Standalone virtual reality headsets tend to come in only one flavor. Typically, your smartphone slides into a pair of goggles, and from there the headset becomes a single unit relying on the phone’s display. This means there are no cords keeping you tethered to a computer, but it also makes the headset heavy. Pico VR, a Chinese hardware company, has come up with a unique solution to this problem.
The team designed a controller, not unlike a PlayStation Vita without the screen, that contains all the necessary hardware to power the software. By tethering the controller to an ultra-lightweight headset, you can enjoy standing or sitting VR experiences without feeling like you’re wearing a one-pound weight on your face. The controller itself contains a Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage with a microSD card slot.
At the Virtual Reality Developer Conference in San Francisco, I tried a developer version of the Pico Neo, as the product was called when it was first unveiled back in April. Although the demo offered only a stationary space shooter game, it was a surprisingly solid VR experience. Because the demo incorporated head movements to point the cursor of your spaceship turret, it meant I was moving my gaze around frequently. Using a Samsung Gear VR, this would be more cumbersome. Yet the Pico Neo, being much lighter thanks to the hardware internals residing in the gamepad, didn’t feel like I was throwing too much weight around.
There are a few setbacks to this approach. For one, it involves cords. One of the primary benefits of a standalone headset like the Gear VR or Google’s new Daydream setup is the promise of cordless VR. Even Oculus is working on a cordless headset of its own codenamed Santa Cruz. The Pico Neo also undermines another benefit of standalone headsets by requiring a third, extra gamepad peripheral that you might not always have with you. Even Google’s Daydream has small carrying latches built into the headset itself so you can store the one-handed remote when you’re not using it. And the Neo runs a custom version of Android, which means it’s not entirely clear where it’s catalog of games or VR experiences will ultimately come from.
The whole thing could also be more expensive than consumers are willing to pay for something that isn’t an Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, or HTC Vive. The company won’t disclose the price right now, but earlier reports put the whole package at around $550, and the headset on its own at $300 if you wanted to tether it to a PC. This could be a product of having to incorporate a display into the headset because it does not rely on a smartphone. The Pico Neo offers 1200 x 1080 resolution per eye with a refresh rate of 90Hz refresh rate and 102-degree field of view, so it’s on par with competitors.
Still, it’s refreshing to see a company rethinking how standalone VR can and should look. Plus, with its eye-popping orange color scheme, the Neo is a nice-looking device. The company says it doesn’t have a release date locked down yet, and its developer version is only available to those in China. But with a recently opened San Francisco office, Pico is looking to expand.