SEATTLE—After nearly a year of teases, HTC has taken the full wraps off its next PC-VR headset, the Vive Cosmos. The company invited me to its American Vive headquarters to confirm a release plan: starting October 3, HTC will begin selling the full system for $699, and this system finally dumps the old HTC Vive “lighthouse” tracking boxes in favor of built-in, “inside-out” tracking cameras.
However, HTC also invited me to test the Cosmos in a few VR games, and while I didn’t test for long enough to put together a definitive review, I’m currently left wondering whether HTC’s latest VR system has what it takes to compete with either the pricier Valve Index or the best of the industry’s cheaper, inside-out tracking headsets.
One step forward, one step back?
On a technical level, Vice Cosmos introduces a new pair of VR lenses that take a one-step-forward, one-step-back move compared to similar lenses in the HTC Vive Pro. Cosmos reportedly has a slightly increased “combined” resolution for both eyes, up to 2,880 x 1,700 compared to the Vive Pro’s 2,880 x 1,600 resolution. HTC reps insist that this new panel additionally beefs up the subpixel resolution to reduce the inherent “screen door” effect seen in older VR headsets.
The thing is, Cosmos dumps HTC’s usual OLED panels in favor of fast-switching LCDs, a shift we’ve seen in a range of new VR headsets over the past year. Like the other good ones, Vive Cosmos’s LCDs indeed take advantage of a boosted subpixel resolution without suffering from ghosting, and they run at the VR industry’s standard refresh rate of 90Hz. But LCDs aren’t up to the same color reproduction snuff as OLEDs, and the Vice Cosmos headset I tested had arguably the most muted color palette I’ve seen in a 2019 LCD headset. I was directed to a “vibrant” color toggle to try and fix this, but it didn’t do the trick.
What’s more, I didn’t have newer VR panels to compare the Cosmos to at the event, just 2016’s original HTC Vive. So I can’t speak clearly to why the Cosmos’s high-resolution panels looked a bit smeary. Some text reproduction was surprisingly blurry in apps like the Museum of Other Realities, which might be an issue with how the headset handles its subpixel arrangement; the HP Reverb has a similar pixel-smoothing system in place, and that’ll likely be up to user’s preferences, in terms of how they feel about it.
Also, that resolution count doesn’t tell the whole story. The Vive Cosmos doesn’t use an extra 100 pixels of vertical resolution to increase its apparent field of view (FOV). Maybe I’ve just gotten used to the Valve Index, but the Cosmos felt a bit claustrophobic in practice, in terms of its “110 degree” FOV rating.
In order to dump the older Vive systems’ reliance on lighthouse tracking boxes, HTC has opted for a whopping six-camera array on the Vive Cosmos. Four sensors scan ahead, above, and below the headset on its front face, while an additional pair of sensors flanks the headset’s left and right sides.
But my own personal red flag went off when I asked HTC’s reps for my favorite testing app: Beat Saber. This game is a great measure of “normal” VR hand movement for a couple reasons: it doesn’t require waving hands behind the head (where cameras traditionally can’t track), but it still demands a mix of wild gesticulation and rapid movement to beat its rhythm-matching levels. HTC didn’t have a copy of the game handy, the reps said.
Instead, I was offered a sword-swinging app, which simply asked me to wave my hands ahead of me to parry and strike foes. This motion was decidedly less intense than what’s required from an “expert” Beat Saber song, yet I was still left feeling concerned. For one, something about the Vive Cosmos’s tracking array kept losing my hands for “acceptable but noticeable” split seconds on a regular basis.
This same issue stopped me from recommending many first-generation Windows Mixed Reality headsets, which also relied on built-in sensors and inside-out tracking. If this keeps up with the final, shipping Vive Cosmos, I’ll be singing the same pessimistic tune. I’m somewhat confident that HTC can fine-tune this issue ahead of the October launch, but it’s definitely noticeable for HTC’s first big inside-out tracking product.
Heft in the hands: Not necessarily good news
Worse, there’s something else amiss. HTC has finally seen fit to replace the old Vive wand controllers with a controller comparable to Oculus Touch, and that should be nothing but good news. It feels sturdy in the hand; it offers a nice array of joysticks, buttons, and triggers; and it maps 1:1 with Oculus’s solid standard array, plus bonus buttons that don’t get in the way.
But unlike Oculus Touch, Valve Knuckles, or even WMR, the Vive Cosmos controllers have been built to emphasize bright lights, which the Cosmos’s sensors look for in tracking your VR hands. That means this is easily the heaviest VR controller I’ve seen paired with a commercial-grade headset. WMR is the only other mainstream controller with built-in lights, but those controllers have tiny LEDs, as opposed to the big, lit-up patterns on the Cosmos pads.
After 15 minutes of testing the Vive Cosmos and maybe three minutes swinging a VR sword in my final demo, I felt pooped. I’m a pretty fit person with no shortage of waving-like-a-VR-idiot experience. I’m likely the high-end of users who can forgive required VR exertion. If HTC doesn’t come up with a solution for these controllers’ weight soon, they’re in trouble in terms of the wider market.
In good news, at least, the Vive Cosmos has modularity in mind, as can be seen in the above images. The first Vive Cosmos add-on face plate option, coming “early 2020,” will add a constellation of trackable dots for the sake of older HTC Vive lighthouse tracking boxes, should VR owners want to combine the Cosmos with existing hardware. As the above gallery hints, more face plates may be on their way.
And HTC has other existing Vive hardware in mind for Cosmos, particularly the Vive Wireless Adapter. An “attach kit” will be sold “soon” to adapt existing Vive Wireless Adapters to work with the Vive Cosmos, but no release date or price for that was yet offered.
And I was happy to see a revamped Vive Reality software suite introduced in my Cosmos demo. Think of it like another “VR home” where you can discover content, much like SteamVR Home. HTC’s new take neatly serves and advertises a range of games and apps as served by the Viveport subscription service.
It doesn’t take much to surpass the game-shuffling interface built into SteamVR, so HTC deserves props for cleaning this up with big, clear icons and simple controls to flip through so much software. Still, all Vive systems still rely on SteamVR as a launching hook for their games and software, and my pre-release Vive Reality test included one crash while trying to feed a Viveport app to SteamVR’s booting system.
Clearly, I have some reservations about Vive Cosmos’s VR potential. Oculus Rift S is currently a much snappier system in terms of reliable inside-out tracking. And Valve Index doesn’t cost that much more to blow Cosmos away in terms of LCD panel performance and FOV boosts. (Let’s not forget Oculus Quest, which still leads my “best VR headsets of 2019” list by more than a slim margin.)
We’ll plan to return to the Cosmos next month with a review. Until then, we’re keeping our VR fingers crossed that robust tests and last-minute tweaks will reveal that HTC has some secret sauce packed into the depths of its Cosmos.
Listing image by Sam Machkovech