Pico, VREAL, Owlchemy: the Companies Helping to Evolve VR

Stating that VR is still in its early years is a no-brainer. As is the declaration that gaming companies — be they pertaining to the production of hardware, software or supporting peripherals/devices — are still trying to find ways to not just invite more consumers to invest in the technology, but advance what is still figuratively uncharted waters. There may be the occasional game that makes the most of the technology at its disposal and certain head-sets may well impress in certain degrees, but VR as a whole — much like the headsets adorned over one’s upper cranium — still finds itself by an ignorable cord or leash of sorts. One that continues to remind us that the technology hasn’t quite elevated to the point of replacing the standard that’s come before.

That whether you’re the type to fork over a few hundred dollars/pounds/euros/whatever to Sony, Oculus, Valve…for all the startling immersion and enticing gameplay on offer, it only takes but a worrisome niggle in your back-mind to consider where the attached lead is located…or the fact you have to keep tapping a button to reposition yourself in the game World, to see that for all the internet’s muddled language…VR indeed feels like an early investment rather than a wholly realised endeavour. But things are changing. We are slowly but surely adapting to this new perception, this new way in which gaming technology — be it as fully-fledged (and not ridiculously expensive more so) games, secondary software or the devices themselves — can be used in a way that makes sense but also makes us go “oh, there’s an actual game here”. Both in a practical sense, but also in an entertaining one.

Sure we may see some companies like Samsung trying to coax the wider populace with its Gear headset, but plastering a smartphone to your face just so you can stare at apps in a somewhat more-advanced plane of 3D…isn’t really going to win the more embed and enthusiastic of gaming peeps over now is it? More alarmingly, it’s not going to win over the “casual” sectors more importantly whom (perhaps through no fault of their own) are still only gradually becoming aware of the emergence of both virtual and augmented reality alongside. Be it the hardware, the software or simply tools that help to make the process of creating for VR more easier and efficient, while they may not be getting pushed to the forefront of the daily newsreel, rest assured that VR is an ongoing development. And it’s only now that the platform is starting to show some promising signs of becoming just that: a platform. Another potentially rewarding avenue for those of us to be pulled towards. One that, put simply, is worth both our time and our money.

The China-based company Pico are aiming to find a commonly comfortable middle-ground amidst all this talk about recommended hardware rigs and the necessity for a minimum amount of space — not to mention power outlets to hook up both one’s head-set and the sensors that come as but a mandatory accompaniment. Pico Neo is a fully portable VR head-set that doesn’t rely on power outlets or indeed one’s PC. The technical and visual means are built straight into the head-set itself as well as its somewhat SNES-looking controller – emphasising the absolute need (and not just some ideal, optional fondness) for six degrees of freedom.

Whether it’s talking in-depth with one of the company’s top brass — a conversation that is so clearly fuelled by passion for the project as much passion to break away from this constrained, wired restriction — or going about trying the device for myself, Pico Neo, despite its less-than-mainstream presence is a clear sign that the age of wireless, fully-mobile VR is, if not fully implemented, already taking its first critical steps into becoming reality. As noted, you could be gripped in the most engaging of fire-fights or tentatively creeping one’s way through a perilous dungeon, but if you have to be realigning yourself to a preset grid of space or even consciously have to show caution at where your head-set’s lead may be (for fear of causing a not-so-entertaining accident)…well it’s pretty detrimental to the all-round experience isn’t it?

Pico Neo VR removes that concern because, obviously, of its cordless stature. And as basic the software demo-builds may be on trying this device — of ducking and diving between security lasers — you begin to slowly-but-surely lose yourself, positively, in the game being shown right before your very eyes. To lose nearly all sensual awareness of the loud and rowdy environment that is a trade show-floor – pop-up company booths and all – shows how impressive yet obvious the need is to break away from VR’s reliance on external sources. While I’m not at liberty to speak in-depth about how the company will approach the more analogous of player input, a la conventional controllers or even motion-based one at that (because quite frankly I never had a chance or opportunity to try them), Pico’s clear focus on unshackling the technology from out such restrictions is one the big three play-makers (PlayStation, Oculus, HTC Vive) should take considerable notice of.

But what of the software helping to define the very hardware and technology itself? As we already see, building a meaty peripheral with high-resolution output is, in of itself, respectable…but what’s the point of it all if it has no real driving software to help push VR’s potential? It’s nothing a few cleverly/poorly-disguised tech demo’s can pave over that’s for certain. Fortunately, companies are also exploring not so much the singular player experience, but a social one as well. VR that is used less as a means to engage us as lone individuals, but one that brings and subsequently shares it with others in some very unique and interesting ways.

VREAL Screenshot 2
You’d think engaging with company representative during a press appointment, with VR head-sets on, was a strange and bafflingly questionable decision. Yet regardless of how surreal it was to be shown VREAL’s in-progress ventures into the more social aspects of VR, it’s the kind of demonstration that only begins to “click” when you have the very software shown, literally, before your very eyes. And with everything that’s been showcased to me this past month, VREAL have the minor of garnering that most double-taking of expressions from myself: “how has no one tried this yet?” VREAL could essentially be classed as a social hub of sorts, a means for developers as well as “content creators” to allow their players to get involved, albeit to a certain restricted level, with the gameplay being shown.

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