Virtual reality has arrived, officially. In the past year or so, half a baker’s dozen VR headsets — the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, PlayStation VR, Zeiss VR One and HTC Vive — have proliferated and begun permeating the masses. Since Google Cardboard was released in late 2014, 5 million units have shipped. The HTC Vive, Steam’s flagship headset, which was released in April 2016, is reportedly just reaching 100,000 units sold (not terrible, not great). Yet, despite all the hype around virtual reality, they aren’t the only RoboCop-looking devices grasping for faces. There’s also video headsets.

VR headsets and video headsets aren’t the same thing, despite both being something that X-Men’s Cyclops would happily rock. The former of the two devices are meant to be immersive devices that you strap to your face. They allow no light in, enabling you to lose your stomach while piloting a flight simulator or riding a virtual roller coaster. In a nutshell, VR headsets are meant for VR gaming and VR “experiences.”

The Avegant Glyph.

The Avegant Glyph.

On the flip side, video headsets, like the recently released Avegant Glyph ($700) and Vuzix iWear Video Headphones ($500), essentially bring a TV screen right in front of your eyes. They have an HDMI port and can be plugged directly into a laptop, Xbox One, PS4, smartphone (with a digital AV adapter) or Fios cable box. The idea is that you can stream video on Netflix or Amazon, or play mobile games like GTRacing 2, and get a movie-theater experience while you’re on a plane, bus, or sitting on the couch while someone else hogs the actual big screen.

Previously, Avegant designed high-res, low-latency and low-eye-fatigue headsets for serious applications like high-speed night-vision driving, drone piloting and operating remote weapons.

Along with mobile gaming and streaming, these video headsets are also optimized for drone use. The digital drone space has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year; DJI, Parrot and Yuneec all have recently released drones with digital video. Drone pilots can plug the headsets into their done controllers, and fly them around in FPV mode (first-person view). Both headsets have head trackers built in, so instead of looking down at a phone or tablet, drone pilots can steer the drone simply by looking in the direction they want to fly. Vuzix also recently partnered with the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA).

Vuzix iWear Video Headphones

Resolution: 1280 x 720 pixels
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Field of view: 55-degree diagonal
Battery Life: A few hours

The Glyph and iWear Video Headphones aren’t meant to be immersive; you can still interact with the outside world. While wearing them, you can drink a beer, say “what up” to a friend who just walked in, or tie your shoes without fumbling with the laces. Another thing that separates video headphones from the likes of Cardboard or Gear VR is that Avegant’s and Vuzix’s products are high-quality head-mounted displays, not just micro-display panels or cell phone panels strapped to your face.

Before going mainstream a few years ago, Avegant worked in conjunction with the Department of Defense. Ed Tang, the co-founder, mentioned that Avegant was designing high-res, low-latency and low-eye-fatigue headsets for serious (and at times lengthy) applications like high-speed night-vision driving, drone piloting and operating remote weapons. Their patented retinal imaging technology uses 2 million micro-mirrors to reflect light into the wearer’s eyes, which is “more natural” than looking into a glowing panel. And compared to LCD headsets, the Glyph’s and iWear’s resolution and fill-factor is exponentially better. There’s no “screen door” effect like you’d get with the Oculus.

Avegant Glyph

Resolution: 1280 x 720 pixels
Aspect Ratio: 16:9
Field of view: ~40-degree diagonal
Battery Life: A few hours

Vuzix’s iWear Video Headphones, which won 2016 CES award for innovation, have a similar HD display (1280 x 720 pixels) with 2 million micro-mirrors, same as the the Glyph. The main difference, then, is the way one looks into each device. The Glyph has two individual eye lenses that can be adjusted for eyeglass prescriptions. It took more tinkering, admittedly, but theoretically you could use the Glyph without glasses. (I have 20/20 vision, so no glasses necessary.)

Also, the fit was different. The iWear Video Headphones aren’t actually headphones. They’re a headset, and when I tried to wear them as their name suggested, the fit didn’t resonate with me. The Glyph, on the other hand, looks similar to a nice pair of over-ear headphones, and with the removable nose piece, collapsible eye pieces and Bluetooth audio, the device could easily be worn and used as headphones.

The Vuzix iWear Video Headphones

The Vuzix iWear Video Headphones

I used both the Glyph and iWear units a number of ways: streaming Netflix and playing racing games on my iPhone, watching HBO through my cable box, playing Fifa via Xbox One, and even scouring the web from my PC (which wasn’t that spectacular). The vividness, versatility and fit of the Glyph, which had fewer moving pieces, were all better, albeit marginally, in my opinion. But the iWear didn’t have the frustrating fisheye effect that plagued the Glyph when it wasn’t perfectly calibrated.

Both Glyph and iWear are first-generation products and, commendably, trailblazers. But they’re still luxury products. The iWear costs $500, as much as a high-end wireless speaker like Sonos’s PLAY:5. And if you want the Bluetooth audio of the Glyph, and its adjustable prescription eye pieces, that’s an additional $200.

Also — and this is the biggie — these video headsets are not creating anything you can’t watch, stream or play already. The headsets don’t have any internal storage and can’t sync video over Bluetooth; you can’t pre-load movies or games, and you’ll always need to be tethered to a laptop, smartphone or HDMI-connected device. Basically, you don’t need one. But if you travel a lot, have cash to spend and don’t mind a few snide comments — “What the hell is that guy wearing?” — go for it.

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