Vive Cosmos review: not out of this world

Vive Cosmos review: not out of this world

HTC’s Vive headset helped create virtual reality as we know it today. The Vive was the first big consumer headset to ship with motion controllers, and it normalized the idea that VR was about physical movement, not just visual immersion. Now, three years after the Vive’s release, HTC is ready to move on. It’s replacing the consumer Vive with a headset called the Vive Cosmos, which started shipping last week. Where the original Vive was a groundbreaking product, though, the Cosmos is playing catch-up in a crowded field.

The $699 Vive Cosmos is a high-end, PC-powered VR headset. (HTC originally said it might eventually be powered by a phone. But for now, you’re going to need a capable PC.) It occupies a middle ground between the $399 Oculus Rift S and the $999 Valve Index. Like the Index, the Cosmos offers a high-quality screen and a more open hardware design. But like the Rift S, it ditches external trackers for convenient inside-out cameras. And it adapts the increasingly standardized Oculus Touch controller design, rather than the old Vive remotes or the futuristic Index controllers.

Good Stuff

High-resolution screen
Convenient hardware setup
Potential upgrade options

Bad Stuff

Low-light tracking problems
Confusing software interface
Comparatively expensive

In theory, the Cosmos could appeal to people who want feature-rich hardware at a slightly lower cost. It could also provide a blueprint for HTC’s next business-focused headset, which is currently still the Vive Pro from 2018. But I’ll avoid burying the lede: my own Vive Cosmos experience wasn’t much fun. While the headset is clearly capable of excellent performance, I was fighting its hardware and software every step of the way — from the clunky interface to some frustrating tracking issues. HTC seems committed to improving this experience, so I’m not writing off the Cosmos yet. I’d just hoped for more from one of VR’s biggest players.

The Cosmos is certainly a distinctive-looking headset. It’s got a dark blue body with a latticed front plate, flouting the VR industry’s love of black-on-black minimalism. It places two large square tracking cameras front and center, plus four more on the sides, offering what HTC calls a 310-degree tracking field. The entire front plate is removable, and HTC says it’s releasing replacement plates with extra features, starting with one that supports the old Vive’s lighthouse laser tracking. As an added convenience, you can flip the screen up like a motorcycle helmet visor, clearing your field of vision without fully removing the headset.

HTC has completely reworked the old Vive design

The Cosmos features a 2880 x 1700-pixel screen or 1440 x 1700 pixels for each eye. It’s ever-so-slightly higher resolution than the Valve Index’s 2880 x 1600 screen and a noticeable leap past the Rift S’s 2560 x 1440 pixels. The field of view is still around 110 degrees, which is a little lower than the Index’s but standard for other VR headsets. For many buyers, the precise numbers won’t matter — just remember that the headset feels more goggle-y than the Index, but the “screen door” effect that afflicted HTC’s first-generation Vive has been greatly reduced.

HTC has almost completely reworked the original bare-bones Vive design. The Cosmos ships with attached headphones, which I prefer over the directional speakers that Valve and Oculus are using. It doesn’t match the Index’s fantastic audio, but it’s not blasting noise at everyone around me. (Like most headsets, you can also use your own headphones.) The original Vive had awkward Velcro straps, but the Cosmos adopts a plastic “halo” design similar to the Rift S or Sony PlayStation VR. There’s a knob at the bottom for changing interpupillary distance, but you’ll mostly focus the headset by adjusting how it sits on your head.

Inside-out tracking is a great feature that I’m glad to see HTC adopt because it makes the entire VR setup process faster, simpler, and less obtrusive. Instead of mounting laser lighthouse beacons around the room, you just have to plug the headset into a small adapter box, connect DisplayPort and USB cables to your computer, and plug the box into a power outlet. The cameras detect edges in your environment and use them as anchor points. They recognize a pair of motion controllers by tracking a distinctive light pattern, which, incidentally, makes the Cosmos look like it got a couple of sick tribal tattoos in the ‘90s.

When the tracking works, it works well. Beat Saber is one of the biggest stress tests for VR controllers, but the Cosmos was up to the task. It felt easily as responsive as the Quest or Rift S. And overall, my view of the world rarely juddered or felt floaty, like it has with some inside-out…

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