The first wave of the current generation of virtual reality (VR) hardware hit the market roughly two-and-a-half years ago, and those headsets have served the early adopters well. But their time is running out. The second generation of VR headsets should be just around the corner, and Pimax wants to be at the forefront of that next era of consumer VR with its ultra-wide Pimax 8K and Pimax 5K headsets. Many people are banking on the success of the company, including thousands of Kickstarter backers, but we’re not so sure that Pimax’s headsets are true second generation devices. The Pimax 5K+ feels more like a mid-generation upgrade.
Last September, Pimax gained worldwide attention when it launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the final stages of development of an ambitious ultra-wide, high-resolution VR headset called the Pimax 8K. In two short months, Pimax’s campaign eclipsed Oculus’s Rift DK1 Kickstarter,to become the highest grossing VR project on the crowdfunding platform. Following the fundraiser, Pimax had no fewer than 5,946 fans with money on the line and many people rooting for stronger competition in the headset market.
The Pimax 8K, a 200-degree field of view (FOV) dual 4K display headset was supposed to be the first “next-generation” VR headset, and it was supposed to arrive in January 2018. However, Pimax’s ambition was greater than the company’s ability to realize its vision, and it ran into several setbacks that triggered cascading delays.
We had a chance to test an early prototype of the Pimax 8K before the Kickstarter campaign ended, and while the company clearly had work to do, we were satisfied with the early stage of development. But in January, the company’s progress seemed to have taken a step back. Following harsh criticism from CES attendees, Pimax went back to the drawing board and redesigned its lenses for better image clarity. It took Pimax three more attempts to get to the final design we see today.
Even now, the company has more than lens issues to surmount. The Pimax headsets are nice for enthusiasts who will appreciate the wider FOV, but the company isn't going to put HTC and Oculus out of business any time soon. We don’t yet have a production model of the Pimax 8K, but the company sent a pre-production Pimax 5K+ M2 headset to evaluate. Let’s take a look.
Pimax 5K+ M2 VR Headset
Our Pimax 5K+ sample is an early, hand-built, pre-production version, so the fit and finish may not represent exactly what customers would receive. But the M2 model is otherwise identical to the production model that backers should receive this fall and customers would receive next year.
The Pimax 5K+ is the largest headset that we’ve ever tested in our VR lab. It measures roughly 11.5 inches wide and 3.75 inches tall. For such a large headset, it has a surprisingly short depth of approximately 4.5 inches on the sides and 3.5 inches in the center. Despite the large stature, the Pimax 5K+ headset tips the scales at just 514g, which is just 15 grams heavier than an Oculus Rift, which is less than half its size.
The Pimax headset features a simplistic exterior design with smooth plastic sides and an angular shape. Most of the headset is black, except for a large blue chevron that stretches across the front panel and lights up when the headset is plugged in.
The device includes a power button, which is located on the upper-right side of the visor, but the button doesn’t disable the chevron light. Instead, it controls power to the screens inside the headset. Next to the power button you’ll find two arrow buttons that control the sound levels. The headset doesn’t include built-in speakers, but you can plug in headphones or a gaming headset via the headphone jack, which is located directly below the left head strap hinge.
The Pimax 5K+ comes with a basic fabric 3-point head strap, which includes three pieces of Velcro to route the tether cable to the back of your head. We prefer mechanical head straps, and Kickstarter backers will eventually get a mechanical strap with built-in headphones as a stretch goal, but the base model will just include the fabric strap.
Pimax’s hinge design is simple and clever. The clips that hold the head strap don’t require any force to attach. But, they can’t slip out unintentionally because they're locked into place by the removable facial interface, which requires a bit of force to remove.
The facial interface features Velcro mounting points for the foam face cushion. The foam isn’t moisture-proof, but it is of high quality. It’s denser than the HTC Vive’s face cushion and absorbs less sweat. We would still, though, recommend picking up a waterproof cushion when they become available.
The facial interface rubber also acts as a lock to hold the display cable into place. The lock prevents the cable from loosening and slipping out, though the cable fits snugly into its slot, so it's unlikely that the cable would vibrate enough to loosen. The headset end of the cable features a Mini DisplayPort interface, and the PC end of the cable includes a USB 3.0 plug and DisplayPort end. The cable also includes an inline breakout box with an AC plug for power.
The Pimax 5K+ (and 8K) have the largest lenses we've ever seen in a VR headset. The lenses are a custom Fresnel design that extends to the outer edges of the headset. They're approximately 3.5 inches across, with the primary focal area being approximately 2.5 inches. You can adjust the interpulpillary distance (IPD) of the lens spacing with a dial on the lower right corner of the headset. The IPD ranges from 55mm to 76mm. The lenses are encased in stretchy fabric, much like the Oculus Rift, which prevents dust from getting between the screen and the lenses.
The Pimax 5K+ headset includes two USB Type-C ports for future accessories. There is one port on the bottom of the headset for the Leap Motion accessory and a smell simulation attachment (yes, the company is working on a scent module). You’ll also find a USB-C port at the top of the visor hidden behind the face cushion, designed to support future eye-tracking modules.
Multiple Tracking Systems
The Pimax 5K+ headset includes the usual gyro and accelerometer sensors, which allow you to use the headset without external tracking equipment. However, the headset also features an array of Triad Semiconductors’ TS4231 sensors, which make it fully compatible with SteamVR and the SteamVR 1.0 and 2.0 tracking technology.
The company will eventually offer Pimax-branded Lighthouse base stations. But for now, Kickstarter backers can use the device with HTC’s existing hardware. The Pimax headsets also include wireless radios that can pair with the HTC Vive wand controllers. We strongly recommend treating the Pimax headset as an upgrade for existing Vive owners, at least until we’ve had a chance to test Pimax’s upcoming base stations and controllers.
|Display Type||Custom low persistence liquid display (CLPL)|
|Refresh Rate||90Hz (DisplayPort 1.4)|
|FOV (HxV)||170-degrees x unspecified (200-degrees diagonal)|
|Lens Type||Custom Fresnel|
|Lens Adjustment||60mm to 73mm mechanical|
|Sensors||Accelerometer, Gyro Sensor, Magnetometer, Proximity Sensor|
|Tracking Technology||6 DOF SteamVR 2.0 Room-Scale Tracking|
|Audio||Headset Jack, integrated microphone|
|Wireless||Available with future upgrade kit|
|HMD Ports||1x Proprietary Cable (DP1.4/USB 3.0), 2x USB Type C|
|HMD Cable Length||11" tether|
|Dimensions (WxHxD)||~292 × ~95 x ~89 mm (visor)|
|Warranty||No warranty on pre-production model. Retail warranty undisclosed.|
Pimax PiTool Software
The Pimax 5K+ headset requires Pimax’s PiTool software to operate. The PiTool installation includes the driver that allows Windows to communicate with the headset. Without the software, the headset won’t even turn on.
The Pimax PiTool software controls operation of the headset. The primary window is a status page that shows you which devices are detected, such as the controllers and tracking base stations. If the headset is off or disconnected, the software will let you know with an error message. When the headset is operational, you should see a Start SteamVR button and a Room Setup button. And if Lighthouse tracking is enabled, you should see an option to pair your controllers.
Press the Start SteamVR button to get started. Once steam is running, press the Pair Controller button and follow the on-screen prompts which will guide you through the process. The pairing process is the same as pairing controllers to a Vive headset. First power on the controller, then when the instructions prompt you to, press and hold the power and menu buttons until the power light flashes. If the pairing process times out, try again. I had to try twice to pair one Vive controller.
Once you have your controllers paired, you’ll want to calibrate your room setup. The Pimax 5K+ headset technically supports room-scale configurations, but the software calibration process doesn’t include a room scale calibration. The current iteration of the PiTool software enables you to configure a standing-only play area that doesn’t include chaperone boundaries. If you want to use the chaperone, you must later configure it with SteamVR Room setup.
Once you have SteamVR calibrated and your controllers paired, you can begin to use the headset. However, there are a handful of software options that you should be aware of first.
Under the PiTool Settings tab, you'll find a firmware update button. It’s a good idea to update your headset with the latest firmware, especially if you are an early Kickstarter backer. Pimax is still actively improving the software, and it releases updates frequently.
The General tab on the Settings page includes a handful of general options, such as setting PiTool to launch when Windows starts, where the software minimizes to and whether Pimax VR Home should launch when you turn on the headset. Pimax Home doesn’t appear to do anything right now except eat up GPU and CPU cycles, so we disabled the option.
The HMD Settings tab also includes several options. From here you can disable the Lighthouse tracking system, which enables the headset to operate without spatial tracking and allows you to use it even if you don’t have SteamVR base stations.
The HMD Settings tab also includes an option called Hidden Area Mask, which is supposed to help with some games. But we didn't find any need to use it. It also lets you toggle an option called Compatible with Parallel Projections. During the early stages of testing the Pimax 8K M1, we toggled that setting often for game compatibility, but we haven’t found a reason to disable it recently. The option is likely there for obscure titles that may not be compatible with Pimax’s wide FOV.
When Pimax launched its Kickstarter campaign, the company announced that a GTX 1070 would be powerful enough to drive the company’s flagship 5K and 8K headsets. Pimax had shown the prototypes operating on a gaming laptop with a GTX 1070 but in only a handful of experiences.
To truly sign off on a GPU’s ability to power a headset, it must provide acceptable performance across all titles, not just a select few games. In July, Pimax conceded that Nvidia’s GTX 1070 falls short of the Pimax 8K performance requirements. Pimax introduced new display modes that would reduce the FOV to lower the performance needs, and the company suggested that backers switch to the Pimax 5K if they don’t plan to upgrade their GPU because the 5K headset would be less demanding.
The Pimax PiTool software offers three different FOV options to enable lower-end graphics cards to work with the headset. The options include Large FOV for the full 200-degree experience, Normal FOV, which is closer to 170 degrees, and Small FOV, which is roughly 120 degrees.
The Pimax 5K+ is capable of displaying a 200-degree diagonal view, but that doesn’t mean your computer can drive that kind of experience. In early tests, Pimax discovered that it might have bitten off more than it could chew with its ultra-wide VR headset. Even the most powerful graphics cards on the market have trouble delivering smooth frame rates and consistent frame timing with two side-by-side 1440p displays at 90Hz.
The Pimax PiTool software also includes an option to adjust the rendering quality to help you dial in the performance. The default setting is 1.0x, which sends a full resolution signal to the render pipeline and into SteamVR. You can also dial it down to 0.75x and .05x, which lowers the output resolution for higher frame rates. The Rendering Quality setting plays a critical role in the clarity of your image, however. If you go lower than 1x, you will notice the visuals get blurry.
The Rendering Quality setting enables you to crank the image quality up to a maximum of 2x, which effectively doubles your output resolution. That said, don’t expect to use the supersampling options unless you have an RTX 2080 Ti in your system, unless you're willing to sacrifice frame rate for image clarity.
Playing Oculus Games in Ultra-Wide
Pimax also created a software layer that works somewhat like ReVive (software that lets you play Oculus-exclusive games on the Vive) and enables you to play Oculus exclusive content on the Pimax 5K+ or 8K headset. Pimax has not disclosed how the emulation works, but we've tested it and can confirm that it's true: You can play Oculus-exclusive titles on the Pimax headsets without using the ReVive software. The My Games tab features a list of all the VR games that you have installed on your computer and makes them accessible with a single click.
Pimax's Oculus game emulation software enables you to play Oculus games, but it's not a perfect solution. We found a handful of games that require adjustments to the controller orientation, but that shouldn't be hard for Pimax to correct with a future update.
MORE: Virtual Reality Basics