Pimax, a Chinese startup developing an 8K virtual reality headset, came to CES this year to show off its latest prototype, the fifth in just a year since the first version was unveiled at last year’s show. After a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, one in which Pimax raised more than $4.2 million and beat out even Oculus VR’s initial crowdfunding campaign, it’s working toward mass production of the consumer version that is slated to come out later this year after an initial shipment to backers.
In my very brief time with the device, I can say that it is does achieve stunning high-resolution visuals, 3840 x 2160 dual displays to be exact, and a rather remarkable 200-degree field of view. Pimax’s unit is without a doubt what the bleeding edge of VR hardware technology looks like. But that also means it exists as a testament for all the hurdles consumer VR needs to clear to be adopted by mainstream consumers.
Because while the Pimax headset may be an impressive technical feat, it’s not so stellar in the design department. The headset is gigantic and cumbersome, weighing much more than a standard VR headset like the Rift and even more it seems than HTC’s weighty Vive. It also looks like something straight out of Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk Ghost in the Shell manga. That might not matter that much to VR enthusiasts, who are probably fine looking goofy and sci-fi-like in the comfort of their bedroom, but most consumers probably wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something as eye-popping as the Pimax.
Pimax’s headset is also capable of visuals only a tiny handful of ultra expensive PC graphics cards, even among the highest-end consumer-grade models, can reasonably push. The company’s founder and chairman Robin Weng told The Verge that most people using Pimax with a GTX 1070 or 1080 card may get 4K visuals that can be upscaled to 8K. Still, it seems like an indulgence in function over form that VR can’t really afford, not when it’s still a tiny market catering mostly to niche gaming fans.
Of course, there is the argument that Pimax understands this, and that its headset isn’t really trying to be a breakthrough mainstream device. That’s reasonable, and a lot of tech at CES fits that bill. The show floor is full of prototypes and proof-of-concept devices that are meant to showcase a certain brand of technological progress that often ignores peripheral concerns like aesthetics and overall comfort in exchange for reaching a benchmark like 8K VR. And Pimax’s wildly successful Kickstarter campaign also makes clear that there are, at minimum, nearly 6,000 people willing to put down around $500 to get their hands on a headset like this.
Still, Pimax’s headset is a teachable moment nonetheless, because it shows just how difficult it is for companies like Oculus, HTC, Sony, and others to make headsets that are both powerful and functional, while at the same time being comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, and capable of working with head shapes and hairstyles of all varieties. It’s not easy to make a face computer that doesn’t make its owner look ridiculous, and it’s even harder to make one users will find comfortable to wear for hours at a time. It took Oculus years to perfect its consumer Rift design, which is arguably the most comfy headset on the market today. But at here at CES, we’re getting a good reminder of the types of trade-offs the VR market has to consider when trying to push technical boundaries and still have a marketable product at the end of the day.