I slipped the nosepiece on, adjusting the focus on the eyepieces. Sitting by the window on New Jersey Transit with a pair of headphones pulled down over my eyes, I was astonished more people weren't staring at me when I lifted them to show my ticket to the conductor. But that's the weird thing with eye-screens: you can't see if other people are looking when they're on.
The Avegant Glyph looks like an enormous pair of over-ear headphones with built-in screens in the headband, and that's basically what they are. You can wear them pulled down over your eyes to watch and listen to things, or just flip them up and use them as headphones.
This isn't a virtual reality headset like Samsung Gear VR, although you might think it looks like one. It's a head-mounted display with headphones that can plug into most video sources via HDMI. Head-mounted displays, or wear-on-your-head cinemas, go back years. We've reviewed a handful at CNET, such as the Sony HMZ-T1. They're usually bad. The screens feel like compromises: small, or dim, or uncomfortable.
The Glyph uses a totally different display technology. According to Avegant, there are no screens here: instead, it projects light off 2 million micro mirrors in the headset, then directly into your retinas. That sounds terrifying, but the idea isn't much different from DLP, a TV technology popular in the early days of HDTV that's still used in projectors. But in this case, the projector's going in your eyes.
The Glyph Founder's Edition -- the $700 version that's shipping to those who backed Avegant on Kickstarter or want to hop aboard now -- comes with the headset, an HDMI and USB cable, four different nose pieces, and a carry pouch. It's pretty self-contained. (There aren't UK or Australia prices yet, but $700 converts to about £500 or AU$980.)
The Glyph's display may not be a "screen" by Avegant's description, but it looks and feels like one. Almost like a movie theater, actually. There's a sense of a "box" in the headset, and the display being a little farther off. The display feels about the size of a 13-inch laptop in my lap, or my 5-inch phone held close to my face. But it's bright -- very bright. Colors are amazingly vivid, and light pops. It feels much brighter than an average MacBook or iPhone display. Sometimes it feels so bright that after I take the Glyph off, regular screens seem dull.
It's also brighter than the Samsung Gear VR. A lot of people are going to want to know whether the Glyph feels like virtual reality, and it doesn't. VR uses large magnifying lenses to expand the field of view to feel more immersive, at the expense (in phone VR, at least) of lower pixel density. Try out Netflix in Gear VR and you'll find yourself in a virtual living room looking at a large virtual TV that's lower-res than your real one.
The Glyph is a 720p-resolution display -- the lowest possible resolution to be considered "high-definition" -- but it generally looks crisp enough for most purposes, considering the "distance" I am from the image. Movies are sharp, games look great. I noticed "pixels" when reading smaller text.
The Glyph has a Micro HDMI port in its side, and comes with an HDMI-to-micro HDMI cable. You can plug into lots of devices. I connected to my PS4 and played Madden, Rocket League and The Witness. I hooked it up to my 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and it became my virtual computer display.
I'm wearing them now, as I'm typing on my laptop. The image is bright, the words crisp but small. It's like my computer screen is hovering over my face. But that means I can't see the keyboard easily. I mean, I can look down and see my fingers, but it's out of focus. (I take my glasses off to wear these things.)
With an adapter, like Apple's Lightning-to-HDMI, you can hook up your iPhone or iPad. It worked the same way hooking an iPhone to a TV does, mirroring everything. My apps were vertical, but movies and games could be played in landscape. I paired a SteelSeries Nimbus Bluetooth game controller, and suddenly I was porting into large-screen games like Geometry Wars like I was in an arcade.
The Glyph lasts about 4 hours on a charge for video playback. You need to charge it up via Micro-USB. If you want to use the Glyph like a regular pair of headphones, it doesn't drain any battery life.
Plugging a pair of video specs into your phone on the go can be a fun idea, but we're not quite built for these devices yet. USB-C, the port that's slowly spreading across tablets and phones, can handle video output. LG's 360 VR headset takes advantage of it, but the Glyph needs a clunky adapter. And for regular headphone use, you'd need to pack a separate cable. To charge, you need a third.
The Avegant Glyph can handle 3D playback, and even head-mounted tracking for 360 videos, games, and controlling things like DJI drones. But 3D playback uses the funky side by side format, which you'd have to rip and side load onto your phone (I tried watching "The Avengers" in 3D on Glyph, and I'd say the effect isn't worth it). The Glyph won't work with 3D Blu-ray players, for instance.
The Glyph will track your head movements like a VR headset does (turning your head could let you look around in a 360-degree video, for instance), but head-tracking features aren't fully live yet. Plugging the Glyph into a computer and also using the USB cable allows some head tracking to work, but only for a select few games and apps right now. On phones and tablets, head tracking isn't active yet...but Avegant's working on it.
Each eye takes some adjusting, too. The two lenses can be independently moved and focused. Even my severely myopic eyes (-9) could see through them. But getting the nose piece to fit right and the eyes to see properly takes fiddling. I still feel like the fit isn't 100 percent perfect. You can pop other nose pieces in, raise and lower the nose piece...but would you really want that much effort when you're traveling on a train?
I was able to wear the Glyph for an hour at a time, but my nose started to hurt. And I wondered if I'd miss my station on the train. You can see around you with the headset on, but there's still a big band in front of your eyes. In headphone mode, the headband feels tight (the Gorilla Glass-covered lenses in the headband pop in with a press).
The future might be smaller sets of headphones you can see through. But the present probably doesn't need them. Avegant's dream is realized, and the displays look lovely. I'd consider these...in a lighter, more affordable form.