Review: Zeiss VR One virtual reality headset (for iPhone 6)

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Gizmag reviews the Zeiss VR One, a virtual reality headset with a slide-out tray for the iPhone 6 (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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Any company that's been making lenses for 169 years is probably good at adapting. So perhaps it makes sense that German company Carl Zeiss AG (better known today simply as "Zeiss") didn't waste time jumping into the new frontier of virtual reality. Gizmag has been playing with the company's VR One headset for the iPhone 6 – read on for our review.

Considering the company's pedigree, we never doubted that the Zeiss VR One would have a great pair of lenses (it does). But the entire headset is solidly built, looking and feeling more than a little like the Samsung Gear VR. Pick up the VR One and you'll see that this is no cheaply-built Google Cardboard kit: solid-feeling plastic, comfortable foam padding and durable adjustable bands make it clear that this is consumer-grade gear.

While the Gear VR requires you to plug a Galaxy Note 4 into a microUSB port, and Google Cardboard headsets have adjustable arms to hold a variety of phones in place, the Zeiss VR One uses a slide-out tray. It's a nice touch that makes it easier to get your phone in and out: just put your phone into the tray, then push the tray into the front of the headset (from either side) and wait for it to snap into place. Zeiss says that the tray also allows for ideal positioning of each handset (more precise, at least, than those retractable arms on Cardboard headsets).

This also means that, as long as Zeiss keeps making new trays for new phones, the headset itself won't become obsolete. The company has support for more phones in the pipeline, though this headset won't work with any phones with displays larger than 5.2-in (more on that in a minute).

Right now the list of compatible phones only includes two models: the iPhone 6 (only the 4.7-in model, not the iPhone 6 Plus) and the Samsung Galaxy S5. We tested the VR One with the iPhone.

Turning the most popular phone on the planet into a virtual reality headset could have its perks, but in this case it carries some drawbacks too.

For starters, there isn't much VR content in the App Store right now. Zeiss offers a media launcher app that suggests a group of third-party apps to download (most are quick and basic demos), as well as two more apps straight from Zeiss. Those include a cinema app (it lets you watch videos stored on your iPhone while sitting in a virtual movie theater ... similar to several apps available for Oculus Rift developers) and an augmented reality app that combines the iPhone's camera with a bundled cardboard cube to make animated characters appear to be walking in front of you.

How can you use the iPhone's camera, you ask? Well, the phone's tray has a cut-out for it to peek through, and the covering on the front of the headset – which looks mostly opaque in pictures – is transparent enough for the camera to view your environment. This element works well, and the augmented views of your real environment don't look cloudy or distorted.

The VR One is also compatible with Google Cardboard VR content, as the VR fundamentals (two side-by-side horizontal images/videos displayed on your phone's screen) are the same here as on any other headset. That still doesn't mean it has a great selection on iOS, but it does mean that the Zeiss VR One unofficially doubles as a consumer-grade Google Cardboard kit, and should continue to play nicely with all Cardboard content moving forward (in addition to new content supported by Zeiss or any other VR app maker).

The other big compromise with an iPhone 6-powered VR headset is that 4.7 inches is a little small for a virtual reality screen. The field of view isn't great. The product page says it's around 100 degrees, but we consistently saw two indentations on the right and left sides of your view that take away from the illusion. We mocked up the image below to give you an idea of what this looks like (note the little black dead zones on either side):

If you're new to virtual reality, then maybe the small screen's limitations won't bother you much. But if you go from the Gear VR or Oculus Rift DK2 to the Zeiss VR One, you're probably going to be let down in this respect. It simply doesn't match their "magical" immersive quality.

We weren't able to test the VR One with a Galaxy S5, but its 5.1-in screen should fare better in this respect. That's still, however, a far cry from the 5.7-in displays found in the Gear VR and Oculus Rift DK2 ... and, again, even when new trays come into play, the Zeiss headset isn't designed to support phones with screens larger than 5.2 inches.

Unlike the Gear VR, the Zeiss headset doesn't have any built-in navigation controls. Of the App Store's limited VR content, many of them are either non-interactive demos or videos, or they use a head-tracking-based cursor for navigation. But for present and future apps that need "real" controls, you'll need to use a compatible Bluetooth gamepad.

Zeiss hasn't cracked the case for lens fogging. Like every other virtual reality headset we've used, the VR One's lenses fog up after a few minutes of use, so you'll want to look into something like Clarity Defog It wipes or defogging sprays designed for scuba gear to deal with that (and for your eyes' sake, don't even think about using defogging sprays or wipes designed for car windshields).

Right now the Zeiss VR One with iPhone tray is a well-built headset that's good for giving iPhone owners a little glimpse into the world of VR. Neither its content nor overall experience come close to being on par with the Oculus Rift or Gear VR, but the good news is once we start seeing more Google Cardboard apps (and other universal VR content) popping up in the App Store, the VR One will only get better. The iPhone 6's screen will never be as ideal as something bigger and sharper like the Note 4, and you'll still miss out on native controls, but the VR One is probably about as good as any iPhone 6-based virtual reality headset can be (right now). For whatever that's worth.

The Zeiss VR One retails for US$99, including one phone tray of your choice. An additional tray will cost you $10, and the company is planning on releasing trays for other handsets, as long as their screen sizes fall between 4.7 and 5.2 inches.

Product page: Zeiss (on Tumblr)

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