StarVR headset first impressions: IMAX approved and ambitious

IFA 2016: It beats Oculus on paper but how about on face?
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So you can't afford an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Or you can afford one but you're waiting for a second or third-gen headset or your dream PC. Judging by slow, steady but small high end headset sales, that accounts for a lot of us right now. Even the true virtual reality believers.

Enter StarVR. Like The Void, Starbreeze, Acer and IMAX's location-based VR centres - could be the first taste many people get of what good VR is capable of. And the StarVR headset is the hardware to do it.

There's no plans to sell the StarVR to the public just yet but it is now shipping to IMAX centres with the first one due to open soon in Los Angeles, followed by London, New York and Shanghai.

I tried the latest version of the headgear at Acer's IFA 2016 press conference. Here's how its impressive spec sheet translates to the actual VR experience.

StarVR headset: Design and comfort

StarVR headset first impressions: IMAX approved and ambitious

I've got no complaints about the StarVR from a comfort perspective - with the Rift/Vive style adjustable band it sat nicely on my head once it was tweaked to fit. The cables are held in place on top and merged into one going into the PC so there's less chance of tripping.

The Acer-built headset is very light too, now at 380g, so despite its considerable size, it won't hurt your nose. I only used the StarVR for five minutes so it's too soon to tell how comfortable it will be over longer periods.

The team has done a good job of making sure no light seeps in from gaps in the enclosure, though, a problem Sony's headset and others have suffered from.

So, yes, it's light but it's also big and dorky. Put this triangular shaped box next to a HTC Vive or PlayStation VR and essentially this is the geek choice of a very geeky bunch of gadgets. So does the picture justify the nerd points?

StarVR headset: Picture and audio

StarVR headset first impressions: IMAX approved and ambitious

First things first, the field of view - which is 210-degrees horizontal (approx double most other VR headsets) and 100-degrees vertical - is very cool. Immersive on immersive. Starbreeze has a trick where they switch between a 100-degree view and a 210-degree view during the demo so you can spot the difference.

This is clearly where second-gen Rifts and Vives will need to get to on this particular point but the Vive in particular offers a much clearer, more vivid and appealing picture than the StarVR as it currently is.

Read this: We tried the Ghostbusters VR experience and it was awesome

The head tracking is as good as we're used to but when you move your head, there is a bit more blur than you'd typically get with, say, HTC's headset. Speaking of distractions, the screen door effect is minimal, something Starbreeze and Acer have been working to do away with, but still just about apparent.

The other thing to remember is that although StarVR's headset has a lot more pixels to play with than the likes of Oculus, it needs them. The two displays have a combined total of 5120 x 1440 resolution but this is stretched out over 210-degrees rather than 100 or 110. As such it looks similarly sharp as the big two headsets.

This latest StarVR device has plenty of improvements to the optics and lenses over previous prototypes - which I haven't tried - but it's a shame that the overall picture isn't as mind-blowing as it could be. I was waiting to be bowled over and I was, in one sense, but not completely.

As for audio, there's headphone support and 3D audio. It was too noisy at the Berlin Messe to distinguish how well this works so we'll come back to this when we try StarVR out in situ.

StarVR headset: Games and demos

As I only had a short demo with one experience, Cockatoo Spritz by Stephanie Barbato, which Starbreeze took to Cannes Film Festival's VR showcase, I wasn't able to try out a CG animated VR experience or game on the StarVR. That's a shame as, right now at least, these are better at showing off the picture quality of high end VR headsets like this one.

Still, the non VR Vimeo vid above gives you a sense of how well made it is. The idea is that you move from conversation to conversation i.e turn your head to catch what's going on, similar to those Cirque du Soleil VR shorts by Felix & Paul. There's also a very cool slow mo sequence at the end though the objects drifting towards you in the near foreground do feel a bit 3D gimmicky.

Cockatoo Spritz isn't interactive but the location-based plan does give Starbreeze and IMAX more chance to play around with controls, identifying what works best with each piece of content. The team has been trying out the SubPac rumble vest, for instance.

The quality of films, shorts and games for Starbeeze's new StarCades and IMAX VR centres, though, should be very high. The studio is currently working on John Wick VR with Lionsgate and Wevr and has already been demoing a Walking Dead experience which involves players sitting in a virtual wheelchair wielding a gun controller.

IMAX, which is heavily involved in the plan for VR centres, says it is in discussions with "virtually every Hollywood and Chinese movie studio" about making VR shorts to tie in with existing movies and franchises too.

StarVR headset: Initial verdict

StarVR headset first impressions: IMAX approved and ambitious

On first play, StarVR seems impressive enough to wow visitors to IMAX VR centres. It's comfortable to wear, has that bonus field of view, plus Starbreeze is putting together a nice slate of things to do and play when you get your face in it. It's probably the dorkiest bit of hardware I've ever put on my face but hey, when you're inside VR you don't give a crap.

It's exciting to see a new contender - in the form of this triple threat of Starbreeze, Acer and IMAX - and with the experiments in controllers and accessories, StarVR might also give The Void a run for its money.

Still. Despite the numbers, which sound like a real step up, from my short, live action, non-interactive demo, StarVR felt on a par with what the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can offer as the whole package, not something too far beyond that. In some ways it's better, in others it's still playing catch up. This might change the more I use the headset though, particularly with high res CG experiences and convincing accessories.

So it's certainly one to keep an eye on, especially if you live in LA, New York, London or Shanghai where you'll be able to try it out for yourself before the end of the year.


How we test


Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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