3D technology, as far as I’m concerned, reached its zenith way, way back in 1939. That’s when a Portland, Ore. postcard manufacturer introduced a gizmo so clever that it’s still available, and still pretty nifty. It called its invention the View-Master.
Even today, the 3D effect you get when you peer into a $12 View-Master compares favorably with 3D movies and TV based on pricey, cutting-edge technology. That’s because View-Master discs place separate images directly in front of both of your eyeballs, which lets your brain fuse them together into one crisp picture. 3D movies and TVs, by contrast, overlay two images on one screen, and make you wear special glasses to disentangle them–which, at least for me, is usually a recipe for a fuzzy, headache-inducing mess.
And then there’s Sony’s Personal 3D Viewer HMZ-T1. The $799.99 gadget is, essentially, a high-definition video View-Master based on 21st-century technology. Instead of looking at the View-Maser’s two tiny frames of film, you look at twin OLED screens which deliver 720P video from an external source. Built-in headphones pump stereo sound into your ears.
The HMZ-T1 is unique, but it’s also a fresh take on an idea Sony first unveiled in 1997. That original version was called the Glasstron; it used LCD screens and didn’t do 3D or HD. The technology has come a long way in the past 15 years.
To use this new gadget to watch 3D video, you need a device capable of outputting 3D. (It’s also compatible with plain old 2D.) Sony’s own PlayStation 3 is, among other things, a 3D-capable Blu-ray player, and does the job nicely. The fact that it also happens to be a gaming console means that you get the added attraction of games in 3D.
The HMZ-T1 comes with a small box the size of a hardcover novel that you hook up to your video source with an HDMI cable. A pass-through port lets you connect your TV with another HDMI cable. Then you attach the 3D Viewer itself to the box via an 11.5′ cable.
You must continue to be tethered to the box while watching–the cable provides the viewer with both video and power–so you better have a comfy chair nearby. (If you find this whole idea intriguing, you’re probably rooting for Sony to build a wireless, battery-powered version someday.)
The 3D Viewer weighs roughly .925 of a pound; you strap it to your head with an adjustable, one-size-fits all headband.
Did I say one size fits all? Not in my case: I have an enormous head. No, seriously–I take a 2XL hat, and even those can be snug. As with one-size-fits-all baseball caps, I found that the HMZ-T1′s engineers apparently didn’t plan for jumbo-noggined people like me.
Complicating matters further, I wear glasses. That made the 3D Viewer even tighter, and prevented me from fitting it flush against my face so as to block out all outside light. I was happiest watching in a darkened room so my living room didn’t leak into view.
By adjusting the headband to its most accommodating setting and balancing the 3D Viewer carefully on my nose, I was able to make it work (just barely) adequately. You might find the whole setup less unwieldy if your cranium isn’t bizarrely oversized.
Even then, I don’t think you’d lose track of the fact that you had nearly a pound of electronics strapped to your skull. I ended up plunking myself down in an oversized beanbag chair and tipping my head back, planetarium style. That was less of a strain than looking straight forward as if I were watching a distant movie screen.
Once I was relatively comfortable, I liked what I saw. The HMZ-T1′s dual OLEDs added up to a beautifully colorful, detailed image, and the 3D effect was–this is the first time I’ve used this word in conjunction with 3D–excellent. Instead of wincing and feeling queasy, I marveled at how sharp and subtle it was. Toy Story 3 looked better than it did when I saw it in a theater in 2010. 2D Blu-rays were pleasing, too.
The viewer’s OLEDs may be dinky, but they’re so close to your eyes that they blend into a picture that looks far larger than it is. (Sony says it’s the equivalent of a 750″ screen.) The headphones block out ambient noise, making the whole effect even more enveloping.
Gaming in 3D was also a blast: As I ran around whomping bad guys in Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters, the extra dimensionality made it seem a little less like a video game and a little more like virtual reality, (Many current games are 3D-friendly; they’re identified as such on their cases.)
While I was wearing the Personal 3D Viewer, trying to stare down my nose at the PlayStation’s Blu-Ray remote or game controller was a tricky manuever that ruined all the fun. So if you watch a flick, I’d recommend just sitting back and enjoying it. And if you’re playing a game, it makes sense to familiarize yourself with the controls before you don the HMZ-T1.
Sony’s gadget isn’t going to be the next big thing: You need to be seriously committed to 3D to plunk down $800 for a one-person-at-a-time system. (If you share your home with others, using it much might come off as downright anti-social.) Even if you’ve got the cash, you might find the helmet-like form factor off-putting.
But the quality of the picture makes this a notable product. It provides the rest of the industry a standard to shoot for–and gives skeptics like me definitive proof that 3D video isn’t inherently unpleasant.
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McCracken blogs about personal technology at Technologizer, which he founded in 2008 after nearly two decades as a tech journalist; on Twitter, he’s @harrymccracken. His column, also called Technologizer, appears every Thursday on TIME.com.