TV screens small enough to fit in front of your eyes? Yes – the idea is finally making a comeback. It’s hard to believe that more than 12 years have passed since wearable video displays first appeared to be ready for mass-market sale, a concept advanced most aggressively by video game makers such as Sega and Atari. Both companies developed “virtual reality goggles,” headsets with small LCD displays inside, positioned near enough your eyes to make you feel like you were “inside” specially designed games. After a public showing in 1993, Sega cancelled Sega VR (est. $200) in 1994, citing concerns over safety and nausea, while Atari never built the critical mass audience it needed to sell the more impressive Jaguar VR headset (est. $300) it showed in 1995. For its part, Nintendo famously failed with its actually-released Virtual Boy (1995, $180), which avoided safety issues by mounting on a flat surface and requiring you to crane your neck for viewing.
Sega VR Wearable Video Headset, Cancelled 1994
Since then, video displays in goggles have not exactly enjoyed a love affair with consumers, despite considerable advances in display technology, size, weight, and power consumption. They’ve disappeared from arcade and home console games altogether, and though they have become available as pricey and nichey optional add-ons for computer games, they’ve never become mass-market popular either for in-home or travel use. In the home, the major reason has been the lack of compelling applications – why sit down in your house with goggles when you could watch a better-looking television or monitor? And for travel or daily use, style has been a concern: who really wants to be seen outdoors wearing something that’s straight out of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Do you really want to carry batteries and cables around, either?
Two trade shows held in early 2006 suggest that wearable displays may be poised for a second stab at mainstream success, hitched to the coattails of Apple Computer’s increasingly popular iPod digital media players. The company’s October 2005 introduction of its fifth-generation iPod model with video playback has spurred significant interest in on-the-go enjoyment of TV and movie content, and now three different companies have announced devices that aim to do for iPod video what Apple’s little white earbuds have done for audio: place it directly in your face for truly personal enjoyment. Their approaches differ widely, however, so iLounge has developed this primer to delineate their features and prices. We’ve had at least brief opportunities to test all of the options below (and above, for that matter), and can offer some preliminary thoughts on the viability of each alternative – additional details will be added as the devices begin to appear in the marketplace.
Resolution and Screen Quality
Though cost is an important consideration, prospective users will also be concerned about the quality of the video they’re seeing, and there’s significant variation between the options here.
eMagin Eyebud 800
eMagin’s single OLED screen is the best of the bunch on raw quality, with impressive brightness, color, and detail (800×600). It’s so impressive, in fact, that it seriously overshoots the current (5G) iPod’s practical maximum video resolution, though the screen gives images at any resolution a level of sharpness they’d lack on lesser displays. You’ll also be able to use the Eyebud 800 with your computer or other devices, as well, allowing you to make more of that display’s capabilities than the current iPods can.
Icuiti iWear for iPod
Icuiti’s two solutions represent the middle of the pack in both resolution and quality. Both include two separate screens, one for each of your eyes. The more expensive DV920 uses 640×480 pixel screens that offer four times the resolution of videos you can purchase from iTunes, while the substantially lower-cost iPod-specific version uses a 320×240 resolution identical to the iPod’s screen, and Apple’s iTunes encoding specifications. Not surprisingly, the DV920 looks better, and may be better technologically suited to people who encode their own video content at better-than-iPod-quality resolutions. But both models’ screens look pretty good, with acceptable color, brightness, and smoothness of motion.
MicroOptical’s myvu is the least expensive and lowest-specced option of the bunch. There’s a single 320×240 screen that – at least in the early version we saw – wasn’t quite as high-contrast or colorful as the ones from Icuiti or eMagin. That said, it’s properly suited to the iPod’s and iTunes’ basic video quality as a low-cost option, and MicroOptical is planning screen quality tweaks to improve the color and contrast in the immediate future.
Each company’s product includes its own pair of headphones for stereo listening on the go.
eMagin Eyebud 800 with Earbud
The Eyebud 800 has two detachable earbuds – hard plastic, like the iPod’s – that use coiled black wires to adjust to the distance from your ears. You can unplug the earbuds and use your own, if you prefer.
Icuiti for iPod, with Ear Stems Detached
Icuiti’s solutions use detachable flexible ear stems that can easily be removed if you want to use other options, while myvu uses comfortable, silicone-tipped earbuds that dangle from the glasses’ sides. We’ll have more to say on the quality and comfort of these solutions in the days to come.
Years ago, immersion was the goal of wearable video displays – isolate the wearer from the outside world, creating as engrossing an experience as possible. The initial iPod headsets, however, offer a diverse range of viewing experiences, with one company choosing immersion, one choosing a part-time display, and the other a display solely for one of your two eyes.
eMagin Eyebud 800, with Left Eye Patch
Originally developed for military use, eMagin’s solution places a single, ultra high-resolution (800×600) display – the most detailed of any we’ve tested – in front of your right eye. The goal isn’t immersion, rather, it’s to provide a way for you to watch video while doing something else. Given that the display is mounted on a headband that wraps around your skull and uses a strap at the back for tightness, you don’t have a ton of positional discretion with the screen, but can adjust its viewing angle relative to your eye. eMagin includes a black plastic eyeguard – like an eyepatch – for your left eye if you want to partially screen the world out, but neither this nor the screen completely blinds you to what’s happening to your left or right.
Icuiti’s solutions are the closest to immersive. In each case, you wear a headset that is intended to cover both of your eyes with separate video screens. The company’s DV920 model uses two 640×480 displays, while the cheaper iWear uses two 320×240 displays, both by default synchronized to show the same image. What appears on these screens draws all of your attention, by design, and Icuiti lets you go one step further: the displays can shift into a 3D display mode, with the left and right screens displaying slightly different images. This won’t turn regular movies into 3D movies, but there’s free 3D content online, as well as some purchasable content. The pricier DV920 model can also be used with a number of truly 3D computer games.
myvu, Worn on Bridge of Nose
MicroOptical’s myvu offers a solution halfway between the others. Like eMagin, it mounts a single screen in front of your face, but like Icuiti, the screen is low-res (320×240), and centered rather than covering just one eye. The major difference, however, is horizontal: myvu is intended to sit on the brigde of your nose, centered with your eyes rather than covering them. You have the option to look into the screens, but you can also focus your vision on the world around you. While not immersive, this option offers a nice compromise for people who want to watch on the go. You can also insert specially made prescription lenses into myvu’s shell if you have a need for vision correction.
iPod Practicality and Other Uses
The three companies differ substantially in their approaches to power consumption and display versatility. Though still in prototype form, eMagin’s Eyebud was shown with a substantial combination of rechargeable battery pack and iPod/battery carrying case, which even if shrunk in the final product will add a fair bit of additional weight to the iPod you’re carrying.
eMagin’s Custom Case (prototype)
MicroOptical’s myvu also includes a battery pack – here, four AAAs – and iPod/battery carrying case, which are much smaller in size and resemble attractive XtremeMac and Incase neoprene designs, even including screen protector. Both companies’ cases are intended to be worn on a belt, carried in-hand, or bagged while you’re wearing the displays. You can use either one with or without the iPod.
myvu’s Custom Case
Icuiti’s solutions differ by model. Amazingly, the less expensive iWear connects using a direct cable and without any additional batteries to the iPod’s Dock Connector port, and the company claims that it and the iPod will run off of iPod juice for the same length of time as the iPod would with its internal screen displaying the video. This version is iPod-specific, and hasn’t been designed to work with other devices. The more expensive version includes its own breakout box for connection to any video playback device, and runs off of two AA batteries for 4.5 hours – longer than either 5G iPod model’s own video run time.
For Additional Information
For more photographs and additional information on each of these wearable video displays, check out our reports from the International CES 2006 (eMagin/Icuiti) and Macworld Expo San Francisco (MicroOptical), as well as news announcements from eMagin and Icuiti.
Parting Thoughts – For Now
Over the next few months, we’ll be checking out the final versions of each of these new wearable display options, and will update this article with additional details as appropriate. We do expect that each of these companies – and others – will be refining their iPod-ready designs in ways that may seriously change the features, prices, and quality we’ve previously sampled, so if you’re interested in these technologies, stay tuned to iLounge for all of the details.