At this point, it’s clear there are a number of persistent issues holding virtual reality back from the world-changing potential many industry watchers saw just a few years ago. VR technology as a whole is still plagued by problems like relatively high costs, limited resolutions/field of view, awkward natural motion controls, and a general lack of “killer app” software.
But despite slow progress on many of the remaining problems with VR, one area of the technology hasn’t seen much significant progress: comfort and form factor. Nearly four years after the launch of the Oculus Rift, the market is still married to that unit’s same bulky, ski-goggle-style headset design, which blocks almost the entire top half of your face with a large display rectangle held in place via headstraps or over-the-skull supports.
At CES this week, Panasonic seems set to become the first company making a serious effort at progress on this important VR front. The company’s new virtual reality concept product isn’t a “headset” in the standard VR mold but instead “boasts a comfortable fit that makes users feel as if they were wearing eyeglasses.”
Does it work?
Details are pretty light on Panasonic’s “reference product,” but a press release says the eyeglasses sport micro OLED panels that eliminate the “screen door effect” at UHD resolution (usually 3840×2160, though it’s unclear if this covers one or both eyes). Those panels are also the first in the VR space to sport HDR colors, which could help make virtual worlds more vivid if they ever make it to an actual consumer product.
But those specifics are less important at this point than the “compact and lightweight body enabling the device to be worn in comfort without the need for a headband,” as Panasonic puts it. Panasonic credits a collaboration with 3M and Massachusetts-based Kopin Corporation for creating a new “optical module” that “allows the display of natural and distortion-free images in super single focus” despite the eyeglass-like shape.
Can these eyeglasses actually provide a passable VR experience in such a form factor? A hands-on report from The Verge mentions that the micro OLED panels create a smaller, squarer image that has a smaller viewing angle than existing VR headsets. The eyeglass-style arms that hold Panasonic’s device over the ears also had some trouble keeping the “front-heavy” design in place when the head was tilted forward, according to The Verge.
For the moment, though, we’re less concerned with these specific limitations than we are excited about the potential of this completely new design direction for VR devices as a whole. Remember, it was just over seven years ago that Oculus’ “state of the art” VR prototype was an 800×640 resolution (per eye) box held together with duct tape and held to your face with an elastic strap. If that prototype could lead to the excellent Oculus Quest in just a few short years, imagine where Panasonic’s “eyeglasses” design could lead with more time and dedicated development.
Putting virtual reality into a comfortable, easy-to-wear eyeglass-style form factor won’t solve all of the myriad problems holding the technology back. But Panasonic’s efforts could be the first step in breaking down the major walls of comfort and form factor that are still preventing mass adoption of VR.