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CES 2014 Impressions: Sony's Head-Tracking HMD Prototype

By Norman Chan

This is no Oculus killer.

Had to share my thoughts on this one. Sony's President surprised us by announcing a prototype head-tracking system at his CES keynote, and by actually having demo units of that system at its booth. If you've heard about this prototype, you'd no doubt heard it in the context of an Oculus VR competitor. That's technically an apt description, but a better one would be to call it a reaction to the Oculus Rift. Sony's head-tracking system is no more than a motion tracker attached to the back of its existing third-generation HMZ-T3 head-mounted display, connected to a smartphone over Bluetooth. And after trying their demo, it feels like something rushed in development for CES, a me-too response to the success and buzz of the Oculus Rift.

Like with many other hardware prototypes we've seen at CES, technical details were scarce. The Sony rep running the demo couldn't say what kind of motion sensor was being used, nor had any details about latency goals. The HMZ-T3, which retails by itself for $1000, was made to watch movies and television shows, not to envelope the wearer's field-of-view with video. Two 720p OLED displays give the illusion that you're sitting in front of a very large television, filling about 45 degrees of your field-of-vision as opposed to the Oculus's 110-degrees. That difference alone detracts significantly from the immersion, and the Sony rep couldn't say whether there was any plan to put the head-tracker on a different display in the future.

The tracking itself was serviceable, but definitely underwhelming. Sony's demo was a pre-recorded video sequence of a race on city streets, running off of a proprietary app on an Xperia phone. The video was shot with 180-degree FOV, so I could look around to my left and right during the sequence, accompanied by stereo audio. If I moved my head slowly, the tracking was able to keep up and maintain an illusion of VR, but any sudden shakes or nods would reveal the prototype's latency limitations. I can't pinpoint exactly how long the delay was, but it was noticeable without much effort--my guess is between 50 and 100ms. The size and placement of the motion tracker at the back of the HMZ-T2 also indicates that it can only track six axes of rotational movement as well, while Oculus has already made inroads into positional tracking for its latest prototype.

As a proof-of-concept, Sony's head-tracking showing is more a foot in the door in an exciting VR space than an indication of any real (or good) product. It faces stiff competition not only from Oculus, but from other HMD makers who have head-tracking features as well (Avegant's Kickstarter HMD will be $500). But competition is good, and the best thing to come out of Sony's announcement and prototype is the validation of this new generation of VR. Momentum is growing.