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Will Untethered Headsets Like This One Help Reverse the VR Slump?

Startup Pico Interactive is building an affordable wireless headset that it says will go head-to-head with Oculus and HTC.
March 9, 2017
Pico Interactive plans to release an all-in-one wireless virtual-reality headset with full position and rotation tracking later this year.

It’s difficult to lose yourself in a virtual world if you keep getting tangled up in real-world wires, yet the most powerful VR headsets on the market must still be physically tethered to a computer. A startup is taking a different approach by cutting the cords with a wireless, self-contained headset that can track your position as you move around.

Pico Interactive, which is based in China and San Francisco, is building a fabric-swathed headset called the Pico Neo CV that it hopes to release sometime this year. The device is one of several in the works that use Qualcomm’s virtual-reality reference design, and its displays have the same 90-hertz refresh rate as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It also has “inside out” tracking that captures both the position and rotation of the user’s head without the aid of external sensors, and built-in speakers. Its battery lasts two and a half to three hours.

Ennin Huang, who leads product design for the company, sees the Pico Neo CV as a way to make VR easier to use, which the company hopes will entice more people to try it out.

“When people want to put it on, they put it on,” says Huang. “They don’t need to turn on the computer, they don’t need to turn on the console. There’s no wiring.”

The company won’t say how much the Pico Neo CV will cost; Huang says only that it will be “very competitive” when compared with existing systems. For now, the prices for consumer-geared high-end headsets plus their controllers and tracking gear range from $499 for Sony’s PlayStation VR to $598 for the Oculus Rift to $799 for the HTC Vive—and that’s not including the gaming console or powerful PC these headsets require.

Consumer virtual reality is still in its earliest days, and sales are still small: market researcher Canalys estimated just north of two million VR headsets shipped in 2016, which is a fraction of the number of, say, video game consoles that sold during the same period. There are plenty of issues standing in the way of adoption by the masses, such as the costs to get started with the technology, the dearth of available content, and those pesky wires.

Besides Pico Interactive, a number of companies—both chip manufacturers like Qualcomm and Intel and headset makers like Facebook-owned Oculus—see wireless headsets as the ultimate goal for virtual reality. But those that are available today tend to be simpler and depend on smartphones to function, like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s Daydream.

I got a feel for the headset at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where I played a short game that was like a simplified version of the laser scene from Entrapment—basically, stepping over and around some virtual red laser beams to get from one end of a dingy, industrial hangar to the other. The headset’s tracking worked well, and the graphics looked good even as I spun around. It was surprisingly comfortable, with a padded headband and simple wheel in the back to tighten it up, and much lighter than the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.

But the Pico Neo CV won’t be as powerful as a headset that’s connected to a computer or gaming console, and it won’t have a ton of storage space for games (it will support up to 128 gigabytes of storage with a memory card).

Gartner analyst Brian Blau says it doesn’t really matter what technology goes into the headset; ultimately, it simply matters whether or not users have a good experience.

“VR today is an overhyped technology,” he says. “People are very excited about it, but the devices can’t deliver what people imagine they should, so there’s a lot of disappointment. And it’s up to Pico and their competitors to convince users otherwise.”

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