Review: Sony HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer

Out of all of the things that I have had a chance to review at my time here at Neowin, I would have to say Sony's Personal 3D Viewer certainly has been the most interesting. It's essentially a pair of 3D goggles with two HD displays built in, perfect for watching 3D movies and playing 3D games, along with virtual surround sound thanks to the attached headphones.

The Sony website for the HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer claims the device is "your personal theater", with "brilliant HD" and "true 3D" for the best and "incredibly real" home cinema experience. They also claim it's "designed for comfort" with "rich audio" - of course all claims I'll be testing in this extensive review of the product - and that it's compatible with most home theater systems.

With a regular retail price (RRP) of $799.99 it's definitely a premium home theater product, something you have to keep in mind considering the device can only be used by one person at a time (unlike a standard TV). Anyway, on to the review!

Design

The Sony HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer is primarily a headset that you wear to immerse yourself in a cinema-like experience right before your eyes. Most people would definitely class this technology as "futuristic" and Sony has perfectly captured this with the design of the Viewer; the front portion is reminiscent of a flying-saucer-style spaceship.

The curved front panel elegantly blends out into the flexible side parts that house the speakers, and the black+white actually looks really nice in terms of contrast. Unfortunately the cushioned forehead rest that sticks up out of the front panel looks slightly out of place, but it's a necessary part of the device to ensure it actually stays on your head.

The underside of the futuristic saucer front has the main controls for adjusting and using the 3D Viewer. Directly beneath the eyeglasses are sliders that adjust the spacing of the viewing ports, and to the right are the directional controls for using the interface, plus an on/off button and volume buttons. The controls are surprisingly easy to use despite not being able to see them with the headset on your head.

The back part has the adjustable and flexible straps that keep the device attached to your head, which also retract slightly into the device when you are storing them. One of the straps is made of plastic and the other of flexible rubber, and they seem to keep it attached to your head fairly well. The speakers also adjust in all directions so you can sit them directly over your ears.

This is the part of the device you see while putting the Viewer on. You'll notice there's two glassy viewing holes that conceal OLED displays behind each of them, and just to the bottom of these you can attach included silicone light blockers if you are using the machine in a well lit environment.

For a device that costs a fair bit of money, you would expect good build quality as well. While the Viewer is made of plastic, it feels solid and unlikely to break any time soon, and the flexible and adjustable parts have enough give in them to not fall apart or crack at a moments' notice. Of course making the device out of metal would have improved the build quality considerably, but at the cost of added weight which would almost certainly make the device way too uncomfortably heavy.

One downside to the Personal 3D Viewer is that you look like a massive douche while wearing it. Sure the design looks cool when it's not on your head, but when it is, it just looks ridiculous. If you decide to use it with friends or any other people around, be warned that you may be laughed at.

It's a shame, because it really looks cool and futuristic sitting on a shelf in your home...

...except for the fact the device is tethered to a small processing unit in a considerable mess of cables. This small, black metal box does all the actual grunt-work for the Viewer and sends the picture and sound to the headset via a long cable. I hoped that the Personal 3D Viewer would be all contained within the headset unit, but I assume Sony decided it would be too heavy with all the processing components in the actual headset and decided to offload it to a small processing unit.

The fact that it's tethered in this way is a huge downside and shows that this sort of technology, while improved on from previous similar products, is still not ideal for consumers. The problem is compounded by the fact that the processing unit then needs to be attached to an actual playing unit such as a Blu-Ray player or gaming console to actually receive an image.

This is the minimum amount of equipment you need to watch a Blu-ray movie on the Personal 3D Viewer

One would hope that in the future you could have a completely wireless and battery-powered system that you simply plug a USB flash drive or memory card into and play your 3D movies without any tethering or cabling, but the technology is simply not at this stage yet. Luckily, once you stow away your player and processing unit in some sort of cabinet or on a shelf, the mess of cables becomes less of an issue and while actually watching a film the single cable coming from the headset is not particularly annoying.

But again, you cannot use the Personal 3D Viewer outside the place you have put these boxes, meaning it is no-way a portable movie-playing or gaming system.

How It Works

Before I go any further I'm sure that some readers of this review will be interested as to how the Personal 3D Viewer actually works to display a 3D image inside the goggles.

Behind each of the glass viewing ports where you look through there is an 0.7-inch OLED panel, for a total of two panels inside the headset (one for each eye). Each of these OLED panels has a resolution of 1280 x 720 for an impressive pixel density of 2,098 pixels-per-inch (PPI), and of course as they are OLED you get a near-perfect contrast ratio as the individual subpixels are actually "off" when displaying black.

Sony's basic explanation of how the unit works

Now 0.7-inches does sound initially very small, however the glass viewing ports are actually lenses that magnify this small screen to appear much, much bigger. Sony states that the virtual image created is approximately equivalent to viewing a 750-inch (19 m) screen at a distance of 66 feet (20 m). To your eyes this appears very, very big, as I'll go over in more detail in the experience section of the review.

There are two OLED panels inside the headset (one for each eye) to deliver the 3D experience. Instead of using polarized light and lenses (like in a cinema), or active shutter glasses (like with some home TVs), each OLED display shows the images for one eye, and so 3D motion blur and flicker is greatly reduced. It also allows you to view a progressive scan 3D image as opposed to an interlace scan image.

Surround sound is achieved through just two speakers, so while the box claims it produces "5.1 surround sound" this is all virtualized by the processing unit. The speakers themselves are supra-aural (they sit on the ears), and have quite a good frequency response of 12-24,000Hz which extends in both ways beyond the normal human hearing range.

Setting up the unit is quite easy: you plug the 11.5' (3.5 m) cable from the 3D Viewer into the front of the processing unit and the signal input into the "IN" HDMI port on the back; note that both audio and video can only be inputted through the one HDMI cable. There is also an "OUT" HDMI port that allows you to pass-through the signal back to your TV, allowing you to keep the processing unit plugged in at all times and easily switch between watching on the Viewer and on your TV.

Experience

Watching a movie on the Sony Personal 3D Viewer is an experience that, visually, cannot compare to any home theater.

In terms of virtual screen size, it appears to be larger than the largest screen at my local cinema but smaller than a standard IMAX screen (27.3 meters diagonally). The size of an IMAX screen, if you have never seen one, generally exceeds your field of vision, whereas the Personal 3D Viewer sits right on the boundaries and takes up most of the space you can see.

One of my biggest problems with watching a film in an IMAX theater is that you cannot see everything on the screen without physically moving your head; the experience is certainly awesome, but at times annoying. With the 3D Viewer though, you can see everything on screen at once as it takes up most (but not all) of what you see, and in some ways it's better than a local cinema because there are no heads or seats in your way between you and the screen.

An illustration of what viewing a movie through the Viewer is like. The black is your field of vision and the slight edge blurring occurs because the image is larger than where you can focus

If you're wondering about virtual distance too, it appears to be several meters away from your eyes so people with normal vision should have no problem focusing on the image without eye strain. I gave the unit to some people with glasses, and those who were short-sighted needed to wear them while using the device while long-sighted people did not.

Sony provided me with a 3D Blu-ray player (the BDP-S580) and a 3D Blu-ray copy of the 2008 film Bolt, which I watched the entirety of one night on the Personal 3D Viewer. Needless to say, it was an amazing cinema experience in an environment that is completely immersive; the display is (effectively) gigantic, crisp and beautifully colored without being overly vibrant, and the virtual surround sound works remarkably well with sound depth that you only get with high-quality headphones.

I tried a few other film formats with the 3D Viewer as well. The best type of movie to watch is one that has an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (close to a ratio of 16:9 "TV widescreen") mostly because it occupies close to all of your vision; 2.39:1 "cinema widescreen" movies are letterboxed like on your TV and don't use up as much space.

Looking into the Personal 3D Viewer's left viewing port while watching Bolt

As the display itself is 720p, Blu-ray movies obviously are going to look better than DVDs, although the latter still looks alright. Even though the display is not 1080p, which on an 0.7-inch display would require a ridiculous pixel density, it's quite hard - but not impossible - to identify individual pixels with regular vision.

It's also one of the best 3D experiences I have ever had, easily trumping active shutter and even polarized lenses which are prone to motion blur and stutter. I usually get light eye strain watching a 3D film in the cinema (where they use polarization) but I was pleasantly surprised that this wasn't much of an issue using the Personal 3D Viewer. If you are not a fan of 3D movies, the system still works really well with traditional 2D movies.

Other people that tried out the unit while I had it said the experience was "really awesome!", "incredible" and "amazing", and even my grandmother exclaimed that it was clearer and more immersive than her real-life vision through glasses. 

Gaming is the other major thing you can do with the Personal 3D Viewer, and it's equally as good as 3D Blu-ray movies, especially because games render 3D scenes which is the perfect environment for viewing in 3D. As it's a Sony product it is stated to work with a PlayStation 3 but I had no problem playing games like Batman: Arkham City, Crysis 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops in 3D via HDMI. Again, the experience is extremely immersive as the game takes up most of your field of vision.

Playing Batman: Arkham City was amazingly immersive

One slight problem I had with the 3D Viewer experience is that if you don't view the screens directly in front, the lenses used to magnify the display can blur the image on the edge of the screen. It requires precise adjustments to get the perfect viewing experience, which I'll go over in the next section.

Comfort

Unfortunately while the movie and gaming experience provided by the Personal 3D Viewer is outstanding, I wouldn't go nearly as far to describe the comfort provided by the headset. Despite Sony claiming the device is "designed for comfort", my experiences trying to get the headset in the correct and most comfortable position were less than great.

In terms of flexibility there is a lot you can do to ensure the Viewer is in the correct position on your head: you can adjust the back straps, the headphones, nosepiece and view port positions along with changing the size of the front pad. It seems here that Sony have thought about people with all different shaped and sized heads and you would expect that it would fit on pretty much any adult.

The 3D Viewer should easily fit any head shape

It's not the flexibility that's the issue though, it's the weight. Strangely, Sony claims that the device's 420 grams (0.9 pounds) are evenly distributed throughout the body of the device and it balances perfectly on your head. This is not exactly what I experienced after a long time adjusting it to feel right on my head; generally speaking it felt like the front part of the Viewer was reasonably heavy and dragging it down slightly.

That's not to say the device is actually heavy, because in all respects it could be much worse had the processing unit been included in the headset, but it just feels strange on your head. I'm guessing that most people are used to either having glasses or sunglasses on their head and not a large virtual-goggle-like unit, so maybe the unit requires getting used to over more time than I had available to me.

Sony's press images show a good position to adopt while using the Personal 3D Viewer

Most of this problem can be fixed, however, by adopting a reclined seating position. As you don't need to look out to a wall to see the picture, you can quite happily slouch in a chair, use a recliner or bed that supports your head and the issue of it being uncomfortable on your head is virtually eliminated. As I said previously I watched all of Bolt on the 3D Viewer while lying on my bed, and only towards the end (after an hour and a half) did the 3D viewer's weight on my forehead start to annoy me and the straps on the back start to feel too tight.

While the comfort can be fixed, the other major issue really cannot: it takes a lot of time, patience, effort and minor corrections to get the headset in exactly the right position for optimal viewing. If you are looking into the viewing holes at just the wrong angle the image can get very blurry around the edges, so ensuring you view it directly in-front is a must.

Me, attempting to adjust the Personal 3D Viewer to the right position

Even after getting the straps and everything adjusted perfectly for the size of my head, it took some time every time I used the device to get it on my head in such a way that I looked directly at the displays. Then, throughout the film the headset slightly changed position on my head and I would need to readjust it, often several times which is rather awkward when you are trying to enjoy the film.

There is no quick fix for this awkwardness problem and it can be an annoyance of using it. One thing that could possibly help would be a strap that goes over the top of your head rather than just across, but I still believe the adjusting problem is something that will probably occur across all headset devices of this size and weight. If it was like a pair of sunglasses it would be fine, but again the technology is not at this stage yet.

It's also not just me that had the problem with discomfort and awkwardness: others that tried out the device said that while the experience was indeed "amazing", they were put off by how awkward it is to get it set-up just right, how the straps can be too tight and how it's just slightly too heavy for the best viewing pleasure.

Conclusion

I will admit, the Personal 3D Viewer has gifted me probably the best movie viewing experience I have ever had inside the comfort of in my own home. The dual-OLED displays appear huge and immersive inside the Viewer, and they way they display 3D ensures that there is minimal blur and stutter that can plague other 3D display technologies. The virtual surround sound also works really well thanks to great Sony headphones and combines with the visuals to deliver an excellent experience.

If you're not watching a 3D movie, the Viewer is still an awesome way to consume your media such as through playing games or watching TV shows, but be warned that it is tethered and requires an external unit such as a Blu-ray player or game console to get its images. This isn't a huge downside, but it is a limitation of the current technology used in this type of devices.

Unfortunately the major issues with the Personal 3D Viewer are not with the actual cinema experience, which again is outstanding, it's more with the comfort and awkwardness. Sony claims the device is lightweight but I found it to be heavy enough to feel unusual on your head, and it requires precise and awkward adjustments to get it in the exact right position for optimal viewing.

With an RRP of $800 I wouldn't say this is exactly a must-buy product, and for those that already have a good home theater or movie-watching solution it's hard to recommend it. However, if you are willing to look past the comfort flaws present with the device, you will be hard pressed to find a way to spend $800 that gives you as good a cinema experience as the Sony Personal 3D Viewer.

Just try it in a Sony store first.

Sony HMZ-T1 Personal 3D Viewer website 
Ask me a question about the device via Twitter

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