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LG’s new headset is basically an HTC Vive, with an awesome flip-up screen

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LG’s VR headset prototype

For the past couple of years, HTC and Valve’s virtual reality efforts — which produced the HTC Vive in 2015 — have seemed largely interchangeable. But Valve’s SteamVR platform isn’t limited to one manufacturer. Earlier this week, LG and Valve introduced a competing headset with many of the Vive’s features — but a few serious design tweaks.

Currently, LG’s headset is a development kit, which the company says will be going out to developers in the next few weeks. This means that its design isn’t final, although it seems far from a rough first effort. The headset uses a single 3.64-inch LG screen with 2560 x 1440 resolution, or 1280 x 1440 pixels per eye. That’s the same resolution as the Gear VR, and slightly more than the Rift or Vive, which both have 1080 x 1200 per eye. Its field of view is comparable to the Rift and Vive’s 110 degrees. It’s tracked with the same laser “lighthouses” as the Vive, and uses a very similar controller.

LG VR headset

The headset’s frame, however, is a lot more like the PlayStation VR. It’s a ring that fits over the forehead and is tightened on the back, similar to a hard hat. A second band around the headset is supposed to balance its weight. While I can’t pin down exactly why, though, it didn’t feel nearly as comfortable as the PlayStation VR, and the screen felt like it was at the wrong distance from my eyes, even after adjustments. It wasn’t even as comfortable as the Vive’s new head strap, which is a vast improvement over its predecessor.

The comfort level seems to be a matter of personal preference, and one developer I spoke to liked the LG headset’s screen distance far more than the Vive’s. But LG says that either way, it could change during the design process. It might also change the audio setup, which is currently a headphone jack stuck somewhat awkwardly on the side of the headset.

LG’s headset does have one killer feature: you don’t have to take it all the way off to exit VR. The front of the headset actually flips up like a motorcycle helmet visor, completely clearing your field of view. LG isn’t the first to think of this — Lenovo’s upcoming Windows Holographic headset does the same thing. But we haven’t yet tried a working prototype of Lenovo’s product, so we can’t vouch for its overall quality.

Like the general hardware design, the controllers are good, but not great. They’ve got the same trackpad as the HTC Vive, which is excellent. The tracking ring at the top is square instead of round, which I was told gives better precision, although this was hard to discern in the demo. The menu buttons have been moved to the top, which means you can’t accidentally hit them with your thumb, like I did constantly with the Vive’s controller at first. (Granted, this problem melted away as I used the Vive more.) The whole thing still feels a little cheap compared to the Vive controllers, but it’s still not bad for a development kit.

It’s a little worrying that a new headset is still using the Vive’s controller design, for one reason: Valve showed off a new, much cooler prototype last fall. Instead of using a somewhat clumsy grip button, that controller can detect when you open and close your hands, and we were hoping it would make an appearance at GDC. But if LG is working around the status quo, it’s possible we won’t see the new version for a while.

LG VR headset controllers

Once you’re inside VR, LG’s screen looks no more or less grainy than most high-quality VR headsets. The environments themselves are crisp and responsive, and the lighthouse towers work as well as ever. As with the Vive, there’s a front-facing camera that can presumably show video from the real world, although I didn’t get to try it. Honestly, with the flip-up screen, I might not ever need it.

This isn’t LG’s first foray into VR, and its last attempt — the mobile LG 360 VR — was mediocre. But LG says this is a completely separate effort, and there’s no reason to disbelieve that. Based on my very brief impressions, it could well match the Vive’s quality, putting it at the top of the current headset ecosystem. And both can pull from the same content libraries. For most people, that will mean Steam, but I also used the LG headset with HTC’s Vive app. In an interview earlier this week, Viveport president Rikard Steiber also confirmed that the HTC’s VR app store will not be exclusive to the Vive.

If you have an HTC Vive already, there’s not a pressing reason to replace it with LG’s headset. It’s a variation on the same formula, not a next-generation successor. At the same time, it introduces some more competition into the current ecosystem, and further establishes Valve and HTC as independent players in VR. Also, because I can’t say it enough times: that flip-up screen is great.