Is Sony Turning Away from Mainstream VR? New HMD is Designed for Surgery

In a curious move away from virtual reality gaming, Sony has announced a revamped version of their HMZ-T2 head mounted display specifically designed for surgical use. The company is calling it the HMM-3000MT. Along with the HMD comes the ‘head-mount image processing unit’ designed for 3D endoscopic image display. Is the company done vying for the mainstream VR market… or just getting started?

A Brief History of Sony Head Mounted Displays

Sony's HMZ-T1

Sony’s HMZ-T1

Sony’s relationship with the head mounted display in recent years has been interesting, to say the least. The company’s first consumer HMD, the HMZ-T1 (which they called a ‘personal 3D viewer’) launched back at the tail-end of 2011. The unit featured two 720p OLED displays and a 39 degree horizontal field of view.

Despite the high quality screens, with no headtracking and a field of view that wasn’t terribly immersive, Sony was positioning the unit more as a wearable 3D HDTV, rather than an HMD for virtual reality gaming. One would think that they would have had some marketing interplay between the PS3 and the HMZ-T1, but there was little of that to be seen. The unit also hit the market at the wallet-crushing price of $799.

Sony's HMZ-T2

Sony’s HMZ-T2

In August of 2012, Sony announced the successor to the HMZ-T1, aptly named… HMZ-T2. Except it felt more like an HMZ-T1.5 than anything else. Spec wise, the HMZ-T2 remained mostly the same — 720p OLED displays. Sony cut down the weight by 20% in response to widely reported issues of comfort by users of the predecessor.

The biggest numerical increase to the HMZ-T2 was in its price — £999 (~$1221 [after removing tax]) in the UK . With no explanation from Sony, the unit also never made a U.S. launch (though you can buy it imported for ~$800).

Sony HMM-3000MT and Image Processing Unit for Endoscopic Image Display

sony hmm-3000mt hmz-t2 surgical hmd endoscopic head mount

And now we come to the next chapter in the Sony HMD saga. Last week company announced the HMM-3000MT HMD and image processing unit (hat tip to Engadget). This step appears to mark a 180 degree turn away from consumer positioning of Sony’s head mounted displays.

“Laparoscopic surgery, whereby an endoscope is inserted through multiple keyhole incisions in a patient’s abdomen allowing the surgeon to confirm video images displayed on a monitor in real time, is becoming increasingly widespread as a procedure that minimizes the strain on patients when compared to open surgery

Furthermore, in recent years, realistic 3D images capable of conveying visual depth-related information related in high definition and with extreme precision have been recognized as providing significant advantages in the medical field, and there is great potential demand for this technology.

This year, a number of medical device manufacturers have released 3D-compatible endoscopes on the market and these devices have gained attention for their extremely accurate three-dimensional images of the area being operated on, and thereby contribute to improving surgical precision. Consequently, there has been an increase in demand for high-precision 3D images and monitors.

Accordingly, Sony is launching a head-mount image processor, which includes a 3D head-mounted monitor, and is compatible with 3D surgical laparoscope. It incorporates Sony’s advanced 3D and display-related technologies to realize a standard of 3D images that meet the demands of medical professionals, and proposes new workflows,” reads Sony’s official press announcement of the HMM-3000MT and image processing unit.

To my eyes, the HMM-3000MT appears to be a revamped HMZ-T2. The head-mount has been overhauled for comfort, but we’re still looking at the dual 720p OLED displays. To be fair, these are great displays with high contrast and rich color; Sony just isn’t gunning for the high field of view that gamers demand for immersive virtual reality gaming. It would seem now that Sony knows this, and has been looking for a way to repurpose their tech.

And repurpose they have, to the tune of ~$15,000 — the official price estimate for a kit including the HMM-3000MT, image processing unit, and one cable to connect the two.

Sony’s Next Step in the HMD Arena

PS4 Oculus Rift concept by T3

PS4 Oculus Rift – concept by T3

Though the news of the HMM-3000MT appears to mark the untimely end of mainstream positioning of Sony’s HMZ series of head mounted displays, I don’t think Sony is out of the game just yet… in fact, this might be just the beginning.

The way that Sony handled the HMZ head mounted displays leads me to believe that the series was created solely in Sony’s display division, not the Sony Computer Entertainment division that’s responsible for the PlayStation — hence the near complete disconnect in their marketing (Sony literally never called the HMZ-series a ‘head mounted display’ or used the term ‘virtual reality’, preferring to only refer to it as a ‘personal 3D viewer’). Rather than a synergistic relationship of gaming and immersive display, the HMZ series and the PlayStation 3 seemed like an awkward step-brother and -sister who weren’t sure if they were allowed to like each other.

From my vantage point, the HMZ series was a consumer outlet for Sony’s custom display technology; tech that almost surely started life in their R&D department as a project to create a (relatively) inexpensive high density OLED microdisplay — without any specific idea of where it would be used. Now they’re just (reasonably) repurposing that proprietary tech for the medical field where it will probably fit very well.

So where does that leave Sony when it comes to mainstream immersive VR gaming? Unless the company is way out of the loop, they’re working on an HMD project within Sony Computer Entertainment that’s goal is to create an immersive VR gaming display — not to develop new display technology. If such a project is in the works, you can bet that it’s being designed for the gamer as an immersive virtual reality head mounted display — not just a ‘personal 3D viewer’.

We know for a fact that Sony has their hands on the Oculus Rift. At E3 2013, Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Worldwide Studio, told Engadget “We’ve got a couple of the development kits, and I tried it out and I love it!” No doubt the company is investigating the Oculus Rift for use with the PS4, or maybe more likely, seeing how they can best build their own PS4 HMD for the mainstream.

Comments

  1. Avatar of kevin williams says

    Just for a little clarity, Sony first entered the consumer virtual world scene with the ‘Sony Glastron’ in 1998. Secondly, in reality Sony’s consumer VR approach has been invisible as the HMZ systems are ‘viewing’ tech rather than VR.

    Its interesting to note that in no media, or marketing from Sony do they use the term VR!

    • Avatar of Mageoftheyear says

      Most likely because of the baggage associated with poor VR experiences.
      You don’t want to raise expectations for your product if you know it can’t provide a great VR experience. It’s a mark against your credibility if you develop another product later saying “no really, this time it’s totally immersive guys – we swear!”

      +1 to Rep for the knowledge base K.W. :P

  2. Avatar of Fredz says

    The recent Sony HMDs were never meant to be for VR as Kevin said, although they presented a demo of a head-tracking solution with Datura that you mentioned in an article last year. Also their FOV isn’t 39° but 45° horizontal (51° diagonal) and their first foray in HMDs was a bit before 1998, June 1996 for the Glasstron release in Japan and 1993 for their first attempt at an HMD (Visotron personal LCD monitor with 2×7″ panels).

  3. Avatar of kevin williams says

    @Fredz
    The Glasstron was released in Japan 1996, but we in the VR community in the West did not get our hands on it as an official import or dev project till 1997 as a import by Sony-D. Some of the first usages (as I said “the VR scene”) till 1998.

    The Visotron was not really a first attempt into VR, the system was developed as a display system for visualisation and was not able to be used adequately for VR, with tracking noise issues, etc.,. We have to be really careful when charting the checkpoints in HMD development as a number of the early HMD’s never could be used in real VR deployment (Visotron, Private Eye, i3D, etc.,).

  4. Avatar of Fredz says

    @Kevin I get your point and appreciate you remark as I’m as well trying to not spread wrong information as much as I can, that’s why I talked about a first attempt at HMD and not VR. Actually it was presented as a head-mount type display in their 1993 patent application* and VR usage was even mentioned there, although it was probably not really usable in this manner as you said. It was also referenced as something usable for virtual reality in the Information Display publication in volume 9 (1993) and as an inspiration in the 1995 patent application for the Virtual I/O HMD.

    My main point though was that the article was a bit quick in saying that Sony was turning away from VR when their recent products were never intended for that usage in the first place and that they’ve been working on this subject for more than 20 years.

    * Display apparatus US 5414544 A : http://www.google.com/patents/US5414544

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