In this article, we review the best Virtual Reality and video headsets of 2018.
As a concept, Virtual Reality has been around for years. But as a reality, it has only recently started to make inroads into the consumer markets. Once the stuff of science fiction, it first appeared in the real world as military technology for combat or specialized, hi-tech training. And much of it was enshrouded in secrecy.
But now it is starting to penetrate the high street - and in a big way!
Whether it’s just for viewing 3D movies, getting a bird’s eye view from a drone or playing ultra-realistic games, VR and video headsets are now available to buy. And the prices are within the reach of millions of consumers. So, what then are the options? And what are the differences between them?
The key difference to understand is between true Virtual Reality (VR) and personal 3D video headsets. Both create a virtual 3D view in front of the viewer’s eyes. But true VR is designed to create the illusion of an interactive world, whether for gaming or training. A full-blown VR headset will show the view panning sideways when you turn your head and panning up or down when you raise or lower your head. In short, it will have Head Tracking. That is what makes it virtual reality: it not only recreates the world, but also mimics your presence within that world. Just as in real life, with true VR, moving your head changes your view. And the best VR headsets have low-latency: in layman’s terms, this means they respond quickly, so that there is no noticeable time-lag between you turning your head and the view in the headset panning to match the movement.
In contrast, a video headset will show the same moving (or still) image whichever way you turn your head. Of course, the headset will show you a 3D stereoscopic video image - if the movie/video/TV-show has been shot in 3D and is being broadcast or otherwise transmitted in that format. But what you see will be independent of your head movement. This applies even if you are playing a video game. You might be able to control the direction of the view with a gaming handset or joystick. But the system will not track your head. If it did, it would be virtual reality!
Another difference is that true VR will seal you off completely from the outside world. Not only will the earphones cover your ears and insulate you from ambient sound, but your eyes will see only the virtual image. No light or real-world views should leak into your world via your peripheral vision. Some non-VR movie/video headsets do this too. But not all.
Both true VR and video headsets are different from augmented reality. Put simply, Augmented reality superimposes additional views and information over your view of the real world. This can be anything from virtual monsters attacking you in your own living room, to data overlays, like street names and house numbers appearing over side streets as you drive and try to navigate. It could even be name labels popping up next to people. (Those familiar with the US TV series Person of Interest or the British modern Sherlock Holmes, with Benedict Cumberbatch, will know what we’re talking about.)
In this review, we will be looking at the best true Virtual Reality headsets and some of the best video headsets that lack head tracking but can be used for gaming.
The Oculus Rift is the fruit of a Kickstarter campaign that generated both cash for a prototype and a great deal of publicity. In the end, the publicity proved to be a bigger asset than the cash, because that publicity was skillfully leveraged to make the Rift a hot topic, long before it came onto the market.
But what is the Oculus Rift? It’s basically a headset designed to let you truly immerse yourself in the video gaming experience. It can be used for other things like watching a 3D movie or exploring a place without being there. Imagine going on a walking tour of an active volcano without getting burnt alive! Or SCUBA diving - even if you can’t swim! You can also use if for remote meetings, if that’s your bag.
The key to it all is not just the 3D stereoscopic vision, but the head tracking system. It works by monitoring the position and orientation of the headset. This is done through a series of infra-red LEDs in the headset that are tracked by two sensors on small poles. These sensors (shaped a bit like a desktop microphone) are supposed to be placed at least two meters apart. The tracking system could, in fact, work with only one sensor. But because your hand or forearm might move between the sensor and the headset, in the normal course of play, they require two sensors. We should also point out that the sensor cables are only 2.5m, although you can of course buy extensions.
Setting up the sensors requires you to run the setup wizard. But this is a simple matter of following the instructions. This arrangement goes by the somewhat pretentious name of the “Constellation Tracking System”. That said, it is quite a sophisticated system, so maybe it is worthy of such a grand name.
In the early, development version of the Oculus Rift, this system suffered from the major drawback that you couldn’t turn your back on the sensor. This was because the LEDs were only on the front of the headset and would therefore not be in the sensor’s line-of-sight when you turned one-eighty! However, this design flaw was remedied for the consumer version. There are now LEDs on the back as well as the front of the headset, so the sensor can tell which way your head is turned.
In addition to the IR transmitters and sensor, the Rift incorporates some technology that was initially developed elsewhere. The "Adjacent Reality Tracker" (developed by a former Apple software engineer) uses a gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer to give the system an accurate picture of the orientation and movement of the headset. It originally sampled the position at 250 Hz. But Oculus engineers have pushed this to 1000 Hz, giving it a latency of one millisecond.
The combined power of the IR Constellation Tracking and the Adjacent Reality Tracker is quite awesome. It is this built-in redundancy that enables the system to change what you “see” according to which way you are looking or going.
Like the Avegant Glyph, when you first get your Oculus Rift, you must set it up to suit you. The headset has a dial that enables you to adjust the lenses to match your face - and more specifically, the distance between your eyes. This is important, because the Rift can be worn with glasses. Once it’s all up and running, you can indulge yourself. Whether it’s shooting the bad guys, flying an airplane or driving like a maniac.
To get the most out of the Oculus Rift, you’ll need 3 free USB3 ports on your computer. If necessary you can get a 4 port USB3 card that plugs into the PCI-E interface.
One of the strengths of the Oculus is its ergonomic design. (We are talking only about the physical feel here: the look is actually rather kludgy in our opinion.) When worn, it is well-balanced for comfort. Compared to others it is no strain to wear, not even for long periods. It has only a single cable running off it (to the left), so you don’t really feel it. The cable splits into four at the end, but by then it is well away from your face.
An Oculus Rift in its case
The earphones are integrated into the arm bands on very convenient hinges. This avoids having additional leads and cables floating around your face.
You can wear glasses with the Oculus Rift. However, we have to qualify that by saying that this applies only if the frames are smallish, otherwise they may rub against the fresnel lenses and scratch them. On the other hand, the variable fresnel lenses may in fact remove the need for glasses depending on the strength of your prescription.
In visual terms, the Oculus Rift is impressive, producing images that are sharp and clear. This is due to the combination of the fresnel lenses, the high refresh rate and the low-persistence of the AMOLED displays. All this - together with the wide 110° field of vision - adds up to give you a great sense of “presence” in the virtual world you are seeing.
The audio enhances this sense of realism. It uses some clever “surround sound” technological enhancements to make the sound seem as if it is coming from where it should be coming. Although the headphones are integrated, they are also removable so you can use them separately. It also has a high-quality built-in microphone.
One thing it does not have, unfortunately is a front camera which could have been used for additional functionality - e.g. switching over to it, to see the room, without having to take off the headset. But with an overall strong spec, and a similar price to the other strong contenders, the Oculus Rift is a useful and fun piece of kit, and it’s the leader of the pack for a reason.
OUR VERDICT: The best VR headset in the mid-price range in the market.
The HTC Vive is the Godzilla of the Virtual Reality world - or perhaps I should say the Dragon, as HTC is a Taiwanese company.
The HTC Vive is a VR headset with head tracking that creates the most realistic virtual reality experience you could imagine. With intuitive controls, state-of-the-art head and controller tracking and an incredible collection of games, the Vive is the VR set to own if you can afford it. If is the operative word here. For the HTC Vive is not only expensive, it also requires a powerful computer spec to run. An Intel Core i5-4950K and an Nvidia GTX 970 should do nicely. If you’re part of the AMD family, then an AMD R9 390 also packs enough power.
But another thing you’ll need, to get the most of this system, is plenty of room. You may not quite have a USS Enterprise size Holodeck in your living room. So, you may have to move some furniture to create enough room to take advantage of what the HTC Vive has to offer.
The Vive creates a virtual experience with two high resolution eye screens and tracks the user’s head with 32 sensors mounted in the headset and a further 24 on each of the two controllers. These sensors pick up the light from the two base stations or “satellite lighthouses” that you must set up in the corners of the room, preferably above 6ft. This is the opposite to the Oculus Rift. Whereas the Oculus Rift send out light from their LEDs to the mounted sensors, the Vive Lighthouses send light to sensors inside the headset.
This setup gives the Vive incredible tracking accuracy and allows you great freedom of movement in playing interactive games in the virtual world that the headset creates for you. It is this freedom of movement that puts the pricier HTC Vive ahead of the competition. In fact, 2m square of free space is the absolute minimum you would need in order to use it. You could in fact set up the detectors 5m meters apart. But remember that the two detectors effectively form the opposite corners of the play area.
When your first get your Vive, you’ll need to set it up for your personal use. This involves choosing the right foam insert and nose pad for the size and shape of your face. (Note: the Vive can be worn with most glasses.) Once you’ve configured the headset for your face, you’ll need to run the setup wizard. This enables you to test the position of your sensors and map out the room. We found it very straightforward, but depending on your skill and dexterity, you might find it either easy or tricky.
The important thing is that once you’ve got it right, you should stick to your guns (excuse the pun) and not move the sensors any more. The makers have very thoughtfully provided screws, to fix the sensors permanently to the wall. Alternatively, they can be fixed to high shelves with clips.
The base stations themselves connect wirelessly and don’t need a data cable. They do, of course, have to be plugged into a power source.
Physically, the Vive is not all that comfortable. The makers have clearly made some effort with the design and the headstrap. But somehow that effort seems to fall short of the competition. Aside from the slight feeling of suffocation, one can feel the “pull” of the data cable behind the head when moving around. This does tend to make one feel self-conscious when otherwise immersed in the virtual reality world. It is almost like an anchor pulling one back into the real world, to coin a metaphor.
But on the positive side, there are some excellent features such as the haptic feedback that adds an extra layer of feeling on top of the visual (and audio) experience.
As for the video, it is - dare I say it? - a sight for sore eyes. After you’ve adjusted the image quality to suit your vision, you can enjoy a superlative 3D VR experience provided by the two 1080 x 1200 screens. The screens have a 90Hz refresh rate and provide a 110° field of view. This gives you astonishing clarity and no “tail” effect even when the action is moving fast and the image changing rapidly before your eyes. And the extremely sensitive tracking means that the Vive reacts rapidly to changes in your own position or movements of your head or for that matter actions on the controllers. Thus, while you are immersed in your virtual world, the system responds and updates at a pace that seems to mimic the real world.
But what about safety? Is there not a danger that when you are immersed in the imaginary world of virtual reality, you might stray outside the safety zone in the real one? After all, nothing could be worse than banging your knee on the coffee table while chasing after the zombie that disrespected your family! Well, it turns out the makers of the Vive have thought of this too. They have created something called “chaperone mode” that shows you a blue grid when you are getting close to the boundaries of your safe play area. That was why it was so important to go through the setup and then not move the sensors. Because if you move the sensors after completing the setup, it will mislead the system - and thus you - as to where the boundaries of the safe area are!
Perhaps the Vive’s strongest advantage is the front camera. This enables you to see what’s outside the headset, when you need to, without having to take off the headset. And in the future, it could no doubt be used to create augmented reality games.
The audio quality was once the Vive’s weakness, as the device lacked built in headphones. They now will be offering an optional audio strap. We do not yet know how good is the sound quality of the strap. But it does come at extra cost: an additional £99. We think that such a good VR headset should come with high quality audio as standard. But maybe the audio headstrap will be implemented as standard in new models. Time will tell.
Obviously, price will be a big issue for many potential customers. The king of VR headsets it may be, but the HTC Vive carries a king’s ransom as the price on its head. Many would-be customers might be more inclined to dream about it than to buy it.
OUR VERDICT: A great VR headset for those who love video games. If you are one of these - and can afford it - then buy it.
Sony PlayStation VR
Sony PlayStation VR
The Playstation VR is one of the more futuristic-looking VR headsets, resembling something out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is designed to work with the Sony Playstation 4. If you have the PS4, think of this as a powerful peripheral or addition. Unlike the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, it uses only a single camera to track your head movement and it tracks only nine points on the headset - seven on the front and two on the back. That’s pretty minimalistic compared to the competition.
It can also track the lights on your controllers to track your gaming actions - whether it be the simpler Move “wand” like controller, first introduced for the PS3 or the more sophisticated DualShock 4 controller. But again, these peripherals were not designed for use with the PSVR. In practice, this means that Sony doesn’t plaster either of these controllers with lights like the Vive. (NOTE: Neither of these controllers comes as standard with the PSVR. The DualShock ships with the PS4. But some games require the Move and you would have to buy them separately.)
Despite this, the PlayStation VR achieves a creditable level of tracking accuracy as long as you stay within the small area that the camera is actually able to track. That area is about 2m x 3m. This is fine if you are sitting down - or even standing up as you might before a television or video screen. However as soon as you start moving around, the camera finds it very easy to lose track of you. Even changing between sitting and standing can confuse the camera and seriously interrupt your gaming experience.
In terms of appearance, the combination of black and white, distinguishes this headset from the models in solid black or grey. It’s that combination that gives it the 2001: A Space Odyssey quality that we referred to earlier.
And the PlayStation VR is certainly comfortable to wear. Unlike some of its competitors, the VR doesn’t have a strap that goes over the head. Instead, a single strap going around the head, with rubber padding at the back, comfortably gripping your head, without making you feel like you’re in a torture chamber. Indeed, it puts less pressure on your forehead and the bridge of the nose than those headsets that have an overhead strap to take the weight.
You can also adjust the visor forward and backwards. Then there is a rubber flap around the visor to help keep out ambient light. However, this design is not completely successful at isolating the user from the outside world. The “weak” point is the area around the nose. And this is even if you’re not wearing glasses. If you are - and Sony claim that you can with this headset - the effect is even worse.
Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do about this and it was a real problem, as we couldn’t get a feeling of true isolation while using the device. Until Sony moves away from what amounts to a one-size-fits-all model and starts throwing in a choice of nose and facial inserts, the problem is likely to persist.
Another, equally serious drawback is that the PlayStation VR is not wireless. Instead it has a lead that connects to a separate Processor Unit for the VR. The Processor Unit in turn connects to the PlayStation. It is the Processor Unit that contains both and on/off switch and a volume control for the system’s sound.
Turning to the visuals, the PSVR has a single 5.7 inch OLED display with a resolution of 1920 x 1080 (960 x 1080 per eye) refreshing at either 90 Hz or 120 Hz. This resolution can handle 1080p games, but falls short of the Vive or Rift, both of which have one screen for each eye - each offering a 2160 x 1200 resolution. For this product, Sony claims that the latency is about 18 milliseconds, which is good enough to avoid noticeable time-lag. The use of one screen to deliver images to both eyes, however, limits the field of view somewhat. The VR has a 100° field of vision, compared to 110° for both HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift.
Having said that, the images are crisp and sharp - although by no means out of this world.
It has to be said, also, that head tracking with the PlayStation VR fell short of its two major competitors. This was not a case of losing by a country mile. More like coming in third by a nose or a short head, to borrow a horse-racing term. This might be due to the fact that it is a one camera system, tracking a smaller number of sensors. But it was the accuracy and precision of the tracking that fell short, not the speed or latency. More noticeable, maybe, was the fact that at times the PSVR lost track of the controllers altogether.
One good point is that the VR also supports the even more powerful PS4 Pro, which should have around 45 games by the end of the year. The main advantage of the Pro is in its visual detail, but this only comes into play if the game developer has enabled Pro Mode to let the Pro “know” to make the extra computational power available. However, even when the game has Pro Mode activated, the results are barely noticeable - especially when you’re absorbed in the action of the game itself. The other side of the coin is that you’re not losing anything by sticking with the standard PS4.
As with the Vive in its earlier incarnations, audio is a bit of an orphan child with the PlayStation VR. The system comes with a pair of cheap earbuds, like many mobile phones. But this is a sort “just to get you started” solution. No one really wants to use such a cheap solution when they’re trying to immerse themselves in the alternative reality of a VR video game. The good news is that the Processor Unit also has an input jack into which you can connect any headphones - including high end ones costing more than the VR itself!
The price of the PSVR is favorable compared to the HTC Vive or even the Oculus Rift. But there’s a catch - or rather several. First of all, you obviously need the PS4 itself. You may already have one, but if you’re doing a proper price comparison then that’s one of the things you’ll have to factor in. Secondly, you’ll need the PlayStation Camera. That too does not come with the PSVR. Neither do the Move controllers that some games require.
Sony sells one million VR headsets Sony PlayStation VR
However, if you already own these peripherals, as well as a PS4, then that certainly tips the scales in favor of the PSVR over its more expensive rivals - though not decisively so. Also, if space is at a premium, then this product has certain advantages. Conversely if you have more space than 2m x 3m - and want to make use of it for your gaming experience - then this is not the product for you.
It is also important to note that one of the great strengths of this product is the “stable” from which it comes. Sony is a major games developer, so they are in pole position when it comes to actually churning out the games that exploit this product to the full. Sony came up with some new titles for the PlayStation VR in 2017, making 2018 a great year to buy the product, if you don't have it already. Whether high speed chases are your bag or monsters or aviation, Sony has something for you in the games department.
Having said that, many of the current crop of games made little or no effort at achieving a realistic look. But this doesn’t reflect badly on the PlayStation VR itself. It is inevitable that in due course, the games will catch up with the hardware. But this hardware will also have to improve to catch up with the competition.
Another thing about the Processor Unit that we mentioned earlier is that is also provides another feature called Social Screen TV. This shows a 2D version of the player’s field of vision on a TV screen attached to the unit. This means that your friends can not only watch you play, but also watch what you’re seeing. So, when you shoot, they’ll see what you’re shooting at. When you bank sharply to turn the aircraft, your friends will not only see your frantic efforts, but also the mountain that you were about to crash into.
The Processor Unit also provides for cinematic mode, which allows you to watch movies and video in 2D, inside the unit - still in 2D, but like having a private cinema (see the Avegant Glyph above). It will also let you watch 3D Blu-ray discs.
OUR VERDICT: A good VR product for those who are already part of the PlayStation ecosystem, or those for whom space is limited.
Like the Avegant Glyph, the Vuzix iWear is a 3D video viewing device that can also be used for gaming. It does not have external positional tracking. That would seem to mark this device out as a video viewer rather than a true VR device. In that capacity, it is in fact probably one of the more senior members of that tribe.
However, that is not the whole story. We must qualify the lack of external positional tracking by pointing out that it does have internal head tracking in the form of a 3-axis gyro, 3-axis accelerometer and 3-axis magnetic sensor. This is similar to the Adjacent Reality Tracker that the Oculus Rift uses to supplement its Constellation Tracking System. And we found this internal head-tracking to work very well.
The iWear was developed by a company that has worked for the military, so these guys know their stuff. And the fact that 30% of the stock was acquired by Intel shows that the big boys believe in their work - of which the iWear is just one small part.
The iWear is a light product - not to mention compared to the Vive and Rift! But it is not as light, we hasten to add, as the Avegant Glyph. It has large built-in headphones, but their size does not seem to undermine the general (comparative) lightness of the product. The head support seems to most closely resemble the PlayStation VR. In general, the whole look is quite stylish.
Like the Avegant Glyph, this headset is not totally immersive. There is a certain amount of light leakage. Not as much as with the minimalistic size of the Glyph, but it is still noticeable. However, the main thing that stands out on this device is the ease with which settings can be controlled directly from the headset itself. The setup process is very straightforward. This of course is true, in some degree, of all the video viewer devices, as opposed to their VR cousins.
Sadly, in terms of video, the iWear is a bit disappointing. The display only has a 55o field of view - half that of the Avegant Glyph, although the resolution is 720p, equaling the Glyph (at the purely statistical level). The color contrast also, isn’t all that sharp and we couldn’t get the balance just right. The image still looks good: just not state-of-the-art.
The audio was considerably better than the image, utilizing noise-cancelling earphones. It would almost seem churlish to complain about the barely audible buzz when no sound is being produced. But this is probably due to the noise cancelling technology. With no buzz when sound is being generated and clear sound across all the ranges, we were more than happy with the audio.
The battery was claimed to last 2 to 3 hours for watching video or playing games. We can confirm this, although obviously that’s a broad window and a comparatively short time for someone who’s into gaming or watching a series. But the device can run while hooked up to an external power source. It can also be used for pure audio, lasting three to four times as long. Again, it varies.
One good thing about the iWear is that because it relies solely on internal sensors to track the head movement, you can hook it up to a portable device and play games while you’re in transit. Whether your fellow passengers of that cramped aircraft will appreciate such activity is, of course, another matter!
The problem with the iWear as a gaming platform - or as movie viewer for that matter - is that the field of vision can’t match the competition. At 55o it’s just too little. It’s still 3D, but 3D on a virtual screen falling short of a truly immersive experience.
However, we’re not putting the iWear down by any means. It is still a commendable personal movie theater. And it has less light leakage than the Avegant Glyph. On a plane or train (or even as a passenger in a private car, if you want to be anti-social) the iWear allows you to watch a movie while the road or rails or sky go by. And if you live in a household where the choice of TV program is a source of strife, the iWear is the perfect solution. If you can afford one for each person, then arguments about what to watch and how loud to set the volume could become a thing of the past.
As a games platform, it can’t match the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. But having said that, the price is now low enough for it to qualify as a low-end competitor. Based on the pedigree of the developers we expect more and better in the future.
OUR VERDICT: Good for the price
Osmose Virtual Reality Headset
Osmose Virtual Reality Headset
The Osmose is a less well-known player on the VR circuit. Not being up there with the big boys, in terms of market capitalization, can make one feel like a minnow swimming with the sharks. But the Osmose does a creditable job at competing.
Using a single 5.5 inch screen with 2560 x 1440 resolution, focused by two 38mm, anti-UV, anti-glare PMMA lenses, it gives the user a clear, sharp picture. Like the Vuzix iWear, it uses internal technology (gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer) to track the headset. Offering the usual array of USB and HDMI connectivity, it runs on a 1.8 GHz processor and has a powerful Mali-T764 graphics processor and 2GB of DDR3 RAM. So, a strong spec behind it, delivering a solid, lag-free viewer experience. It also has a facial proximity sensor.
On the comfort side, we could wear it for a few hours without it feeling heavy. But to look at, it suffers from the same drawbacks as many other VR headsets - including the Oculus Rift. And that drawback is the kludgy design aesthetic.
Osmose Virtual Reality Headset
As a new, and lower-priced, competitor in the field, the Osmose clearly has a market. But it is a crowded market in which operate, and one dominated by a few big names. Osmose is based in Hong Kong, but do their manufacturing in the neighboring Shenzhen, the big city in China’s Guangdong Province. This is essentially the manufacturing capital of the world, so they are at least well-placed to take on the world.
They are being careful not to take on the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive in a David and Goliath contest, but rather to focus on their core strength of making a product that is not tied to external sensors. They do not have the resources to develop primary new technology, so they focus instead on getting the maximum value out of the existing technology, whilst poised to take advantage of any new developments that come along. Judging by the product, it looks like a sound strategy.
OUR VERDICT: A serious contender in the low-price end of the spectrum. If you’re looking to buy a less pricey VR headset, this is the one to go for. And if you’re a market observer, this is a company to watch.
Stoga Tfad VGR004
Just as the Osmose VR is a small competitor in a big field of VR headsets, the Stoga Tfad fills a similar vacancy in the video viewer market. Alas, we cannot sing its praises, even in that limited area.
From a purely aesthetic point of view, Stoga Tfad has an appealing futuristic look. And the manufacturers have thoughtfully provided nice display box which means they are conscious of the need to start off on the right foot. However, once we went from the presentation to the performance, our expectations were somewhat flustered.
But let’s back up a little. The box contains a standard USB-micro-USB cable, just like most mobile phones, another USB cable (solely for charging), a USB adapter and UK plug as well as the glasses themselves and a rubber eyepiece.
The glasses themselves have a kind of Star Trek Next Generation appearance. On the whole, it looked pretty sturdy for its small size. However, the earpieces that hang down from the sides could be the first point of failure.
The Tfad has 4GB of flash memory built in. To utilize it - and effectively use the headset - you just plug it into a computer via the USB and drag-and-drop the relevant video, audio or other files. You can also load files via a micro SD (up to 32 GB) which can be used both as a file transfer mechanism and a means of expanding the memory.
The Tfad can handle video in Real Media (RM/FLV) format, as well as AVI and the ubiquitous MPEG. However, it can only play low-resolution video, below 432 x 240. This is a really old format by modern standards. Worse still, it cannot convert higher resolution formats to something it will play. You would have to convert them yourself and then play them. And to compound the problem, the display is in 4:3 format. It’s like you’re looking at an old-fashioned television screen. The fact that you have it in front of your eyes doesn’t really help. You still feel as if you’re far away from the screen, looking at a late twentieth century TV, albeit in an otherwise dark, cinema like environment.
In the audio department, it is somewhat better. It plays MP3, WAV, FLAC and APE formats. The sound quality, it has to be said, is good - far out-pacing the video quality.
It can also display photos in JPEG, BMP and GIF formats It can even display the written word in the txt format. But it cannot handle ePub, mobi, pdf, azw (Amazon Kindle). So for reading books, it is not really practical. Also, the resolution is so low one wouldn’t really want to try using this as an eBook reader.
Aside from the sound and the external aesthetics, the most praiseworthy feature of this device is the ease with which you can get started. Just take it out of the box, fit the rubber eyepiece put the glasses on and switch on to start. You can control everything with the various navigation buttons.
That said, it’s hard to see who would use this product. It seems very much like yesterday’s technology. There are better products out there and although the price is low, it is hard to see why anyone would prefer this to sliding a smart phone into a plastic VR box.
OUR VERDICT: A novelty item, maybe a harmless distraction for bored kids
This is a high-end video viewing headset with multiple uses. Not only can you use it for watching movies and videos, but also for playing games. You can even connect up a drone camera with a live feed and have a fantastic 3D bird’s-eye view.
But the main use of the Avegant Glyph is as a personal 3D theater and to a lesser extent a gaming platform. It has a mini-HDMI input and connects to any device with an HDMI output. For some additional connectivity, it is possible to buy an adapter separately. It does not, however, have head tracking. For that reason, we classify it as a video headset rather than a VR headset.
But there is one major difference between the Glyph and its rivals both in video viewing and VR. Most video and VR headsets use either Liquid Crystals or Organic Light-Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) in the display. The Avegant Glyph also uses LEDs, but it uses them to project light onto over two million micro-mirrors that then reflect the light onto the retina of the viewer. The result is an image that is remarkably clear, even though its resolution is only 720p rather than the 1080p of most of their competitors. It actually beats the competition, proving that raw resolution stats are not the only thing that matters!
When the Glyph arrives (in a stylish case) you have to set it up for first use. And this is no mean feat. In addition to removing the magnetic lens protectors, you must also take off the sticker over the nose support. This seems to have been put there to remind people in case they are inclined to disregard manufacturer’s instructions in their enthusiasm and haste!
The nose support itself isn’t actually in place yet. Instead, Apart, from the sticker, there is a “blanking plate” that also has to be removed. Then you choose one of four nose supports (depending on your nose size) and insert it. This sets up the device at the physical level for you to wear. But you’re not quite home yet.
Now you have to switch on the device (switch located behind the left ear) and calibrate it visually. Because the Avegant Glyph is meant to be work without glasses, you need to set up each of the eye turrets so that the image is in focus for your eyes. This might seem like a major inconvenience, but you only have to do it once - unless other people are going to be wearing your Glyph. This is unlikely, as once you’ve tried it, you probably won’t want anyone else to get their hands on it!
Setting up the optical alignment means not just the physical position of the eye turrets but also the focus. (Unless you wear very strong prescription eyeglasses, the focus settings should be within the range of your vision.) When you switch on, the first thing you see is an incredibly sharp alignment image. Because of the depth and sharpness of the image, it can take time to get the settings just right. But once you’ve done that and set it up for future usage, you’ll be amazed at the results.
As mentioned above, the Glyph connects via HDMI. In the case of the iPhone it can be connected via a Lightning-to-HDMI connector. One drawback to the Glyph is that it doesn’t have Bluetooth, WiFI or any other kind of wireless connectivity for video. This may change for future editions. However, it’s important to remember that it’s a personal device and if you connect it to a mobile phone in your pocket, the lack of wireless is at worst only a minor inconvenience. Also, there is Bluetooth for the audio when using the Glyph as an audio headset. But setting it up was tricky.
The manufacturers claim the battery lasts up to four hours, but that “up to” is important. It varies according to usage. In our experience, it was about three hours and a bit, give or take. But we were putting the device through its paces. It may be that, in normal usage, the four hours is realistic. In any case, you can use the Glyph while it is charging or even run it directly through the charger, which uses a USB connection.
On the pure comfort level, the Glyph does better as a video headset than an audio one. When you change the angle that it sits at, so that the band with the lenses is over your head, you actually feel the lens covers on your skull. You can push them in, as they are recessed, but you still feel their presence. That said, however, the sound quality is amazing. Clear and sharp, we could almost recommend this as a high-end audio headset, but for that small problem with the physical comfort. The earphones are also extremely good at cutting out ambient sound.
However, it is as a video system that the Glyph really comes into its own. It’s like watching a home cinema or a widescreen 3D TV only a few feet away. But it’s a very sharp and bright screen! And on the subject of brightness, there are in fact three discrete brightness settings. But even the lowest of these is bright enough. In fact, when you take off the Glyph, it takes a few seconds to half a minute for your eyes to adjust to the normal light in the room. The 720p resolution might sound like it’s going to be a handicap in today’s 1080p or even 4K world. But in fact, it doesn’t put the device at a disadvantage compared to the higher spec competition. We were mightily impressed by the quality of the image.
Unfortunately, you are not completely cocooned in your own world when you are using the Glyph. You can still see out the top and bottom. Whether this is acceptable or not is a matter of preference. On an airplane, it can actually be an advantage. You can watch a movie in private but still drink your coffee or interact with a flight attendant walking by. It is also useful when you’re out in the park, flying a drone, when you need to look down at the controller. (This applies only to peripheral visuals, however. External sound is virtually impossible to hear, with the headset on.)
The price is in the same ball-park as the competition, but when you take the quality into account, it’s more than justified - despite the drawbacks we’ve noted.
OUR VERDICT: An excellent video headset, well worth the money.
DISCLOSURE: An Avegant Glyph was provided free for review purposes, but no conditions were attached