posted by David Adams on Tue 6th Sep 2005 03:41 UTC
IconOSNews takes a look at some inexpensive "Virtual Reality" monitor specs. You wear them like a pair of glasses, and your eye sees the equivalent of a relatively large monitor. It's been a science fiction dream for years, and now it's available for under $200 at Geeks.com, albeit in rudimentary form. So how do they work in real life? Read more to find out.

Every kid who grew up following sci-fi has dreamt about personal robots, wearable computers, flying cars, and other technological wonders of the near future. Aside from vacuum cleaners and toy dogs, personal robots are still just for Japanese PR stunts. Flying cars? Let's just try to get this gasoline problem tackled out before we embark on even more gas-guzzling ways of getting across town. But wearable computing is a reality. Lots of us have PDAs and even cell phones that are relatively powerful computers by historical standards. If NASA had had an iPaq in the moon landing days, they could have done their calculations in a fraction of the time.

The kinds of things you can do with tiny computers is hampered a bit by the correspondingly tiny screens. They're fine for tapping out a to-do list or looking up a phone number, but if you'd like to work on a large document or watch a movie, it's rough. So we've had dreams of simulating a large screen, using special glasses, or even holograms or lasers. Wearable computing pioneers have been fashioning various devices to this end for decades, but they've been a specialty item until recently. A few years ago, I tried out a pair of Sony Glasstron VR specs when they first came out, and they were pretty cool, but they cost something like $800. Since then, the Sonys have become popular for professional videographers, allowing them to essentially wear their viewfinders. Although the Sonys are now available for less than $500, it's still a specialty item.

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VR specs have a few advertised uses: watching movies or playing video games on a simulated large screen, when carrying a large screen isn't possible, true virtual reality uses where you're interacting with a virtual world and need to be able to move around, training exercises, like watching yourself do your golf swing in real-time, or even hooked up to a remote control car with a wireless camera, so you feel like you're in the cockpit. For me, personally, I imagine it being useful mostly for watching movies. The resolution on these things, 800x225 or so, isn't enough for most computing purposes, but fine for TV.

I recently discovered the TV show Firefly, and I've been watching the series on DVD compulsively, sometimes late into the night. I sometimes use my laptop and headphones to be able to watch in bed and not disturb my wife, but even the glow from the laptop is pretty bright. I was able to hook up these specs to a portable DVD player I have and watch Firefly, and my wife slept like a baby. Similarly, I think that being able to take these along on an airplane and watch movies would be pretty cool.

I think that personal video specs will be a product niche that continues to evolve, and within a few years we'll have products that significantly outperform what's available now.

So how did these particular video specs perform? To some extent, you get what you pay for. The picture quality was not as good as the Sonys, and was not a particularly good substitute even for a small screen like a PDA. The colors were washed out, and the cheap optics in the units made the edges of the picture blurry.

Wearing the specs was pretty comfortable, but focusing your eyes on the "screen" does produce a bit of eye strain, though it was exacerbated by the washed out picture and blurriness I mentioned before. They have two ear buds attached to the sides, that pop into little storage areas when not used. Handy.

The unit had a proliferation of different video and audio adapters, but if you don't have a 1/4 inch plug or RCA outputs for video, you'll need other adaptors. I needed to use an s-video to RCA adaptor in order to watch my Powerbook's output on the specs. Unfortunately, some of the more useful devices to plug these into, like PDAs, don't have video out at all. Consequently, most of the devices that you might have in your house that you could plug these into probably aren't mobile, so you might have a hard time using them to their full potential.

I think I'll wait for another couple of generations of these things before I get too excited.

Cost: $167

Pros: Inexpensive, rechargeable battery pack, generous assortment of cables and adaptors, works as advertised

Cons: low resolution, washed out color, cheap optics blur the edges of the picture, no support for s-video

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