There are as many kinds of VR headsets as there are proposed uses for the nascent technology. There's the famous Oculus Rift, made of somber black plastic with thick foam padding. There's Samsung's white, bulbous Gear VR and Sony's glowing, Tron-like Project Morpheus. There's Google Cardboard and any number of other cheap paper eyepieces. But I've never tried on anything like the cartoonish pink box that is Cordon Media's Pinć.
Pinć (pronounced "pinch") is a 3D-printed headset that looks neither gritty nor futuristic. It's a brightly-colored iPhone 6 case with what looks like a pair of flat swim goggles inside, held in place by a thin elastic band. And it's part of a platform for virtual reality that's less about escaping into an alternate world than taking a quick jaunt through one. "We almost approached VR as an accessory," says creator Milan Baic. The Pinć prototype is only a couple of times thicker than the iPhone itself, and it's meant to be as non-threatening as a headset can be, at a price point that's not precisely a bargain but still less than the Oculus Rift or Gear VR.
Cordon is also targeting a group that's increasingly enamored of the technology: advertising teams. "We really feel the next killer app for VR, outside of gaming, is mobile commerce," says Baic. Pinć comes with an app that, in mockup form, includes a video section, simple paint app, shopping portal, keyboard, photo gallery, and camera — the headset comes with a fisheye lens that gives the iPhone camera a wider field of view and allows for simple augmented reality tricks, like the floating whale that's shown on startup. Baic imagines people using their phones normally, then popping Pinć on to look at something up-close or avoid distractions. Theoretically, this would leave shoppers feeling like they have a better idea of what they're buying than they could get with an unmagnified screen.
Motion-tracking lets you work bigger, but not faster
The real thing that sets Pinć apart, though, is its unique input system: a pair of LED-studded rings that your phone's camera can track, replacing the usual finger taps or an external controller. The rings, worn on the forefingers, let you interact in a way that's reminiscent of the Leap Motion controller. But Baic says they're far less of a battery drain than a full motion-tracking system, because all the camera needs to do is find a few bright lights, not detect the edges of an entire hand. You make selections by clicking a tiny button on the underside of each ring, which flashes a signal light that your phone can read. This small, low-tech solution also lets the whole thing run without Bluetooth or other wireless technology.
Cordon is launching a crowdfunding campaign for Pinć today, and it's accepting pre-orders through its website for $99 Canadian (around $90 US, which is less than half as much as the $200 Gear VR but nearly four times as much as Dodocase's $25 disposable cardboard goggles). Headsets are set to ship in the spring of 2015. Right now, it's still solidly in the development phase, but I tried out an early version of the hardware and software. The verdict? It's promising, but very, very rough.
My first impression of the Pinć was maddening pain. Where most headsets are essentially ski masks, this one uses free-floating lenses anchored by stretchy plastic bands. This lets the device fold into a neat, self-contained packet, but the eyepieces have a tendency to dig into the face, like tight swim goggles. Every time I blinked, they pressed my eyelashes into my eyes, forcing me to adjust them every few seconds or resort to squinting. This doesn't seem like a permanent predicament — another prototype, made a week later, included soft rubber wings and felt much more comfortable. But it shows that the ergonomics, one of the most important elements of a VR headset, are far from settled.
The interface itself will probably be described as Minority Report-esque, but only insofar as it uses motion tracking. It's really a blown-up phone UI, down to the two-finger interactions that let you, say, pinch and zoom into a photo. Instead of using your thumbs to tap the screen, you click them against your forefingers like tiny castanets. There are plans for a full-featured browser, map tool, and other apps, and the whole thing will be reworked as a final version in the Unity engine. A software development kit is supposed to be released early next year.
Like the glasses, the motion control is a work in progress. I managed to get the hang of it over the course of five minutes, but hitting the small buttons required careful precision, and the camera couldn't read the LEDs unless my fingers were held at a perfectly square angle. You can see things on a much bigger scale than you could on your phone, examining pictures in detail or entering environments like a virtual showroom, but you won't be working nearly as fast.
Short of seeing a final, improved version, this isn't a product I'd recommend for anyone but hardcore VR early-adopters. It's a proof of concept that's out of impulse-buy range, and it won't give you measurable benefits if you just want to play games or watch Paul McCartney in concert.
Despite these problems, Pinć is one of relatively few VR prototypes that doesn't seem like it's pushing up against an inherent, immediate limit. The ring-based tracking system is in some ways less frustrating than the more mature Leap Motion, which can lose track of where you are and send your virtual hand flying across the screen at inopportune moments. The goggles stand a chance of being the rare VR device that's genuinely portable — and even in a clearly unfinished state, they're more approachable-looking than most stuff on the market. It's not always pleasant, but Pinć is a device I can look at and think that yes, this could get better. I just hope it does.