TechInterview: Leland Hedges

Interview: Leland Hedges


- Advertisement -

It’s not a surprise that VR is one of the biggest growing markets for gaming, productivity and entertainment. While it got off to a slow start, companies like PICO are setting the standard when it comes to affordability vs product quality and spec. If you don’t believe me, check out my review of their latest consumer headset, the PICO 4.

I sat down with Leland Hedges, the EMEA General Manager for PICO XR, to talk about the company, his path into VR, the VR landscape, and of course, my favourite headset, the PICO 4!

How did you get into VR, and what was your first experience in that world?

I have to go back more than ten years, so I was really lucky. I moved to the Bay Area because I’d visited there for work a couple of times and decided to live in Silicon Valley. I am a tech guy, and I’d applied for all kinds of jobs after grad school, and one of them was a PlayStation, but it was right in the middle of PS3. The company wasn’t hiring as things weren’t going great, but I got my foot in the door. It was either that or Zynga, and I kicked myself for a long time because Zynga financially probably would have been better!

I was at PlayStation for a long, long time in marketing, and I would work on new product initiatives, things like Vita, PlayStation Move. Then my boss turned to me in 2012 and said, ‘hey, we’re going over the building next door on the campus to the R&D lab. You’re you get to check something out. What do you think? I want to see what you think.’ It was the very first playable version of Morpheus, which became PSVR. It wasn’t even running on PlayStation hardware but on a PC. None of the controllers were mapped. I was using a PlayStation controller. So, I played with Morpheus, and around the same time, there was a Kickstarter for Oculus, and there were meetups all over the place.

So, I started going to all the meetups and just got super into VR. I was a big advocate of PlayStation going to them. The first time Palmer Luckey tried Morpheus, PSVR was at the Silicon Valley VR meet-up, and a couple of guys and I were like, we must go to this. And we sponsored a lot of early stuff around GDC and were there to announce the product. But anyway, PlayStation chose not to launch at the same time as HTC and Oculus. I was like, I have to get into VR and work in VR now. I had done almost ten years of PlayStation. So, I said, okay, I’m going to go and do my own content play in VR. I ran a VR content company for a while and then after that finished, unceremoniously, as you know, most start-ups don’t work. A bunch of people who had worked at PlayStation were now working at PICO, and some of them I hung out with. The guy who designed PSVR is the main designer at PICO, and he said, ‘you’re unemployed; it’s time for you to get back and do something. PICO is a hardware company; come and check it out’. So I joined PICO over five years ago and moved to Europe to open up the business here. We’ve now been able to expand outside of Asia following the ByteDance acquisition a year ago. So, I now run the consumer side of the business for PICO in Europe.

You say that the designer on PSVR is the same for PICO; when I first opened the PICO box, I couldn’t help but notice similar design language.

Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot of shared DNA. But we reference our experience at PlayStation when we think about things like community or when we talk about content, we think about how to build an ecosystem or a platform.

You can see that ethos through the PICO platform, which is about building an ecosystem and an all-encompassing environment, and it’s an outstanding experience for the user. So, you’re talking about how you’ve expanded now that the brand has moved out of Asia. What’s the outlook for PICO now that you’ve made that move? What’s the next step?

I mean, the key thing you saw with Calvin Harris. We’ve been running lots; for instance, we were the exclusive VR platform in China over the World Cup. We also showed some games in Japan, which are global events. We have a sister company with TikTok, which is also a big player in culture, music, and entertainment, so we are finding ways to broaden VR outside of gaming and create a very rich platform. We also want a very rich platform for gaming, and we have over 250 applications, over 200 of which are gaming. If you do the side-by-side with Oculus, 80% of the top-rated Oculus are either already on PICO or announced for PICO. Anything that isn’t exclusive, we’re actively in the process of negotiating, or we have it already.

Are you finding that more developers are now developing for Oculus and PICO?

Yeah, I think that developers realise that they should support multiple platforms. There was only one key platform for a long time. You can look at the launch Line-Up and the 30 games on PSVR; more than 50% of those are also on PICO. So, there is finally some healthy competition and good platforms for developers. You’ve got PICO, and you’ve got a handful of these other companies that we’ve talked about.

So, of course, the Calvin Harris event was huge. Are there any similar events you can talk about? Are these sorts of events something PICO wants to explore further?

In the same week as Calvin Harris, we had two other concerts. In the ten days around New Year, we had our J-Pop event, and that was not avatar. It was done in 360 capture. You go back and watch it in the PICO Video app. Then Of Room is another avatar-based music platform. They had a concert which was three artists and an hour-long show. We have more concerts planned, but we also have several other events, not just music. We’re also trying to do partnerships around sports and stand-up comedians. We’ll be announcing a lot of stuff in February and March. We generally only promote it a week or two in advance. For sure, there will be more J-Pop. There will be more from Wave. There’ll be stand-up. There’ll be sports. There might be partnerships with other types of entertainment properties that TikTok has partnerships with. You can watch your TikToks already in PICO Video. Every weekend we do live events that are much smaller, just individuals in their room doing beatbox or playing the guitar. The PICO Video app has more than 600 pieces of free content. We’re running weekly live events ranging from Calvin Harris at the top down to Karen, a lady with four people watching her livestream from her bedroom or kitchen.

That’s cool. You’re covering a broad spectrum and doing more diverse things with VR. What do you think is next on the VR landscape that people should be excited about beyond gaming?

I mean, I think we talked about in our announcement a couple of things that we haven’t touched on yet. The overall topic of wellness, mental health, and fitness. I have these four long years of doing VR in Enterprise. And one of the critical verticals there is medical, and VR is clinically proven to help treat things like phobias or help with pain management. It’s a promising technology for meditation and mindfulness. So, bringing some of those applications that started in a professional Enterprise space and working with them to figure out if they can launch consumer-oriented initiatives. Les Mills, for example, announced a new update to the application for new exercises. We will be showing some demos and prototypes at MWC. So, a fitness tracker, some more mixed reality stuff that we’re working on.

I was surprised how effective something like Les Mills was as an alternative to going to the gym as a form of cardio. It is fantastic that you can blend those worlds, a gaming device, with something that has other benefits like health, fitness, well-being, and mental health.

You just said world merging worlds, PICO Worlds. We have a closed beta in China. So, a social area. While it’s an area going through a bit of a flux, you have what happened to poor Altspace. Altspace was probably the first social environment I ever tried as a user. PICO Worlds will allow for environments for people to hang out that are persistent and fun.

With the recent wave of hardware announcements, we’ve seen, and rumours from companies like Apple looking to get into the VR market, with eye-watering costs, and I know you can’t speak to other platforms’ strategies, do you think that that this kind of upward trend is going to be prohibitive to making VR more accessible, especially currently where it’s still considered very much a niche thing?

I think I can say that our position in the market and how we chose to go after the market is not only exclusively about the consumer business, but our Enterprise products, and our targeting that sweet spot of price and performance. So, you know, even our PICO 4 Enterprise, our premium version of the PICO 4, is under €1,000. And then you look at the price points that other hardware targets for a consumer device, and it’s a lot. So yeah, we think the consumer price point we like is between €400 and €500. We also believe that offering these Enterprise devices at various prices is essential. Price is a key component of how people perceive technology and its value. So, for us, we are obviously a technology company, but a technology company that maintains a very strong cost and price ethic.

The PICO 4 is exceptional value for the hardware that’s inside. I wonder if you could talk about the development of PICO 4, the standout features people wouldn’t necessarily know from reading a review or doing their research.

Yeah, definitely! I will start with a totally nitpicky quality-of-life thing, but the controllers are a massive upgrade because they don’t occlude each other. The texture, grip, and button placements are great, and the weight is excellent. Also, there’s a specific compartment for your batteries that locks them into place, so your batteries don’t disconnect during intense gameplay. The controller is a well-thought-through, well-designed piece of hardware that solves some long-standing challenges. You can tell some people are entering the consumer market for the first time, and they’re sticking with the ring-on-top designs, which is kind of still the standard. But, once you get used to the PICO 4 controllers, I think you look at those older designs as outdated. Number two is obviously the pancake optics. We showed a prototype of pancake optics back at CES 2020. They were called PICO Glasses at the time. We’ve been working on pancake lenses for a long time to get the quality and price to manufacture them at scale. So that was a huge technological challenge we had to solve. And the market is in this transition phase where you have even new headsets that are still releasing with the older Fresnel lenses, and you have the high price point for the ones that do have pancake lenses. Then you have PCIO 4, sitting at this very attractive price point with this cutting-edge technology. That leads to every other design decision. You can shrink the total volume of the headset by about 30% and reduce the weight by 30%. You wear the headset, hold it on the strap, do the neutral weight thing, and it’s so well balanced. And obviously, the front of the headset is much smaller because of the pancake lenses. We’ve got one of the largest batteries on the market. The spatial audio is also great. It’s a really good headset, especially for the price.

I agree; the balance in the PICO 4 is phenomenal. Were those quality-of-life things like the way the strap works, the balance by putting the battery in the back and the pancake lenses high on the priority list?

We’re lucky to have been in the market since 2015, so this is not our first headset. We’ve made seven headsets, so we’ve made many design improvements because we’ve gone through the process of designing and releasing headsets. So you get better at it each time you make one. You look at the previous model, and you go, I wish we’d done things like the straps or the material choices or having the semi-rigid band looking that way.

One of the things I personally want to thank you for is magnets! The single best quality-of-life feature on a VR headset is the magnets. Because not only is it easy to swap things out, but as a glasses user, it’s so easy to attach prescription lens add-ons. What made you think to include magnets as it’s uncommon?

As you notice, once you realise you can do it, and it works reliably, and you know you must test, just because somebody else did it, and it looked cool doesn’t mean it will work. But in this case, I think we saw it in the past, and it was definitely included in the headset design from early on.

What do you hope to see in the VR landscape overall and for PICO in the next five years?

Five years is a long time, but there’s some obvious iterative design stuff with pancake lenses in the short run. Unfortunately, battery is not a tech that makes major improvements quickly, but the processing and the image and, therefore, the weight of it can continue to be refined and reduced. So, you’re going to get a little bit more power; you’re going to get a brighter, clearer display. Then if you go beyond one or two versions of the product into the murkier future, for the headsets that will be personal, you’re going to imagine taking them with you. They need some more permanent access to the Internet. And so there, I really hope that within the five-year horizon that you mentioned, we can do deals with operators to either make tethering between your phone and the headset work really well or even add some network technology to the headset.

Having persistent Internet as the devices get smaller as they start, I mean, I already carry this in my backpack, but the next phase is, how can you carry it or parts of it in your pocket? Or you wear it. So, I think in the short run, we are working with key technologies from the world of phones and silicon and PC, which are like the processors every year or to get better displays every year. Unfortunately, the battery doesn’t get better, so you’ll see more powerful devices with better image quality that are lighter. However, you’ll still be stuck with this 1-to-2-hour play session unless you want to do it at home, plugging it into a permanent power source.

You mentioned battery life. Do you think that is the biggest challenge faced in the VR landscape, or what other challenges do you think VR, and PICO specifically, will be looking at?

On the hardware side, I would say the battery is the most frustrating component because there isn’t something I can tell you like, hey, all batteries are going to move to this new lithium something, something, and they’re going to work ten times better. That’s not the main issue for VR, however. The main problem for VR comes back to what we discussed at the beginning, which is content and convincing the companies and people and entities that own real-world live events, and also people who are making interactive entertainment and people even who are making office productivity and all the different applications that exist on your PCs or your phones, on your TV—working with them to come up with the most authentic way of having that same experience but in an XR product.

We didn’t touch at all on AR. But if you’re in a stadium and wearing an AR product, how can you enhance that experience, for example? Or, if you’re watching a live event, what are some intrinsic advantages of the hardware? Hypothetically, you and all your friends could go down on the field or pick any seat to watch from. Or the same thing with a concert, like with the K-Pop concert we just had, if you wanted to, you could be in the front row, right? You have a fixed number of people who have that front-row seat. There shouldn’t be that in VR. There doesn’t need to be that limitation. Thousands, millions, and infinite numbers of people can attend these events from home and sit wherever they want.

On the content side, I also want to see some bigger game developers get back into VR. We did our partnership with Ubisoft to bring Just Dance, which is one of the most famous IPs in the traditional console space, to VR. Some examples of traditional IPs are coming to VR, but we want to hopefully accelerate that trend or help push that trend so that you can play franchises. I really like that we’re starting to see the number two or number three of VR titles because you can see that they’re building franchises. It’s a story, and it’s obviously good for the users to know that there is this ongoing investment.

James Refelian
James Refelian
When I was seven years old, I tried to write a spy novel. It was terrible; in case you wondered, but I’ve always loved stories. Then I got to play video games and suddenly here were stories that could be told in so many ways, coming to life in front of my eyes. I’ve been hooked ever since and enjoy games on pretty much every platform you can imagine! (Primarily PS5, Switch and PC (Steam Deck) with a lot of retro SEGA, Sony, and Nintendo). When I’m not gaming, I’m still writing that spy novel. If you love stories too, I hope my reviews and features help you discover something new! Find me on Twitter @Refelian66. Check out 60 Second Game Reviews on YouTube. Contact me with business inquiries at jamesrefelian(at)gmail(dot)com.

Stay connected



Review: JLab Go Charge Wireless Mouse

An excellent wireless mouse that will impress you.

Review: Afterimage

Review: Demon Skin

Review: God of Rock

You might also likeRELATED
Recommended to you