When VR was first revealed to the world, I was pretty damn excited about the concept. I love Star Trek so the idea of having my own holodeck or holosuite experience popped right back into my head. I want to be Data in his Sherlock Holmes programmes or I want to try out one of Quark’s more popular ‘experiences’. Let’s leave that trail of thought right there. So, we’re talking about the HTC Vive Cosmos, HTC’s most recent output into the VR headset scene and their latest answer to the question “how do I VR best without needing more money than the Grand Nagus and more tech than the USS Enterprise?”
That and the HTC Vive Cosmos is also the companies answer to Oculus, which has been driving down the cost of VR through the release of the Rift S and Quest. Of course, the Quest is standalone, not wired, and less powerful than the Rift S and the Cosmos, so when it comes to a hard comparison you’re going to be looking right at the
Samsung Gear VR Rift S and Valve Index. Coming in at a princely £699, it sits right in the middle of the Rift S’ £399 and Index’s £919. The question is simple: Does it do enough to justify the higher price and is it good enough that you don’t need to pay more for the next step up?
It’s a difficult question and one that has to be covered in multiple stages. Let’s first look at the build of the HTC Vive Cosmos, something that seems directly opposed to recent VR trends. This isn’t a sleek piece of kit in any sense of the word. It’s a large, hulking, face-hugging monster that isn’t afraid to show what it has on offer. The front blue plate with its six outward-facing cameras, this front plate is removable, letting you swap it with other faceplate options that you can buy from HTC.
It’s a nice option, making the HTC Vive Cosmos the only modular VR headset that I’m aware of. Sadly, I haven’t been able to try out any of the options myself, though I can certainly see the value in them when it comes to saving money on upgrades down the line.
Adding a bit of convenience, you can actually flip up the whole front of the headset, meaning you don’t have to take the whole thing off just to look at the real world for a bit. Though you can also see the real world through the six outward-facing cameras through the simple double-click of a button. That’s the software though, we’ll get to that later. These six cameras have a major function, of course, and that’s for your tracking. These work pretty well, keeping a good track of where you are and what space you have remaining – in terms of standing up space, I’m fairly limited but even then the only time I banged into something was when I was walking backwards. That’s on me.
But what exactly are you looking at when the visor is down, and the headset is running? The HTC Vive Cosmos comes with a 2880×1700 pixel screen, that being 1440×1700 per eye, and this looks great when you get it all set up and running, offering a marketed field of view of 110 degrees. All of this looks great when you have the headset on and it’s only improved by a great nose piece(?) that blocks out light, really adding to the immersion when playing a game. I’ve got to be honest; I’ve rarely felt as immersed with the other VR I’ve tried in the past. I will admit I haven’t had hands-on with Index though, so that could be better.
Now there are a few issues with this though and that’s where we return to the actual build of the headset. Fitting it on your head is reasonably easy thanks to the plastic, padded, halo that sits around your head. This is loosened or tightened as required by a dial at the back of the halo. This is further secured by an adjustable velcro strap that sits on the top of your head. With the build also comes some attached headphones that simply snap down, meaning you don’t need any speakers, nor do you need to attach any external headphones. You still can, if you want.
Now all of this sounds good in writing, it even looks good, but I have to admit that when I’m using the headset and flipping up the headphones and even the front plate, it feels like I’m about to break the headset if I’m not careful. I probably won’t. Let’s be honest, all of this has been tested, but there’s just a flimsy feel that’s only made worse by very noticeable clicks, particularly with the headphones that are attached by a pretty thin piece of plastic. I don’t like such an expensive piece of equipment to feel like it’s easy to damage, even if it isn’t.
While we’re talking issues, let’s talk comfort. Now, the headset can be very comfortable thanks to the padding on the supportive halo. The issue is that you pretty much have to perform a ritual to the VR gods to get it both comfortable and get the focus of the headset right. Either it sits perfectly on the head and the focus is just off, something that sadly can’t be fixed by moving the dial that controls the interpupillary distance, or it doesn’t and you have to start fiddling around. Once you get it right though, it sits perfectly and it’s fantastic for long sessions, my longest being five hours, you just have to faff around to get it there.
In keeping with the build and the subject of faffing about, being a PC powered headset, you do have a cable to contend with as well as other aspects. The 5m cable connecting your Cosmos to the PC is thick, meaning you won’t worry about damaging it, but I have found it a little unwieldy at times. You’re also going to have to be careful about any turning around, as you would any cabled headset. As for the setup, the way it all works is that you’re connecting the headset to the link box, then the link box to your PC through a USB 3.0 connector and display port. The link box also needs plugging into the mains, so make sure you have a socket free. The alternative to a wired connection is to spend a fair amount of money on the wireless adapter, another show of this being an adaptable headset given you spend something extra.
On the subject of negatives, let’s talk about the cameras and tracking. For the most part, I love the way the inside-out tracking works, but it’s a little fussy. This is especially the case when it comes to lighting. During the daytime, with curtains open, the HTC Vive Cosmos would complain that it’s too bright. I’d shut the curtains and it’d be fine. That is until it got a little later or, as is customary for the UK, the clouds would come and darken things. Then it’s too dark and I need to open the curtain. At night, my light has sufficed.
Another issue with tracking comes to the controllers, which can be flawed, to say the least when they leave the view of the cameras. Granted, there aren’t many times you’re going to be spreading your arms far back enough that this is the case, but it’s certainly an issue if you are playing the headset in seated mode. Your legs, a chair, a passing polar bear, anything can obscure the controller in this situation. This can create a bit of rubber-banding when the predictive algorithm doesn’t get it quite right before the controllers come back into view.
What I can say is that the tracking is brilliant when the controllers are in view. I’ve played quite a few games, spending a good amount of time with Viveport and SteamVR, paying particular attention to Half-Life Alyx, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice VR Edition, Superhot VR, Beat Saber and Onward. If your hands are in front of you, particularly in front of your face, then you’re set and you’re going to find the headset as responsive as you could expect it to be.
Now, if only the controllers were as comfortable to use as wearing the headset. They’re large and chunky, coming in with arguably a few too many functions. Each controller has a joystick as well as six buttons/triggers/bumpers, all protected by a large circle that emits light, for tracking. All of this leads to a controller that is hefty, a little too encumbering and unwieldy, the weight increased by the battery requirements.
The controllers for the HTC Vive Cosmos require two AA batteries for each hand. How long do you think these last? Don’t expect them to last a full days session, the batteries lasting around six or so hours of reasonable use. When it was first released last year, before HTC released updates, the battery life was said to be just around two hours. Even at six hours, it’s still not really good enough, not when competitors can get a good multiple of that number. As a conciliatory bonus, they’re updated wirelessly.
I’ve said how the display of the HTC Vive Cosmos looks great and it truly does, you first need to get set up. So, what sort of system are you going to need? HTC state the minimum requirements are an i5-4590/AMD FX 8350 equivalent CPU, a GTX 970/R9 290 equivalent VR ready 4GB GPU, 4 GB of RAM and to be running Windows 10. Also, the two requirements of a free USB 3.0 slot and a free Displayport 1.2 slot.
Once you’ve got it all plugged in, turned it on, you’ve got a relatively easy setup to go through. Plug it in, get the software installed, get it set up. I can’t complain about it in the slightest, it just works. It’s a pain that once you’ve set it up for either stationary or general use, you have to go through everything again to swap it over, but such is life. It explains itself well and walks you through it, the hardest part will simply be getting the thing sitting right on your head. It will talk you through drawing your own play space and more. Then we get to the good stuff.
Well, some good stuff. So I don’t like the menus and the navigation of them. I particularly didn’t like browsing through Viveport, HTC’s app store for all things VR. It’s infuriating at best, trying to look through and find something you want while you’re on the headset. Since this, like other offerings from HTC, is built around SteamVR, you’ve always got that option. I’ve found myself preferring the home offering from Steam rather than HTC’s, that and practically every other menu.
This is a shame because, with the HTC Vive Cosmos, you get a free two months subscription to Viveport Infinity, offering unlimited access to thousands upon thousands of games and apps. It costs £12.99/month or £107.88/year if paid upfront. Fortunately, you can just look at the app on your PC and get things downloading before selecting the games or app on the headset. Never a good sign that you’d rather not use VR for the VR store.
Long story short, with a few exceptions you’re going to enjoy using the HTC Vive Cosmos. It does exactly what it says on the tin. It looks, sounds and feels good while you’re doing it too, with a particular note for the screen. Once you include Viveport, you’ll have an absolute wealth of games and apps to get some use out of your new VR headset, one that’s easy enough to set up without too much faffing about, and they’re mostly enjoyable, functional and easy to play.
Viveport is by far the biggest selling point here, but does that mean the VR headset is worth £699? There’s certainly a lot to praise, from the flip-up visor, flip-up headphones, wireless firmware updates and particularly the fact that it’s upgradable, a semblance of future-proofing in a market of hardware that is far from future-proof, never knowing when your very expensive piece of kit is redundant. Granted, this will cost extra money down the line, but still cheaper than a new headset.
This should certainly make the headset appealing, even with the price tag. There are detractors like the hefty nature of the controllers, as well as their limited lifespan and some slight tracking issues if the controllers leave the sight of the cameras, but I’d argue that the pros outweigh the cons. The question then is if the price tag is worth it – I’d argue it’s expensive, but not so expensive that it’s out of the question.
Sample provided by HTC for review purposes.
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