At A Glance: The Sky Is The Limit

When historic lens maker Zeiss announces a virtual-reality headset, it literally turns heads. The VR ONE is a portable VR headset that will affix to smartphones with display sizes of between 4.7 and 5.2 inches. Smartphone trays are available for the Samsung Galaxy S5 and S6 and the Sony XPERIA Z5, as well as the iPhone 6, with plans to support the S4, the Nexus 5, the LG-G3 and other models through the release of Computer-Aided Design files for construction through 3D printing. The process is simple enough; you affix the phone in the tray and slide it into the visor. The front visor is semi-opaque so it also can be used with Augmented Reality apps, and the kit includes an easily adjustable Velcro® headband that attaches in both X and Y vertices. If using headphones, you must plug them in prior to sliding in the phone, and you can charge the smartphone while you view (which is recommended for long-form content; video needs are quite power-hungry), but if you have headphones with a 90º bent-angle jack, both inputs can’t be used at the same time.

Similarly, while the VR ONE is compatible with a lot of VR content, you must select your app prior to loading the phone, as many of the automatic activation features of each app won’t work with the VR ONE. (There’s a VR ONE GX model that promises 100% compatibility with Google Cardboard content. It includes a magnet control for clicking within apps, but it doesn’t provide a head strap, so you hold the VR ONE to your face as you do with the much cheaper Google Cardboard headset.) Several apps I tried wouldn’t work at all, and quite a few were upside down despite accelerometer tracking in the smartphones. However, this seems to be the fault of the individual app developers rather than the VR ONE headset. Still, for a $100 headset, it seems like Zeiss should have incorporated motion detectors rather than relying 100% on the smartphones. In fact, while the appreciable design is very minimal and postmodern, there are absolutely no mechanics in the headset at all.

The most annoying thing about the experience is that you have to remove the smartphone tray from the headset to access new games or content or to engage settings and modes. This isn’t at all the fault of Zeiss; it’s more that the VR media that’s available isn’t really making as much out of the movement-based architecture as they could be. As Zeiss’ intent is to make money from these headsets, I’d like to see them take more of a proactive stance on producing content, especially as the Zeiss VR One Media Launcher app was difficult to get to work with other VR content. Perhaps that’s different in the GX model. The included Cinema app didn’t have much to offer beyond a window-boxed theatrical display of home video content from your smartphone library. Zeiss has released an open-source SDK for game and content developers, so hopefully the disappointing levels of content will all change soon. YouTube recently made 360º content compatible with Google Cardboard and, hence, the VR ONE, for example. The VR ONE also comes with a foldable box that works with an Augmented Reality app to showcase cute little avatars as you view each side of the cube—nice as a demo, but not likely to be used again.

When the apps do work with motion control, there’s very little latency, however, and it’s easy to control movement simply by aiming a white dot at a target for a few seconds to switch modes or menus. The VR ONE is definitely a very immersive experience with very sharp optics in comparison to other headsets, and I can see people enjoying full-length content on the headset once the kinks have been worked through. The field of view is roughly 100º, about the same as the much more expensive Oculus Rift and other popular models like the similarly priced Samsung Gear VR (which is only functional with Samsung phones). Obviously, as this headset is coming from Zeiss, it’s a given that the lenses are excellent quality. They required no diopter or distance adjustments between the six people with whom I tested the VR ONE. There are also ventilation ports to prevent fogging, a frequent problem with other headsets. While the view was comfortable, the cumbersome VR ONE often felt too heavy on the nose despite the headbands unless the person wearing it had a small nose. On the other hand, the headset has enough depth that it’s possible to wear eyeglasses while viewing, and the hands-free headbands are still more comfortable than holding it to your face as you do with Google Cardboard.

Besides the high-quality, edge-to-edge optics, which are really just very sharp magnifying glasses, there’s not very much going on behind the scenes. For drone users, however, the headset promises to be a godsend, as the VR ONE is one of the first VR headsets designed for functional FPV (first-person view) and motion control of copters. CloudlightFPV is an iOS app built specifically for use with the VR ONE, and it works with most models in the DJI Phantom series of copters, as well as with the top-shelf DJI Inspire 1 quadcopter. By tethering to the handset remote, the app provides head-tracking that can control the camera’s gimbal in two directions—vertical pitch that will tilt the gimbal up and down (+30° to -90°), and horizontal yaw for left and right movements in a full 360º (excepting the Phantom 3). It also includes On Screen Display projection of power, signal strength, flight mode, vertical and horizontal speeds, distance and telemetry data on top of the video feed. The POV video can be switched between the iPhone and drone camera at any time through a switch on the handset. The semi-opaque, see-through front panel of the VR ONE allows the camera of the iPhone to do takeoffs and landings without removing the headset. It’s also capable of dual-operator setups.

For Android users, the Litchi app is compatible with the Phantom 3 Advanced, Phantom 3 Professional, Inspire 1, and Phantom 2 Vision and 2 Vision+ drones. Several cleaning supplies are also available for the VR ONE, as is a 4000 mAh powerbank with built-in standard and microUSB cables, recommended for longer features and drone control, as video will drain smartphone batteries fairly quickly. If you plan on sitting with the VR ONE for the majority of the time, smartphones can be plugged in for power comfortably while wearing the headset. Trays cost a little under $10 separately, so it seems the headset will be future-proof as you upgrade your phone system, which is ideal, as the resolution on current smartphones has a ways to go to catch up to the pristine lenses built into the VR ONE. As the system relies on the smartphone for motion detection, however, the question you’ll have to ask yourself is if you want to spend $100 on a system that’s more or less a very large phone case, albeit one with excellent optics and interactive drone control.

List Price: $129 (Zeiss VR ONE); $120 (without smartphone tray); $24.99 (powerbank); $19.99 (Litchi app for DJI Phantom/Inspire); $9.99 (CloudlightFPV app).

Learn more about the Zeiss VR ONE at vrone.us, and visit CloudlightFPV at cloudlightfpv.com.

MENU