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?

In Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash, virtual-reality goggles offer passage into an intricate cyber world called the Metaverse. (It's sort of like Second Life, but without the American Apparel stores.) In the book, everyone loves these portable, intuitive, and bug-free goggles. I wasn't convinced—there's never been a piece of portable consumer electronics that works as reliably and faultlessly as these wonder-glasses. If Snow Crash had been set in the real world, the VR headset would've inevitably conked out in the midst of cyber foreplay, and you'd be left hot, bothered, and lonely in your mom's basement.

Still, technology companies are trying to bring us Snow Crash-quality devices. Several electronics outfits now sell head-mounted displays that they claim are the next frontier in gaming and movie watching. Rudimentary virtual-reality tech has been around since at least the mid-'90s, when I paid $10 at Chicago's North Pier to play BattleTech, a shootout arcade game in which you donned a bulky headset that immersed you in "virtual reality," which was basically a much blockier version of actual reality. The technology has improved a lot since then—the headsets have shrunk to manageable proportions, and the images are clearer. HMDs aren't just for cyberpunk novels and failing urban strip malls anymore. But will they become an integral part of our home entertainment systems?

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To find out, I tested three consumer-ready products with relatively friendly price tags (between $300 and $1,500) and gentle learning curves. It's worth noting that the military, which uses head-mounted displays for simulation and training purposes, is responsible for most of the advances in HMD tech. By most accounts, the difference between military and consumer devices is like the difference between a Corvette and a unicycle. Military-ready HMD units can cost up to $100,000, though; as fun as it would have been to test one of these, I was mortally afraid that I'd break the unit and owe my soul to the defense industry.

Each of the gizmos I tested attempts to create a larger-than-life image inside your headset. The typical HMD features one or two fixed-pixel miniature displays that—in concert with some complex optics that focus and spread the image—create the illusion that you're looking at a single big screen that measures anywhere from 30 to 105 inches. In a perfect world, this makes users feel like they are inside the video game or movie, or at least close enough to smudge the screen.

It would be unfair to compare the HMDs I tested straight up, as they aim to serve slightly different niches. Instead, I looked at three factors they have in common. (It also must be said that all three companies I dealt with had responsive customer service departments, which is a must if you're dealing with any kind of new or obscure technology.)

Comfort/Style: To get the most out of these devices, you'll have to wear them for a long time. Are they comfortable? You also can't help looking like a Star Trek character. Will you be Geordi LaForge—the cool, visor-wearing engineer played by LeVar Burton—or the Borg—the insectoids played by a succession of nameless day players? 

Image Quality/Immersion: Is the picture amazing, or does it feel like you've got a View-Master strapped to your face? How's the sound? Are you "in the game," or are you just looking through a center-field knothole?

Believe the Hype?: Does it deliver on its advertising promises, or is it a monumental disappointment like, say, the Talkboy? Will your friends be floored by your awesome new gizmo, or will they praise it haltingly and eventually stop coming over to your house?

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