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Enter the Metaverse – Sony HMZ-T1 and Epson BT-100 Review

9 December 2011 One Comment

Japan is a land of myriad wonders. A technological smorgasbord. The great minds that brought us karaoke, MSG and Hayabusa also conjured up the laser disk, MD and Virtual Boy. The next frontier for Japan’s electronics community seems to be head-mounted displays. (I’m sure the product development team at Sony pitched it something like, “Virtual Boy wasn’t a conceptual failure, it was the implementation dummy!”) So, if you go down to your local Yodobashi Camera right now you can try out two nifty head displays.

The two offerings available to date are the Sony HMZ-T1 and Epson BT-100. Call me prejudiced or call me whacked out of my head for being in Japan too long, but I went in with the impression that the target audience for these gadgets would be men looking for “stress relief.” My goal was to test this hypothesis.

The first thing that catches your eye is the hefty price tag. 59,800 yen. Ouch.  For 59,800 yen you can get a 40 inch 3D Bravia LCD and still have enough change for a few bowls of ramen. Well, it’s still first-generation, let’s give it the benefit of the doubt.

The headset is very futuristic looking but a bit bulky. I try to put it on and something is wrong. The head strap in the back that keeps it on has been removed. It won’t stay on my head. Also, there’s no sound. What gives, Yodobashi? I call the nearest clerk over for some help. The head strap has purposely been removed and the sound muted, a concerned employee tells me, because if there was an earthquake it could be dangerous (his emphasis, not mine). Unprovoked, he firmly tells me a second time. “It could be dangerous. Sound has been turned off to avoid accidents.” (危険防止) He also makes a special effort to let me know it’s sold out until next month. Okay dude, whatever. Just let me try it out.

Sony HMZ-T1

The screen is a decent size and the 3D effect is clearer and more fluid than what I have experienced in movie theaters with 3D glasses or 3D TVs. I was a bit surprised it wasn’t as immersive as it looks in the marketing. My flowing mane didn’t start whipping out from the amazing rush of audio-visual ecstacy. Also, you can still see to your left and right with your peripheral vision. Light gets in (it’s no Thomas Bangalter helmet). The screen is big but comparable to sitting in the middle of a movie theater because it feels like there’s a distance between you and the screen.

The overall experience if definitely more like a theater than a TV. As for controlling the video, there are intuitive menu buttons on the frame of the unit (on the right side, which could make it a problem for lefties) and you can also use the PS3 controller or remote control for your video source (the HMZ-T1 can connect to devices with HDMI). My first impression was, “I don’t know what I would use this thing for.” The demo version was connected to a Playstation 3 and you could control the menu with the controller but there was no playable game–just a demo of Monster Hunter 3 and some film clips. Also, with no sound it’s hard to judge the overall feel of the thing. Actually, what I really wanted to check was whether it was all it is made out to be in terms of “stress relief” but you can’t really blame Yodobashi/Sony for not providing erotic video and tenga eggs at the demo booth.

Next, a few steps away you can visit the EPSON BT-100 booth and see another very different spin on the head-mounted display.

EPSON BT-100

This one is priced nearly the same as the Sony (currently 59,980 yen) but offers a very different viewing experience. First of all, you have the iPod-esque controller unit. The controls were pretty straight-forward.  The problem is the controller only has 1GB of internal memory so you are pretty much forced to use external memory (has micro USB and microSD slots).

So, how does it look and feel? The coolest thing about the BT-100 is that the glasses are like giant, electric blue-blockers with a screen superimposed on the area of space in front of you but transparent enough to let you see behind. This means you could theoretically walk around and do other things while wearing it. The fact that it has Android installed means you have access to the Internet (where there is wifi access). I don’t know how you’re supposed to type but just the fact that you could be walking through a busy station and interacting with RL people while simultaneously looking at a real-time feed of things happening in that location is getting pretty close to the idea of the metaverse.

Also, the BT-100 can’t be beat as a fashion accessory.

The BT-100 has some downsides though, as well. The screen is smaller–comparable to sitting in the very back row of a movie theater. The screen tilts when your head tilts, which is a little disorienting. The 3D effect is choppy and not as nice as the Sony. Also, the part of the screen near the edge is very fuzzy and hard to make out. The fact that the sample video EPSON provided was a 3D recording of a 2009 performance by Yon-sama also didn’t help matters.

So, will head-mounted displays catch on in Japan and elsewhere? Will they be just another flop like Virtual Boy or the mini disk? Are we getting close to the convergence of online and RL? Are Internet and game addicts going to be able to completely shut themselves off from the world and never unplug?

It’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

Are Real Doll owners going to be able to “relieve” their “stress” in even more realistic and creepy ways?

No doubt about it.

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