Pinc VR turns your iPhone into a virtual reality headset

In the 1995 scifi film Johnny Mnemonic, Keanu Reeves plays a data courier who installs digital packages in his brain to transport them, one file is so large it will literally cause his brain to explode if he doesn't deliver it fast enough.

In addition to plugging cords into his head to transfer data, the title character interacts with computers by putting on a special headset and gloves and diving inside them. And that, Cordon Media Inc. president Milan Baic explained, is the concept behind its own virtual reality product Pinc (pronounced 'pinch') VR.

'It's that kind of idea of a world inside of your computer,' Baic said.

Or rather your phone. Pinc VR, a side project for the Toronto-based web and mobile solutions company, is not so much a virtual reality headset as a wearable case for your smartphone.

'(VR headsets) typically have a high-definition display in the back, with specialized optics to ... put things in focus,' Baic explained. 'They have a dedicated screen for each eye. And each screen is kind of offset a little bit and it allows ... that feeling of depth.'

But, he added, the technology itself is similar to that of high-end smartphones. And with the rise in phablets, screens are now large enough to be used for virtual reality.

The Pinc case, the prototypes of which are 3D printed for iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, doesn't have any electronics in it. Weighing around 100 grams, the 24 mm thick composite case with hinged flaps that open up in front of the screen to reveal two plastic lenses, attached to three swimming goggle straps the user pulls over his or her head like a skull cap.

Pinc case. (Illustration/Supplied)

The Pinc app uses the iPhone's main camera to control the device. The user wears two rings with clickers that act as cursors in the VR environment. Through vision technology, Baid said, the phone's camera is able to interpret the rings' movements to control the device.

Pinc shown with the control rings.(Illustration/Supplied)

'The rings allow you to ... get almost 80% of the benefits of having two-hand gesture (multitouch) control,' he said.

A special fisheye filter is affixed atop the main camera's lens to increase its field of view, both for better recognition of the user's hand gestures and for vision if the wearer wants to see what the camera is looking at. (The Pinc app corrects for the distortion created by the fisheye lens.)

Built in the Unity game engine, the Pinc app acts as a VR operating system on top of iOS, Baic said. A user looks up to access settings and down to access a full-sized keyboard.

'It's almost like spatial computing,' he added. 'If you look at your desktop now, it's very two-dimensional ... windows on top of windows. What we're doing is almost kind of creating a ripple effect, so you start in the centre point and as you navigate into an app, you kind of go deeper and deeper into space. And to go home, all you do is touch your fingers together.'

A little easier said than done. There's certainly a learning curve as when I tried out Pinc, I had issues navigating around. I think my hands were a little low at times and I may have had the rings pointed the wrong way so the camera couldn't always see what I was doing. It didn't help that the left lens was pushing against my eye a bit making the image a little blurry at times.

But I did get the sense of 'swimming' through the apps as Baic put it. I entered a real-estate-style condo walkthrough, navigated through photo galleries and went shopping in 3D.

It truly is an immersive experience, at least until you get a phone call or text message pop-up, and you have to take off the headset to deal with it.

Baic admitted Pinc is probably not something many people will want to use in public, which is why he calls it 'casual VR.' When people don't want to use the case as a VR headset, they can fold it over on itself and simply use their iPhones normally.

Cordon Media wants third-party developers to create apps for Pinc's platform, but it will come with three of its own apps preinstalled – a desktop web browser, a video player that lets people play both videos saved on the phone and ones on YouTube in a sort of mini IMAX experience, and a shopping app that lets people buy things online in a 3D experience.

The company launched a Indiegogo campaign Monday to raise $100,000 for Pinc and early adopters can buy them for $99 each and expect to receive shipment in June of 2015.

That would give Baic and his team six years to catch up to Johnny Mnemonic.


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