Sony's 3D Headset: Virtual Reality Goes Mainstream

Big screen not quite big enough? Don't like company while you watch TV? You can finally place your order for Sony's widely anticipated 3D headset, the HMZ-T1 ($799.) But before we get to the specs, consider the cool factor: The headset looks like something straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This headset is a completely immersive system, designed to block out the external world, both visually and audibly. Using small OLED displays (1280 x 720) mounted in the viewing area, Sony says it provides excellent 2D and 3D reproduction without crosstalk. Sony also claims that using the HMZ-T1 is the same as watching a 150-inch screen from 12 feet away. That's a big screen.

This isn't the first personal 3D viewer on the market, but it's the first from a major CE manufacturer to see the light of day. MyVu (who appear to be defunct) has sold several inexpensive models over the past few years, with a look that tends more towards The Matrix than Main Street. Vuzix currently offers several viewers; they look like regular - if bulky - sunglasses. Another viewer, from Silicon Micro Displayoffers 3D and 1080p HD in a package that's even more reminscent of Geordi La Forge's eyewear than Sony's viewer.

The HMZ-T1 blocks out more of the world than these other systems, most of which are built around see-through screens that allow some input from the outside world. More reminiscent of a visor than glasses, the Sony unit blocks out much outside light and it comes with another shield to completely block light from leaking in from under the viewer. This isolation has a downside - it makes the viewer quite heavy and potentially uncomfortable for some, and the close fit makes them especially problematic for people who wear prescription glasses. The HMZ-T1 uses straps and a forehead rest to take most of the weight off the nose piece, but it still gets old after a few hours. Sony recommends that viewers younger than 15 years old refrain from using them, and also warns against using them in unstable situations - I can't imagine how seasick one could get from using this on rough seas or on a bumpy plane ride. 

Sony may be the first big firm to release a personal viewer, but they won't be alone for long. Epson has announced the Moverio (~$772), soon to be released in Japan. Another dorky-looking headset with a transparent display so you can see the world around you, but this one's a bit different. It comes wired to a small Wi-Fi connected box running Android 2.2 with 1GB of built-in memory and a micro SD slot - it's more of a complete entertainment package, letting you view YouTube movies and more directly from the touchpad-topped control box. 

Those downsides aside, these new viewers hold great promise for personal movie viewing, especially of 3D material. They eliminate many of the problems of 3D - namely proper viewing angles and distance. With these systems, you can watch lying down, on an airplane, or in the backseat of a car. Very cool. But consider the social implications. Everyone is already in an iPhone coma - imagine how soulless the world will be when we're all completely isolated in our personal HMZ-T1 realities.