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Hands-on review: HTC Vive Cosmos Elite External Tracking Faceplate

20 Mar 2020

Back in 2016, HTC’s Vive VR kit revolutionised consumer virtual reality (VR). Using the Lighthouse base stations, co-created with Valve, the Vive gave users pin-point precision and amazing room-scale VR experiences from day one.

Flash-forward three years to late 2019, and the original Vive still gave users an incredible VR experience, but an upgrade was long overdue. HTC responded by launching the Vive Cosmos.
Since the launch of the original Vive, the VR landscape has shifted considerably. Not only has the medium not proven as popular with the mainstream as originally envisaged, HTC now has a lot of competition.

Originally it was HTC’s Vive and Oculus with their Rift vying for VR enthusiasts’ money. Since then Microsoft entered the game with their Windows Mixed-Reality system, partnering with the likes of Dell, Lenovo and HP, to flood the market with so-so VR devices using “inside-out” tracking.

Oculus, on the other hand, have continued to release a flurry of VR headsets, apparently catering for all sorts of VR users from casual to hardcore gamers. Even Valve, HTC’s former partner in their joint Vive VR enterprise, have released their own competing VR system, the Valve Index (available everywhere it seems, except Australia and New Zealand).

Sporting improvements in almost every aspect the Cosmos should have been the upgrade that Vive owners were waiting for. The better quality (next to no “screen door” effect), higher resolution screen (2880 x 1700 rather than 2160×1200), and the lighter headset’s more comfortable fit were all very welcome. 

Instead of using the Vive’s base stations, the Vive Cosmos, out of the box, uses the same “inside-out” tracking as Windows MR. Cameras mounted on the front and edges of the device can “see” the environment, allowing the Cosmos to track its position and that of its controllers. Whilst this removes the need for mounting base stations in the corner of the room, in order to work the room needs to be well lit and, even then, it’s not very precise.

Many users have, no doubt, appreciated the Cosmos’s portability and (slightly) lower price over the original. Those of us wanting the same precise, high-fidelity VR experience with the Cosmos that we had with the original Vive have been left a bit short-changed.

The Vive Cosmos External Tracking Faceplate modification changes everything- if you already have the Vive/Vive Pro, two basestations (V1.0 or V2.0) and the original Vive controllers. The faceplate is available as a stand-alone upgrade for Cosmos owners and as part of the HTC Vive Cosmos Elite package.

Simply unclipping the regular faceplate, via a little catch inside the headset, to the left of the left lens, it can be pulled off and replaced with the External Tracking Faceplate.

As soon as I switched it all on the SteamVR recognised the Tracking Faceplate and switched on my base stations. All I needed to do was pair the original Vive controllers. I’d imagine that the ease of setup was probably down to having already used an OG Vive on the PC, which will likely be the case for many that buy this upgrade. 

I didn’t even need to do a room setup and when placing the controllers on the ground they matched that of the VR environment. Bringing the two Vive controllers together in real-life, they touched perfectly in VR and remained in position without moving. It was the same with my head movement, that tracked perfectly, giving me back the room-scale experience that I missed so much from my OG Vive.

The Vive Cosmos, with its inside-out tracking, is perfect for “sit down” games like Digital Combat Simulator, Project Cars 2 and Elite Dangerous. But I found anything requiring a bit of precision or potentially moving the controllers out of the view of the headset, presented me with problems. It is worth bearing in mind that I’ve been using the original Vive for the best part of four years and so have got used to the high level of tracking accuracy provided by the base stations.

Rather than “seeing” your surroundings and using some clever programming to map the 3D environment, the base stations fire out infra-red beams that fill the play space and are picked up by the many sensors on the front of the Tracking Faceplate. Interestingly, the External Tracking Faceplate has fewer infrared sensor “dimples” than the original Vive, but there are a number of sensors behind the transparent plastic on the front. 

The first VR title that I tried out was Pistol Whip. This is a game very much in the same vein as the “must-have” VR title, SuperHot VR, but if you crossed it with Beat Saber. Players move through brightly-coloured, stylised environments, with pumping music, whilst avoiding the bullets of assailants, and returning fire. This is a great game to test the tracking, as it involves aiming a pistol and room-scale dodging to avoid bullets and obstacles. 

Next it was on to Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners. I had particular difficulty with this game on the Cosmos with inside-out tracking. Whilst I did return to it recently, after a beta update, and found things somewhat improved, when confronted with zombies, it’s nice to have the best VR tracking you can have. 

The Walking Dead game requires players to reach over their shoulders for items. Whilst for the most part this worked fine with the inside-out tracking, there were times when it didn’t, the same with reloading and holstering weapons. As soon as the Cosmos controllers are out of the sight of the headset’s cameras it is up interpolation and the controllers’ built-in accelerometers to work out where they are. This works most of the time, but not all the time.

With the Cosmos External Tracking Faceplate, as with Pistol Whip, the tracking with the Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners worked perfectly. Not only did this precision help me in the game, it meant that I couldn’t blame my tools for getting totally overwhelmed by zombies and eaten alive.

Another game that originally frustrated me with the Cosmos was the BBC’s Doctor Who: The Edge of Time VR game, which is free to HTC’s Viveport subscribers. Whilst I love a bit of Doctor Who, the inside-out tracking made for a clumsy experience. Again, with the External Tracking Faceplate mod, the game felt as it would have done with my original Vive, but with the Cosmos’s upgraded visuals.

Next, in advance of the release of the new Doom Eternal game, I tried Doom VFR, possibly the most frantic VR game available. Now, I like playing this using an Xbox One controller for smooth movement, but using my head to aim. Shooting demons was a piece of cake, the Cosmos having no problem tracking my rapid head movements. 

I finished things off with a relaxing trip to the bottom of the sea in theBlu. Using the original Vive controllers I could poke jellyfish take pictures and shine my torch in the depths of the ocean without any jittering or warning messages.

I really can’t stress enough on just how much the External Tracking Faceplate improves the Vive Cosmos experience. I understand the benefit of utilising the cheaper inside-out tracking for a starter kit, but for Vive owners buying the Cosmos as an upgrade it really wasn’t up to the job. Being used to the OG Vive tracking both the headset and controllers precisely, the comparatively hit and miss inside-out tracking of the Cosmos was grating, to say the least.

It’s doesn’t sort out all the issues I have with the Cosmos, like the tiny sweet spot and the ill-fitting headband. But, if carefully put on, and with a little time spent adjusting its position, the fitting issues can be overcome.

The Cosmos External Tracking Faceplate is an absolute must for anyone that owns the original Vive. Buying it on top of the price of the Cosmos (and effectively the original Vive – as you need the controllers and base stations) is a bit painful, but you do end up with a premium VR experience.

The External Tracking Faceplate is also compatible with the Valve Index’s “Knuckles” controllers, if you can get hold of them. These allow the VR system to track individual finger movements.

If, however, you don’t own the original Vive, the cost of the controllers and base stations, alone, will cost you in the region of AU$800/NZ$940, plus the AU$350-odd for the External Tracking Faceplate. I think that HTC could do better than this, especially as the Vive Cosmos Elite (which comes with the External Tracking Faceplate, two base stations and two original Vive controllers) costs AU$1699/NZ$1799.

Whilst I cannot fault the External Tracking Faceplate/Cosmos Elite it really highlights the deficiencies in the standard Cosmos’s inside-out tracking for serious VR gaming. I understand and support HTC, entirely, with their idea for a moddable headset, but they would have saved Vive enthusiasts a lot of pain if the Cosmos had been launched with these options from day one.

The Cosmos with an External Tracking Faceplate (plus the original Vive base stations/controllers) and the Cosmos Elite kit are completely different beasts to the standard Cosmos. With proper tracking HTC have created a worthy successor to the original Vive. The Cosmos experience has gone from being a generally acceptable VR kit for newcomers to something absolutely sublime for VR enthusiasts.