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?

Now for the reviews:

The myvu. Click image to expand.
myvu head-mounted video display

The myvu (Myvu Corporation, $299.95) is a sleek visor that jacks into a video iPod (and only a video iPod) to project video into a virtual, in-visor screen. According to the company, it uses a proprietary technology called SolidOptex that's based on "refractive optical polymers." I admit that I'm not sure what that means. To test the device, I borrowed my friend's iPod and queued up several episodes of The State. That turned out to be an unfortunate choice. Laughing can be dangerous while wearing the myvu, since bobbing your head with this thing attached can cause motion sickness. Thus, I'd primarily recommend the myvu for programs that elicit no emotional reaction whatsoever, like Inside the Actors Studio.

Comfort/Style: The myvu is extremely light and comfortable, fitting over your ears like a pair of sunglasses. You could feasibly wear it all day without suffering from a sore nose. Unfortunately for me, the myvu doesn't work very well with eyeglasses, although the company says it's willing to grind prescription lenses that attach to the device. (Yes, they're serious.) Appearance-wise, the visor could easily be mistaken for a pair of fashion-forward sunglasses. I took it onto the commuter rail preparing to be gawked at, but I didn't even get a double take.

Image Quality/Immersion: Using the myvu feels like wearing a 19-inch TV that moves along with your head. While not exactly high-definition, the image quality is definitely commensurate with what you'd get on an iPod. It functions well in daylight, too, with negligible glare and no image dimming. The audio quality, on the other hand, is simply inadequate. Ear bud headphones are attached to the headset, but I had to strain to hear even with the iPod's volume dialed as high as it could go.

The myvu is only moderately immersive: It blocks out exterior distractions, but there isn't any peripheral imaging. This could be construed as a selling point, though. The fact that you're aware of your real-world surroundings lowers your chances of being hit by a bus while using the product. (Note: Do not wear the myvu while driving. Trust me—and my barely avoided traffic ticket—it is a bad, bad idea.)

Believe the Hype?: I could see using the myvu on a long airplane trip as an alternative to squinting at a 2-inch display. But outside of long-haul travel, I doubt that the myvu will see wide use any time soon. The visor's display definitely doesn't constitute a "portable big-screen," as myvu's advertising claims—but it is lightweight and ergonomic. Then again, so is a can opener.

i-glasses Video 3D Pro. Click image to expand.
i-glasses Video 3D Pro

I-O Display Systems boasts an array of HMDs that connect to computers, televisions, DVD players, and other devices that have "video out" jacks. They have a lightweight model that's designed to compete with the myvu, but I tested a higher-end product, the i-glasses Video 3D Pro ($1,199), that's marketed to professional videographers and hobbyists. I tested the 3D Pro by watching Bottle Rocket and playing Grand Theft Auto, connecting the device directly to the output source with standard video cables.

Comfort/Style: In addition to consumer entertainment, the 3D Pro is also apparently marketed for "dental relaxation purposes." (Whatever happened to nitrous oxide?) A dentist's chair seems like the ideal place to use the product—if you're sitting upright, Old Man Gravity makes things incredibly uncomfortable. The front-heavy 3D Pro straps onto your head and rests on the bridge of your nose. After about 10 minutes, I felt like I was wearing eyeglasses made out of plate glass and lead. (I could wear my actual eyeglasses with the device, though, which I appreciated.) Also, the 3D Pro's bulky, gray appearance screams "nerd." You'd be pantsed in a minute if you wore it to a frat party.

Image Quality/Immersion: Like the myvu, the 3D Pro's LCD display is broadcast quality, nothing more. That's an accomplishment for a device so small, but watching a DVD with this thing feels like looking at a television through a pair of binoculars. Also like the myvu, the Video 3D Pro's display does not encompass your entire field of vision—the picture is projected in front of your eyes, with nothing at all on the sides. The headphones are sturdy and functional. 

Believe the Hype?: I was most excited about the device's promise to deliver true stereoscopic 3D imaging. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that the 3D Pro doesn't turn any old video game or movie into a 3D experience. Playing a noncompatible game (basically, every game you already own) in 3D mode is just like regular gaming, but with a bigger screen, a slight image flicker, and a dull pain on the bridge of your nose.

The 3D Pro is a cool gadget, but there's absolutely no reason to use it in a home entertainment context. The cumbersome headset makes the device demonstrably inferior to just watching a movie on TV. While the display size definitely isn't the 70 inches that the Web site claims, at least the 3D Pro meets the other modest claims in the product literature. ("Can be used while wearing prescription eyewear." Check!) But at $1,199, it's destined to be used solely by people who wear calculator watches.

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.

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.