Review of VR-helmet HTC VIVE Cosmos Elite / Peripherals

Review of VR-helmet HTC VIVE Cosmos Elite / Peripherals

When it comes to virtual reality helmets or, as they are called in short, HMD (Head Mounted Display), three names always pop up first: HTC VIVE, Oculus Rift and – more recently – Valve Index. It is these brands that today hold the lion’s share of the HMD gaming market. Many of the relatively cheap and simple devices that have grown on the Windows Mixed Reality platform are also good for gaming, and higher up the price ladder are products that most gamers have never heard of. But, whatever one may say, the aforementioned trinity remains the face of the consumer VR industry.

In addition, the creators of virtual reality helmets as we know them today (unlike the clumsy experiments of the 90s) do not sit idly by. Especially HTC, which has not only carried out a major performance upgrade in the new generation of VIVE helmets, but has come up with a unique feature. The fact is that the VIVE Cosmos family consists of three proposals for different tastes and wallets, but in reality it is the same helmet that can be turned into any of the models by purchasing additional equipment, but most importantly, by upgrading the HMD itself. And considering that the new VR components presented by HTC are mostly compatible with old technology and even devices from other manufacturers, we have a detailed conversation about how it all works together.

⇡ #Helmet-transformer

The very idea of ​​a VR helmet, which the user can upgrade on his own, sounds paradoxical. For example, you cannot take and replace screen matrices in it without thoroughly reworking the rest of the filling. Indeed, HTC hasn’t gone that far, but VIVE Cosmos is still modular at its core. In Cosmos, you can easily replace standard headphones, all overlays, connect additional modules and replace the front panel. At the moment, the company has introduced four panels: standard (with 6 cameras) and Play (with 4 cameras) provide their own Inside-Out tracking, XR provides mixed reality with the same tracking, and Elite changes tracking to SteamVR.

It should be noted here that modern consumer helmets use one of two approaches to tracking. Some of them (like the original Oculus Rift, Valve Index, and the first wave of VIVE) rely on base stations – IR emitters – to be placed in the room and calibrated before playing. Others (Oculus Rift S and Oculus Quest) do not need this and are content with several cameras located on the helmet to track both the controllers and the position of the helmet relative to environmental objects (the so-called inside-out tracking). External tracking guarantees the most accurate positioning – unlike internal tracking, which starts having problems, as soon as the controllers get out of the field of view of the integrated cameras, and tracking the helmet itself is often not complete without algorithms that predict its position in advance. But to prepare such a system for the game is much easier and you do not need to place beacons around the room.

HTC VIVE and VIVE Pro, like all top HMDs, are not meant to be used without base stations. But the new VIVE Cosmos was designed with internal tracking in mind – for this it has six cameras with a wide 310 ° view. By abandoning beacons, it was possible not only to simplify the helmet adjustment procedure, but also to make it cheaper. The basic Cosmos model, along with controllers (we’ll talk about them separately), is sold for the recommended amount of $ 699, which can be said to be inexpensive compared to the Valve Index (which is already worth almost a thousand). It’s a pity that the Russian realities have made their own adjustments to the prices recommended by HTC for the American market. Here you can hardly find a VIVE Cosmos kit cheaper than 64 thousand rubles. However, the local prices for the Index are even worse: it is not officially supplied to Russia, and as a result it costs as much as 150-175 thousand (89 for HMD without a kit).

In addition, HTC announced an even more democratic version of VIVE Cosmos with Play, which was left with just four cameras for positioning. The latter has not yet appeared on the market, and we do not even know how much HTC is going to sell it for, but in this matter, the manufacturer will probably take into account how much inexpensive and similar devices cost Oculus Rift S ($ 399) and Oculus Quest ($ 499).

However, all of the above does not mean that in the new generation of its VR systems HTC is focused on competing only with relatively inexpensive Oculus offerings. Meet VIVE Cosmos Elite. It is now HTC’s top consumer VR headset with traditional external tracking, replacing the VIVE Pro. Or, more precisely, to replace the VIVE Pro Starter Kit, because for professionals, HTC has a VIVE Pro Eye option that supports SteamVR version 2 and has an eye tracking function. Cosmos Elite is on sale for the appropriate amount – $ 899 in a complete set, with two base stations and a controller (in Russia – no less than 73,500 rubles). And the whole point of the Cosmos series is that regardless of the name – Play, Elite or simply Cosmos – the helmet in them is the same, and with very impressive characteristics.

Each screen has a resolution of 1440 x 1700 pixels. Of course, this is not a record yet: among consumer HMDs, the HP Reverb with 2160 × 2160 parameters is in the lead, and the absolute champion is the Pimax 8K X with 4K screens, although this is already a completely different price category. Nevertheless, there is some progress compared to other gaming HMDs (Valve Index, HTC VIVE Pro), which are equipped with 1440×1600 screens. It seems that the difference is not too great, and yet the additional vertical space should soften the effect of the “screen window” and get closer to full human vision (the optics themselves still provide a 110 ° horizontal field of view). The only pity is that no one has yet caught up with Valve’s product in another parameter, the refresh rate: for Cosmos it does not exceed 90 Hz, although Index reaches 144 (however, Valve still considers this mode experimental).


But this is not the main thing. Unlike the VIVE Pro, Cosmos does not use AMOLED, but a pair of 3.4-inch LCD panels. Valve made the same choice for the Index helmet, and Oculus for the Rift S (only the latter has a lower resolution, 1280 × 1440), and for good reason. Cosmos may not be too different from VIVE Pro in terms of formal resolution, but it should display a sharper picture. This is because AMOLED is more difficult to achieve the same subpixel density as LCD. As a result, you have to use the infamous PenTile layout, when there are two physical subpixels per logical pixel of the image. The only consumer-grade HMD to avoid such a compromise is the PlayStation VR, and even then at the cost of a low overall resolution (960 x 1080 per eye). There are “true” RGB OLED headsets on the market with decent resolution, but it’s a stretch to qualify as home gaming solutions due to their price tag, which runs into the thousands of dollars. LCD still has no problems with increasing the physical resolution, and as a result, Cosmos exceeds VIVE Pro in terms of the number of subpixels by not 6% (as it turns out, if you count in logical terms), but by all 60! On the other hand, AMOLED promises more saturated colors and obviously wins in contrast, but whether this manifests itself in practice, we have yet to find out on our own.

⇡ #Unraveling the tangled

And now the fun begins. VIVE Cosmos can be adapted to any of the two positioning systems, you just have to replace the front helmet panel, which in addition to everything is sold separately: at a price of $ 199 (or from 18,900 rubles) for either of the two versions – for external and internal tracking respectively. In addition, the Cosmos design allows you to remove or replace many other things – headphones, pads and so on, but we will discuss this a little later. That way, buyers of Cosmos or Cosmos Play will be able to make a painless upgrade when they feel ripe for a more serious configuration, but those who initially spent money on Cosmos Elite may find use of the panel with internal tracking. For example, in order to play in a room that is not equipped with base stations.

However, this is only a theory that gives way to practical considerations. Let’s take a calculator and a list of dollar prices for all the equipment we are interested in. We will not look at the ruble price lists. Firstly, so as not to get upset once again, and secondly, to avoid unnecessary variability associated with the exchange rate, which will still not affect the results of the investigation. Finally, due to the biting prices and sometimes limited availability of iron, VR enthusiasts are no stranger to orders from abroad.

So, the upgrade of the basic version of Cosmos to Cosmos Elite looks tempting, but it will cost a pretty penny, because, in addition to the new front panel, the user will have to fork out for a couple of beacons ($ 134 for one piece with support for the SteamVR 1.0 interface – this is exactly what Cosmos Elite comes with) and controllers ( $ 129 each with first generation black wands instead of blue, which is $ 70 more.) Yes, HTC has different controllers for external and internal tracking! The result is a hefty sum of at least $ 1,406, and even if you subtract from it the price of the “extra” controllers and bezel (twice $ 99 plus $ 199) that come with the HMD, it still comes out a lot more expensive than the ready-made Cosmos Elite kit ($ 1,027 against $ 899).

Moving in the opposite direction, from Cosmos Elite to Cosmos with internal tracking, is more profitable: you already have base stations, but you will still have a replacement panel ($ 199) and a pair of new controllers ($ 99 each) will bring the cost of the collection to $ 1,296. Cosmos Play modifications , provided that HTC is not greedy with its price, looks like the most promising candidate for an upgrade, but in this case the cost of all components, if bought separately, will probably outweigh the full Cosmos Elite kit, even taking into account the “native” Cosmos Play panel …

In addition, HTC is selling the VIVE Cosmos headset in the US with an external tracking panel preinstalled, but without controllers and base stations, for $ 549. This is primarily a proposal (alas, only within the United States) for users of first-generation HTC helmets, because Cosmos is not such a strong upgrade in terms of its main characteristics compared to VIVE Pro. However, it should be borne in mind that the Valve Index helmet “without everything” ($ 499) is at the same time cheaper than “Cosmos”, at least not inferior to the latter in characteristics and can also work in conjunction with old base stations and HTC wands.

Finally, there is an even more sophisticated option. The thing is that the company has developed completely new manipulators for Cosmos helmets with internal tracking. The latter shamelessly mimic the Touch controllers for Oculus helmets – and this is not at all a complaint. Compared to them, the original controllers look downright old-fashioned and unwieldy. The only problem is that HTC has not yet managed to adapt the fresh design to the external tracking system. As a result, if a gamer wants to build an uncompromising VR system with a core in the form of an HTC helmet, there is only one way: buy a “naked” Cosmos for $ 549, a couple of base stations (we will again use the SteamVR 1.0 standard to save money, which means that they will come out at $ 139 apiece) and, finally, the Valve Knuckles Controller Kit ($ 279). Alas, you will have to use the expensive Knuckles, and not the cheap ($ 69 apiece) Oculus Touch, since the latter cannot be used with VIVE helmets, but Knuckles are easy. But alas, in this case the math is again not in favor of HTC. The total price for such a colorful kit is $ 1,096, which is more expensive than the Valve Index with “full stuffing” ($ 999), including the base stations of the SteamVR 2.0 standard, which we abandoned for the sake of economy.

As you can see, the prospects for combining components of a VR system within several generations of hardware and even components from different manufacturers are simply immense, and the modular design of the HTC helmet has only multiplied the number of possible configurations. But alas, if HTC suddenly does not revise its pricing policy, Cosmos with external tracking is not the most profitable upgrade for owners of previous HMDs of this company, and the very idea of ​​improving the Cosmos tracking system by using a relatively inexpensive exchangeable panel breaks down on outdated manipulators.

The Cosmos Elite is just screaming for HTC to quickly release updated controllers with external tracking support. Also, who knows what options for the front panel HTC will come up with in the future (the Cosmos XR kit with augmented reality function and the corresponding panel will definitely appear later). Well, at the moment, Cosmos modifications are most attractive in the form of ready-made kits with controllers and base stations for those who do not have a VR headset yet (or fugitives from the Oculus platform). Among them, Cosmos Elite remains a compelling high-end offering that is still cheaper than the Valve Index. And for players who are ready to give up the external tracking function in order to save money, there is the usual Cosmos, which, although more expensive than the aforementioned Oculus S with internal tracking, compares favorably with the screen resolution.

Cosmos Elite in all its glory is on the agenda today. So let’s see what has changed compared to the old HTC helmets – VIVE and VIVE Pro.

⇡ #Design and ergonomics

If you put VIVE Cosmos and VIVE Pro next to each other, you will immediately see that these are products of the same manufacturer, but at the same time, it is easy to guess which one is newer (and the point is not at all that our VIVE Pro is outwardly worn out). HTC still uses a design that is typical of all high-end HMDs: the mask itself is kept at eye level with a plastic headband, and a strap at the top prevents it from slipping onto the nose. The alternative is a simple rubber harness, but among all the VR triumvirate products, it is found only in the relatively budgetary Oculus Quest. In addition to the mounting hardware, Cosmos has a pair of integrated headphones and the inevitable cable connecting the entire structure to the PC (HTC created a wireless connection kit, but it does not come with Cosmos, but itself costs $ 349, or about 38 thousand rubles. in Russia).

Whether it’s the VIVE Pro or the Cosmos, in order to properly fit the helmet on your head, you need to adjust the hoop clearance with the wheel on the back of your head and tighten the top Velcro strap. For people who have not yet dealt with HMD, it is worth noting that both can be done independently, without outside help. But Cosmos has one important difference. From the photo of two helmets standing side by side, it can be seen that the headband has turned from a horseshoe attached by the ends to the mask into a hoop, and this is not without reason: now the helmet visor can be folded up without removing it from the head. This is what the previous models are sorely lacking when you need to distract from the game or turn your attention to a regular monitor. And at the same time, it became easier to adjust the fasteners to the desired dimensions: first you need to attach the mask to your eyes, and then lower the hoop and tighten it. Finally, the balance has changed for the better: the weight of the old and new helmets is almost the same (VIVE Pro pulls at 813 g, excluding the cable, and Cosmos – at 800), but Cosmos no longer bites forward so much.

The Cosmos head breathes much easier. The novelty does not need such a large pillow on the back of the head that the VIVE Pro has, and HTC has finally changed the materials from which all the soft pads are made. Previously, uncovered foam was used for this (a little better than ordinary foam rubber) – the skin under it quickly begins to sweat, and over time, the pads collect debris and in the end simply collapse into parts: the photo shows that our VIVE Pro has already been struck by the disease. In Cosmos, almost all of the foam was removed under the rubber film, and this may not be the most noble coating, but it successfully solves both of the problems described (there are even leatherette pillows, but you have to buy them separately). The coat around the perimeter of the mask is still open, but there it is quite in place, and besides, instead of old crumbling foam, a dense fine-pored material is used here (again, with the possibility of changing to special “cold” pads for long gaming sessions).

Another constructive change in HTC helmets has affected the built-in headphones. Now they can not only be adjusted in height, but also moved back and forth along the hoop, and it is not at all necessary to press them close to the ears, which again benefited the comfort. In addition, the earbuds are easy to completely remove with their stems: the VIVE Pro also allows you to remove them, but only with a screwdriver.

The Cosmos mechanics have a lot of advantages, but no matter how good they are, there are certain costs. So, the lifting visor has no other mechanism that would press the lower edge of the mask to the face, except for a spring-loaded loop. As a result, light can leak around the nose, and to prevent leakage, you can only tighten the hoop around the head. However, HTC claims that the design is suitable for 99% of people and other users have not noticed such problems, so they can probably be attributed to the peculiarities of the shape of the head of the author of this material. What to do, HMD does not manufacture by individual measure HTC. In any case, the background light does not interfere with playing, and even more so in a darkened room. Another feature that is difficult to write down without hesitation as the disadvantages of Cosmos, but still worth mentioning, is the need for active cooling. Внутри шлема есть маленький кулер, и хотя его обычно не слышно во время игры, он все же работает далеко не бесшумно.

Наконец, заменить фронтальную панель не так уж просто, как кажется. Хотя на внутренней стороне маски есть рычаг, освобождающий защелку, панель все равно приходится снимать со значительным усилием, а поступать таким образом с техникой за многие сотни долларов совсем не хочется. Но, право слово, это все мелочи. Вот что-что, а полное отсутствие возможности отрегулировать дистанцию между линзами и глазами просто обескураживает (есть лишь настройка расстояния между зрачками). А ведь она здесь была бы как никогда уместна: когда поднимаешь и опускаешь забрало, фокус то и дело сбивается. Пожалуй, это единственный аспект, в котором шлем Cosmos уступает VIVE Pro.

⇡ #Установка, настройка, игра

Подготовить к игре шлем с внешним позиционированием совсем не так просто, как в системах inside-out, когда достаточно сделать немногим больше, чем очертить VR-песочницу контроллерами. Тут все иначе. Во-первых, нужно разместить в комнате базовые станции так, чтобы их всегда видел шлем, и желательно повыше. Не исключено, что для этого придется сверлить стены и устанавливать маяки на прилагаемых к Cosmos Elite кронштейнах, хотя можно использовать и высокий штатив для фотоаппарата (или, что намного дешевле, для лазерного уровня) с резьбой ¼ дюйма, и даже просто расставить датчики на высокой мебели. Впрочем, как мы уже заметили, шлем комплектуется такими же базовыми станциями под стандарт SteamVR 1.0, как и ранние HTC Vive, так что тем геймерам, которые купили «голый» HMD для апгрейда, возиться с установкой еще раз не придется. Во-вторых, вся система займет как минимум три розетки: одну для конвертера, соединяющего шлем с ПК, и две для маяков. А если одновременно поставить на зарядку оба контроллера, придется освободить розетки и для них. Но эта проблема решается одним-двумя удлинителями.

Кстати, поскольку контроллеры тоже не изменились со времен VIVE и VIVE Pro, для зарядки они используют разъем Micro-USB. Можно попенять HTC на старомодный интерфейс, но особого резона для этого нет, ведь все нужные кабели и блоки питания имеются в комплекте поставки. Наконец, шлем подключается к конвертеру, а конвертер — к разъемам DisplayPort и USB 3.0 на ПК, и на этом та часть настройки, которая подразумевает некую физическую активность, завершена.

Благо пользователя, которому работа с HMD в новинку, через всю процедуру ведет программа Vive Setup. Она же установит все необходимые драйверы. Что хорошо в любых шлемах VIVE, так это то, что они целиком встроены в условно открытую программную инфраструктуру SteamVR. Калибровку игрового пространства и рабочей высоты шлема, а также обновление прошивки устройств — все это можно выполнить в интерфейсе SteamVR. Но вместе с драйверами Vive Setup установит приложение Viveport, которое является в одно и то же время интерфейсом для запуска игр (прямо из шлема, в виртуальной комнате) и площадкой, откуда можно их скачать. Часть игр здесь бесплатна, за другие нужно внести фиксированную сумму, и наконец, есть немало тайтлов, доступ к которым открывается вместе с подпиской Viveport Infinity, работающей по тому же принципу, что и, например, Microsoft Game Pass. Каждый покупатель VIVE Cosmos получает в подарок два месяца подписки, и этого более чем достаточно, чтобы решить, стоит ли продлевать ее за собственные деньги. Коллекция на Viveport довольно внушительная: сейчас там 1168 тайтлов, совместимых с Cosmos Elite (среди которых 676 доступны по подписке Infinity), включая добрую часть самых ходовых VR-игр, но, разумеется, за вычетом эксклюзивов для Oculus. Тем не менее многое из того, что предлагает Viveport, есть в магазине Steam. И — внимание! — ту самую игру, ради которой немало геймеров ринулось покупать или брать в аренду HMD, обладатели VIVE Cosmos Elite тоже получат даром.

Речь, разумеется, идет о Half-Life: Alyx. Ее мы как раз и выбрали для испытания комплекта Cosmos Elite в деле. Какие впечатления остались у нас в итоге, если сравнить Cosmos со старым добрым VIVE Pro? В первую очередь нужно отметить, что переход на LCD-матрицы от AMOLED с раскладкой PenTile принес богатые плоды. Изображение и вправду стало более четким, а эффект «москитной сетки» между пикселами пошел на убыль. Если надеть Cosmos сразу после VIVE Pro, заметно и дополнительное пространство по вертикали. А вот опасения насчет ощущения сниженной контрастности жидкокристаллических экранов не подтвердились: ее можно опознать разве что на абсолютно черных фрагментах изображения на этапе загрузки игры. Наконец, частота обновления в пределах 90 Гц больше не является пределом мечтаний, но ее вполне достаточно, чтобы при качественном трекинге избежать морской болезни. К тому же, далеко не всякий компьютер справится c рендерингом в приличном разрешении, да еще двух кадров сразу, когда речь идет о таких играх, как Half-Life: Alyx. Не так давно мы в этом убедились, протестировав два десятка видеокарт.

Система позиционирования шлема и контроллеров в пространстве, как и у VIVE Pro, работает почти безукоризненно. Что и не удивительно, ведь, кроме самого HMD, в комплекте ничего не изменилось. Иной раз, особенно в помещении, не слишком приспособленном для погружения в виртуальный мир, контроллеры выходят из области обзора маяков, но таковы неизбежные ограничения самой технологии.

Единственное, к чему у нас возникли претензии, это, как нетрудно догадаться, манипуляторы, которые входят в комплектацию Cosmos Elite. Нельзя сказать, что к ним так уж сложно привыкнуть после более современных контроллеров Valve Knuckles и Oculus Touch, но контроллеры HTC проигрывают даже по чисто формальным признакам. Они все так же хороши в казуальных VR-играх, как четыре года тому назад, но для таких сравнительно сложных тайтлов, как Half-Life: Alyx у них просто не хватает кнопок. В результате слишком много функций пришлось переложить на круглый тачпад, который, хоть и работает отлично сам по себе, не чета аналоговым стикам. Наконец, эти контроллеры лучше всего лежат в крупных руках. Тем, у кого ладони поменьше, а пальцы покороче, приходится менять захват, чтобы дотянуться до кнопки меню сверху от тачпада или сжать боковые клавиши. Нечего говорить и про функцию отслеживание пальцев, которую в той или иной мере реализовали оба конкурента HTC, или про возможность выпустить контроллеры из рук, как Valve Knuckles.

⇡ #Выводы

Насчет того, стоит ли среди всего многообразия современных VR-систем выбрать именно VIVE Cosmos Elite, трудно дать простую и однозначную рекомендацию. Если судить по техническим характеристикам самого шлема, у HTC получился один из лучших игровых HMD, которые можно купить за разумные деньги. Он выдает превосходную картинку, и если ориентироваться на четкость изображения, которую обеспечивают LCD-матрицы, выбор геймера сегодня проходит между Cosmos и Valve Index. Частота обновления в 144 Гц, которой может похвастаться Index, — не такое уж важное преимущество в реальных условиях, а в остальном это продукты одного уровня. Cosmos можно простить даже сравнительно более высокую цену самого шлема, ведь кого-то Index, быть может, просто не устраивает дизайном или конструкцией. Наконец, Index — редкая птица в наших широтах, и как раз здесь-то он стоит чрезвычайно дорого, если не заниматься пересылкой из-за рубежа.

HMD — это в любом случае дорогое приобретение, и сама идея апгрейда, вокруг которой построен Cosmos, не может не вызывать симпатий энтузиастов. Однако им следует учитывать, что трансформации «обычного» Cosmos в Cosmos Elite препятствуют совершенно разные контроллеры, которые могут работать либо с внешним, либо внутренним трекингом, но не двумя системами позиционирования сразу. Что вдвойне обидно, Cosmos Elite достался стремительно устаревающий вариант манипуляторов, которые по сути не изменились еще со времен первого VIVE.

Но в целом VIVE Cosmos Elite — это отличная VR-система, которой новый HMD дал превосходную картинку, а внешний трекинг у HTC, как всегда, на высоте.

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