You know that meme, the one with the cartoon dog sipping out of a mug and saying to himself, this is fine? All the while, the room around him is burning to the ground? Yeah, that one. If you’ve never read the full comic strip, the story continues for a few more panels. He says to himself, I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently, sips his coffee, and begins to melt, consumed by the flames all around him. That’s what the last two weeks (month) have felt like. That’s how it feels to be testing a $900 virtual reality headset during a pandemic.
On paper, the Vive Cosmos Elite is a great headset—maybe one of the best. It’s the top-tier offering from HTC, one of two companies that kicked off the VR revolution back in 2016. It’s not cheap. None of them are, but in the past couple of years both HTC and Oculus have been taking steps toward democratizing VR, making it more accessible for more people by lowering prices and hardware requirements. The Cosmos Elite is a swing in the other direction. It’s the high-end option, the luxury choice for discerning enthusiasts, but it feels like a step backward—especially now.
Regular life has been on pause for about two weeks where I’m at, and the world feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. We’re all making tough decisions, adjusting to a new reality, and bracing for things to get worse. With everything going on, the best way to take care of myself is to escape. VR has become an unexpected refuge. A small one, but a refuge nonetheless.
With VR, your mind doesn’t have to work very hard to step into a new reality; it’s presented with one the moment you put on the headset. That’s good. It’s also easy to maintain focus in VR because it commandeers your senses in such a visceral way, engaging your eyes, ears, and body simultaneously. It drops a curtain between you and reality. Focusing has been otherwise hard for me lately. My mind wanders when I try to read a book. When I watch movies and TV shows all I can see are the things I can’t do right now, like eat at a restaurant or get a drink at a bar.
These past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time on the beach listening to the waves—with a window open, for an “ocean” breeze. I’ve joined an old friend on a new adventure. I’ve shepherded a brave warrior-mouse through unspeakable danger. I’ve even visited museums and gone skydiving. I’m not the only one either. My roommates and my partners have also stepped behind that virtual curtain a few times and returned refreshed and smiling—and sweaty. VR is almost always a bit of a sweaty experience.
Unfortunately, most of that time wasn’t time spent with the Cosmos Elite. Outside of testing, taking notes, and testing some more, it’s been sitting on a shelf. It has never been my first choice for some off-time VR. I always chose the Oculus Rift S for its comfort or the Oculus Quest for its untethered freedom. Wearing the Cosmos Elite just feels like work.
Two Steps Backward
The Cosmos Elite feels a lot like the original Vive, which is to say it feels like a device several years past its prime. It uses the same bulky and awkward controller wands as the original Vive, and there are so many cables and dongles, most of which are identical to the ones used by the original Vive headset, including the three power adapters in the box. Yeah, the Cosmos Elite needs three outlets. One for each external sensor (also called Base Stations) that helps create a virtual box for you to move around in, and one for the headset itself.
Comparatively, you can get the Oculus Rift S out of the box and in a game within 10 minutes. You just plug it in. Did I mention that HTC still uses a MicroUSB charging port, when Oculus has moved on to the more modern and versatile USB-C?
The Cosmos Elite itself isn’t uncomfortable, but it feels unwieldy. It feels like a prototype, like a ’90s sci-fi author’s idea of what a VR headset would look like. It wouldn’t be out of place in a Lawnmower Man sequel. It does have merits. The internal displays have a higher resolution than the competition (2880 x 1700 to the 2560 x 1440 resolution of the Oculus Rift S), but it’s not a wide-enough gap to significantly alter the in-game experience. The screen door effect (where it feels like you’re looking into the VR world behind a mesh screen) is less noticeable on the Elite but only barely, and only when you’re comparing side-by-side with the Rift S.
The blue finish is nice, and the promise of modular capability is exciting—the Elite is just one of three Cosmos headsets. The two others (coming later this year) are cheaper and have inside-out tracking, removing the need to set up those external sensors and get you in-game (or to a beautiful beach) faster. The external sensors are more accurate than using inside-out tracking, but they’re far less convenient.
There’s a lot to like about HTC’s plans for the Cosmos lineup, but none of those exciting features are here in the Elite. After spending a couple of weeks with it, I can definitely say it’s a decent headset, but at more than double the cost of its nearest competitor, it should be a lot more than decent.