CES is such a Mecca for vaporware that when we first saw news about Panasonic’s VR goggles concept, we thought it would be months before we’d see them in the flesh, if ever.
Only hours later, we were giving them the full test drive.
But first, let’s take a step back: these VR glasses are still very early in development, and while we were able to try a few demos, Panasonic made clear that nothing will come to market for at least a year – if that. Like many companies who exhibit at CES, it wanted to get feedback from the biggest tech heads in the industry, us included.
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But in an expo filled with me-too VR headsets, why do we care so much about Panasonic’s glasses? Well, they look rad as hell. The chunky VR visors we’re used to getting from companies like Oculus and Valve look like space junk next to these steampunk goggles.
But Panasonics glasses should also be able to do all the things those headsets do – just with more style. In fact, the goggles in our demo were tethered to a PC and running everything off Steam VR.
The visuals are just as stunning from the inside: it’s currently 2K x 2K per eye, but Panasonic says the plan is to get to 2.6K x 2.6K. More interestingly, Panasonic’s goggles are also the first VR eyewear to support HDR, which results in greater contrasts and more vivid colors – as we were able to see during some short video demos, particularly one of a CG rendering of a Japanese temple.
Where they lacked most was in the field of view, which was about 70 degrees diagonally and not all that impressive. We also found it hard to keep the goggles on our face, as their front-heavy design caused them to keep slipping down our nose.
However, we also recognize that these are early in development, and Panasonic also let us try a wireless prototype that was much better balanced. That one also had a USB-C port on the back to demonstrate how these glasses may eventually be powered by a smartphone (5G is coming, remember).
I asked a lot of questions during my demo, many around whether Panasonic was considering certain features or applications, and the answer was always yes. It’s part of the reason I’m remaining cautiously optimistic here: Panasonic has a great toy without a clear purpose.
Ichiro Kashiwagi, general manager of Panasonic’s AV Technology Alliance, told me they’re even considering putting AR cameras on the goggles so they could be taken outside. They’d certainly give Magic Leap a run for their money.
In fact, there was a lot of talk about mobile use cases and removing the stigma around mobile VR by wearing something more fashionable.
Panasonic has also leveraged its Technics brand for the audio, which comes via built-in earbuds. There was a second tethered headset prepared just for an audio demo, and yeah, it all sounds pretty great.
Next, the team say they want to add 6DoF tracking (the prototype was only running 3DoF, so I could look around but couldnt walk about). That part is probably going to be a lot easier than making these run off a smartphone or even an internal battery. Panasonic says it’s considering all sorts of possibilities right now.
The question we have is whether we’ll ever see this as a consumer product. It’s not a guarantee, and the company says it’s currently looking at commercial applications. If it does make it to a consumer device, Kashiwagi says they would try to target $1000, which is a lot of money but no more than the Valve Index.
Panasonic has done the impossible and made a VR headset that looks faintly fashionable. But it’s unclear where the company will go with these, as it seems all possibilities are on the table. Here’s hoping Panasonic eventually hones these into a VR headset we can use – and look damn good doing it.