed by a Valve-funded developer. Lynch points out that this application environment has received updates that refer to AMD drivers and SteamOS 3—which would make the transplant of Steam Deck’s SoC into a standalone VR headset all the easier. (This month, Valve dispelled rumors about the first-gen Steam Deck being a suitable VR system, but that’s not to say a VR-optimized version of its AMD SoC couldn’t eventually follow.)

As with our other reports on unannounced Valve hardware and software, we must point out that the company has a long and bloody track record of ideating, prototyping, and killing projects before they’re announced, and public-facing calls inside of SteamVR files do not guarantee a retail launch. Even so, Valve loudly hinted to both the Valve Index and “Half-Life VR” before their formal announcements. This leaves us somewhat comfortable hoping that an updated Valve VR product, which offers standalone VR features without any Facebook login requirements, amounts to an eventual retail launch, as well.

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