Sony sets out for truly personal 3D TV. (April 8th, 2012)
Dreams of imminent virtual reality mostly ended with the year 2000, but hopes for are more immersive experience than a living room TV have been kept alive. Sony is clearly keen to experiment with this and has the first truly high-end, mainstream 3D personal display in the 3D Personal Viewer HMZ-T1. We'll find in our review of the Sony 3D Personal Viewer if the first generation is good enough to be worth leaping in early.
Product Manufacturer: Sony
- Great, forward-thinking external design.
- Attractive 3D OLED displays.
- Truly immersive.
- Easy to set up.
- Adds new layer to gaming.
- Too front-heavy and slightly unwieldy.
- Uncomfortable for long periods for some wearers.
- Not adjustable.
- Merely average audio; headphones can't be swapped.
- Not the traditional Sony polish.
For those who remember the 1990's, much of the technology talk at the time surrounded the concept of virtual reality, or VR. Movies like The Lawnmower Man took viewers into incredible virtual worlds where they were fully immersed. That dream has largely faded away over the past 10 to 20 years as the technical challenges in bringing the concept to commercial reality seemed distant. In the meantime, the buzz for VR was replaced with buzz for DVD players, notebooks, gaming consoles, portable gaming consoles, smartphones, tablets and even augmented reality. 3D TV has brought back with it a sense of VR in its immersive potential, but it hasn't really set the market alight in the way TV manufacturers would have hoped.
Enter the Sony HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer. It's not virtual reality, but in many ways it's reviving the concept of complete immersion. The only thing missing from this iteration is the lack of head tracking technology built in. Otherwise, the experience is the closest yet that you will come to experiencing the VR dream. As tempting as that may sound, does the HMZ-T1 it stack up as something worth spending $800 to get?
The hardware conveys a sense of being generally well-made, if slightly flimsy, particularly around the earpieces. These could be damaged if they were incorrectly picked up from one of the earphone arms. The same could be said if they were picked up from the head straps, but it is true that familiarity breeds contempt. Owners will have to ensure that they don't too comfortable over time with the way that it is handled and continue to treat them carefully. While we are confident that Sony has employed high quality internal components, such as the excellent OLED display panel, the outer case of the HMZ-T1 conveys the impressing that it has been built to a cost. It is functional and robust enough, but is unlike many Sony products of old and sometimes today, which tended to feel as good as they looked from a design perspective.
Stylistically, the HMZ-T1 does look great. Looking at the marketing materials for the Sony 3D Personal Viewer, it certainly looks slick and futuristic. When we first saw the product being advertised, we couldn't wait to get our hands on them, but the reality does not quite live up to the marketing in its feel, more than its look. From a build quality and style perspective, the glasses remind us of the recent Tablet S and Tablet P. The Sony design flair is abundantly apparent at first blush, but the actual in-hand experience (or on-head experience in this case) does not quite live up to how forward thinking the designs are on a visual level.
Of the technical specs that matter the most, the two 0.7-inch OLED panels offer a 16:9 aspect ratio and a practical viewing resolution of 1280x720 (or 720p); you won't be getting 1080p here, although that's forgivable given that current 3D usually has to downscale below 1080p to work. The eyepieces provide a 45-degree field of view and give users the impression of watching a 150-inch panel from a distance of 12 feet.
For what is quite a futuristic looking device, the HMZ-T1 is very easy to set up. A glance at the Quick Start instructions is all that is really needed to get things up and running within a few minutes. One thing that is critical, however, is that users read the instructions on how to go about getting an optimal fit so as to ensure a crystal clear picture and maximum comfort (something that we found can, unfortunately, be mutually exclusive -- more on this later).
Beyond that, the device comes with separate small and light box that houses the power supply and processing unit, which the headset plugs into via a proprietary port. It needs just a power cord and one or two HDMI ports (HDMI in, and HDMI out) depending on how a user wants to set up the device within a home theater system. In its most basic form, we had it hooked up to a Sony PS3 gaming console with just one HDMI cable coming out of the console to the processing box.
Once connected, the headset needs to be turned on locally using the onboard control panel that resides under the front lip of the unit, to the right side of the user's head. The controls are easy to operate by feel. Users are then taken through a very quick configuration process, including a test to ensure that users can safely use the device in 3D operation without potentially damaging eyesight. Sony is honest and warns anyone that fails the test to stop using the 3D Personal Viewer. In addition to PS3 consoles and 3D Blu-ray players, we should add that the glasses are also compatible with PCs.
Display and overall viewing experience
When up and running with the HMZ-T1, users will be treated to what is without a doubt the best quality 3D image seen on home theatre device to date. One of the features that Sony has made a point of highlighting is that users will enjoy a 3D image free of any cross-talk. This is because it uses two separate OLED panels, delivering a slightly different image to each eye. Cross-talk is presently unavoidable on home 3D TV sets that use active shutter glasses, or even the new passive polarized glasses. It occurs when an image that is meant for the right eye can also be seen to some degree on the left eye and vice versa. This can create eye fatigue and cause headaches for some people. The Sony 3D Personal viewer delivers on the promise of a precise 3D image that doesn't threaten to cause eye fatigue.
The quality of the OLED panels themselves is also critical to the experience. OLED panels have been criticized for being oversaturated at times, but that isn't the case here. Color reproduction is quite natural, and its contrast and brightness is, as one would expect of an OLED display, excellent. The only real point of weakness in the image quality is the resolution relative to the proximity of your eyes. With a typical HDTV, even in 720p, you're several or more real feet away; here, the screens are just inches from your face and make the pixels more viewable. In a sense, Sony's had its experience partly soured by the new iPad's 2048x1536 display. Although it's currently the exception to the rule, Apple's tablet along with numerous other smartphones have set up an expectation that pixels shouldn't be visible on close-up screen, and this still detracts somewhat from the Sony display's overall impressions despite otherwise excellent performance.
Watching any content in 3D on the HMZ-T1 is an excellent experience compared to an external TV, as it envelops you in a way that traditional 3D just can't. The real highlight is playing 3D games using the headset. In many ways, it could have been marketed directly to gamers, as this is arguably where it will find its largest audience. As it's a personal viewer, it is more likely to end up being used in someone's man-cave than in a family room. Games like Gran Turismo 5 really come to life on the Sony 3D Personal Viewer in a way that hasn't previously been possible. The Viewer is certainly the closest you can get to VR today given that current consoles don't support head tracking in earnest.
Driving a car in Gran Turismo with the HMZ-T1 is great fun. We felt completely immersed in the cockpit of the vehicle as it felt like it was genuine simulator experience. Gran Turismo has long been advertised as the "Real Driving Simulator," and that slogan has never rung truer. While the handling has always been realistic, and the graphics as good as current technology permits, the 3D Personal Viewer adds a whole new dimension to both the viewing and gaming experience. It's no surprise that when Sony first demoed the product at trade shows, it offered users the same experience.
If you still hold dreams of a more authentic virtual reality, though, Sony will need to add head tracking technology to the device, and see that apps are developed to support it. When driving a car, we felt that the effect was so real that we were frustrated when we felt like checking the scenery out of the side window but couldn't. If we spun a car off the track, the natural instinct was to look where we wanted to go, but couldn't. The addition of this capability to both the device and game titles could be a direction that we see Sony taking with the 3D Personal Viewer if it's to be more than an experiment.
The HMZ-T1 comes with Sony's virtual 5.1 surround sound experience it has dubbed Virtualphones. The driver units are open air dynamic types, and have a frequency response of 12-24,000Hz. Maximum output is 1,000mW and they offer a fairly promising sensitivity of 106dB/mW. Users are offered four surround listening modes (Standard, Cinema, Game, Pure AV), but none of them can really overcome the strictly so-so quality of the headphones. They deliver an adequate audio experience and even offer up to 24 different positions in which they can be adjusted to deliver a more snug fit and better audio as a whole.
Judged in context, the headphones stand in marked contrast to the high quality visuals of the HMZ-T1, which is obviously where Sony was focused on investing its money and attention. If the headphones were somehow detachable, we wouldn't be reaching for them to listen to our favorite music on; we would, however, be looking for alternatives. Compared to Sony's own Balanced Armature in-ear headphones, for example, the audio quality is just not there on the system built into the HMZ-T1. When one considers the cost of a good set of headphones, and when one looks at the overall asking price of the HMZ-T1, it's hard to expect Sony to deliver on all counts. All the same, we'd have paid a slight premium for something equivalent to a good, mid-range set for what's supposed to be a personal home theater.
If there is an Achilles heel to the HMZ-T1, it's in the general comfort of the device. Although Sony offers added pads and various adjustment options, the HMZ-T1 can hardly be described as comfortable to wear, and certainly not for extended periods of time. In our experience, if you have a broad bridge to your nose, wearing the HMZ-T1 in a way that permits optimal viewing can nearly verge on being painful. At just under 15 ounces, it's not particularly heavy, but much of that weight will settle upon your nose as the device's center of gravity is shifted towards the front, despite Sony's attempts to spread the weight across the head straps. The company offers adjustability for overall head fit, but it doesn't offer alternative nose pieces, which is perhaps an area that Sony may reconsider for any future models. Trying to make a one-size-fits-all device is not easy, and we can't say that Sony has succeeded.
The effect is more noticeable for movies, when you're in for roughly two hours of continuous wear. It's easier when it's a game and it's less disruptive to go for 30- to 60-minute stints as well as pause and take breaks.
Sony has started setting up some more purpose-built retail outlets in parts of the US so that users can get more hands-on time with their products before they buy them. We would advise that, if at all possible, you try on the 3D Personal Viewer with someone familiar with how best to fit the unit before considering it. It could well be a deal killer for some, no matter how tempting the technology. If you are looking for something like the HMZ-T1, but are after something less cumbersome, Epson has recently released a competing device it calls the Moverio headset, which could potentially prove to be a better option from a comfort perspective.
The Sony HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer is both a hit and a miss. Its 3D visual capabilities make it perhaps the best 3D viewing experience on the market. The lack of cross-talk makes it very easy on the eyes, and is something that gamers in particular will want to consider if they really want to fully immerse themselves in their content. Although some gamers play for extended sessions, the HMZ-T1 may suit users who play for shorter bursts. People planning on using the HMZ-T1 for general purposes may better off opting for a 3D TV. Sitting on a lounge wearing polarized glasses and watching a 3D movie would be a much more comfortable experience, even if you might suffer some eye fatigue caused by image cross-talk.
Overall, while we very impressed with the technical capabilities of the HMZ-T1, it's hard to recommend given the comfort relative to the $800 cost. Sony deserves kudos for taking a risk in bringing the product to market as it certainly moves the 3D viewing experience forward. However, it probably doesn't pass the "Apple test:" that is, not just bringing a new technology to market but making it more accessible and palatable. Although Sony has obviously succeeded in bringing the product to market, it might have been better off waiting until it could create the same viewing experience in a device that was less cumbersome.
As a brand-enhancing product, it probably serves a purpose to remind people that Sony is still capable of making cutting-edge products. In this regard, it's much like the company's Tablet P with its dual screens, or even the Rolly MP3 player. The 3D Personal Viewer a slick idea, and it certainly looks the part, but the end result for its current generation is more a fantastic experiment than a must-have.