The next time you want to watch Netflix in bed, imagine putting down your phone and putting on your sunglasses. TCL, a Chinese company that makes great value TVs, brand new phones and other things with screens, created a prototype for smart glasses that will let you watch movies, play games and even see the content of your phone. Naturally, I tried it out, here at IFA in Berlin this week.
The concept wearable display is essentially a pair of sunglasses, tinted, polarized and UV blocking to protect your eyes, but still transparent enough to see through. Unlike Google Glass, which is meant to be a head-up display you can wear while you're out and about, TCL's design is meant for your personal entertainment only, and it's completely powered by your phone.
Smart glasses like Google Glass have earned a questionable reputation over the years, and with good reason. Although Google envisioned a device that would give you the power and flexibility of a smartphone right before your eyes, people feared Glass' camera, which could invade their privacy unnoticed, and generally distrusted the unusual frames, which spurred the nickname "Glassholes."
But TCL's device is different. There are no cameras, no heavy battery and no control pad built into the frame, just one screen for each eye for your information and entertainment purposes. They're meant to be used when you're seated, not walking.
I put the "sunglasses" on, and saw, in virtual reality, three panels in front of my eyes, one for each possible demo. There's also a small cursor I could control with a subtle turn of my head. Position it on a demo option for a few seconds to select it, like pressing-and-holding on a phone.
I was instantly in nature, watching beautiful scenery around me. In another scene, a dirt biker sprayed dust while making a sharp turn. The wearable can also play 3D videos as long as your phone will support it. Speakers built into the arms supplied the soundtrack to better immerse me. To return to the main menu, I just looked to the left and held a moment.
Anyone who's used a VR headset knows that rapid head movement is a surefire way to give yourself nausea, which made me skeptical about gameplay, especially for fast-paced racing games, but TCL says you'll be able to use your phone as a controller and keep your head stationary.
The concept is intriguing, but not without its problems. Concept devices are never very sexy, and this wearable display was heavy and clunky. For now, it's also tethered to your phone through an inconvenient cable, but TCL says it will pair over Bluetooth next year when a version of the device comes to market. It'll work with any Android phone, but I saw it demoed on TCL's new Plex.
This isn't a VR headset at all, so your ability to see a clear image is iffy if you're not staring at a plain black wall. Without changes, or some sort of cover, that's not going to work well in most environments that have bright or variable lighting and backgrounds. Unlike VR immersion, you also won't be able to look all around you in an environment. Your field of view is about the same you'd see when you wear a pair of real shades.
When I think about my long flight home from this show in Berlin back to San Francisco, a personal theater to shut out the plane sounds pretty darn good.
TCL wearable display prototype specs
- Polarized plastic lenses with UV protection to protect eyes
- Micro OLED displays with 1,920x1,080-pixel (full HD) resolution for each eye
- Speakers built into the arms by your ears
- Voice input, for example, to play and pause
- Support for digital assistants, like Amazon Echo and Google Assistant
- USB-C cable connection to phone (current)
- Bluetooth pairing capability (future)
Originally published earlier this week.