For a brief period of time several years ago, wearable video displays appeared to be on the cusp of moving from geeky accessories to nearly mainstream, buoyed by improving parts, an infusion of industrial design creativity, and the growing demand for small-screened portable video players — notably including Apple’s fifth-generation iPod. Prices started to become aggressive, interesting new frames were developed that looked more like sunglasses, and streamlined interfaces made the displays easier to connect and use. But after a year or two of excitement, things seemed to settle down again. iPods and iPhones began to grow larger screens, and then the iPad came along, providing an “official” option for users who needed a bigger display and were willing to pay for it. Wearable display companies didn’t go away, but what once appeared to be a growing category essentially disappeared from our radars.
Vuzix is one of the two leading producers of consumer wearable video displays, and to its credit, its Wrap 1200 ($500) has changed a lot from the 2006-vintage iWear for iPod we reviewed back then. Built with two 320×240 displays matching the resolution of fifth-generation iPods, the $299 iWear had been ultra-simplified to require nothing more than a single cable from the headset to an iPod; it ran for 3 to 7 hours off the iPod’s battery, and at a time when iPods lacked speakers, it came with its own integrated earbuds. But iWear was shaped like a black plastic bar that made users look somewhat like the Star Trek: TNG character Geordi La Forge, and despite its light weight, both the headset and earbuds were uncomfortable.
In the five years that have passed since then, Wrap 1200 has taken more steps forward than back, but in short, the overall package remains at least a generation or two away from making sense for mainstream users. Taking cues from rivals such as Carl Zeiss and myVu, Vuzix has shifted the video displays into what looks like a big and somewhat cheap pair of sunglasses, with mixed results. Rather than positioning the twin LCD screens at eye level, Vuzix places them lower so that you look downwards into them, then gives you the ability to slide and focus each screen for the spacing and acuity of each of your eyes. The level of adjustability is welcome, and contributes to a sharper, less fatiguing viewing experience, but neither the design of the glasses nor the height of the screens feels quite right. Despite its other issues, the thinner iWear bar seemed closer to correctly sized.
The viewing experience is markedly improved over the prior iWear we tested. While the 852×480 screens don’t match the maximum output capabilities of the latest iPods or iPhones, you can easily see that they’re performing video at DVD resolution with a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio—this can be dropped down to 4:3 if you prefer. Between the higher resolution and the wider presentation, videos look detailed and enough like watching a pre-high-definition television that you won’t really be begging for more pixels, though it bears mention that the iPod touch, iPhone 4/4S, and both iPads all have higher resolution displays built in than the ones inside Wrap 1200. They also produce darker blacks and richer color contrasts than Wrap 1200, which while much improved over earlier headsets we’ve tested still puts out slightly washed out imagery, even when you take the time to skip through the menus and tweak the screens’ settings.
It goes without saying that finding miniature, goggle-ready screens with such high resolutions isn’t easy, and putting two of them into a headset surely drives up the price of a device like this. But it also creates a conundrum: why connect a $500 accessory to a $199 iPod touch if you’re going to lose display resolution?
Vuzix would likely offer several answers, starting with Wrap 1200’s convenience and ability to engross the user. iPods, iPhones, and iPads now have integrated speakers, but they don’t exactly immerse you in whatever you’re hearing. Wrap 1200 comes with dangling passive isolating canalphones, and once you put their silicone tips in your ears and the glasses on your face, you can lay back in a chair and watch videos without holding an iPod, iPhone, or iPad up to your eyes. Noise isn’t completely sealed out, but the sound is better than any iOS device’s speaker. If you’ve ever watched a movie on one of these devices, you already know that wearing a roughly three-ounce pair of glasses will be easier than trying to brace your arm and wrist for an hour and a half. Vuzix describes the experience as looking like a 75-inch display as viewed from 10 feet away, and though that’s not quite the TV we’d picture when we look into the goggles, it’s akin to holding an iPhone or iPod touch 2-3 inches away from your face with proper focus.
Despite anything else, Wrap 1200 is definitely capable of being worn without fatigue for extended periods of time. While the headphones are less than ideal—oddly plugged in in front of your temples, and plagued with some amplifier noise that only recedes into the background when voices or music are playing—they are soft, comfortable, and far easier to deal with than the ones we used in iWear years ago. Like glasses, Wrap 1200 has an adjustable nose bridge that can be made to fit your face, and the screens can be tilted so that you needn’t stare as sharply down into them as you might fear. They also support three types of anaglyph 3-D content, which you can’t view with an iOS device’s built-in screen. So there are some advantages to using Wrap 1200 rather than just a bare iPod, iPhone, or iPad.
But having said all of that, Wrap 1200’s issues continue to hold it back from being broadly recommendable. The unit requires a remote control and battery unit that only adds to the bulk of things you need to carry around and manage, with a stubby little Dock Connector cord that guarantees your iOS device will need to be right alongside it at all times. You’re supposed to tend to the included twin AA batteries inside every one to three hours, depending on the video source you’re watching, using an included Rayovac wall charger to refuel them. And there’s no getting over the fact that wearing Wrap 1200 still makes you look like a geek. Between the shape of the glasses and all of the cables that dangle from them—even more if you connect Wrap 1200 to something other than an iOS device—these still aren’t glasses most people would want to proudly wear out in public. We’d say that the average person would be best off using them at home, except of course for the fact that almost every apartment or house these days would have an actual TV with better sound.
Back when we looked at iWear for iPod, the pitch behind the latest wearable video displays was nearly compelling: video iPods had squint-inducingly small screens, their prices were higher, and their resolutions were comparable to the displays Vuzix and other companies could stuff into goggles. But as time has passed, the equation has made less sense. For $500, you now plug your iOS device into something that downgrades the display resolution, adds 3-D capabilities you may or may not want, and provides the sort of so-so audio quality you could get with any pair of $30 earphones. Or you could spend the same $500 and buy an iPad. None of this is to say that Vuzix hasn’t moved well beyond the wearable displays of years past—to the contrary, it’s most certainly trying—but as portable devices continue to advance in display performance and user comfort, accessories such as this will need to be more than just decent alternatives. If and when they become more convenient than just propping one of Apple’s comparably priced devices up on a stand with a pair of headphones, they may be worthy again of consideration, but for now, Wrap 1200 strikes us as only okay.
Company and Price
Model: Wrap 1200
Compatible: iPod classic, nano 3G/4G/5G, touch, iPhones