Virtual reality may still be in its relative infancy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an increasingly dizzying selection of headsets to choose from if you do decide to get involved, each with their own strengths and barriers to entry.
Some are powered by your smartphone, a games console or monstrously powerful PC, while others have all the tech needed conveniently baked into the headset. Some are wireless and others have so many wires that setting them up in the living room quickly makes it resemble one of those playground rope mazes that kids get stuck in.
When the HTC Vive Cosmos was first unveiled at CES in January, you'd have struggled to pull together an elevator pitch. It does inside-out tracking, so there’s no need for external sensors, but it still has to be tethered to a PC (at least out of the box) - and it’s modular?
We haven’t heard a huge amount about this intriguing addition to the Vive family since then, but Stuff was fortunate enough to spend some time with the headset at an exclusive demonstration in London, where we were also introduced to the all-new Vive Reality System platform, which debuts with Cosmos and aims to deliver a more organic VR experience.
We now have a much clearer idea about what HTC is going for here. It brands Cosmos the most versatile consumer headset on the market, equipping it with a modular faceplate design that can add different levels of functionality to those who want it. Comfort and ease of use were also high on the agenda throughout the design phase, making Cosmos as inviting to newcomers as it is to the VR devotees.
It’s the headset you want it to be, essentially, and as long as you have the computing grunt to run it, it’s not hard to see the appeal. Read on for our hands-on impressions.
Design: Flip it good
Have you been paying attention? If you have, then you’d have spotted the two cameras the Cosmos has gained since its CES reveal. There are now six, four of which sit on the new removable faceplate, with an additional sensor to the left and right. More cameras means more reliable tracking coverage. You’re get six degrees of freedom (6DoF) with the headset.
The Cosmos has a similar midnight blue paint job to the Vive Pro, and despite there being a negligible difference in weight between the two, it felt slightly lighter to us. The distribution of weight from the head strap is such that it doesn’t weigh too heavily on your face, but we’ll need to wear it for a longer period of time before making any proper conclusions.
As mentioned, HTC really wanted to build a headset that is comfortable to wear for longer sessions. There’s a dial on the back for tightening the headset when you put it on, and another under the faceplate for adjusting the distance between the lenses. The PU leather cushioning is textured to let air in and cling more snugly to your face, while thinner cushions allow you to wear glasses without experiencing face clamp.
Just as unpleasant as clamping is overheating, something that any seasoned VR tourist will have encountered at some point. To this end, HTC has designed an active cooling system that sucks out the hot air while you’re inside and stops it getting too sweaty under there.
In our brief time with the Cosmos we thought the heat regulation stuff worked well, but as we're prone to getting very toasty when experiencing virtual motion, we still got a bit warm at times.
Like the Vive Pro, the Cosmos has built-in flip-up on-ear headphones. We were told that during our session the headset was only at half volume, and even that was plenty loud enough. The unified approach is also preferable to fiddling about with a separate pair of headphones.
And if that isn’t enough flipping action for you, how about the entire front of the headset? Give it a push and it lifts from your face. This allows you to quickly dip out of whatever alien planet you’re vandalising to text your other half about picking up some milk without having to remove the whole thing from your head. Handy, and an idea we want to see pinched on all future headsets.
The real USP of the Cosmos, though, is its moddability. Alongside the Vive Motion Mod that ships with the Cosmos, HTC has also announced the External Tracking Mod, which allows those with existing Lighthouse base stations to use them with the new headset, giving you 360-degree tracking of the entire playspace. The Vive Wireless Adapter is also compatible if you want to go untethered.
More accessories and peripherals are incoming, so the potential for more ambitious room scale experiences and improved tracking are pretty much limitless.
Image quality and performance: Vive (Cosmos) la resolution
The Vive Cosmos features a 2880 x 1700 combined pixel resolution, which represents an 88% increase over the first Vive. To emphasise this, we were asked to have a quick go on the classic look-how-cool-VR-is app, theBlu: Whale Encounter, on both the original headset and the Cosmos. Safe to say the Blue Whale was markedly more lifelike on the latter, so much so that we didn’t even consider reaching out to give it a whack, as is often so tempting in VR. The visual jump in quality is something to behold.
The Cosmos actually has a slightly superior resolution to its pricier cousin the Vive Pro (2880 x 1600), but anyone who says they can notice the difference is probably telling porkies. Still, you won't find a more high-res headset on the market right now.
Perhaps more important are new 3.4in 90Hz LCD panels that close the distance between individual pixels and therefore reduce the notorious screen door effect that so often plagues VR. At least that’s the aim. We’ll need to do a lot more testing before assessing whether HTC has pulled it off, but certainly it wasn’t noticeable in the apps and games we were shown. The Cosmos has an 110-degree field-of-view.
Visuals in general are amazingly sharp, with colours really popping. Audio Trip, a fast-paced rhythm game that tasks you with hitting an array of glowing shapes to the beat (while looking ridiculous to anyone watching), was dazzling in motion, and the Cosmos had no problem picking up our flailing arms.
Meanwhile interactive exhibits in the virtual art museum we visited were packed with detail. Thanks to the inside-out tracking, you can really poke around inside the virtual sculptures, and it's easy to see why digital artists are excited about VR.
The new controllers are remarkably similar to the Oculus Quest controllers, both in terms of design and button layout. Stylishly illuminated tracking rings that hover above your hand are picked up by the headset’s cameras to replicate your movements in the virtual space. There are two face buttons, a Vive menu button, proper sticks, a front bumper, a trigger and a side button. It takes a few minutes to acclimatise to where everything is, but pretty soon you’ll be prodding away like it’s second nature.
HTC recommends a minimum 2m x 1.5m of space for room-scale VR. We didn’t get to see the setup process, but were assured it takes less than five minutes, and you’ll only need to do it once. Without external trackers to install, the Cosmos is a far more streamlined route into VR, and not at the expense of power.
Positional tracking worked without fault in our demo, although most of the demos we were shown relied on the teleport mode of travel. We're looking forward to testing some meaty room-scale games.
Software: Origin story
All good on hardware, then, but how does the UI shape up?
The Vive Reality System is a brand new software experience, replacing SteamVR that launches alongside the new headset. Rather than a rudimentary app launcher, Vive RS is supposed to feel more like an extension of life - a proper virtual world to call home when your real one is full of screaming children and burnt toast. It’s Vive's take on Oculus Rooms.
Origin is your central hub. You start in a small spaceship and can walk outside to a circular platform, interacting with various objects and terminals. You can drive a little RC car - a minigame with surprisingly responsive controls - or pick up the virtual pencil and draw pen...ny farthings to your heart’s content. Multiplayer features are planned.
Everything you do in Origin is permanent, so if you make a mess, don’t expect a virtual cleaner to get rid of it.
The other component we were shown is called Lens, which is summoned when you press the Vive button on the controller. It’s a multi-layered menu system that allows you to easily hop between XR and Viveport Infinity applications.
If you pre-order you’ll receive a 12-month Viveport Infinity code in the box. This gives you unlimited access to hundreds of VR apps and games, as well as videos from the likes of GoPro. In tandem with the Vive Cosmos launch, Viveport Infinity will be adding new titles such as Doctor Who: The Edge of Time, Eleven Eleven, Battlewake, Gloomy Eyes and Swords of Gargantua.
Vive Cosmos initial verdict
Don’t let the Vive Cosmos’ breezy approach to VR fool you; you’re still going to need a PC comparable in specs to what was recommended to run the Vive Pro. Sure, you’ll save on the starter packs that are no longer required, but that already lofty £699 price tag will be considerably higher if you don’t already have the gear.
If you do, though, or are prepared to shell out, the Vive Cosmos could turn out to be the best VR headset yet. The Oculus Quest - our current champion - is still the easiest entry to high-end VR, but you get what you’re given there, unlike the Cosmos, whose capacity to be modded gives it a far longer lifespan.
The real battle will be between the Cosmos and Oculus' Rift S, which is already on sale and is also a tethered headset with inside-out tracking. Its display, though, isn't quite as high-res as HTC's. That said, the Cosmos costs not far off double the price.
For those who don’t wish to add accessories, there’s more than enough tech in there already to give you years of fun, and Vive RS will be an evolving platform.
With the headset launching on October 3, we’ll hopefully have a full review soon.