Sony Dev-50 digital binoculars fill a double bill as a still or video camera

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Camcorder action

The DEV-50 is an exceptional video camera. It might in fact be my favorite of all the video cameras I’ve ever tried. And for one simple reason: it’s the only “for real” AVCHD 1080p camcorder I’ve used that lets me watch a live event—while I’m shooting video of it. I’m watching this sporting event, or live performance, or brilliant landscape through binoculars, with a full sense of depth. And because I flicked a button under my left index finger, I’m also getting video of everything I’m seeing as I’m experiencing it.

Conventional camcorders (and phones, which are even worse) force me to look at a tiny little square instead of the full spectrum of something wonderful happening right in front of me. Honestly, is that any way to live? It’s such an awkward way to experience something fantastic, that I barely shot 20 minutes of video during a two-week trip to Asia, despite carrying a $1000 Panasonic camcorder everywhere.

I probably shot more video with the DEV-50 over two weeks than I had with any of my own cameras or test cameras, combined, over two years. Because it was fun, and I felt engaged with my environment.

You can shoot video in either 2D or 3D. It struck me that the DEV-50 quickly becomes the best (and most expensive) ViewMaster ever made. When you ask me what the Red Sox game was like, I can hand you these binoculars, adjust the eyepieces for you, and then press Play. As you look through the electronic viewfinders, you’ll be seeing exactly what I saw, exactly how I saw it, through the exact device with which I saw it.

Are we in the Matrix? Even just slightly?

It’s appropriate to mention the superior video quality and flexibility of a $2000 HD SLR or camcorder here. But those are clearly different beasts for different consumers. The quality of the DEV-50’s video is excellent, on a par with a conventional consumer camcorder, as is the audio quality. The DEV-50 accepts external microphones, via a standard mic input and accessory shoe.

The DEV-50 can use either an SD card (all flavors) or Memory Stick for storage. One minor bit of weirdness: 3D video imported just fine into iMovie, and the app outputs clean, edited HD video. The same AVCHD file appeared severely interlaced inside Aperture, likely owing to the video’s composite 3D format.

Interface issues

As much as I enjoyed the immersive aspect of the DEV-50 as a camcorder, the clumsiness of its user interface was a constant source of pain. It has separate buttons for snapping photos and starting/stopping video. You’d expect to be able to just tap-and-snap, but nope. First, there’s a separate video/photo mode toggle button. Next, you can’t snap photos while the viewfinder is in 3D mode. I missed dozens of photos because the DEV-50 wasn’t in a mood to shoot stills when a bird was in exactly the right position and I stabbed my finger down on the shutter button.

Another hassle of shooting still photos? There seems to be little or no buffering. It takes so long to write the JPEG to the card that shot-to-shot time is measured in seconds. I was using preproduction hardware and firmware, so it’s possible that some of these quirks will be ironed out before release. At the very least, I wish that the DEV-50 could designate the default power-up mode as Photo instead of Video.

The DEV-50 can take some lovely photos, if you stay away from the deep end of the zoom range.

Details

Overall, the DEV-50 is chunky and hefty (close to 2 pounds) without exceeding the expected dimensions of a standard pair of binoculars. They’re nicely molded and very comfortable to hold and operate.

Battery life is solid. A full charge lasted a whole ballgame. I managed to kill it after about 4 hours of tourism, during which I took no measures to conserve power. The DEV-50 uses replaceable battery cartridges, and the one that shipped with my sample unit barely filled half of the designated bay. Sony says it will make a long-duration battery available as an option. Compare this with the infinite battery life of conventional binoculars. Optical binoculars probably have a wider operating temperature range than 0 to 40 degrees Centigrade, too.

A micro-USB port lets you slurp content off of the camera with the memory card in place. You can show off what you’ve shot on any 2D or 3D display via a micro-HDMI connector. There’s also a tripod mount.

I think my birding friend hit it on the head when he described the DEV-50 as a “recreational” device. You certainly can’t expect $2000 worth of high performance from these binoculars in any single category, which will make it hard for most people to justify the expense. I’d be more inclined toward spending $500 on good set of conventional binocs and then $1500 on a compact system camera plus a couple of nice zooms.

Digital camcorder technology combined with binoculars allows the DEV-50 to perform familiar functions in a unique way.

But if I don’t think the DEV-50 is a compelling device, I sure think it’s an interesting one. The fusion of digital camcorder technology with its binocular form allows the DEV-50 to perform familiar functions in a unique way. If I were planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip and I wanted both to enjoy the experience while in the moment and also to share it with friends and family when I got home, I’d want something like this around my neck...if I had that kind of money to spend.

I mean, $2000 will buy you the developer edition of Google Glass and a GoPro camera. But you won’t have to walk around with the DEV-50 strapped to your head all the time. That’s a serious point in its favor.

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At a Glance
  • Sony Dev-50 Digital Recording Binoculars

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