The Hypereal Pano headset
As China’s young entrepreneurs go, Huang Chaiming is an unlikely early success story.
He turned down an offer from Oxford University because his family couldn’t afford to pay for tuition. Instead of choosing an alternative in China, he decided to forego education altogether and start job hunting to support the family.
After going through a series of random jobs, including a spell as a debt collector, Huang had a breakthrough idea in 2015. The gaming enthusiast spotted a prototype Virtual Reality system being developed by Oculus, a division of Facebook, and immediately realised VR could be a game-changer -- particularly in the world of gaming. The 28-year old's other passions -- mathematics and technology -- encouraged him to act on this moment of inspiration. And with the help of two high school friends, Shanghai-based Hypereal was born -- their mission to develop their own VR experience.
A screenshot of a Hypereal VR game
Two years on and Huang’s team produced the Hypereal Pano, a mass-market VR headset starting from 2,499 yuan ($362). Critics have compared it favorably to HTC’s Vive and the Oculus Rift, which cost from $799 and $598 respectively. The success of the Pano earned Huang a place on FORBES ASIA’s 2017 30 Under 30 list.
Hypereal has its own technological advantages in China. The startup is one of the few Chinese companies capable of offering an immersive virtual experience complimented by a self-developed tracking system that can detect a user’s movement in the real world and then communicate with the headset and a computer to match it in a virtual environment. Most of its peers make low-cost cardboard glasses that can be tethered to smartphones for 360-degree viewing, but don’t allow users to interact with the virtual environment due to the lack of a tracking system.
Hypereal’s performance is as good as the market-leading Oculus Rift,because Hypereal recruited top industry talents to help develop their product, Huang claimed in a recent interview with FORBES. Of the 150-member team based in Shanghai, close to 100 people were hired from Google, chip-maker AMD and mixed reality startup Magic Leap to boost Hypereal’s research and development firepower.
“We're like Apple or Dajiang Innovation,” Huang said. “Our technologies are 100% in-house developed.”
'Zombies Never Die'
The company has also been developing content to go with the headset. Hypereal Pano currently comes with more than 80 games, including a self-developed title called “Zombies Never Die” – a reflection of Huang’s belief that gaming is fast-becoming a lucrative area for VR.
Investors are taking notice.
In March, Hypereal raised $10.5 million from the likes of Qiming Venture Partners -- and most of the proceeds have been directed into research and development, Huang said.
Another screenshot of a Hypereal VR game
The company’s technology is what attracts Qiming most, according to partner Kuantai Yeh. Aside from the tracking system, it has enhanced image quality to better simulate the real and virtual worlds. “It is one of the few Chinese companies to develop its own technology in almost every aspect of VR,” Yeh said. “If Oculus Rift has a 100-point score, I’d give Hypereal a 90.”
But Charlie Dai, an analyst at research firm Forrester, is more cautious. Hypereal Pano, which matches HTC Vive and Oculus Rift in image quality, isn’t as “stable,” meaning there are longer delays between a user’s movements in the real and virtual worlds, he said. “There is still room for improvement."
What’s more, VR remains a niche market in China. Last year, only 1.2 million units were sold, with most being low-cost glasses that don’t support interaction in the virtual worlds, according to consultancy iResearch. Some users are deterred by the high price tags of desktop headsets like Huang’s Hypereal Pano, while the lower-end glasses are even known to induce nausea and headaches, according to iResearch analyst Men Yuxiao.
It will probably take five years before Chinese users warm up to VR, as companies improve their technology and develop better VR content, Qiming’s Yeh said. But by 2020, China’s VR market will reach 6.4 billion yuan ($928 million), with total shipments growing to 8.2 million units, according to iResearch forecasts.
So for now most of Huang’s customers are Internet cafes and VR experience stores attracting early adopters. He wants to bring in individual users too but acknowledged that current VR content isn't attractive enough when compared to traditional cinema viewing or desktop gaming -- for now. And Huang is happy to play the long game.
However, Hypereal has also endured the kind of negative publicity common to many Chinese firms. Last year, it was accused of copying HTC’s tracking system on social media, prompting Hypereal’s technology director Chen Lu to issue a detailed breakdown of its technology and how it was developed. Chen emphasized differences in algorithm, lighting and the sensor system.
The interface of Hypereal's VR-based animation software
In the meantime, Huang is working on other applications for VR. An early result is a type of animation software built with VR-related technologies, which allow programmers to build things like cartoons much faster by directly making and adjusting objects in 3D and 360-degree mode.
“I want to make a standardized VR-enabled tool,” Huang said. “I am trying a lot of different things and a product that doesn’t necessarily relate to gaming.”