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HAS A WALKMAN FOR THE EYES FINALLY APPEARED ON SHELVES?

SHARE HAS A WALKMAN FOR THE EYES FINALLY APPEARED ON SHELVES?

I still have the portable black-and-white pop-up Panasonic TV my parents gave me for a college graduation present in 1971.

Battery-powered, it was meant to be a Sony Walkman for the eyes well before the Sony Walkman became popular. You could take it to the beach, travel with it on the road, use it at picnics.I did none of the above. I kept it by the breakfast table for a while, then moved it to the bedroom. It was too heavy, bulky and underpowered: a technological curiosity without a lot of practical use. Today it holds down a favored spot in my museum of the miniaturely weird.

In the meantime, TVs have gotten smaller, handier and fancier. Tiny color TVs with screens barely bigger than watches are available. But they're far from a hit with the portable-entertainment-device crowd. The weight and convenience may be right; the screen-form factor is not. The Walkman for the eyes has not yet appeared.

Or has it? Virtual i-O, a Seattle-based startup, is selling a versatile 8-ounce headset that literally turns one's head when it comes to portable TV and computer displays. Light, powerful, fitting over eyeglasses but allowing enough ambient vision (with a tilt backward of the head) so the user does not feel claustrophobic, the "i-glasses" are this year's most intriguing technological breakthrough.

Pricey at $600 or $800 (depending on whether you get TV-only or TV and PC capability), the i-glasses nonetheless offer reasons to spring. With a TV or VCR and cable they can serve as a supplementary display.

Hooked up to a TV, the i-glasses are an eye-popping way to watch sports, especially basketball. Moved over to a computer or Nintendo-Sega-Sony game platforms, they become a game-meister's dream, especially for 3-D programs. With a laserdisc's high resolution they constitute a home-theater-on-a-head.

The in-effect 80-inch display size is like looking at Arnold Schwarzenegger's wall-size TV in "Total Recall." Not quite as crisp as the Hollywood version, because the glasses are limited to standard broadcast resolution. But big, stunning and realistic.

Most significantly, eyestrain is nonexistent. The i-glasses offer fixed focus at 11 inches. You can leave your regular glasses on. For such close quarters the image is comfortably viewable and remarkably distortion-free.

Gamesters will be blown away by the i-glasses' 3-D and virtual-reality capabilities. Equipped with a head-tracking unit attached to the headset, the user chooses a course of action simply by moving his or her head. The i-glasses come bundled with Heretic, Descent, Ascent and Tank Commander.

Setting up the i-glasses requires patience and ability to follow instructions. They connected to my VCR in five minutes with no consultation of the manual.

The PC setup took closer to half an hour. The manual must be followed to the letter; guesswork gets penalized quickly here. But installation went smoothly (be sure to change your PC's video resolution to straight VGA - 640 by 480 - before installing the i-glasses).

With a 3-D program (drivers are included for Magic Carpet and Dark Forces, although the games must be purchased separately) I found the action a little too realistic. The momentary drop-time imparted a vertigo similar to the San Francisco downhill chase scene in Steve McQueen's "Bullitt."

The i-glasses' stereo headphones are a measurable improvement over most TV and computer audio outputs. The earpieces - indeed, the whole headset - seems adjustable to any preference. There was no comfort penalty for this set.

You can try out i-glasses at Blockbuster Video, which recently began offering them to preview videos, for sale and for rental at $14 for two days. I-glasses also are sold at Egghead, CompUSA and other computer-related outlets.

It's enough to make me wish I were graduating again.