The Immersive Technology Alliance (ITA) kicked off its fourth annual Immersed virtual reality conference today at the Ontario Science Centre, in Toronto. One highlight was a demo by Shanghai-based Pimax, of a new high-resolution VR headset.
VR headsets have become almost commonplace at this point. And they've all been pretty much offering similar specs, in one of two or three price categories. But Pimax is aiming to break from the pack, with headsets that all but eliminate the prominent ‘screen door' effect that comes from having your eyeballs an inch away from a flat-panel screen.
Light and Sharp
The first thing you notice about the Pimax headset is its size, especially the width: it sticks out quite noticeably on both sides of the wearer's face. But when you put it on, you discover it's one of the lightest VR headsets going. The extra size becomes imperceptible in use, and the feather weight promises long sessions of painless use.
Another nice feature: I had no trouble wearing the Pimax headset over my glasses - always a concern with VR. Few headsets (the Gear VR being a notable exception) offer sufficient focus adjustment to allow glasses-free use.
But the big attraction is the display. And it really is stunning. The Pimax prototype demonstrated at Immersed represented only the lower end of the company's promised range, at 5K resolution (2560x1440 per eye), But even so, the usual grainy quality of the VR was virtually eliminated, and the image was clearly superior to today's top-end products, such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
Pimax says that its headsets are based on ‘customized low persistence liquid' (CLPL) panels, a patented technology it developed with a manufacturing partner. The claimed refresh rate is 90Hz, as with the Oculus Rift. In use, the image seemed fluid enough, though the prototype did have a few glitches during the demo. Pimax does say that it's using a technology it calls Brainwarp to decrease hardware load. Clearly, anyone expecting to go to 4K or 8K resolutions will want to have the very latest PC and graphics card.
The Pimax 8K headset (3840x2160 per eye) will include upscaling, to allow use with less-than-stellar computers. In any case, resolution isn't currently the main problem with VR. It's the pixel density of the display that one notices most.
The expanded viewing angle is perhaps even more enjoyable. The rated field of view is 200 degrees, which is pushing close to the limits of unencumbered human vision. When using the Pimax headset, you almost cease to notice the edges of the display. Instead of looking at the virtual world through a scuba mask, you can more easily forget about the headset entirely.
The Pimax headset is compatible with existing software and peripherals. In the demo, Pimax was using stock HTC Vive ‘Lighthouse' position trackers, and stock Vive wand controllers. Both seemed to work flawlessly.
The software I tried was similarly off-the-rack: the classic Minecraft, and the action game Fruit Ninja. It would have been nice to get a wider sampling of genres, but in these two games I felt dramatically less encumbered, with a clearer view and less distraction. The immediate sensation was one of "Ahh... now that's more like it."
Pimax is currently offering its headsets on Kickstarter. As of this writing, it had just over 3,000 backers, and pledges totalling just shy of $1.9 million, on an original goal of just $200,000.
That level of support has unlocked three Stretch Goals: an extra face cushion, a deluxe head strap with attached headphones, and a customized prescription ‘frame' and cooling fan. At $2 million, which now seems within reach, the unlock would be a $100 coupon towards a wireless base station.
Pimax also promises to make accessory ‘modules' available over time. Plans include an inside-out tracking module, eye-tracking module, wireless module and even a scent module.
Actually acquiring a Pimax headset will cost a bit more than buying a Vive or Rift, but prices are well within reach of most serious VR aficionados. A pledge of $399 USD gets a 5K headset, but requires separate purchase of Vive Lighthouse tracking units, and wand controllers. For $499 USD, backers get an 8K headset, also without trackers or controllers. For $649 USD, the package upgrades to 5K headset with 2 controllers and 2 base stations. For $799 USD, it's an 8K headset with 2 controllers and 2 trackers.
Units are expected to ship by the end of the year. Of course, with Kickstarter, nothing is graven in stone. But Pimax does seem to be serious about being a player in the VR business. They'll be worth keeping an eye on, longer-term.
The Pimax VR headset may cater to a niche audience at present, but it does set a new benchmark in image quality. When you actually see 8K, 200-degree VR in action, you realize just how quickly the early limitations of this medium are being erased.