The Avegant Glyph is, and is not, virtual reality.
At a CES that's full of attempts at making VR work, the recently announced prototype is one of the most interesting headsets. Instead of an LCD screen, it uses a virtual retinal display that projects images on your eyes. Instead of attempting immersion, it limits the display to a square with a roughly 45-degree field of view, leaving your peripheral vision free. And Avegant, the company behind it, is doing its best to fool casual observers into thinking it's a pair of high-end headphones with a pair of weird bumps on top. Because let's be honest, wearing a pair of VR goggles in public still feels kind of dumb.
In fact, the creators don't actually describe it as VR. The Glyph can handle head tracking for games or virtual movies, but Avegant CSO Edward Tang describes it as a replacement for a mobile screen — instead of squinting at your iPhone on a plane, you can plug in the Glyph with an HDMI cable and watch movies on the equivalent of an 80-inch TV. It shares some DNA with the personal 3D theaters that Sony and others produced in years past, but the technology and hardware are fundamentally different. Even the highest-definition screen-based virtual reality displays, like the Gear VR, have visible pixels that mar the experience. When you look through the eyepieces of the Glyph engineering prototype, by contrast, you'll see a perfectly clear, brilliantly colored image, floating in front of you with virtually no lag.
Less immersive, but a brilliant image
We took a look at an early version of the Glyph in 2013, but its engineering prototype has slimmed down significantly since then. It could reasonably pass for a pair of oversized, heavily padded headphones, with an optional strap that slides over the top of your head. I've gotten used to slight blurriness in VR headsets, so the Glyph's image quality was comparatively amazing, as was its adjustability; you can slide the lenses sideways to change the distance between your eyes and focus each one with a wheel on the bottom. The obvious compromise is that you won't get the same sense of being in a place. Its low field of view (roughly 45 degrees, compared to closer to 100 degrees for the Oculus Rift) leaves large black spaces around the screen, and the visor doesn't quite black out the rest of the world. That's not all bad — there's something to be said for having situational awareness in a mobile headset. But it's why Avegant is right to distance itself from companies that are trying to create full 360-degree experiences.
At CES, the company finally unveiled the design mockup that it hopes to turn into a consumer product by fall of 2015. It's a distinctly Beats-inspired pair of chunky headphones with lenses set into the top. When you're using them purely for sound, you can cover the eyepieces in a plastic protector, keeping them free of hair product or skin oil. To switch to headset mode, you tilt them forward to act as a rounded visor — instead of evoking Johnny Mnemonic, you'll look more like LeVar Burton in Star Trek. Ideally, there's no strap, just the pressure of the ear cups to hold the Glyph in place. While people will probably still look at you funny when you slide it over your eyes, it's far more natural than taking out a pair of virtual ski goggles. One of my biggest problems with the Gear VR was its sheer bulk, but I could actually imagine keeping the Glyph headphones around my neck.
it turns out headphones don't necessarily make good glasses
The problem is that with no support, it's incredibly difficult to keep the headset tilted at an angle that will give you that perfect image. The preliminary mockup was a fixed size, so I couldn't make it small enough to rest on my ears and nose at the same time; every time I tried to wear it, it just slid down my face. The heavier engineering prototype fit me, but to see clearly, I had to either hold it in place or tilt my face almost horizontal. Avegant is confident that this issue will be solved by launch, but it's set quite the task for itself. It has to produce a device that has minimal nose support, limited adjustability, and no overhead straps, but can still fit in a precise position over anyone's eyes. If the optics get light enough or the ear cups tight enough, this might be possible, but given that the Glyph in its current form is almost unusable, it's hard to make a call on how likely it is.
If you're looking for virtual reality per se, the Glyph is no Oculus Rift or Gear VR. At $599 (or $499, if you pre-order by January 15th) Its strict focus on image quality and portability, though, make it more than just another runner-up. Avegant's move away from screens puts it more in the company of Google Glass or the mysterious Magic Leap system, but without the difficulty of cracking augmented reality. And if you end up getting too uncomfortable to put them over your eyes... well, at least you've still got a pair of headphones.