With so many things happening in “virtual”, 2021 is the year to buy a VR headset. Among the contenders for your money is the second Reverb headset from HP, the Reverb G2. But should you buy it?
Announced last year, the second Reverb from HP, the G2, is a beast in terms of VR headsets available for the public: its resolution, of 2160×2160 pixels per eye – that’s a 4320×2160 screen… -, puts it ahead of the competition, be it the Valve Index or the recent Oculus Quest 2. Resolution is not everything, but the experience of looking through the two independent screens that show the image will appeal to many people and make them put the HP Reverb G2 high in their list of VR headsets to consider.
The pandemic made the word “virtual” one of the most used terms in 2020, as many things turned digital, to the online world, including film festivals, with some of the events moved to the web requiring a VR headset to be fully explored. ProVideo Coalition continues to document how, in recent years, the Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and Extended Reality experiences grew in visibility in different festivals around the world.
The 2019 edition of the South by Southwest Conference & Festivals – or SXSW 2019 – had a panel about “Making Virtual and Augmented a Reality For Television” among many other activities related to VR. From NAB to CES or Siggraph, industry events took notice, and so did film festivals as Sundance, Cannes, Tribeca or Venice, to mention some. In 2020 we saw the Museum of Other Realities, a virtual art gallery specialized in featuring immersive work from international VR artists, open its – virtual – doors to the public.
Virtual Reality started 30 years ago
Virtual Reality has been around for a while – I tried the first VR headsets in London, back in the early 90s and saw some signs of VR’s evolution at E3 in Atlanta and LA in the following years -, but with the introduction of the first Oculus Rift CV1 and the HTC Vive VR headsets, in 2016, international events started to have a regular space to show the development of products and the resulting experiences. The Virtual & Augmented Reality Pavilion at NAB 2016 was an early example of that change. There, attendees could “see how the world, as we know it, is changing”. More than 20 companies presented their latest augmented and virtual reality equipment and software, allowing the public to experience firsthand the potential of the new medium.
It was clear for everyone at the time – and it’s even more clear now – that Virtual Reality is impacting all aspects of filmmaking, storytelling, cameras, lighting, sound, production, special effects (VFX), editing, distribution, coding and consumption. Those behind the NAB 2016 AR VR Pavilion noted, then, that the space “features the leading content producers and tech companies building the future and changing the way we consume information. The future is here and happening now. See it for yourself.”
Five years later, there is no doubt that VR, AR or, to use a general umbrella, XR (Extended Reality), is here to stay and is becoming more prevalent in our lives. In April 2020, SteamVR saw nearly one million additional monthly-connected headsets, tripling the previous largest monthly gain, and by 2021, 25-30% of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week and searching for new ways to collaborate. Technology must evolve to meet the changing needs of the customer with flexibility across a variety of industries and platforms.
Filmmakers adopted Virtual Reality
While astronauts will have to wait until 2030 to set foot on Mars, visitors of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex could visit Mars already in 2016, thanks to VR. With Virtual Reality you can go almost anywhere, either exploring the Moon with the Apollo missions or stepping onto Michelangelo’s own scaffold to learn about how he painted the ceiling at the Sistine Chapel, where you can see individual cracks and brush strokes in the plaster!
Some films take the illusion to extremes, and that already at the production stage. Pairing a game engine with VR headsets, filmmakers can walk inside a virtual set as if it is real. The Lion King set a milestone, taking the crew to Africa… inside a studio, and revealed how VR has become a key part of Hollywood productions. It’s not just VR used for Virtual Production, many filmmakers have adopted VR as a platform to share their narratives, as ProVideo Coalition documented. With new software and tools, this is an area rapidly expanding.
To be able to experience all those things, you need to have a VR headset. That’s where the HP Reverb G2 enters. You may be tempted to buy an untethered headset like the Oculus Quest 2, but up to this moment PCVR headsets – those who are connected to computers – offer the best experience. It’s true that for some types of games not having a cable hanging from your head is an asset, but if your interest is watching experiences, from storytelling to interactive narratives, you’re better served with a PCVR.
HP Reverb G2: a messy start
The HP Reverb G2 is, now, the most powerful PCVR headset available. Announced March 2020, with a “soon available” tag, its launch has been problematic, as so many other “paper launches” – Nvidia’s RTX 30 series is an example – in recent times. This review or hands-on of the HP Reverb G2 is based on my experience both waiting for and using the headset, and I hope this text will help others to make a decision.
On August 5th I ordered two HP Reverb G2 headsets from Amazon, which were expected to arrive in September. Then it was October, then November and then… no one seemed to know when the pre-orders would be delivered. Meanwhile, some people who ordered later were able to receive their HP headsets within a few days. A complete mess, which the pandemic, apparently, helped to make even more messy.
The two headsets arrived on the last day of December 2020. By then, those who had received theirs earlier had started to post online about multiple problems: an immense list of errors, many related to incompatible USB connections. While it is true that those who do not have problems rarely go online to share their experience, the volume of complaints about the HP Reverb G2 was and still is frightening. It’s a $600 piece of hardware – 800 Euro in Europe now – you’re buying, after all…
How Oculus bricked the Rift S
Having lived through the experience of the Oculus Rift S, I know how sour things can turn. Back in July 2019 I wrote, here at PVC, that “Oculus Rift S is the most affordable solution available now” only for, in December the same year, to have Oculus brick thousands of headsets thanks to firmware and software updates. Suddenly, the bliss of VR turned into hell, a bad experience that lasted for months, until after Summer 2020, when finally, Oculus seemed to get the Oculus Rift S working.
Still, to this day, the Oculus Rift S continues to have some problems, and the unit I’ve kept does refuse to work, sometimes, with the usual nonsense warning that my USBs are not 3.0 compatible. Now that Oculus (or Facebook, who owns Oculus) has discontinued the Rift S, I don’t expect much from their support desk, but I’ve managed to keep the Rift S working. Still, as comments online and even here at PVC confirm, for many people the Rift S is nothing else than a paperweight.
When the HP Reverb G2 arrived, I was eager to get them connected, to see how good they were… and to check for problems. Well, everything went smooth on an Intel machine (Intel i7–9700K/32GB RAM/RTX 3080/ NVMe SSD, SATA SSD/ Windows 10 Pro v 20H2) but the AMD unit (AMD Ryzen 9 3900X/16GB RAM/RTX 3080/ NVMe SSD, SATA SSD / Windows 10 Pro v 20H2) had problems with USB compatibility.
Two weeks of bliss and then hell
AMD chips and the HP Reverb G2 seem to have problems, all documented, so our experience was not a complete surprise. After trying a few USBs on the computer, an external USB 3.0 powered hub already attached to the PC worked, with the USB-C to USB-A adapter provided by HP used to make it work. Since then, the HP Reverb G2 has worked without problems.
The HP Reverb G2 unit connected to the Intel machine is another story: two weeks of bliss and then hell. After two weeks working without any problem, the first sign of trouble was that of sound commuting between the headset and the PC. Then the screen would go black and return after a few seconds. Having read about these same problems online was not reassuring. Then, one day the Reverb G2 simply refused to work, only showing black screens and different types of errors.
One problem with tethered VR is that cables can break, but that was the last thing I would expect: the Intel machine is used for sitting down experiences ONLY, meaning the cable is not moving around, so the cable is the last thing one checks. Meanwhile, the other headset, which is used for standing experiences – and a lot of action when it’s leisure time – was working fine, despite its cable being jolted around…
The culprit: a broken cable
After three days uninstalling and installing everything, as I could not imagine the cable was faulty, I decided to do something else. As we’ve two headsets I simply tested the second unit on my computer, and it worked. Then I used the second headset with my cable, and it continued to give errors, audio breaking, going from headset to desktop, saying the USB connections tried didn’t work. The last thing I tried was to use the cable from the second headset on my headset and it worked as expected.
So, the culprit is a broken cable. My own experience, with the multiple errors created due to the broken cable, suggests that many of the errors people mention online may be the result of a broken cable, even if that’s not visible. This suggests that HP may have a problem of quality control, which is not helped by the fact that they decided to go for a 6-meter-long cable that puts some weight on the headset and connections, even in sitting down experiences. My Oculus Rift S cable is much better, and it has lasted intense use for three years now.
Now, HP was kind enough to send me a replacement cable, so I could finish this review, but the second cable they sent me lasted less than 48 hours… which again does suggest there is something wrong. Remember, it was used exclusively for sitting down experiences, while I watched movie trailers in 8K and 4K, 3D content and other VR software available, preparing to write this review of the HP Reverb G2 VR headset. If a cable breaks this easy, then it should not come as a surprise that so many people have problems with HP’s hardware.
VR: consumers have much too high expectations
It’s true that one problem of VR is that people come to it with many expectations that are not met by the hardware yet. People used to watch content in 4K monitors do not understand, apparently, that when you move to VR you trade resolution for immersion: you may have less pixels, but it’s like you’re inside the story and not seeing it from outside.
Another problem with newcomers to VR is that many of them do not have a computer able to run the VR headset at its best. In fact, no one seems to have, in some cases, as to move all those pixels offered by the Reverb G2 screens not even a Nvidia RTX 3090 with the fastest CPU and 64GB of the fastest RAM is enough if you want to run apps at Ultra settings. It’s just not feasible, so there must be compromises. In that sense, what the HP Reverb G2 offers in terms of resolution is already the future.
Now, I am not sure if there is a future for the HP Reverb G2, even though the company already announced another version, for business and professional use, the HP Reverb G2 Omnicept, with eye tracking, heart rate, pupillometry, and face camera to create more engaging VR experiences. You’ll need an even more powerful computer to run it, believe me!
Does Hewlett-Packard know it is selling VR headsets?
Even discounting all the people complaining about something that is due to their high expectations or computer lack of power to run VR, there is a growing list of people stating the obvious: one reader at the reddit HP Reverb G2 channel says that “a lot of users that have their headset a couple of weeks or months run into cable breaking issues” because “the way the cable of the G2 is applied causes a lot of stress each time you lift up the headset you will bend the cable up to 90° on a very static spot that causes cable breaking”.
There are multiple comments about the tension on the cable degrading it over time, giving as a result that the screen goes black suddenly. Yet another comment adds that “the number of mods people have done to make it usable shows how far they [HP] missed the mark with this. RMA process is the worst I’ve dealt with in almost 20 years of building PC’s.” People are using a variety of solutions to try to keep cable and connections protected, sometimes going to extremes, as some images published on reddit reveal.
Yes, it’s not just the cable that is problematic. Returning a HP Reverb G2 that is not working is no easy task as, apparently, Hewlett-Packard as a company has not yet understood that they are selling VR headsets as well. Trying to get their support for the headset makes one wonder if the whole idea of VR headsets for the public is just something that a few engineers at HP nurture, fueled by the fact that the first version, designed for professional used, was adopted by gamers who discovered the headset’s high-resolution is ideal for flight simulation.
We’re missing a cable that works
Right now, we’ve two headsets, three cables and only one headset is working, and I don’t know for how long, because the cable is the weakest link, as far as we can test. The replacement cable sent by HP lasted less than 48 hours of normal sitting down use, meaning there is a quality control problem. Fortunately, as we had a Reverb G2 still working, we tested that cable on the Intel machine with the headset I am using, and everything is OK. But we need another replacement cable.
I tried to get in touch with HP but have not had a reply yet, and Amazon tells me that they are not able to replace the cable because HP does not send them extra cables and only full headsets. This makes no sense, as HP is fully aware, by now, that they’ve a problem, so they should have replacement parts available and not ask people to return whole headsets, as the cable seems to be the reason for many of the problems related by people. Also, asking people to wait for a couple of months for a replacement cable, when in some cases they’ve just starting using the headset, is not going to be good for business.
As user u/redditcucu wrote on reddit’s HP Reverb G2 channel recently, “It’s been over 2 months since all this RMA nonsense started and HP is showing absolutely no signs that they care to improve at all. This is not a small oversight or a random glitch in their system, it’s pure willful negligence. They refuse to address known issues, they refuse to take care of pre-order supporters, they refuse to train their customer staff who to this day have no idea how things work and either straight up lie or give customers the runaround.” As a last paragraph to the comment the same user added that “I was in the same boat, recommending this “great” headset to friends but believe me I made sure none of them will end up buying one after mine is still in the RMA process after 2 months.”
HP needs to sort their client support NOW
The word of mouth may be what kills HP’s Virtual Reality ambitions. As everyone that has a bad experience with the HP Reverb G2 headset – and believe me, the number is growing – shares their opinion with others, the number of people that will look elsewhere will grow. In the end, that’s a pity, because once you try the HP Reverb G2 – when it’s working! – you’ll hardly want to try any other VR headset. The resolution, color and sound have no match, and we’ve an Oculus Quest 2 here to compare. Coming from an Oculus Rift S as the base VR headset – which is still around and working – it’s hard to not want the Reverb G2.
Yes, the G2 may not be the headset for everybody, but if you want to watch films in your own IMAX screen, in a virtual cinema or even a virtual drive-in cinema, nothing beats it now. And if you want to work in virtual production or creation of VR content, the HP Reverb G2 may be your best choice. But only if HP can sort things out and start 2021 with the right foot. There are promises of better tracking for Windows Mixed Reality, and adjustment of some other bugs, but if the hardware is breaking over and over, there will be no path ahead and users will look elsewhere. So, HP, the ball is on your side.