E3 LA report: Dark-horse tech products hope to make a splash

E3 LA report: Dark-horse tech products hope to make a splash

The Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles isn’t just about the big boys — Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and the lot.

No, it’s also a place where dark-horse hopefuls try to cement their status as up-and-comers, where new products try to gain an audience. Sometimes, I choose to be that audience, so I can give you an idea of if what they’re trying to shill is worth attention.

Here’s three products that are good ideas in theory, but I’m not all that sure how far they’ll get.

Pico Neo

Virtual-reality headsets are the “it” thing of the moment, but they all come with conditions of ownership.

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The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, for example, are expensive, and you’ll need a fairly stout personal computer to get the most out of them. The PlayStation VR, slated for release later this year, isn’t exactly cheap — $399.99 — and requires the user to also have a PlayStation 4 and PlayStation camera. The Samsung Gear VR may be relatively cheap, but it only works with certain smartphones.

Which brings us to the Pico Neo: an attempt at a mass-market VR headset, where you don’t need a PC, game console or particular phone brand. All the hardware is built into the headset and its controller (mostly the controller), and you just need an internet connection to download Android games and apps to get up and running.

The headset is built in the same fashion as the Gear VR, with a bulky box that sits on your face, held up with two straps around your head. Inside are two 1,200-by-1,080 resolution AMOLED displays — one for each eye — to render high-end graphics at up to 90 hertz. Inside the gamepad, which you’ll keep tethered to the headset, is the battery pack (which lasts an estimated two hours and takes another two to charge) and the rest of the real hardware, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor. It’ll be running Android 6.0, and has 32 gigabytes of storage built-in, and supports up to an additional 128GB with an SD card.

Also, it can be hooked up to a PC through a USB connection, so players might be able to use it as a PC headset for some games, though it won’t be in the same league as the Rift or Vive.

The headset is fairly lightweight (300 grams, according to the developer, Pico Interactive) and relatively comfortable, though I imagine it’ll have the same fogging problems as the Gear VR if the lenses aren’t treated. It renders a nice version of virtual reality and the headset tracks as well as every other one I’ve used.

Slated for release late this year, it looks like a solid product if the price is right. And that’s the real issue: They haven’t determined how much they’ll be selling it for in the U.S. or where they’ll be selling it. In my opinion, if they decide to charge more than $250, it probably won’t sell well.

Even that price feels like it’s pushing it, because — despite the nice tech packed inside — it looks cheap on the outside.

VirZoom

Let’s stick with the virtual-reality segment for now and discuss an extremely unique game controller: the VirZoom exercise bike.

Yes, your eyes aren’t fooling you. I said exercise bike.

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This controller, with the standard buttons and triggers built into the handlebars, helps players move through virtual-reality environments through the fun of physical exertion. Just plug in your VR headset (the Rift, Vive, and PlayStation VR are supported for now) and connect your PC or PS4 using a Bluetooth dongle, set your resistance level and away you go.

Moving forward and backward is handled by pedaling, and steering in general is controlled by head-tracking. In other words, if you look to the right while pedaling, in most games, that’ll steer you to the right.

Part of the rationale behind the VirZoom is that players who actively engage their bodies in order to move in VR won’t be nearly as prone to motion sickness as players idly sitting on a couch.

The current bike is built for a person up to 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, though the developers say they’re working on heftier models, too. It folds up for easy storage, though you could always keep it out and hang your laundry on it.

And as for the variable resistance settings, well, that can be factored into gameplay. You see, the VirZoom comes with a free piece of proprietary software, VirZoom Arcade, which has a variety of games already and more coming out for free regularly — already out, games where you control a tank or lasso desperados from horseback. As the arcade software can detect what resistance level you’re using, you can compete in multiplayer games against other people using the same level of resistance, if you’d like. They say they are even working on competitive leagues tied to that setting.

The VirZoom also comes with a software development kit, so you can adapt other games' controls to work with the bike.

I tried the exercise machine out, and it’s easy to use and provides a good workout. But it also adds a level of difficulty to any game you’re playing. For instance, the VirZoom Arcade tank game I played had me trying to hold my head steady to aim while pedaling my feet and pulling a trigger with my finger. It takes some actual physical coordination.

It also takes two AA batteries to power the thing. There’s no power cord to plug into a wall. No telling how long the batteries will last.

While it’s actually available now, the first run is sold out and the next stock won’t ship out until September. It retails for $399.95, including free shipping in the U.S. and Canada. Order at VirZoom.com.

GEMBox

In the spirit of Roku, Amazon Fire TV, OnLive and other devices that stream media from the internet to your TV comes the GEMBox.

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GEM is designed with two basic ideas in mind: Not everybody can or wants to throw down big bucks on a gaming console; and parents might want something cheap, durable and portable for young kids to play with.

Before I get into the specs, let’s just breeze through what this thing does:

— Android games, downloadable through a version of the Google Play store. It comes with four loaded up out of the box, including My Little Pony and the driving game Asphalt 8. (It’s running Android 4.4.)

— Retro gaming through three preloaded emulators. We’re talking old NES, Genesis, GBA and the like. Strictly speaking, emulators aren’t really legal. So use this functionality at your own risk.

— Gamefly streaming. If you’ve got a Gamefly streaming subscription, you can play a vast library of fairly recent games through the GEMBox as long as you’ve got a decent internet connection.

— PC streaming. If you’ve got a personal computer and want to stream games from it to your television, this can handle that for you, like a Steam Link. It’ll also handle Origin and U-Play. And it’s set up for Airplay and Miracast, so you can do that streaming wirelessly.

— Multimedia applications, like Netflix and Hulu.

— Play media through any attached USB devices.

And it will do all that for $99.

Technologically speaking, the tiny, lightweight GEMBox unit has a quad-core processor, 16 gigs of ram, an HDMI out, 1 gig of flash memory, WiFi and Bluetooth, an ethernet connector and MicroSD expansion slot. It comes with one controller modeled after your standard Xbox controller, but you’ll be able to buy extras for multiplayer games for $39.99.

Now, maybe you’re wondering, how well do Android games built for touch-screen devices work when ported to a regular controller? Fairly decently in most cases, and EMTEC — the people behind the GEMBox — say they test out each game before it goes up in the store. They also set up the store so parents can tell what age group a game is appropriate for.

Experience has made me leery of devices that offer games through streaming. So you’ll want a solid, high-speed internet connection with the GEMBox.

EMTEC recommends a minimum download of 5 megabits a second, with 10 mb ideal.

It’s slated for release Aug. 18, and can be preordered through websites like Amazon.

Will it be successful? It’s decently built and nicely capable, but it also looks like the sort of thing I’ve seen on endcaps at Walgreens, so ...

Joel Leizer is The News-Gazette’s Playing Critic. Contact him at jleizer@news-gazette.com.

Topics (1):Technology

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