LG SteamVR headset

How many virtual reality headsets does the world need? Apparently, if you're LG, there's room for one more.

The venerable gadget maker has made a VR headset of its own. Running Valve's SteamVR, it's going by the name of LG SteamVR headset, at least colloquially. 

This is prototype hardware, LG representatives were quick to point out before we fixed it to our craniums at GDC 2017. That means the headset - from its looks to its specs - is subject to change before any official release. When that will be, by the way, is another question mark.

For a prototype, the LG SteamVR headset is amazingly far along (how much will it really change, LG?). It feels like a well-developed device that, with a few refinements, a new coat of paint and maybe a little more glue, could make it out to consumers before long. Not just that; it could knock them off their feet.

And while it's currently a capable piece of hardware that's comfortable to wear and boasts great VR graphics, the biggest hurdle facing LG's headset is the inevitable and justified comparison to HTC Vive.

LG's headset is a near carbon copy of HTC's virtual reality headset in a number of critical ways. There are a few tweaks that help differentiate it, but when you have the headset over your eyes, it's hard to tell the difference.

The similarities aren't surprising given LG's hardware is built to meet Valve's standards, and Valve and HTC have been VR bedfellows for a few years. The LG SteamVR headset taps into the same Lighthouse tracking system as the Vive, so when you're in a VR world, you have the exact same roomscale sensing technology backing you up.

LG has introduced a few design elements of its own and made a lighter headset, adaptations that prevent it from becoming simply an iteration of its older sibling.

For one, the SteamVR's visor is adjustable and flips up, which is actually a feature similar to the PlayStation VR. This lets you re-engage with the physical world without needing to take the headset on and off. It's a somewhat involved process to position the headset on in the first place, so this is convenient for when you need a breather.

There are a series of steps to get the headset on that we had trouble performing even after a run-through from an LG rep. The biggest cog in the wheel is the dial in the back that lets you tighten the LG SteamVR around your head once you've put it on like a baseball cap. Owners of the newer HTC Vive are familiar with this dial mechanism already.

Once on, you're welcomed to a world bursting with buttery smooth graphics, movements that mirror what you're doing in the real world (thanks to that tracking tech), and an overall delightful experience that pains you a bit to leave. Like the HTC Vive, you'll also see the grid pattern that lets you know where a wall or object is when you get too close.

The headset's display resolution is 1440 x 1280 for each eye, and it boasts a refresh rate of 90Hz with a 110-degree field of view. This gives you a wide scope to look at in the visor, and quick turns weren't affected much by blur. 

Accompanying the headset are two trackers. Again, these borrow heavily from the HTC Vive's controllers, though the top is a diamond shape rather than a circle. They performed just as well as HTC's versions; in Racket: NX, an 'xtreme' ping pong game, we could follow a blazing ball around the room and whack it against a wall with the same sensation as if we were doing it in real life. 

Another game involved a bow and arrow. With an extended arm holding the bow, the other drew the virtual arrow back and shot it at (adorable) hostile invaders. The physics of the arrow's distance and arc matched well with the angle we held the bow and how far back we drew our shooting arm. 

The games were physically engaging and the whole system encouraged movement, whether to get closer to the bouncing ball or reposition to strike an invader with our arrows. 

The one trip up, literally, was the wire. LG's headset has the same leash to a PC as the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, and we quickly became tangled. The common refrain is that the tether is needed to power graphics-intense experiences, but after trying the growing suite of capable wireless head-mounted displays, it's getting a bit frustrating to go back to a lassoed system.

Early verdict

LG SteamVR is an almost-great headset, which is saying a lot considering it's still a prototype. If this is early development, who knows how much better LG could make the device by the time it hits consumers. 

It's a smallish thing when compared to stuff like superb graphics (which LG has), but perhaps being able to lift the visor from over your eyes will be the one perk customers gravitate towards over the HTC Vive. Perhaps it will be like the sunroof of VR; you don't really need it, but if you have the option, why not go for it?

LG still has a lot of work to do if it hopes to distinguish its SteamVR headset from the already excellent Vive. Right now, LG's version feels like not much more than the drawing board edition of a headset you can already buy.

Maybe the similarity isn't a bad thing; the HTC Vive is a wonderful headset, and if LG offers another take that taps into the same stellar tracking system, perhaps at a cheaper price point, then it could flourish in the VR space. What's more, Valve will have two lethal weapons against the Oculus Rift, which just introduced a significant price drop

Right now, however, there's almost nothing distinguishing LG's take from HTC's creation. It is bursting with promise, but LG needs to actualize that promise into a headset that offers something (anything!) unique without going any higher, price wise, than the $800 HTC Vive. 

This is a tall order, but riding the high of the celebrated LG G6 announcement, perhaps LG can pull it off. It just might be awhile before we know for sure.

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