Above picture: Chen Zhaoyang, founder and CEO of DeePoon, in the interview with AllChinaTech.
The founding story
Robots and gizmos, those are the tags you would put on what Chen Zhaoyong created – or “assembled”, to use his own understatement – during his school years: a radio, a soccer robot, and a fire-extinguisher robot. He even made a computer for logistics workers to wear on their arms to detect the environmental conditions in warehouses.
After graduation, Chen went to Intel China, a “technology-based” foreign company he had yearned to join. He received many awards and became an R&D manager within three years. Later, he finally decided to quit and start his own company.
“In fact, VR/AR has always been my dream since my post-graduate years. And I want the results of my work to be more directly accessible to Chinese consumers,” said Chen.
The early VR/AR programs in which Chen took part were mainly for military purposes. Most of the chips he made in Intel China were sold to the U.S. and Europe. That was why he resigned from Intel China and started the plan of founding a company whose VR products would be more accessible to the broader mass of people.
By 2013, the VR technologies were mature enough, and the costs of the electric components and parts were low enough, for his own plans to begin to be put in motion.
Chen said that China’s opening and reform has laid foundation for the fast development of science and technology in China, as well as giving opportunities for ambitious individuals to become self-made just like those in the U.S.
After studying the VR products and technologies of Oculus, Chen founded his own company, DeePoon, in Shanghai in 2014. More than half of their 100 employees are engineers and developers, coming from large tech companies including Apple, Baidu and Tencent.
Above picture: DeePoon M2
From the first model to mass production
DeePoon’s earliest products were the Virglass series screenless viewers, launched in October 2014. It was, however, the later product, the DeePoon Kankan, a viewer similar to Google Cardboard, that has caught more attention. The company collected about RMB 5.4 million (USD 825,000) on the crowdfunding platform of China’s largest online retailer Taobao for the DeePoon Kankan within 40 days, in January and February 2016. The DeePoon Kankan is priced at RMB 169. It took Oculus four years from the 2012 kickstarter to launch the mass produced Oculus Rift.
The company launched its tethered head mounted display (HMD), the DeePoon E2 in June 2015. The DeePoon E2 has a refresh rate of 75 Hz, the same as the Oculus Rift DK2. It also has a slightly wider field of view (FOV) of 120°, compared to the DK2’s 100° FOV. Most of the Oculus Rift DK2’s VR content is also compatible with the Deepoon E2. Yet, the price of a DeePoon E2 is only RMB 1,799 (USD 276), compared to USD 350 for an Oculus Rift DK2.
“The standalone head mounted displays are the future of the Chinese VR market. Many VR headsets makers in China have announced theoretical plans for their own standalone HMD, but few of them are able to even launch it, let alone begin mass production,” said Chen.
DeePoon is one of the few Chinese VR headsets makers that have made an impact in the industry. The company launched its standalone HMD the DeePoon M2 for RMB 2,999 in March 2016, and collected RMB 9.4 million on the crowdfunding of Taobao for the DeePoon M2 in May 2016. The first batch of the DeePoon M2 was delivered to its buyers in June.
“We have tested a number of standalone HMDs by other makers in China, and we found that the technological level of the DeePoon M2 is at least six months ahead of the game in China,” said Chen.
The DeePoon M2 is powered by a Samsung Exynos 7420 processor – something which is also used by Samsung in its Galaxy S6 smartphones – and British semiconductor company ARM’s Mali-T760 graphics processing unit (GPU). It also uses a Samsung 2.5K AMOLED display screen. The company has reduced the delay rate of the DeePoon M2 to 19ms. Its refresh rate is 75 Hz.
Above picture: DeePoon M2
From headset to content
By the end of 2016, global shipments of Oculus Rift will reach one million, shipments of HTC Vive will also reach one million, and Sony PlayStation VR shipments will reach 2.5 million, according to a report on the global VR industry written by Deutsche Bank in March.
Chen said the company’s shipments of all three types of VR headsets would probably reach 800,000 units by the end of 2016, which would make the company’s revenue 10 times that of 2015. He expected their annual shipments to be at two million units in 2017, including 500,000 units of their standalone HMDs.
All these headsets mean nothing without rich VR content. DeePoon has collected over 140 games and ten thousand hour-long videos onto its content distribution platforms—the mobile app 3D Bobo and the PC app DeePoon Zhushou. Chen said they are working with over 100 domestic and overseas gaming companies, including Tencent Interactive Entertainment, Unreal Engine and Unity Technologies, and many Chinese video companies including iQIYI, PPTV and Dreamerkr. The registered users on 3D Bobo have now reached 6.5 million, according to Chen.
DeePoon’s ambition was backed by Chinese download manager Xunlei, and mobile game developer Kingnet. DeePoon landed USD 30 million from them in Series B financing in December 2015. DeePoon is the only VR headsets maker in China that has the display screen supply from Samsung. DeePoon and Samsung have many technical exchanges, represented by their visits to each other in March and August.
“It’s the solid technical reserve of DeePoon that has finally won our continued cooperation with Samsung,” said Chen.
According to Chen, talents are the crucial part of DeePoon’s “technical reserve”, and also the most important factor that has enabled DeePoon to stand out from the competition in China. He himself picked his senior executives, all of whom had over ten years of experience in research and development.
“The past decade has seen the rapid growth of the Internet, and nurtured many talented individuals in this field. Those talents, especially the overseas returnees, have been part and parcel of many tech companies in China. Fortunately, DeePoon is one of them,” said Chen.
Abobe picture: DeePoon M2
VR Vs. AR
Whether it’s the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive or DeePoon M2, these are products that can bring us the best VR experience at present. But it is widely believed that augmented reality (AR) has a better future than VR. Some people have even come up with the notion of mixed reality (MR). The question is, how long will it be before those fantasies become part of our everyday life?
“The market will still be dominated by VR products during the upcoming five years, since the AR-related technologies are not mature enough. The ideal product will be a light-weighted one, combining all VR/AR-related technologies and features,” said Chen.
In fact, all VR companies, including DeePoon in China, have been accumulating AR-related technologies. And China will be at the same level with America and the European countries in the time of AR/MR, according to Chen.
Despite its current leading position in China, DeePoon is aware of the latent competition from its fellow VR companies in China.
“Crisis leads to progress. This is the motto of DeePoon. It’s also the sense of crisis that has enabled us to survive the competition and lead the industry. The Chinese VR companies should work together to make China a global leader in VR/AR/MR. And we can,” said Chen.