Are souped-up, video-enabled goggles the next step in home entertainment?

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
May 1 2007 1:41 PM

View-Masters on Steroids

Are souped-up, video-enabled goggles the next step in home entertainment?

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The eMagin Z800 3DVisor. Click image to expand.
eMagin Z800 3DVisor

The eMagin Z800 3DVisor ($1,499) uses organic LED technology to project a 105-inch display in front of your soon-to-be-overwhelmed eyeballs. Intended for hard-core gamers, the Z800 can also be used to watch videos or, for the prosaic among us, to mimic a dual computer monitor setup. I tested it by watching District B13 and playing Half-Life 2.

Comfort/Style: The Z800 straps onto your head with an elastic band, and the display device is hinged to tilt in front of your eyes like flip-down sunglasses. The fact that it sits in front of your face instead of directly on it keeps the Z800 from being as uncomfortable as the 3D Pro. It's also the most futuristic looking of all the devices I tested—I looked like a cross between RoboCop, Seven of Nine, and an ophthalmologist. But since it's basically limited to home use (due to the number of cables you need to connect it to an output device), nobody will care that you look like Tron.

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Image Quality/Immersion: Colors look great on the Z800—richer and more vibrant than on the other two devices I tested. Like the other devices, the image doesn't encompass your peripheral vision. Maybe you could borrow a pair of side-blinders to block out external distractions. (Or just turn out the lights.) Sound quality was fine, but two thumbs down for the uncomfortable, aggravating ear bud headphones. In sum, watching movies on the Z800 definitely isn't a fully immersive experience.

Gaming is pretty cool with the Z800, especially in 3D mode. Characters and backgrounds are convincingly rendered—the 3D isn't "reach out and touch me" quality, but it's close—and you can pan your head 360 degrees to create a complete field of vision. If you suspend a certain measure of disbelief, you might even feel like you're in the game. Still, for $1,499, I could pay my friends to dress up as horrible monsters and pop out of closets with guns. Now that's a true 3D gaming experience.

Believe the Hype?: Probably the most advanced device I tested. (At $1499, it had better be.) The 3D mode is impressive and convincing, but it still doesn't feel like true virtual reality. And despite its advertising claims, the Z800 isn't at all plug-and-play ready. The test model didn't come with any of the necessary cables, and I had to make several trips to Radio Shack. Also, the Z800's display certainly doesn't seem like the advertised 105 inches. (None of these companies seem able to accurately measure the size of their virtual screens. Then again, maybe my internal tape measure is flawed.)

My final verdict: HMD technology has a long way to go before it reaches Snow Crash proportions. None of these products totally delivers on its advertising promises; more to the point, none of them delivers an experience that's substantially better than just using a nonimmersive computer or television. Sure, there's a lot of power packed into these little visors. But paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for gadgets that fail to meet the hype? Jamiroquai was right: That's virtual insanity.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.