HANDS-ON REVIEW: Sony Personal 3D Viewer (HMZ-T1)

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sony-personal-3d-thumb.JPGreview-line.JPGSony’s Personal 3D Viewer headset first wowed us back in January of this year at CES in Las Vegas. A head-mounted, personal 3D experience, it channelled Tron cool and all the promise of the Lawnmower Man before history had made VR-style headsets seem utterly ridiculous. However, it was a prototype at that stage, with no concrete plans to bring the unit to the consumer market. Fast-forward to IFA 2011 and Sony responded to the phenomenal buzz generated by the kit by revealing the Viewer would make its way to select stores.

Finally up for pre-order, Tech Digest went hands-on today for a comprehensive, hands-on testing session with the Sony Personal 3D Viewer (HMZ-T1). Read on for our thoughts on Sony’s snazziest bit of AV gear in years.

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You can’t help but be drawn to the Sony Personal 3D Viewer. It looks as though it’s been lifted straight out of an episode of the Jetsons, and yet manages to remain classy rather than crass. Like an over-sized pair of aviator shades, the Viewer has adjustable straps to fit all head sizes, with a glossy white casing with blue LED strip on the front.

Inside this casing is where the magic happens. Placed in front of your eyes (and taking over almost the entirety of your peripheral vision) are two individual OLED displays, responsible for producing the 3D image from the headset. Each measuring 0.7 inches diagonally, they have a resolution of 1280×720 and give the impression of watching a single 750-inch cinema screen, from a “virtual viewing distance” of 20 metres.

Over your ears slide a pair of simulated 5.1 surround sound ear pieces that use Sony’s “Virtualphones Technology” to make movie sounds appear to travel around your head in a way similar to how a dedicated 5.1 speaker set up would. Four different surround sound modes can be configured using a small set of directional buttons on the underside of the visor, which are used to navigate and confirm settings in an on-screen menu overlay and can also be used to tweak image settings like brightness and sharpness.

sony-3d-viewer-hands-on.jpgWith no internal battery powering the headset, Sony have popped a small processor unit alongside the HMZ-T1. A small, unassuming black box, it has HDMI in and out ports on the rear for Blu-ray players and games consoles, as well as a socket for a power plug, while on the front sits a bespoke “HMD” connection that not only delivers the sound and imagery to the headset, but the power supply too. The included cable for attaching the headset to the processing unit is a reasonable length, meaning you should be able to comfortably connect the headset to the processing unit from a good few feet away.

So what’s it like to use the HMZ-T1? Initially, a little disorientating. It takes a few minutes to get the headset to fit snugly in front of your eyes, while a little slider beneath each eye allows you to tweak the distance between each OLED screen to match the spacing of your peepers, and deliver a 3D image with as little blur as possible. It’s a strange sensation to turn your head and have the image move with it, but once you get used to it, it is an incredibly immersive experience.

As the headset employs two separate OLED panels, there is none of the cross talk you often encounter when viewing a 3D display. Using the OLED displays also negates another regular problem faced by 3D fans: brightness issues. Usually, popping a pair of 3D glasses on when watching a 3D flick leads to muted colours and a drop in brightness due to the lensing of the specs. No such problems with the Sony headset, as the two screens sit directly in front of your eyes without any need for active or passive lenses, meaning the picture is as bright or vibrant as any regular display.

sony-3d-viewer-hands-on-2.jpgAs a result, watching some dark scenes from the latest Harry Potter movie showed up far more detail in low-lighting shots and shadowing than you’d get with a standard 3D display. Though the screens only use a 720p resolution, they still manage a sharp, detailed image that stands up well against full HD active 3D TVs. The super-fast response time of OLED panels (just 0.01 milliseconds) led to incredibly smooth motion in action scenes too, leading to one of the most natural viewing experiences we’ve had from a 3D display. Attaching a pair of small rubber flaps to the sides of the headset manages to block out external lighting fairly well too, though looking directly downwards does give you a glimpse of the outside world.

Sound quality is fairly good too. Bold and loud, there is a decent bass response from the ear pieces that manage to block out a fair amount of external sounds too. It’s not the most detailed soundscape we’ve heard from virtual 5.1 ear pieces (that title belongs to Astro’s A40 dedicated gaming cans and mix amp) but they do a good job delivering a punchy sound to accompany the action on the screen.

If there is a single significant problem, it’s the weight of the headset. No matter how much I adjusted the straps or angled my head backwards slightly, it always felt as though the Viewer was pushing down on the bridge of my nose. If you could lay flat out you’d probably negate this feeling considerably, but it’s unlikely you’ll always be laying in bed to use the headset. For shorter sessions it shouldn’t be a problem, but it’d certainly begin to feel uncomfortable after a lengthy film. Of course, it may be my massive, unwieldy nose getting in the way, but by all accounts it’s of a fairly average size. It’s also worth taking into account that if you’re a glasses-wearing gadget fan, this headset just isn’t for you; unless you pop in some contact lenses, there is no way you’re going to get the headset comfortably over your specs.

So are they worth grabbing? Yes, but with a few caveats. Priced at £799, you’re paying a hefty price for a display that only one person can watch at a time. It’s the perfect accompaniment to solitary pursuits like single player gaming, but not so much a gang looking to watch a flick together (though you could in theory hook a number of headsets up through a HDMI splitter). It’s a luxury item in this regards; a selfish way to lock yourself into one of the most visually impressive 3D experiences on the market, if suffering from a few unique comfort issues.

For more info on the Sony Personal 3D Viewer, click here.

Gerald Lynch

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