The HTC Vive Cosmos is the latest high-end, high-spec virtual reality headset to hit the market, and it shows just how far VR tech has come in recent years, while also flagging up some of the problems that have stopped it from making its way into every gamer's home.
It's now eight years since a fledgling Oculus Rift opened up the doors to its Kickstarter page – the same year as the iPhone 5 arrived – and yet virtual reality is still struggling to make its mainstream breakthrough, despite many products launching in the meantime.
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We've been spending the last couple of weeks deep in a succession of virtual worlds, courtesy of the HTC Vive Cosmos, and this is our verdict on what the VR headset has to offer – the specs, features, and gameplay experience you get if you buy the device.
While we'll do our best to put across our experiences with the Cosmos, VR is to some extent a subjective experience, and affects everyone a little bit differently. The good news is that many of the early teething problems are now ironed out in these devices.
HTC Vive Cosmos: design and setup
It's difficult to make a chunky VR headset look attractive, but HTC has done its best with the Cosmos: the blue grille on the front offers some relief from the black plastic that usually dominates these devices. It feels well built and solid to hold, though the integrated headphones are a little on the flimsy side.
The bundled Vive Cosmos controllers look the part as well, with a nicely finished design that fits a human hand shape perfectly. The controllers come with fabric loops so they stay tethered to your hands (just like the Nintendo Wii controllers, if you're old enough to remember them), and overall the HTC Vive Cosmos scores highly in the design department: it looks suitably futuristic without coming across as gimmicky.
As for setup, you type in the URL on the box and follow the instructions. Your mileage may vary, but it only took us a few minutes to get everything up and running. It's worth noting that you're going to need a Steam account to use the HTC Vive Cosmos, if you don't already have one, and you'll need to sign up to use HTC's own Viveport VR library as well (you can buy titles individually here, or sign up for a £12.99-per-month Netflix-style subscription instead).
The headset can be adjusted to fit your head almost perfectly, and thankfully we're now beyond the stage where external trackers are needed, so you don't have to fit additional boxes around the room. The Cosmos is described as a modular headset, so you can add a different faceplate and external trackers if you want: this will cost you extra, but it does mean your actions will be tracked that little bit better.
The headset comes with what's described as Eye Comfort Setting, or IPD (Interpupillary Distance) adjustment – essentially you can tweak the focus of the headset depending on how far apart your eyes are. We were right down at the bottom end of the adjustment range, and it took us a while to get everything just right, but we managed to get it to a satisfactory level in the end.
HTC Vive Cosmos: specs and features
Inside the HTC Vive Cosmos you get two 3.4-inch LCD screens with a 1440 x 1700 pixel resolution each, so 2880 x 1700 pixels combined. That's one of the key upgrades over the original Vive (1200 x 1080 pixels), and it beats the Oculus Rift S (2560 x 1440 pixels) too. There's an impressive 110-degree field of view and a 90Hz refresh rate here as well.
Those are top-notch specs, VR-wise, and you'll need a fairly fast Windows PC to run it all. The official recommended specs are here, and you'll need a minimum of an Intel i5-4590 or AMD FX 8350 processor, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 or AMD Radeon R9 290 graphics card, and 4GB of RAM to run everything. If you're the sort of PC gamer who's interested in VR, you've probably got a setup that suits.
As we've said, there's no need for external trackers any more, with the six cameras on the outside of the Vive Cosmos able to perform inside-out tracking so the device always knows where it is in 3D space. We found this tracking to be fast and fluid, and this is undoubtedly one of the areas where virtual reality hardware has come on leaps and bounds since the early years.
As we've mentioned, if you want to improve the tracking, you can upgrade by adding a couple of base stations and an Elite faceplate, and there's also an augmented reality faceplate – letting you merge the real and digital – which is apparently "coming soon". Another upgrade you can go for is the £353 wireless adapter, which means you aren't tethered to your computer by a 15-foot (4.5-metre) cable.
Bear in mind that you're going to need two AA batteries to power up the controllers (you get a couple in the box to get you started), and that HTC recommends a minimum space of 2 metres (6 and a half feet) by 1.5 metres (nearly 5 feet) for your virtual reality experiences. This isn't something you can really play in tiny rooms.
HTC Vive Cosmos: performance and games
Gaming is mostly a delight on the HTC Vive Cosmos, whether that's in newer games like Half Life: Alyx or more established titles with VR modes such as Digital Combat Simulator World. The only 'game' we really didn't like was a virtual reality rollercoaster, which took us a full five minutes to recover from back in the real world.
Taking the leap into virtual reality can take some adjusting from standard PC gaming: if you think about it, it's like having to sit right up close to your monitor. You have to get used to moving your head rather than your eyes, and there's some pixelation in some of the games. Overall though, we came away impressed by the quality of the graphics that the HTC Vive Cosmos is able to produce.
Hand tracking wasn't always as sharp and as accurate as we would like, especially if you move your hands in and out of the 'view' of the headset – perhaps a consequence of moving away from external tracking stations – but we only noticed a couple of problems that were quickly rectified. Room tracking was fine, with our walls always appearing in the right place (handy if you don't want to run into them).
In our experience, an hour is about the maximum that can be managed before gaming starts to get a bit too immersive, and you feel compelled to give your eyes and your brain a break. This isn't exclusive to the Cosmos though, and your mileage may vary. There is a little bit of light leak at the bottom of the headset too we found.
The "3D spatial audio" that you get with the HTC Vive Cosmos worked well for us, with most titles giving you a real sense of what's happening around you through sound, and piping top-quality audio into our ears. On the software side we got along just fine as well (jumping between the Viveport and SteamVR stores can be a little awkward, though it's not a dealbreaker).
HTC Vive Cosmos: price and verdict
With an official RRP of just about £700, there's no doubt that the price of the HTC Vive Cosmos is the biggest drawback – that's not an amount of money that casual gamers are going to consider dropping on an extra bit of kit. With the Oculus Rift S going for a pound under £400 (albeit with a lower graphics resolution and refresh rate), that makes the HTC option a harder sell.
There's a lot in the plus column though: we definitely enjoyed our time with the HTC Vive Cosmos, from the setup to the graphics quality to the immersive audio. There's now a whole load of games and content available once you dive into virtual reality, and the VR experience in general is less nauseating and a lot more fluid than it was when these headsets first hit the market.
If you can afford the price of admission with the HTC Vive Cosmos, then you certainly won't be disappointed by what it offers. A few frustrations with the tracking of the controllers and the software stores aside, it's just about the best virtual reality gaming experience you can get at the moment. However, it might be the Cosmos II – if HTC can get the price down and maybe even go wireless – that's the real game-changer.