The Goggles, They Do Something
I'm a sucker for cyberpunk. It probably has to do with all those Shadowrun sessions when I was a kid, but even the worst cyberpunk movies and books can grab my interest. Although my friends shake their heads at the cheesy acting and special effects in movies like Johnny Mnemonic, I still love the concept of total immersion into your computer and virtual reality that you see in classic cyberpunk. With all of this in mind, it shouldn't surprise you that I've been keeping close watch on the current state of the art with consumer video goggles. Even though I'm not quite ready to become a Snow Crash-esque gargoyle just yet, I still jumped at the chance to review the Vuzix VR920 video goggles (vuzix.com, $399.95).
I've been following the Vuzix company's product line for a number of years—before they even were called Vuzix—and it's been interesting to watch the product line progress. At the moment, Vuzix has a few different consumer-grade video goggles: lower-res glasses aimed at portable video devices like the iPod, and the VR920 that it aims at the computer gaming market. All of the goggles include built-in headphones, and each model has different audio and video inputs. The AV920 and VR920 feature the higher-res 640x480 screens, but the AV920 still is designed to connect to video devices, such as portable DVD players, and includes a rechargeable battery and standard DVD player video inputs. If you want to connect goggles to a computer, you'll definitely want to go with the VR920, as it not only comes with a VGA connector, but it also can be powered from USB.
VR920 specifications (from the product page):
Twin high-resolution 640x480 (920,000 pixels) LCD displays.
Equivalent to a 62" screen viewed at nine feet.
24-bit true color (16 million colors).
Visor weighs 3.2 ounces.
60Hz progressive scan display update rates.
Fully iWear 3-D-compliant and supports NVIDIA stereo drivers.
Built-in noise-canceling microphone for Internet VoIP communications.
Built-in three-degree-of-freedom head-tracker.
USB connectivity for power, tracking and full duplex audio.
Analog VGA monitor input.
Support for up to 1024x768 VGA video formats.
The VR920 definitely is aimed at the gaming market and has some pretty interesting features, such as an accelerometer that under Windows can be used (along with compatible games) to track your head movement, so when you turn your head left, for instance, your character's head turns left. The VR920 is powered by your USB port, and the USB connection also is used, so sound can be sent to the included earbuds. You also can take advantage of the NVIDIA stereo drivers under Windows to display different images for each eye and get a 3-D-like experience. Unfortunately, even though you can find a few homegrown projects to get basic accelerometer support and stereo video working under Linux, as of yet, I wouldn't call it fully functional, so in this review, I focus on what it would be like for average users to use the VR920 with their Linux desktops.
Before I go into how to set up the hardware in Linux, I first should get something out of the way. You see, the primary thing that has made the video goggle market grow so slowly in my mind isn't so much the lower resolutions on the screens or the price, as much as the fact that you still look a little bit dorky wearing any of the major vendors' goggles. I mean, we are all geeks here, so we are used to looking a little bit dorky anyway. Plus, many people would think it's a bonus to look like a character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but still, the look is not exactly for everyone. The next revision of goggles apparently is going to address this issue somewhat, as they appear to look more like large sunglasses. Figure 1 shows a picture of me wearing the goggles, so you can see what they look like. It's definitely a fashion statement. I know some people will have no qualms walking around their daily lives with these on, but others will use them only in the privacy of their own homes.
Also, if you can't tell from the picture, these goggles don't completely obstruct your vision. You can arrange them so that they sit a bit higher on your nose, and if you lean back a bit, you can look up and see through the goggles and look down to see your computer screen. This means you still can use your regular display if you want and extend the desktop to the goggles.
So, I wasn't surprised that I looked a little dorky with the goggles on, and to be honest, I didn't care that much. What surprised me though was how uncomfortable the nose bridge was out of the box. I think one of the most important things you can do up front is adjust the nose of the goggles so it's comfortable. The goggles don't feel very heavy, but after a full movie, you will start to feel fatigue on your nose, especially if the bridge is pinching too much. Once I had everything adjusted, it was pretty comfortable, but I still wouldn't expect to wear them all day.
I also had a rather pleasant surprise with respect to eye fatigue, or the relative lack of it. After all, you have these screens very close to your eyes, so I figured my eyes would be focused very closely when I used them. It turns out that the way they have engineered the optics, they are telling the truth when they say it appears like a 62" screen viewed at nine feet. If you connected your computer output to a large LCD TV mounted on your wall and looked at it from your couch, it would look a lot like a desktop through the VR920. To be honest, the effect is so complete, I found myself squinting not because the image was too close, but because it appeared too far away! You see, I'm nearsighted, but it's mild enough that it doesn't affect my daily life in front of a computer. I wear my glasses only when I'm driving at night, at a presentation or when I'm watching a movie with subtitles. The downside for me is that it's a bit tricky to wear glasses and the goggles at the same time, but of course, if you use contact lenses, it wouldn't be a problem.
Kyle Rankin is VP of engineering operations at Final, Inc., the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin
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