Back in January, we had an opportunity to briefly test four different wearable video display alternatives for the iPod – eMagin’s EyeBud 800, Icuiti’s iWear and DV920, and MicroOptical’s myVu – each with a different approach to letting iPod owners watch videos without squinting at the 5G iPod’s 2.5” LCD screen. We’ve previously discussed each of the options in a comparative article and later looked at a final production unit of Icuiti’s DV920; today, we had a chance to test a near-final version of eMagin’s EyeBud 800 ($500), which is arguably the most deluxe of the wearable displays. Since the hardware’s not yet final in appearance, this isn’t a First Look – just a sneak peek.
Even leaving aside the price, which has thankfully dropped $100 from its last estimate, eMagin has come quite a long way from the prototype we saw on display at the Las Vegas CES in January: the kit now consists of three primary pieces, specifically a headband with an attached, flexible OLED video display, a pop-off translucent plastic face piece called an Eyeshade, and a single white and gray box that contains both the unit’s AV circuitry and a battery. The idea is that you’ll get all of these items in a package, and eMagin will offer different colored Eyeshades – a nearly black charcoal color (shown) as the default – and headbands (black and white or full black) to match users’ preferences. Rather than centering the display and resting it on the bridge of your nose, which isn’t as comfortable for extended viewing, eMagin uses the headband to comfortably provide display support, allowing you to toggle the display to your left or right eye for viewing, then blocking off your other eye with the Eyeshade. Despite our initial misgivings about a screen on an off-center orientation, it worked better in our brief session than we’d anticipated; we’ll reserve a final judgment until we’ve had more time for testing.
The included control and battery box is slightly larger than an iPod in size – shrunk dramatically from the oversized two components we previously saw inside of a large leather case – and designed for utter simplicity. It presently has a single button that serves as a power on/off and brightness toggle, depending on whether the button is tapped or held down, and a few ports for power and AV connections. EyeBud 800 works easily with the iPod, but can also be connected to a VGA-style video source such as a computer if you want to make in-home use of its abilities; similarly, it includes and integrates its own silver earbuds into the headband’s sides, but you can disconnect them and connect your own earbuds to the box if you prefer. Power is provided by a wall adapter, USB 2.0 connection, or rechargeable battery, the latter powering the headset for between 4 and 6 hours of continuous video playback. The iPod’s own battery is not drained by EyeBud.
There are many good things to say about EyeBud 800’s video quality: from what we’ve seen so far, it looks like eMagin’s display and video processing are both more than up to snuff, rendering iTunes Music Store videos and user-ripped content with a level of clarity and color fidelity that is unmatched by the other wearable displays we’ve seen. The reason for this: eMagin’s OLED display is simply superior to the LCDs we’ve seen in similar devices, especially in resolution (800×600), contrast, and saturation. What’s most immediately noticeable is that there’s nothing washed out about the video, which you can adjust in brightness to your liking: the blacks are close to true black, the whites are bright, and though the human eye can’t discern them all, there are 24 million colors inbetween. No matter; they’re vivid, and better than on most LCDs. Additionally, moving images looked better than we’d expected given the quality of the original iTMS videos – artifacting and other issues were hardly noticeable on the iTMS content we saw, and despite the high resolution, we didn’t see evidence of over-defined pixels. To trot out a trite phrase, this was like watching a TV trapped inside a headset, and though we wouldn’t say it was like watching a 60” HDTV in a living room, it was a lot closer than the other iPod options out there. Both of the iLounge editors who tested the 800 walked away impressed.
That said, there’s still some tweaking left to be done, and eMagin is clearly aware of this. We’ll leave aside the issue of optimizing video content for the 800×600 display, since we were more or less convinced that video will look as good on this screen as it’s optimized to look; poorly compressed video will look artifacted, and you’ll notice it, just like listening to really compressed audio through good headphones. What eMagin is left to work on is comfort and user-adjustment issues. The company still plans to decrease the distance between the Eyeshade and the user’s face, as well as its left/right eye blocking; as shown here, the present design can look unusual, especially from the sides, and leave some of the world visible. As EyeBud 800 is intended to be immersive unless you want to pull the Eyeshade off, getting this part right will really improve the experience further. Similarly, though the display inside is fairly easy to render viewable, it can be tricky to perfectly orient for horizontal rotation and maximum corner-to-corner clarity; you need to make sure the headband is level, then do the same with the display. On the flip side, the display’s adjustability makes it fairly easy to position for use with unaided eyes or corrective lenses, and the headband uses easily-adjusted elastic to fit various head sizes, so EyeBud 800 will work on pretty much any person’s skull.
One of the biggest questions we’ve been asked about these head-mounted displays is an obvious one: why would anyone prefer wearing one to watching a TV or using the iPod’s own screen? The answer begins to become obvious with a solution like EyeBud 800 – these accessories begin to make more sense when they offer a better-than-iPod quality viewing experience, or one that’s more comfortable/convenient than pulling out the iPod itself. They make the most sense if you are in a situation where you don’t have access to a big screen – like traveling by air – and just want to put your head back and watch a video without holding it up to your face. Until these become stylish, we’re convinced that they won’t be ubiquitous, but someone’s going to have the Bose QuietComfort of wearable video displays, and with every step it takes, eMagin comes closer to that goal.