Head-mounted displays have always been a niche product, but they were still relatively commonplace a decade ago. By putting a pair of tiny LCDs right in front of their eyes, HMDs helped digital professionals and extravagant early adopters immerse themselves in a pixelated virtual reality... or at least a private viewing session or two. They've never truly disappeared, of course, and companies like Vuzix even sell relatively affordable versions to this day, but none have captured our interest quite like the HMZ-T1 from Sony.
Sony's not exactly a stranger to the HMD arena, as 1997's Sony Glasstron can attest, but in many ways the HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer thrusts the concept into the modern era. Rather than cheap LCD shades, the headset has a pair of 0.7-inch 1280 x 720 HD OLED screens inside. It takes a single HDMI connection for audio and video, rather than several component or composite video cords, and its slick design is more evocative of our sci-fi anime video game future than the goggles and glasses of old. Why now? Sony's on the stereoscopic 3D bandwagon in a big way, and it turns out it can be a lot easier to enjoy three dimensional content with one screen per eye.
Hardware / design
The HMZ-T1 looks like it was ripped right out of Japanese anime
From Star trek to xenosaga
When we first laid eyes on Sony's HMD prototype at CES 2011, the basics were all there: 720p OLED displays, built-in 5.1 virtual surround sound headphones, and a visor design that would make Geordi la Forge feel welcome — complete with the assumption that Sony would find a way to attach it directly to your face. The reality is a bit more practical — cinchable straps and a forehead cushion — but no less of a sci-fi delight. As I alluded to earlier, the HMZ-T1 looks like it was ripped right out of Japanese anime with its glossy white curves and complete lack of straight lines. Oh, and while most of the blue LEDs are gone (a tasteful decision, if you ask me) the visor still has one bright blue band right at the front, a cyborg eye perhaps, when the display is in operation.
Sadly, the Personal 3D Viewer does require a proprietary cord to work its magic, and that cord plugs into a box — the HMZ-T1P Processor Unit. It's a fairly standard little metal set-top box, fanless, and with only four ports: one HDMI input, one HDMI output, the HMD connector, and a power cord. That's not a lot, and I'd appreciate the ability to plug in legacy video sources as well, but at least the Processor Unit doesn't monopolize the input — when the headset is off, it works perfectly well as an HDMI passthrough.
The visor seems a bit longer than it did in January, and the sides are stylishly split into black and white, each flexing a good bit if necessary to accommodate larger heads inside. The outside construction of the headset is entirely plastic, which isn't completely a bad thing. The main body is a solid, durable black polymer, with a glossy, hollow white band around front, both fairly resistant to scrapes and smudges, while the bottom of the unit has a softer finish that's easily scratched up. That's unfortunate, but not nearly as annoying as the hollow lower arms, which never fail to creak when moved. Still, it mostly feels like a quality product, and if you're looking for an interactive conversation piece, this is definitely one. Even my housemate, who often professes a dislike for 3D, couldn't resist putting it on.
Getting the HMD properly seated is a chore, but actually using it is a piece of cake
So here's how that works:
First, you adjust the straps in back, like a baseball cap, for the size of your skull. Then, slip the back on the rear of your head, and pull down the front. Cinch the straps tighter on either side (you'll hear clicking sounds as they ratchet down), and with any luck the weight will be situated on the forehead cushion rather than your nose. If so, turn on the HMD with the power button, pull the headphones down over your ears, and adjust the diopter (moving both lenses) until the center of the picture is clear. Then, slowly and carefully move the rest of the unit until the rest is in focus and the test pattern doesn't show awkward ghosting. Adjust the straps again if necessary to keep it that way, and enjoy your content. Oh, and of course you'll need to have the HMD plugged into the included set-top box, and have it plugged into your video input source.
Once you've got everything adjusted exactly right, it's not nearly as troublesome the second time around — most things will stay in place — but even if you're struggling with the initial setup there are a vast number of tweaks you can make. In addition to the top plastic and bottom rubber ratcheting straps and the five diopter adjustments, each earpiece moves forward, back, up and down through 24 different positions as well, and the kit includes a second, thicker forehead cushion and a second place to attach those cushions for larger skulls. There's also a sweat-absorbing cloth cover for those cushions, and a tool to tighten the bottom strap. Still, Sony didn't fulfill all of our adjustment needs. You can only adjust the diopters as a pair and horizontally, not individually or vertically, which would have made mounting quite easier and more precise. On the plus side, I tested on four different sized heads, including one with glasses and — eventually — got all of them to fit mostly right.
Compared to getting the thing properly seated on your head, actually using the HMD is a piece of cake. It automatically detects native 3D content over the HDMI 1.4 connection and switches into the right mode, and admirably negotiates between video and audio streams, HD, SD, stereo and surround sound without putting up a fuss. If you need to adjust the volume or mess with settings (of which there are quite a few), there are handy, tactile, and easy to reach buttons on the underside of the display. Not only that, they're HDMI-CEC compatible too, so if you've got a PS3 Slim or a compatible A/V component, you can send pause, play, fast-forward, rewind, next and previous commands with the very same buttons.
When you pull the HMD off your noggin and release the forehead pad, it automatically turns off the OLED screens to save power and prolong their life. One omission, I suppose, is channel-changing controls for watching TV, but there's enough space to look down and see what you're doing with your hands as long as you've got a remote.
The twin OLEDs provided the most natural-feeling 3D picture I've ever seen
Those gorgeous 720p OLED micro-displays are the stars of this show, and it's honestly hard to find a single complaint about the 0.7-inch screens. Sure, I wouldn't say no to a 1080p picture instead, but these displays are fantastic. Colors pop, blacks are deep and inky, there are loads of settings (color temperature, brightness, contrast, noise, etcetera) if things don't look quite right, and the twin OLEDs provided the most natural-feeling 3D picture I've ever seen. Where both active-shutter glasses and passive polarized shades substantially reduce the amount of incoming light, and many also lower the resolution of the display, the Personal 3D Viewer's twin screens are bright and beautiful, and I was able to watch 3D Blu-rays like the latest /Chronicles of Narnia/ at full resolution for each eye.
Mind you, the PlayStation 3 doesn't have the processing power to output double the frames for the latest and greatest games, but there's still a substantial advantage here. Since each eye has its own screen, there's none of the crosstalk / ghosting that often plagues shutter glasses. I found I was able to turn up the 3D effect to maximum in Uncharted 3, Killzone 3 and MotorStorm Apocalypse without any additional eyestrain, and even with loads of jagged edges due to the lower resolution, they felt more natural in 3D than 2D here. Still, all modern forms of 3D play tricks on your brain, and the HMZ-T1 isn’t completely exempt; though many other issues have been resolved, you’re still often telling your eyes to focus on a plane that doesn’t exist, and as my friend can attest, it can still be jarring to individuals who don’t enjoy other forms of 3D content.
If there's a problem with the display, it's the limitations of the lenses Sony chose to magnify those tiny screens. For one thing, they reflect plenty of light, and Sony doesn't do much to keep it out. The company throws in a couple of silicone light blocker attachments, but for whatever reason they only attach to the bottom of the unit. Even if you're in a completely dark room, though, the light from the OLED screens themselves will illuminate the edges of the lenses in your peripheral view. It truly is like having your own personal theatre, but it also always feels like you're wearing glasses, too.
Last and perhaps most importantly, in order to get a crisp image from top to bottom (and not just the center) the lenses have to be placed fairly precisely in front of your eyes, and as I alluded to earlier it's not easy to get them aligned right. Even with the horizontal diopters in place, the vertical alignment might be off, and fixing that means adjusting the whole headset, tightening or loosening straps to get it the way you want. If you're thinking of using the Personal 3D Viewer with your work PC, I'd recommend against it. It's not terrible if the edges of your movie or game aren't crisp (and Sony has a handy overscan function too) but trust me, staring at slightly blurry fonts and icons in documents and websites for hours on end isn't particularly pleasant.
The HMZ-T1 comes with a pair of integrated headphones, and Sony likes to talk up its proprietary virtual 5.1 surround sound solution, Virtualphones, with its four different virtual surround sound modes. We're not huge fans of virtual surround, but it works fine here, and though two out of those four modes eliminate most of the low-end frequencies and sound pretty awful, the other two (Standard and Music) did add some spacialization to my movies and games. I definitely noticed the difference in Hero's guqin courtyard fight scene.
Surround's not the issue with the Personal 3D Viewer's audio, though — it's that these headphones just aren't that good. They do the job for a wide variety of content, from the bullet ballets of Shoot 'Em Up to the epic score of Killzone 3, but when it came to the wonderful music in Once, I noticed that however I changed up the settings, I was merely moving between muddy and harsh. For $20, my trusty Sony Q22 clip-ons were noticeably better, and I was expecting more from an $800 headset. Still, they're not terrible; what I resent most is the lack of choice. There's no auxiliary audio output on the HMZ-T1 or its external processor, and out of the 24 different ways the integrated headphones can sit, none are far enough away from your ears to let you use anything bigger than an earbud alongside it.
For $20, my trusty Sony Q22 clip-ons were noticeably better
Not immediately, but perhaps after an hour or three, it can get rather annoying
Sony's design looks stylish and futuristic, but there's really no ignoring the fact that you're cinching your head to nearly a pound (14.8 ounces) of plastic. It's not really heavy, but it is front-heavy, with nothing in back to serve as a counterweight. Sony doesn't spread that weight out over the entire head, either, as the only resting points are the forehead cushion and the nosepad, so one or the other is going to take that weight... and not immediately, but perhaps after an hour or three, it can get rather annoying.
I've used it on and off for a few days now, including several prolonged sessions, and every time I came away with a minor headache, the same type I get from an overtight baseball cap. Would I use it anyhow? Absolutely. I'd probably do it with my head propped up against a pillow, though. I should also note you'll probably want to keep your head still; my 3D-averse friend tried it while moving around and wound up fairly dizzy as a result.
At $800, there was no question Sony's Personal 3D Viewer would be a niche product. Sony knows full well that at that price, a television for one is a difficult purchase. But the HMZ-T1 doesn't have to be quite as niche as the head-mounted displays that have come before. Whether gimmick or no, there are those willing to pay a premium for good 3D, and for gadgets that ooze cool. This is one of those products, and though we've got a sizable list of issues we'd like fixed and features we want added (and how about some PlayStation 3 headtracking, too?), we'd argue that Sony has succeeded in making the HMD desirable again. For Sony, that’s one more step in the right direction.