In the late 1980s (as I recall) came the hype of Virtual Reality (VR). For $5-$10 at just about any major arcade or shopping mall, you could experience five minutes of virtual bliss. Just step onto a circular platform, put on some weird gloves and clunky goggles, and voila!, you were in a half-finished world with no realism whatsoever. I never had the $5, so I just stood and watched the television screen as other suckers squandered their money.
VR never really took off with mainstream consumers, even as gamers and tech junkies dreamed of immersing themselves into a virtual world. This was probably due to prohibitive costs and a lack of games with a real environment. Then 1992 arrived, and Lawnmower Man showed us that a not-so-bright gardener with genius tendencies could easily become a psychotic killer in a virtual world. Fears of this happening in real life are likely what really killed the VR movement, but either way — fear or lack of funds — the VR movement stalled until just a few years ago. The most recent entrant in the VR scene is Vuzix, which recently released its iWear VR920.
Vuzix seeks to provide virtual reality eyewear at a consumer level price. Its latest attempt, iWear VR920, is a lightweight video eyewear piece that includes integrated ear buds and microphone to provide an all-encompassing gaming headset. Worn like eyeglasses, the VR920 contains twin high-resolution 640×480 LCD displays with VGA support up to 1024×768, which is billed to be the same as viewing a 62-inch virtual screen from nine feet away. The headset also includes “head-tracking” software with full 360-degree yaw, pitch and roll angles. This head-tracking is what enables users to “look around” within the game environment by simply moving their head. After opening the box and reading all of this, even I was excited to get these hooked up for Flight Simulator X. Then I actually put the iWear VR920 on my head.
I should preface by saying I am a big guy: 6′ 7″, size 16 shoes, and 38-inseam pants. I am accustomed to things in this world not being made for me. I know I will never get to drive that ’65 Shelby Cobra, because my knees would prevent me from steering properly. I know I have to duck under certain ceiling fans, and flying an F-16 is out of the question. However, I have never had any problem with anything fitting my head. Every pair of sunglasses I have ever worn were right off the same shelf as everyone else. But based on the Vuzix research, my head is larger than normal.
The first test-fit immediately revealed the integrated ear buds are about half an inch in front of my ear. Right away, this VR experience is starting to annoy. Technically the nosepiece is adjustable, which should fix the problem, but “adjustable” really means you can do one of three things: leave it be, remove it or flip it upside down. After attempting each option, I discovered that removal, while not the most comfortable, at least brings the ear buds close enough to have sound by my ear (but not actually “in” it). Strike one: lack of adjustability for the ear buds to actually fit in one’s ear. At least the ear buds are removable — as well they should be, because they probably won’t fit anyway.
At least we still have video to look forward to. That’s the whole point anyway, right? Once on the eyewear piece is on your head, your eyes merge the two screens into one virtual screen. However, after completing the initial setup, the top portion of the screen is cut off because of how the glasses sit on my head. In essence, playing a game like this would be like playing a game with something hang down over the top third of your monitor.
The AccuTilt function would seemingly help this, but it doesn’t. The front of the visor is adjustable up and down, so manually adjusting the glasses to peer down actually reveals the full screen. However, when I let go of the glasses, the iWear pops right back to the bad position, as the AccuTilt has no way to hold the tilt in place. Unless you hold the iWear in place with a free hand — which is hard to do if you’re actually interested in playing the ten or so games the iWear supports — the Accutilt is useless.
Wanting desperately for these things to work, I came up with another solution: Instead of the earpieces resting on my ears as all glasses do, I placed them about an inch above where they would normally rest, leaving them pointed at a down angle on my face. Now I am beyond tech geek, have far surpassed the realm of dorks and am venturing into desperate nerd space, only to realize that to truly hold the VR920 in place, I need to add the included head strap to keep them tight on my head. I am now in full uberdork mode, enduring the laughter of even my wife. Strike Two: Uberdorkdom is required to even begin to have a functional fit.
It’s worth noting here that Vuzix’s own FAQ for this headset states you can wear glasses with the VR920 due to “the adjustable nature of the eyewear.” In the above scenario I used contacts. Adding glasses to the mix simply made it worse. I tried.
So, with no good audio experience and uberdorkdom acquired, I trudged on in my quest of Virtual Reality immersion, only to be further discouraged. One of my pet peeves, and likely one of yours, is when I have to mess with my desktop and resolution settings to play a game. In this case, the iWear VR920 only supports 1024×768, 800×600 and 640×480. Because the eyewear acts as a monitor with a VGA connection (DVI adaptor included), you’ll be presented with a few likely scenarios: 1. Unplug your monitor every time you wish to use the iWear if you have a single connection card, 2. Use an AB switch (again if you have a single connection card), or 3. Plug the iWear into your dual outlet card.
We used the dual outlet option, which presented two additional choices: clone the monitors or simply extend the desktop. Vuzix suggests cloning, which means your card and monitor are now limited to 1024×768. This limitation is just not acceptable so I also tried the extended option and set the monitor and VR920 to different resolutions. This setup makes it a pain starting a game in the iView monitor. Neither really made a difference, though; both tests came out lousy.
Even with 800×600 resolution, which the VR920 tunes down to 640×480 anyway, the in-game play of Flight Simulator X is not what it needs to be. The biggest downside is the inability to read the gauges. The text on altimeters, airspeed indicators, accelerometers etc. is simply illegible through the iWear. Using the clone, I compared the monitor view with the iWear view, and the monitor won text clarity hands-down.
I did fly a number of planes, and the only legible gauges were on the AirCreation Ultralight, which has ultra large digital gauges. I do have to say the cool factor of the 360-degree head-tracking is high, but that is about it. Sitting at your desk and using your head to look around the game environment certainly provides a proof of concept for the VR movement, but all the shortcomings also prove it’s just not quite there. Even the proclaimed “62-inch screen as if viewed at nine feet” really seems more like “four-inch inch screen sitting on your face.”
The Vuzix iWear VR920 currently supports 10 titles, including World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike Source, F.E.A.R. and Quake Wars: Enemy Territory. It’s possible that these games might provide a different experience, but the iWear VR920 is certainly not practical for any of the supported flight simulators, in which gauges are your most important tools. This is one piece of equipment I really wanted to work so I could rave about it, but it fails to deliver in so many ways, from the poor fit and cut-off video to its hefty price ($400). My only advice to someone who might want to get them anyway? Make certain they fit your head before you fork out the money, and buy from a vendor with a good return policy, just in case.
- Score: 5
- We’ve been waiting since the 80s for virtual reality to live up to the hype. We’re still waiting.
— Durward Holt