The problem with VR headsets is that they still all look like VR headsets — glorified ski goggles that shut you off from the world. I’m not going to say Panasonic has solved the matter altogether with its own VR glasses at CES this year, but the project does represent something of an improvement. Basically, they’re regular-ish glasses with a dash of steampunk aviator style.
The glasses — and they are glasses, rather than a headset — also offer technical improvements over other solutions in the market. The micro OLED panels, co-developed by Panasonic and Kopin, are extremely high resolution with almost no hint of the “screen-door effect” that plagues most VR hardware. They’re also the first VR glasses to support HDR, which was particularly impressive during a CG demo of the interior of a Japanese temple, with light realistically bouncing off golden decorations.
Panasonic has made use of its own audio technology in the headset, with Technics drivers in the earbuds providing rich, dynamic sound. The company says it also used optical designs from the Lumix camera division and similar signal processing technologies as found in its TVs and Blu-ray players.
The prototype unit I tried had some clear limitations. The micro OLED panels were smaller than they could have been, resulting in a squarer image with a lower viewing angle than traditional VR headsets. The glasses were also a little front-heavy and slid down my nose whenever I tilted forward; this wasn’t helped by the cables running directly out of the eyepieces to a gaming PC. A non-functioning mockup of the envisaged final product, which I also got to wear, solved these problems by being significantly lighter and running a single USB-C cable through the end of one of the glasses’ arms.
Panasonic is unlikely to ever sell these glasses as a consumer product. Instead, it’s pointing to commercial applications that are likely to spring up alongside the rollout of 5G networks, such as virtual travel and VR sports. Japanese companies are talking about this sort of thing a lot this year, given the Olympic Games in Tokyo and the fact that 5G services are yet to launch in the country.
But my main takeaway from the demo was that hey, turns out it’s possible to make VR glasses that are both better quality and with a better form factor. It might not make for a practical consumer product just yet, but it’s an intriguing look at a step that could make VR technology more appealing to a mainstream audience.