Meet Opto Air, the headset aiming to bring good mobile VR to the masses

Is there room between Gears and Daydreams for this London startup?
Opto's mobile VR for the masses

Despite a bevy of alternate realms a mere headset away, the average joe is perhaps still reluctant to jump aboard the virtual reality train.

There's plenty of fun to be had inside VR, but there's often an undeniable clunkiness in both PC-based and mobile versions. And as for the latter, there's also potential compatibility issues to contend with and the problem of low quality apps and viewers.

Can someone build an affordable but not terrible mobile VR headset that works with every phone?

Well, fresh from a successful crowdfunding campaign, London-based startup Opto is aiming to fill the gap with its upcoming headset. The Opto Air is made from a lightweight foam, offers built-in speakers plus a 100-degree field of view via double-aspheric lenses which Opto says are 25% bigger than rival mobile VR headsets.

Read this: The best VR headsets for iPhone users

And with a £98 price tag (originally £65 via Kickstarter) coming with it, the company brings the competition to the likes of Google's Daydream View and Samsung Gear VR, both of which require specific smartphones.

But Richard Stephens, Opto's COO, has faith the Air can carve out its own slice of the VR pie.

"I think what Opto has going for it is the way it looks and feels," he told us. "This is much more like a wearable. Our whole ethos is trying to get VR to the masses and get it in the hands of people who wouldn't necessarily be thinking about it. If we want to be successful in VR, we need more people to be using it."

Meet Opto, the mobile headset looking to bring VR to the masses

Of course, it's the aim of pretty much every VR company to uncover a route to the mainstream. With a unique (for the price) speaker set up in place, though, and one that's more desirable than pesky wires dragging down your fun-meter, the Opto Air could potentially conquer one pillar of general VR scepticism.

Samsung and Google's latest VR options both go for the same $50 to $100 range, but iPhone owners continue to hold out hope for an official Apple VR headset to call their own.

Opto's magnetic front cover handily allows you to hook up to any device with a screen size between 4-inch to 5.5-inch, similar to fellow mid-tier entries from FreeFly and Carl Zeiss.

Still, is this enough to pull standard VR punters away from the super-cheap offerings and propel them to the next tier? Well, Stephens not only makes the case for skipping over Cardboard-style devices, but also indicates Opto's lenses fare well next to the more household names.

"If you go on Amazon and buy a £15 plastic thing from China — you're not going to get the same experience as you would in an Opto. You're going to get a very narrow field of view.

"Even Google Daydream's field of view isn't as good as ours, so you're getting the field of view you would from a Gear VR or actually a bit better."


Next up: prototypes for PC VR

Meet Opto, the mobile headset looking to bring VR to the masses

Just because the Opto Air has found a nice niche, it doesn't mean the ride through the Kickstarter experience - in which 451 backers just eclipsed the company's £40,000 goal - has been a smooth one.

Issues concerning the adjustable strap were enough to delay the device after a soft launch in October, meaning the company missed out on the Christmas rush and its initial delivery estimate.

Finding the balance between satisfying the customers with shipping on time and ensuring product quality is something many crowdfunding campaigns grapple with. Stephens, though, indicated that erring on the side of quality was the right decision.

"I really pushed for it. I didn't want to do something and for it to not work that well for half the people," he said. "And also, from our point of view, if we started going to market and started selling it to distributors and they're getting lots of recalls, or the reviews aren't so good, then they won't re-order and we could have been dead in the water from the start.

"At the end of the day, Kickstarter is not about purchasing a product, it's about helping to kickstart a business, and sometimes there's bumps along the way."


With Chinese New Year acting as one of the bumps in the production schedule, Opto now plans to officially launch the Air at MWC 2017 in February.

And while the focus is very much on shipping its delayed Kickstarter backing and delivering what it tags as its entry-level product, Stephens also confirmed that a "high-powered", PC-based prototype will also be at the event. If all goes to plan, that could launch before the end of 2017.

Only time will tell if Opto's Air will provide the mobile VR scene with a solid alternative and match up with the big boys, but the route is seemingly mapped out for this startup to make waves in both the real world and the virtual ones its users will hopefully soon be trawling through.


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