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HTC reveals its plans for the Vive Cosmos VR range

02 Mar 2020

HTC, once the darling of virtual reality, are now just one of many manufactures in a VR market that still seeks to define itself. Up against their old foe Oculus, as well their one-time partner, Valve, and countless iterations of Microsoft’s also-ran Windows MR, is HTC still a player in the VR space?

Late last year HTC released the Vive Cosmos. Sporting a higher resolution display than the original Vive and an improved LCD panel, the Cosmos seemed to be the update for the four-year-old Vive system that we had been waiting for. 

Taking a leaf out of Windows MR, instead of using base stations the new Vive Cosmos uses “inside-out” tracking. Using six cameras positioned on the front of the headset the Cosmos “sees” the surrounding environment and positions the players head, and the new controllers, accordingly. 

Whereas the original Vive had pin-point head and controller tracking courtesy of the Valve-developed Lighthouse base stations and the array of sensors on the Vive headset and controllers, the Cosmos does not fare so well. The Cosmos needs a well-lit room to see the environment, and map it properly, for the tracking to work. Also, the new controllers need to be in sight of one the Cosmos’s six cameras on the headset. The result is a rather lacklustre affair for the VR purist.

On the flip-side, the Cosmos can be used anywhere. Take it out of your bag, plug it into a laptop and you are away. All it takes is a quick room setup to define your play space. No need to mount sensors to the walls or find sockets to plug them in. The Vive Cosmos is very portable, whereas the OG Vive and Vive Pro are not really.

The Cosmos display is a vast improvement with an improved screen that reduces the “screen-door effect” of visible pixels to practically zero. At 1440 x 1700 pixels per eye (2880 x 1700 pixels combined) compared to the OG Vive’s 1080×1200 (2160×1200 combined) and the Pro’s 1440 x 1600 pixels per eye (2880 x 1600 combined), the Cosmos has noticeably better image quality. 

The Cosmos has a 90Hz max refresh rate for smooth images and, apparently, a 110-degree field of view. I say “apparently” as the design of the headset, with its convenient flip-up design, seemed to place the image further away from my eyes. Better for wearing glasses, but reducing the practical field of view compared to the adjustable lens distance of the OG Vive and Vive Pro.

All-in-all, the Vive Cosmos, as it is right now, IS a better device than its predecessors, but flawed, nevertheless. Unfortunately, the Vive Cosmos was not very well received by the VR community, who saw it as a misguided step back. And I do see their point. 

Whilst the “inside-out” tracking, especially using the controllers leave much to be desired, the improved display made the Vive Cosmos my go-to VR headset for “sit-down” VR games. The likes of Digital Combat Simulator, Project Cars 2 and Elite Dangerous all look superb on the Cosmos. For any VR title requiring a bit of precision, like SuperHot or the recently released Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners, I was back on my OG Vive.

It was the mooted tracking modification, a replacement faceplate that would enable use of the original Vive base stations, that was the Cosmos’s real selling point for me. At release, HTC told us that the Vive Cosmos was designed to be modular. But, apart from the tracking mod, nobody knew exactly what that meant.  

Jump forward a few months and it seems that HTC have now got their act together and can better explain exactly where the HTC Cosmos fits in the VR market and what all this modification talk is about. 

I recently sat down with HTC A/NZ country head Thomas Dexmier and A/NZ product manager Nandun Abeynayake to talk about where HTC is going. I can assure anyone who believes that HTC’s VR fire has gone out, that my one take away from our discussion was the passion that both Dexmier and Abeynayake have for the Vive brand. 

Clarifying the modular design of their VR headset, the Vive Cosmos is now family of products. In addition to the existing Vive Cosmos, with its “inside-out” tracking and controllers, there are now an additional three product combinations making use of the different faceplates.

The Vive Cosmos Elite comes with the new external tracking faceplate, preinstalled, two SteamVR base stations and two original Vive Controllers. This will be available later in Q1 and will retail at AU$1,699/NZ$ 1,799. 

This Elite package is aimed at the VR enthusiast looking for the precision of the original Vive and Vive Pro, using Valve’s Lighthouse technology. It is a shame that the Vive controllers, haven’t had an overhaul, as, whilst not as precise, the Cosmos controllers are more comfortable and easier to use than the originals. The better display with precise tracking afforded by this new package is exactly what the hardcore VR fans need.  

The external tracking faceplate, which works with both v1.0 and v2.0 of the SteamVR Base Stations, will be available on its own in Q2 for AU$349.
The second new addition is the Vive Cosmos XR. This stand-alone kit utilises the Cosmos inside-out tracking, but with a modular faceplate that includes two high-quality passthrough cameras. 

Designed for augmented reality, the Vive Cosmos XR will debut in Q2 as a developer kit. Vive Sync, HTC’s collaboration tool will allow integration with the Cosmos XR to bring virtual objects into real-world environments for collaboration a VR-based meeting.

The Vive Cosmos XR could give consumers the AR experience that so far has only been promised by the likes of Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens. The absence of the tracking sensors for this kit is interesting in that the prediction of the tracking has been replaced by the high-fidelity of the tow front-facing cameras. Of course, the modular nature of the Vive Cosmos, does not preclude HTC bringing out such an all-inclusive mod at a later date.

Lastly, we have Vive Cosmos Play. This kit includes a headset with a four-camera inside-out setup (as opposed to six on the regular Cosmos) and two controllers. Cosmos Play owners, if they wish, can upgrade to the six-camera faceplate (which will be available Q2 for AU$349) and Cosmos controllers, or even the tracking faceplate, taking advantage of the more affordable modular design.

The Cosmos Play will likely be perfect for “sit-down” VR gamers playing VR racing and flight simulators. I’m not sure what sort of tracking quality the four-camera faceplate will offer, but this introductory kit allows players to get a taste of the Cosmos VR experience at a lower price, that has yet to be determined.  

All of the Vive Cosmos range is compatible with the much-lauded Vive wireless adapter. This upgrade allows fans to “cut the cord” for the ultimate immersive VR experience, without the fear of tying themselves in knots. 

It’s good that HTC have been a little more forthcoming regarding their plans for VR. As a VR enthusiast myself, and a fan of the original Vive that did feel slightly short-changed by the Cosmos, I feel a bit more reassured that HTC are still very keen on their Vive brand. With this family of products, HTC will be relaunching the Cosmos in the coming months.

In my discussions with Dexmier and Abeynayake, they touched on where HTC sees the future of VR and their partnership with Telstra and their 5G network. HTC envisage 5G as a potential conduit for future VR content, perhaps even allowing high-quality VR experiences without the need for a PC at all. 

Whilst it has perhaps not had the uptake that was predicted, VR remains a superb platform for interactive entertainment, via room-scale experiences and realistic VR games. As well as entertainment, VR has a place in commercial applications such as design prototyping and training simulations. The Cosmos XR promises to be a major advancement in augmented reality allowing designers to view their concepts in a real-world environment. 

With its sharp LCD display and modular form-factor, VR fans should see the Vive Cosmos as a welcome upgrade to the original Vive. With the upcoming tracking mod, the Cosmos has the potential to become one of the top consumer VR experiences available.