Not so long ago, purchasing the ground equipment for First Person View (FPV) flying meant that you had to decide between a tripod-mounted monitor and wearable goggles. Recent developments have removed that fundamental decision. New systems, like the Fat Shark Transformer HD ($249), give you both viewing options with the same equipment.
Actually, the Transformer offers three viewing possibilities. I suspect that this adaptability is the root of its name. The system's display module can be used as a standalone monitor. There are also two different ways to use the monitor with head gear. The full-panel viewer masks out the rest of the world and gives you a 720p view of your video stream. Using the binocular viewer provides an even more immersive experience with a 55-degree field of view. If using the full-panel viewer is like sitting in the middle of a movie theater, the binocular viewer is like being in the front row.
The heart of the Transformer is a high-definition (1280x720) LCD monitor with a 5.5-inch (140mm) screen. Female ¼-20 threads on the bottom of the housing let you mount the monitor on a tripod. Using a standalone monitor is great for flyers who are just getting used to FPV flight. They can alternate between FPV and line-of-sight flying just by deciding whether to focus on the model or the monitor. Monitors are also perfect for giving spectators a taste of FPV.
You can choose from three video input sources. When using the monitor for FPV flying, you'll take advantage of the built-in 5.8GHz video receiver. There are two antenna mounts for the receiver. The idea is that you can simultaneously attach both a high-gain directional antenna and an omni-directional antenna. This gives you the benefits of both antenna types since the system automatically uses the best signal at any given time.
As I write this, the Transformer HD bundle does not include antennas for the receiver. I used an ImmersionRC omni-directional antenna and an ImmersionRC Mini Patch Antenna. I am told that future bundles of the Transformer HD will include antenna options.
The monitor also includes a mini-HDMI input, allowing it to display high-definition video from any HDMI-equipped device. There are even a few multi-rotors on the market (or coming soon) that transmit an HD video feed and have an HDMI output from the video receiver. The Transformer HD can tap into those signals.
The monitor does not have a built-in speaker. There is, however, a 3.5mm audio output jack that you can attach to headphones or powered speakers. You'll just want to make sure that your audio device has volume control because the monitor's audio output level is not adjustable.
The third input option is a 3.5mm A/V jack. This folds in most analog video sources. Although the Transformer monitor does not have a built-in DVR, there is also a 3.5mm A/V output jack. You can pipe the signal to an external recording device.
The monitor is powered by an external 2-cell Lithium-Ion battery. The battery is not included, but Fat Shark does provide a case for holding two 18650-sized cells. These batteries are popular and easy to find. I have a stash of generic 18650 cells and all of them that I have tried worked perfectly in the Transformer. If you're buying new Lithium-Ion cells for this system, make sure that you get a charger as well.
When you're ready to take the next step in FPV flying, you can install the monitor into the full-screen viewer. It simply clips into place. Those of you who are familiar with VR gear will have an easy transition to the full-screen viewer. The form factors are very similar. The viewer fits over your eyes and blocks out the rest of the world, leaving you to focus on the view from your model.
The viewer is essentially just a plastic box for holding the monitor. It has no electronics. Foam on the front of the viewer provides a comfortable fit against your face. Well, it's comfortable against my face. Your experience may vary. Adjustable elastic straps hold the viewer in place on your head. A pocket on the rear of the straps holds the battery. A power extension cord is included to connect the battery to the monitor.
One thing that I immediately noticed with the full-screen viewer is that its positioning is much less critical than with my traditional FPV goggles. When I use my goggles that have individual eye cups, I often have to fidget with them before I get everything in a position that doesn't mask part of the screen. With some goggles, that non-interference position is a pretty small envelope. The Transformer's full-screen viewer has a much wider tolerance for positioning. This makes it easier for me to get prepped for a flight. I also worry less about the goggles shifting while I fly.
The full-screen viewer has a significantly larger footprint than traditional FPV goggles. I don't think it's a factor when flying. Yet, they are more obtrusive when not in use. I don't usually slide the viewer up to my forehead between flights like I do with my other goggles…it's just too big. The viewer does fit easily in the 4-pistol cases that I normally use to carry my flight gear.
At first glance, the binocular viewer appears to be the same thing as the full-screen viewer. In fact, the basic elements are very similar. They're both plastic boxes that isolate your view to the monitor. The primary difference is that when using the binocular viewer, the screen is split into separate right and left images.
When that split screen is combined with the magnification of the viewer's eye pieces, the screen fills your view. It's a totally immersive feel. Fat Shark's specs indicate that the field of view when using the binoculars is 55-degrees.
While you can use the binocular viewer with an HD source, the split screen prevents you from seeing it in full HD. Each eye gets a 640x480 view.
Using the Transformer HD
The Transformer is easy to operate with any of the different viewing options. The monitor is powered on by plugging in the external battery. The only controls are on the back side of the monitor. Two buttons allow you to scroll up or down through the receiver channels. There is also a small joystick. Within the first ten seconds of being powered on, pushing inward on the joystick will cycle though the input sources. A long-press of the joystick will invert the screen image. Directional movements of the joystick allow you to adjust the screen's brightness and contrast. That's all there is to it.
The Transformer provided my first taste of using a high-definition FPV monitor. I'm not taking full advantage of the available resolution since none of my FPV systems output a HD video signal. However, the image is still crisp. The only downside with the monitor is that it does not come with a sunshade. Glare could be a problem if you're using it on a tripod outdoors.
Both the full-screen viewer and the binocular viewer are comfortable to wear. I expected that they would be front-heavy and a little awkward, but that has not been the case. Using an external battery rather than an internal unit certainly helps with the weight distribution.
So far, most of my experience with the Transformer has been flying indoor quads. Even though the video transmitter is putting out only 25mW of power, reception has been perfect. I can fly into the basement, through doorways, behind walls…it doesn't seem to matter. My experience with more powerful transmitters in outdoor quads has been equally glitch free.
I'm still trying to decide whether I prefer flying with the full-screen viewer or the binocular viewer. The full-screen option is sharper, while the binoculars make you feel like you're right in the thick of things. Both have their high points. Since it only take a few seconds to alternate between each setup, I suppose I never really need to choose a favorite.
With so many different FPV goggles on the market, it can be difficult to choose a set that fits your needs. That's especially true if you're just getting started and don't even know what your needs are. The Transformer HD lets you explore the fundamental viewing options without ever having to commit to one type.
Once you factor in the accessories that you have to buy (antennas and battery), you're probably looking at a $300 investment for the Transformer HD. That puts the this unit squarely in the middle of the current price range for FPV goggles. Less expensive competitors tend to offer lower resolution, while higher-priced models have extra features such as built-in video recording. I've found no other units (at any price) that have the monitor/full-screen/binocular viewing capability of the Transformer. The system's adaptability means that it can be configured to suit the preferences of many FPV flyers. It is a nice all-in-one system that doesn't demand many compromises.
Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.