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HTC Vive Cosmos VR hands-on: $699 and inside-out tracking

The new Cosmos VR headset does away with Lighthouse base stations and the hassle of setup. Oh, and it's modular, too.

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The HTC Vive Cosmos is the follow-up to the original Vive and offers significant improvements and changes.

Angela Lang/CNET

HTC did something radical when it designed its newest VR headset for consumers: It listened to its customers. The result is a brand-new headset called the Vive Cosmos. It's basically better in every way than the original Vive that preceded it. The Cosmos is aimed at existing HTC Vive owners and VR enthusiasts who want better comfort, improved visuals and the simplicity of not having to set up those Lighthouse base stations around a room. I spent a little time with the $699 Cosmos and was definitely impressed by it. But I'm curious about how it will fair against the Oculus Rift S, another premium consumer VR headset that only costs $400.

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HTC Vive Cosmos seems like a shiny polish on what a VR headset is today rather than a bold futuristic jump forward. For HTC's customer base, the Cosmos seems like it is exactly what they wanted. But for the VR landscape as a whole, one has to hope that the next wave of VR headsets pushes the medium even further.

The HTC Vive Cosmos will be available on Oct. 3 and you can preorder it now. By the way, when you preorder the Cosmos, you get a 12-month Viveport Infinity subscription with access to over 700 games and VR experiences.

The Cosmos has Frank Gehry looks

The Vive and Cosmos look like they were made by different companies. The Vive is defined by its bulbous spider black headset littered with large dimples. The Cosmos on the other hand looks handsome with its navy blue mesh front. The faceplate looks like something the architect Frank Gehry sculpted. On the front are vents that could easily double as a public art sculpture albeit a very small one. Overall, the Cosmos looks much more approachable and friendly than the original Vive.

But those vents on the front aren't just for show. They also allow for ventilation to help keep your head and face from getting too hot. The mesh face plate is removable under which you'll find a small fan to cool the six built-in cameras as well as help alleviate some of the heat around your face.

Take a more in-depth look at the Vive Cosmos and all its parts below.

No more Lighthouse base stations

The original Vive relied on outside-in tracking which involved setting up laser-emitting boxes that HTC calls Lighthouse base stations around a room. Positioning the base stations and attaching them to walls or shelves was a bit of a hassle to say the least.

To simplify things, the Cosmos uses inside-out tracking via six cameras that constantly scan the room. AI is used to identify parts of your environment. Inside-out tracking is quickly becoming the new standard in VR as Microsoft and Oculus already use it in their headsets.

Higher resolution and improved clarity

One of the most impressive features of the Cosmos is the resolution. It's 1,440X1,700 pixels (per eye) or 2,880X1,700 pixels combined with a refresh rate of 90Hz. The original Vive had a resolution of 1,080X1,200 pixels (per eye) or 2,160X1,200 pixels combined. Each pixel has RGB sub-pixels to help minimize the "screen door effect" aka those rainbow patterns you see on a screen. HTC claims the lenses have 40% better clarity than the Vive.

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The Cosmos adds a higher resolution and RGB sub-pixels to minimize the "screen door effect".

Angela Lang/CNET

There are VR headsets that offer even more resolution, but it's nice to see HTC make such an improvement for a consumer headset.

I tried the VR experience theBlu on both the Vive and then the Cosmos and could immediately see the difference. One of the most noticeable improvements was text. I could actually read it without having to move ridiculously close to it.

The Cosmos was designed to be modular

The removable mesh faceplate I mentioned earlier serves another purpose. It allows the Cosmos to be modular. The idea is that HTC will introduce "mods" to add more functionality to the Cosmos.

The first official one is the Vive Cosmos External Tracking Mod (yeah, that's a mouthful). So let's say you have the original Vive and you have all your Lighthouse base stations wired up and mounted neatly in a space. You can swap out the default mesh face plate for the External Tracking Mod on the headset so you can use your existing base stations for tracking instead of the cameras built into the Cosmos.

I should note, that it is not possible to use both the built-in cameras and the Lighthouse base stations both for tracking. The External Tracking Mod will be available early next year.

Lighter, more comfortable and flips up

When I first put the Cosmos on I was impressed by how much lighter it was. It didn't have that front heavy feel the Vive did. The Cosmos has a halo-style headband which makes putting it on and off easy and intuitive. On the back of the head band is a single knob you twist to fit more snugly around your head.

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There is a "halo" band that has a single knob to tighten or loosen the Cosmos on your head.

Angela Lang/CNET

The headset can also flip up like the Hololens 2 or Microsoft's VR headsets. This not only makes it easier to put on and off, but gives you immediate access to the real world while you're in VR. The Cosmos isn't the first headset to do this, but it certainly makes it feel less suffocating than some VR headsets out there.

HTC also improved the pass through cameras which are now in color. The quality is definitely low-res but it's nice to know you can double press the Vive button on the controller to immediately see what's around you without taking off the headset. The pass through cameras also automatically activate any time you step outside the play area.

An entirely new software experience 

When I first donned the Cosmos, I went to a place called the Origin -- which sounds like something out of Westworld. Basically it's a wide open deck that's elevated over water with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. At one point, there was an orca swimming by.

The Origin is kind of like your home base. It eases you into VR and teaches you how to use the controllers by accomplishing small tasks. There's even a pod-like homestead which you can explore.

Another new feature is a heads-up display called The Lens -- again very Westworld-y. You can bring up the Lens during a VR experience to access controls as well as the Viveport library of VR experiences and games.

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