Review: Carl Zeiss Cinemizer
Company: Carl Zeiss AG
Compatible: iPod 5G, classic, nano, touch
We've seen very few breakthrough iPod or iPhone accessories so far this year, but new wearable video displays from Myvu and Carl Zeiss have unquestionably caught our attention. Myvu, which has been making iPod-specific goggles for the past two years, recently unveiled new $200 Shades and $300 Crystal units, while famed optics industry stalwart Zeiss unveiled Cinemizer ($400), a competing product it developed with assistance from FROG Design, a company that helped with Apple hardware casings years ago. All three of these devices use the same general formula as previously released wearable displays for the iPod, bundling a pair of goggle-like glasses with an in-line remote control and a Dock Connector that attaches to the bottom of compatible iPods. [Updated June, 2008: Please see an update at the bottom of this review regarding contrast fixes that have been made available for users of the iPod touch and iPhone.]
While both Myvu’s Crystal and Zeiss’s Cinemizer won recognition as 2008 Best of Show Finalists based on a key piece of new technology they share—they’re the first to offer 640x480-resolution displays that work with current-generation iPods and the iPhone—neither company’s design struck us as ideal for a number of reasons. Despite its positives, which are extremely important, Cinemizer is saddled with a high price, a geeky-looking design, and screens that have poor contrast*, factors which detract from what might otherwise be a breakthrough wearable video display.
Let’s focus on the positives for a moment. As Crystal isn’t shipping for another few months, Zeiss will be the first to deliver a 640x480 headset for the iPod classic, nano, and touch, as well as the iPod 5G, and it includes clear plastic cradles for each of these models, as well as a semi-hard carrying case to keep everything safe while you travel. (Though it’s not officially a Works With iPhone product, Cinemizer also supports playback from the iPhone when it’s in Airplane Mode—with Airplane Mode off, cell phone interference can be heard in the headphones on occasion.) Additional devices are supported via a minijack-style video port found on Cinemizer’s battery backpack, and the iPod-ready Dock Connector can actually be pulled off for future replacement with another attachment should Zeiss want to release one. A USB port on the side of the backpack is attached to an included cable and your computer to recharge the battery, which runs for a minimum of four hours—the same as Myvu promises for Crystal—while a power button turns the device on.
Zeiss’s in-line remote control isn’t extraordinary, but it’s easy to use. There’s a big play/pause button on its face alongside reverse and forward buttons that can be held down to skip around within currently playing videos. The right side has a slider for volume adjustment, and the left side has a button for contrast toggling. On the back, there’s a clip to attach the remote to your shirt. You’ll have no problem using these buttons or slider even when you’re watching a video; they’re different enough in size and location that you can tell them apart even by touch alone. You can also adjust volume on the iPod itself and have the change reflected in the earphones, a nice touch.
The single biggest advantage of Cinemizer relative to some of its competitors is found inside the housing: large diopter dials that permit the left and right lenses inside to be individually focused for users with less than perfect vision. Each lens can be adjusted from -3.5D to +3.5D, a feature we’ve not seen since testing the lower-resolution, 5G iPod-only Icuiti (now Vuzix) iWear. Though users with mildly impaired vision can use Myvu’s goggles without problems, and that company separately sells lens inserts for vision correction, Zeiss’s and Vuzix’s designs are better out-of-the-box picks for users with more serious or single-eye vision limitations.
Though it should go without saying, development of a wearable video display isn’t as easy as just putting a couple of screens and adjustable lenses inside of oversized sunglass frames. Styling, comfort, the display technology inside, and pricing are all critical considerations as well, and the reasons that no wearable display we’ve yet reviewed has earned our A rating and high recommendation. To try and mitigate consistent industry-wide criticisms that even the best of these goggles look ridiculous, Zeiss picked FROG Design to help craft better-looking frames. Unfortunately, FROG failed. Cinemizer actually looks weirder than both Myvu’s and Vuzix’s previously released iPod headsets, which aimed to be as neutral and slim as possible, by instead using a comparatively large housing and wide lens-like facades on the front. Even in neutral black, the goggles make users look funny, and the four other colors we’ve seen in photos (red, silver, white, and gunmetal) don’t look any better.
FROG and Zeiss did an okay job in the comfort department. Though they chose to use odd earphones—ones that don’t fit in your ears, but rather extend on pivoting rails to sit outside of them—and similarly odd ratcheting plastic fins that help to keep the goggles balanced on your head, the parts work, albeit not as comfortably as the ones in any of Myvu’s offerings, such as the most recent Solo Plus. Unlike that product, which ships with four rubber nose pieces, rubberized earstems and silicone ear tips, Zeiss went with two rubber nose pieces and hard glossy plastic everywhere else. We wouldn’t call the result uncomfortable, but we’ve definitely felt better, and the trend these days is towards lighter and softer, not bigger and harder.
Where Zeiss could have completely won us over, even despite the other issues, was in the display department. Like the Myvu Crystal, Cinemizer contains dual 640x480 displays that offer four times the resolution (detail) per eye than prior 320x240 displays, and since the new iPods actually support output at these resolutions, the visual differences could have been huge. In some ways, they are. Zeiss describes Cinemizer’s output as the equivalent of a 45-inch screen at a distance of 6 feet away, and by comparison to the last-generation Myvus, the display looks positively huge and nicely detailed. That point deserves to be underscored: the screen impresses in apparent size and detail. Like Vuzix’s much earlier, device-agnostic DV920, Zeiss also touts Cinemizer’s ability to play back 3-D movies by alternating what’s on the left and right screens, though no one ever seems to actually release videos in that format, so the feature is more abstract than practical.
The problem? Cinemizer’s displays look extremely washed out*. While the remote has a three-position contrast button, none of the positions produces black blacks; everything looks like it’s being shown on a muddy gray TV set from the 1980s. While we’re going to hold off on comparing Cinemizer to the final version of Myvu’s Crystal until we review the latter product, it suffices to say that Cinemizer so significantly compromises the value of its enhanced-definition displays that we wouldn’t use it for this reason alone; cheaper displays we’ve tested have much better color rendition. The one iLounge editor who liked Cinemizer at first because of its diopter adjustability lost his excitement after realizing how gray everything was. Your experience may vary, but it’s hard to look inside these goggles without feeling that what you’re seeing isn’t what it should be.
That’s especially true for the asking price. Zeiss will sell Cinemizer for €369 in Europe through Gravis stores, with a projected $399 asking price in the United States, which is significantly higher than the pricing of major competing iPod products. So, just as Myvu and Icuiti dropped their prices from $299 to $199 in order to avoid becoming forgotten niche products, Zeiss has a lot of dollars to shed before a product like Cinemizer can appeal to the iPod masses.
Should it bother? Definitely; the wearable display market may not be huge at this point, but companies with expertise in optics, design, and display technology are best poised to continue innovating towards the goal of mainstreaming these accessories. We’d like nothing better than to see Carl Zeiss aggressively competing in the market—the only question is whether that will happen with the current-generation product, or something better in the months to come. At its current pricing, and with its current gray-screened performance, we consider Cinemizer a product meriting only our limited recommendation, but should Zeiss continue working on this product, we’d expect great things in the future.
Updated June, 2008: In June, 2008, Carl Zeiss informed iLounge that it has released a firmware update for the Cinemizer that improves the unit’s visual performance when used with the iPod touch and iPhone, rebalancing the colors to remove the gray haze we saw in our review. The firmware update works only with Cinemizer units running firmware 7.21 or later, which encompasses most units currently in or planned for circulation, and enables users to replace the current three contrast levels with iPod touch- and iPhone-ready versions, or add additional level settings that preserve the goggles’ utility with iPod nano and iPod classic models.