In 2015, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised that his company’s Oculus Rift VR devices would not always be big, boxy headsets. One day, he said, people would see virtual reality through a pair of ordinary eyeglasses or sunglasses. Where he put that development years in the future, though, Chinese VR startup Dlodlo is promising it right now. On one hand, it’s an ambitious project that lives up to its promise better than I expected. On the other, it’s making me doubt the value of that promise in the first place.
The $559 V1 headset, which Dlodlo (pronounced "dwo-dwo") announced on Monday, looks like a cross between welding goggles and, as my colleague Thomas Ricker put it, something a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator might wear. Weighing 88 grams, it’s featherlight for a full VR headset — the Gear VR weighs 312 grams without a phone or front cover, and the HTC Vive is over 500 grams. With a 1200 x 1200-pixel screen for each eye, it’s also slightly higher-resolution than the Rift or Vive. Instead of having any onboard processing power, the V1 is mostly a screen that plugs into either a PC or a phone-sized device called the D1, which Dlodlo compares to an iPod touch. The whole setup could fit in a small purse or a capacious pocket.
As someone who’s seen a lot of barely functional prototypes come with lofty promises, I was initially dubious that the V1 would look or work anything like its sleek press photos indicated. The vast majority of mobile VR headsets use a relatively chunky mobile phone as the screen. The few that don’t, like LG’s 360 VR or the recently announced Immerex, are more like a floating big-screen TV than full virtual reality.
But after managing to try it at a press event earlier this week, I can tell you that against all odds, Dlodlo’s headset can deliver a decent core experience. Granted, this comes with caveats. I wore the V1 for a total of under 10 minutes, and the demos it featured were simple. I tried a mini-game where you shoot cannons from a pirate ship’s deck, and a montage of 360-degree shots of tourist destinations. It was running off a gaming laptop, not the D1 device, which I was told wasn’t at the event. All these things stack the deck in its favor, and even then, things weren’t perfect — while the game worked fine, parts of the video juddered when I looked around too quickly.
Even given these facts, though, the screen still felt crisp for a VR headset. The field of view felt roughly similar to a Rift or Vive, and most importantly, I didn’t get the noticeable lag or "swimminess" that I’ve felt with some other indie headsets. The glasses’ eyecups even blocked out light well. For a new VR headset that doesn’t come with a pedigree from Sony, Google, Valve, or Oculus, these are all noteworthy achievements.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter if there’s nothing to do in the V1. The D1 (which is sold separately from the headset, for an unknown price, according to Dlodlo) runs a special "Dlodlo OS" based on Android 5.0 Lollipop, and it will feature its own app store. But although a press release promises 139 3D movies and 76 "independent sports, action adventure and shooting games," there are only three titles listed, all of them fairly small Google Cardboard games. The only way to interact with the headset, meanwhile, appears to be through a standard gamepad — there’s no integrated controller like Google’s Daydream remote or the Gear VR’s trackpad.
The first version of the headset, set for release this fall, will be a development edition, and the company’s CTO suggested that the catalog would be fleshed out after it became more widely accessible. Until we know more, though, it’s entirely possible that users will be left with some off-brand games and short video clips, while users of the less advanced Google Cardboard and bulkier Gear VR will have access to more games and major 360-degree video platforms like YouTube or Facebook. Dlodlo suggests that you’ll be able to connect the glasses to iOS or Android devices in the future, but it’s not clear when or how they’ll work. Presumably, PC users could load a wider range of apps, but there’s not much point in buying a portable pair of glasses (with no external tracking system, unlike the Rift or Vive) in order to sit at a desk.
But the bigger problem is that for the moment, VR sunglasses are an idea that sounds great and works terribly. The Dlodlo V1 is the second glasses-style headset I’ve tried, after the Immerex, and neither one was physically capable of staying on my face for more than a couple of seconds at a time. The demo units were too wide for my head, and even the super-light Dlodlo is significantly front-heavier than your standard pair of glasses, making them particularly hard to wear while turning your head or looking even slightly downward.
When I mentioned this issue to Dlodlo employees, they said they might consider putting out multiple size options for the V1. But until everyone has their own personal VR device, custom sizing makes it harder to have the popular communal experience of passing your headset around a group of friends, or letting a partner borrow it. The longer you think about what it would take to design a truly one-size-fits-all pair of VR eyeglass frames, the more sense it makes to just fall back on the cheap, sturdy, and easily adjustable head strap. I’d much rather see Dlodlo put the idea on hold and focus on developing something like a light custom headset for arcades, where a smaller software catalog and lack of support for existing platforms would be less of an issue.
Stylish VR is great in concept, but in practice, it’s synonymous with clumsy, ill-fitting hardware that only works while standing perfectly still. If you’re releasing a VR headset, making a comfortable flesh-and-blood human look silly will always be better than designing a piece of wearable tech for mannequins.