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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Sony's Head-Mounted 3-D Display

Want to carry around an immersive 3-D home theater wherever you go? Don’t care to share it with anyone else? Sony’s got the product for you.

  • September 6, 2011

What if you could wear a 3-D IMAX theater on your face?

That idea, or something like it, is what animates Sony’s forthcoming device, “the HMZ Personal 3-D Viewer,” a headset that runs from ear to ear and delivers a 3-D viewing experience to an audience of one. The almost ostentatiously futuristic device–it “looks like it could have been created and worn by Daft Punk,” in IGN’s assessment–goes on sale in Japan on November 11, where it will retail at the equivalent of $780.

The device weighs just under a pound, and creates its 3-D effect by delivering different images to each eye via two OLED displays inside the visor. Though the displays are tiny, 0.7-inch panels, the fact that they’re so close makes them seem like an enormous, 150-inch screen. 5.1 virtual surround sound is delivered via a pair of embedded, over-ear speakers. If you’re the kind of person who likes spectacle but doesn’t want to share it with others, you can plug the HMZ into a DVD player, Blu-ray device, or gaming system and enjoy your private, immersive experience.

Reviews from the few folks who have had hands-ons are mixed. CNET UK thinks it’s the “ultimate 3-D gimmick,” offering an experience “rather like watching a movie in a sensory deprivation tank.” But Gizmodo waxes rhapsodic: “Not only did this sell me on the concept of wearable TV,” says Mat Honan, “it was one of my better experiences with 3DTV which I’ve likewise been skeptical of.” He says he was watching a 3-D movie about sharks, and reflexively ducked as a shark swam overhead.

Wearable TVs and virtual reality goggles of this sort have a checkered history, indeed. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, from the ’90s, was a spectacular flop. A product in a somewhat similar vein, 2002’s Xybernaut Pomo wearable computer, was dubbed by PC World one of the “10 Dumbest Tech Products So Far.” Why does Sony want to tread into this grim tech graveyard?

For one thing, it thinks there’s a market for it. “Before, watching a movie on a big screen was a pastime for the whole family,” Sony vice president Shigeru Kato recently told Reuters, “but now there is a growing demand from people who want to enjoy videos on large-sized screens alone.” On-demand personalization is the name of the game in entertainment these days; in the same way that we rarely watch TV shows along with the rest of the country (when a program actually airs), we may also just want to watch things by ourselves. What’s more, for the first time, the technology is at the point where a massive experience can come in a truly small, lightweight package. “The hardest part for us was to make it as small-sized as possible, while maintaining high definition, but we succeeded,” Kato also said.

For a closer look, check out some video of the HMZ prototype when it was first unveiled back at CES. For our money, the main bottleneck impeding adoption here is style. If Sony can make the thing a little less ridiculous-looking, then maybe consumers will be able to judge the product on its merits.

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