I Wanted To Love HTC’s Cosmos VR Headset, But Couldn’t

You know that feeling when you want to love something, but can’t? That’s what the HTC Cosmos was like for me.

Consumer VR has come an awful long way. Headsets have found ways to combat the dreaded screen door effect, so present in the early days of those test Oculus backer devices. Locomotion issues are less pronounced. Game engines are more efficient, so VR games run with less hitching and at better quality. And the ecosystem has come an awfully long way; there’s even a few killer apps, games that are undeniably excellent in VR.

But the problem has never really been the games. It hasn’t even been the hardware, per se. It’s the experience.

My review unit of the Vive Cosmos came in three boxes. The main box came with the standard Cosmos VR headset and the motion faceplate, the circular Cosmos joysticks and the various cables and boxes needed to get everything going. Two other boxes contained the Vive Wireless adapter (including the internal PCI-e card required) and a second box with the original Vive Pro wands, plus the various bits and bobs needed for those.

Plugging in the Cosmos headset looks more intimidating than it is. It’s the lighthouses that were the real problem, because I live in a regular Sydney apartment and mounting things to the wall is a no-go with my lease.

So the next best option was to find a way I could mount the lightboxes high enough, but have them tilted downwards slightly so they could see all my movements. And that was on top of reorienting my living room to accommodate for VR in the first place, as well as finding power extension cables for both of the lighthouse boxes. You can mount the boxes on tripods, if you have them, but I didn’t, so I had to resort to a bookcase and my PC tower.

The wireless adapter needed a bit of finessing too. After installing an internal PCI-e card – so you can’t use the wireless adapter with gaming laptops – you have to mount a separate camera. The camera’s necessary so it can track the adapter, which attaches to the top of your head, and the best place I could find in reach of the case was the corner of my living room TV.

Of course, that doesn’t make the adapter any more comfortable: you’re effectively mounting a battery charger on top of your head. Most will opt to just go for the wired treatment: the cable from the headset to the PC is sufficiently long, and I never found tripping ever a concern. Not using the wireless adapter also meant the whole headset was a little lighter, which was a much needed bonus.

The PC tower was far from ideal, but since I was often facing in that direction, I needed a lightbox covering that angle so it could properly track my movements. Not all the corners of the room were a viable option, because there wasn’t power points available, and I didn’t want to run extension cords in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room.

And already, for many people, this much hassle is far from worth it. But if you want to have the proper VR experience – or at least an experience that’s not sub-par in the most exciting VR games, you need room-scale tracking.

HTC explained to me in a briefing earlier this year how the Cosmos was designed to be part of an ecosystem. If you didn’t need full room-scale tracking because you weren’t playing shooters in VR or you didn’t have the space, you can buy the base Cosmos or Cosmos Play. Those who wanted to invest in the top-end hardware for the biggest VR experiences could look at the Cosmos Elite, with the base tracking stations (or just buy the Cosmos Elite separately if they already had the stations from a Vive Pro).

The real problem is that you won’t know until you try a game just how good – or finnicky – the VR experience might be. Some games seem like they should work reasonably well with the Cosmos’s in-out tracking system. But others I came across were beset by occasional tracking issues, often at the most inopportune times. In Cricket Club, for instance, I’d go to swing the bat forward, and the tracking would falter, putting my bat out of position or rotating it in a direction I didn’t want.

The first experience of dealing with the Cosmos involved three hours on my lounge room floor. After getting the lightboxes in the right spot, powering everything up and shifting things, the next step was to run through the room setup process.

When you download and install the VR drivers, you’ll be dealing with two sets of software. The first is the Vive Console, which initalises the headset, controllers, and lets you set the general play size of your area. But if you want to actually play most VR games, you’ll end up dealing with SteamVR, which launches separately.

Since I wanted to check out Half-Life: Alyx and Beat Saber – which was on my partner’s Steam account – I needed to go through Steam’s VR process. No problem, I thought. It’s just another launcher.

For three straight hours, SteamVR continually crashed. Every time I restarted Steam, the Cosmos headset, the Vive console or the PC, SteamVR would tell me that it couldn’t find the headset. I tried every USB 3.0 port on my PC. I tried different power point outlets. The headset was reporting green LEDs, so that was all functioning properly, and there wasn’t an issue with any of the cords.

Eventually, late on a Tuesday night, with my partner recommending repeatedly that I consider doing anything more entertaining and/or productive with my time, the solution presented itself.

It wasn’t a problem with the headset: it was SteamVR. After right-clicking on SteamVR in my Steam Library, I switched the program over to a beta branch. SteamVR updated, and finally the headset was recognised.

That annoyance wouldn’t be the end of the troubles, though. One of the games I enjoyed casually on PSVR was the re-release of Rec-Room. It’s a great mix of chill mini-games like table tennis and paintball, mixed with a social room vibe.

But when I launched Rec-Room, I couldn’t move. For whatever reason, the default Vive Cosmos controls didn’t work with Rec-Room at all. So I had to dig into the custom bindings menu of SteamVR once more, looking for community alternatives so I could just enjoy the game.

This wasn’t a universal experience, to be clear. Beat Saber and Superhot VR worked superb with no adjustments required. Half-Life: Alyx functioned without fault, but the sub-optimal room tracking meant the firing and movements weren’t as precise as I would have liked.

That was especially true with a personal favourite of mine, Cricket Club. Cricket poses a particularly interesting challenge for VR because your arms, generally, will be pointed down towards the ground. That made it harder to track the precise movements of the Cosmos controllers, especially if you’re trying to keep your virtual ‘bat’ moving in a straight, precise line.

Cricket Club, then, is one of those games that would benefit greatly from room-scale tracking. But despite having the lightboxes plugged, paired and powered up, the lightboxes couldn’t help: they’re only compatible with the Cosmos Elite’s external tracking faceplate, not the Cosmos’s default inside-out faceplate.

I haven’t talked about the Cosmos as a piece of hardware much, although the Cosmos does have its advantages. The headset runs at 90Hz with a combined resolution of 2880 x 1770, the same as the more expensive HTC Cosmos Elite. The Cosmos controllers are powered by 2x AA batteries, and they’re relatively small without being uncomfortable in the hand. I’d have preferred to use the original Vive wands, which charge via micro-USB – getting batteries in the early days of enforced isolation was harder than expected.

But the Vive wands refused to work, and no amount of troubleshooting, Googling or repairing would get them to function. It’s possible that the wands simply weren’t meant to function with the base Cosmos, only the original Vive Pro or the Cosmos Elite’s external tracking faceplate. It’d be interesting to know if that would have fixed some of the control issues I ran into with games like Rec-Room, and whether the base stations would have more accurately tracked the Vive Pro wands compared to the Cosmos controllers.

The initial design of the Cosmos is pretty good, especially if you have glasses. It fits super comfortably over the top, although you can’t slide the headset forward or back for better clarity. To get the best image, you have to adjust the strap on the top of your head, as well as a dial on the right-hand side of the headset.

A bigger issue that I had was the Cosmos’s general weight. There’s a dial on the rear for tightening, two small padded on-ear pieces for audio, and the small strap that sits on top of your head. But getting the right amount of clarity applied extra tension to the crown of my head, which put pressure on my neck. It wasn’t physically uncomfortable, but after half an hour the strain was noticeable. Half-Life: Alyx, Boneworks and VR Chat were fine, but the strain was especially pronounced in Cricket Club, a game you spend a lot of time looking down and then turning your head at an angle.

The other element of the Cosmos experience is Viveport and Viveport Infinity, HTC’s marketplace and subscription service for VR content. All Cosmos purchases come with a six-month subscription to Viveport, but the vast majority of the content I found was short-form experiences that don’t really showcase VR as a new avenue for gaming. Apart from already having some VR content on Steam, Steam’s free-to-play offering had more interesting titles, and more games that looked like they offered more than one hour of content.

There were some standouts on both platforms, like Obduction, the spiritual successor to Myst, the pirate VR game Battlewake, and Superhot VR. Viveport subscribers also get five free titles every month, although you won’t necessarily be getting five games. The most recent additions included War Remains, a historical WW1 VR experience, and a co-op VR shooter Containment Initiative.

They’re interesting and fun to muck around with, but nothing close to the depth or star power of games like Elite Dangerous, Skyrim VR, Fallout 4 VR, Job Simulator or Beat Saber. (Neither launcher has access to Tetris Effect yet either, although the game will likely come to Steam eventually, since its VR mode still uses SteamVR.)

It would be fascinating to see the changes made between the HTC Cosmos and the Cosmos Elite, particularly with the tracking issues. Using the Vive Pro wands means batteries are no longer a major concern, and the longevity of the controllers means there should also be fewer issues around control schemes, given the maturity of the Vive and Vive Pro. I’ve spoken to HTC about following up with a review of the HTC Cosmos Elite, and with any luck I’ll have that up in a fortnight or so.

I still like the principle of being able to invest into VR at different points. The problem is there’s no way for a consumer to reliably know if a game will give you a really good experience without having the external tracking faceplate and base stations. And some of the setup issues really should have been ironed out by now, especially when the asking price of entry is still $1299 or higher. I love the versatility of the Steam ecosystem in allowing custom configurations and setups, but users shouldn’t have to rely on those just to get games working. Or rely on beta branches of SteamVR just to initalise the headset. Those are frustrations that should have been resolved by now.

VR has an awful lot of potential, and games like Alyx and Beat Saber are the kinds of experiences that all gamers can enjoy. The raw hardware is solid. Now, we just need the software experience to be a little better.

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