March 16, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
This 52-inch screen goes on your head
In June, Headplay will begin selling its Personal Cinema System (PCS), a portable movie viewer whose principal component is a sun visor that sports a monitor under the brim for close, personal viewing. The PCS can be hooked up to a PC so the owner can play online games--at a recent trade show the company let attendees try out the visor while playing Unreal Tournament--or to a TV.
The PCS also has a control unit with a memory card slot for playing recorded movies or videos; headphones; and a device for selecting and navigating through the possible content selections with your thumb.
The whole package will sell for $499. The company will first sell the device on its Web site and will try to build customer awareness through trade shows and events. Target customers will be gamers, but also long-distance travelers who want a better screen than the small rectangular ones inserted into seat backs on planes.
"It is something you have to try," said Jay Puryear, director of interactive marketing at Headplay.
The viewing experience is akin to watching a 52-inch TV from 6 feet away, after a user gets accustomed to it, according to Puryear. The actual monitor, which only measures about 4 inches across, beams images through a set of eyepieces. By looking through the eyepieces, the mind "sees" a large-ish rectangular movie screen, or virtual monitor, on top of a black background. The eyepieces are independently focused so users don't need glasses, even if they are extremely farsighted or nearsighted.
During a few quick trials, I never got the full 52-inch experience; it reminded me more of watching a movie on a GAF View-Master. The virtual monitor floats in front of your eyes at what seems to be about 6 inches to 2 feet away. Touching your nose reminds you the virtual monitor isn't real. Moving your head makes the monitor move--while that might add realism to games, it's a bit jarring with movies.
While watching, I kept questioning whether the screen looked like a big screen, or a small one that looked like a big one because it was only a few inches away and I was wearing the equivalent of a scuba mask. Peripheral vision is somewhat blocked--my ultracautious father would probably be tempted to put his wallet in his front pocket.
The good news for Headplay is that the picture quality is a lot better than you might think. You can imagine eventually getting acclimated to it to some degree. In one test, I watched the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan, a frantic action sequence that includes lots of splashing water and quick edits. Although not nearly as enjoyable as watching it on a real big-screen TV, the picture was clear and didn't blur during rapid scene changes or sudden movement onscreen.
The virtual screen also seemed a lot bigger and closer than what one might get with a portable DVD player or an airplane screen. (There was even a vomit scene before the first landings at Normandy I didn't remember seeing when watching the movie on the big screen or TV.)
In another test, I watched a 3D version of a James Cameron documentary on deep sea exploration. Like most other testers, I jumped back when a giant squid unexpectedly lurched into the picture in one scene. Shifting my seat so I was facing a window (rather than sitting parallel to the window) evened out light and improved picture quality.
Five minutes later, I removed the PCS, and I was a little disoriented, but not dizzy. I didn't have any pain in my nose, either. A first version of the visor, at about 5 ounces, put too much weight on the bridge of the nose. The company subsequently redesigned the unit with industrial design firm Ideo. The weight now rests on the viewer's forehead and the back of the neck.
The two eyepieces can also be brought together or moved apart to enhance the viewing experience ( see CNET video here). To date, most wearable monitors have consisted of single eyepieces and are mostly used as prototypes or medical devices.
"It will handle 95 percent of the world's head geometries," Puryear said.
The screen currently sports a resolution of 800x600 pixels, but Headplay is working on a high-definition version. The company is also collaborating with Nvidia for improving the gaming experience.
The small monitor that fits under the brim is, electronically speaking, similar to a standard digital TV monitor. Data gets converted to visual images, which are then projected by a liquid crystal on silicon, or LCOS chip, a complex mirror controlled by a processor. Headplay gets its LCOS chips from Syntax-Brillian, which employs the same chips in its large living room televisions. (Some Japanese companies also make LCOS-based TVs, but use their own chips.)
Rather than blow up the images so they fill a 52-inch or 72-inch screen, however, the Headplay system bounces the images off of nine different mirrors inside the unit to size them for the eyepieces.
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