RE­AL­ITY RE­BOOTED

Face­book has given us two bil­lion rea­sons why vir­tual re­al­ity is the fu­ture. But can PlayS­ta­tion step up to the VR plate first?

Australian T3 - - RADAR -

WITH VIR­TUAL RE­AL­ITY POSTER-BOY Ocu­lus VR ac­cept­ing a two bil­lion-dol­lar buy­out from Face­book and Mi­crosoft hav­ing patented, and re­port­edly ready­ing, its own head­set, we’re en­ter­ing the type of VR arms race not seen since the Lawn­mower Man hit cin­e­mas and the Vir­tu­al­ity ar­cades stole our lunch money. At the cen­tre of this next-nex­tgen ker­fuf­fle is Sony, whose Project Mor­pheus pro­to­type head­set fi­nally broke cover at San Fran­cisco’s Game De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence.

Three years in the mak­ing, Mor­pheus is an in­trigu­ing slab of con­ver­gence tech, see­ing Sony cherry-pick in­no­va­tions from its many R&D di­vi­sions – HMZ cush­ion­ing, cam­era op­tics, 1080p dis­plays, PlayS­ta­tion Move mo­tion sen­sors – to build a Franken­stein’s monster of im­mer­sive en­ter­tain­ment.

“VR goes far and be­yond the gam­ing pop­u­la­tion,” Sony World­wide Stu­dios boss Shuhei Yoshida told T3. “It re­moves our lim­i­ta­tions and al­lows us to do any­thing.” In­deed, our hands-on hour (see Fo­cus box), which in­volved be­ing low­ered in a cage into shark-in­fested wa­ters, could do won­ders for aver­sion ther­apy. But the “any­thing” Sony out­lined also in­cludes walk­ing with di­nosaurs, try­ing out ho­tel rooms be­fore book­ing or vis­it­ing Mars (a NASA project is un­der way).

The sleek, blue sen­sor-dot­ted head­set is such a Daft Punk- like vi­sion of the fu­ture it’s al­most funny. Yet the ad­just­ment set­tings re­main very much 2014, which is where you see why this is still a pro­to­type, a VR “spot­ter” needed to get the fit just right. It’s es­sen­tial, too, as like the sim­i­larly dual-im­aged stereo­scopic 3D, VR can be­come a bit of a blur if your align­ment’s awry. That said, it’s light, a sep­a­rate pro­cess­ing unit han­dling im­ages and 3D au­dio du­ties through HDMI. Sound is also out­sourced to your own head­phones, ei­ther wired to the head­set or wire­less, if you pre­fer.

The cur­rent 1080p LCD dis­play run­ning at 60Hz with a 90-de­gree field of vi­sion is im­pres­sive, though not as wide or vi­brant as Ocu­lus’s OLED, 110-de­gree of­fer­ing. Bet­ter is the po­si­tional track­ing, which breaks from the Rift by adding rear mark­ers that en­able you to move 360 de­grees in vir­tual space with­out nau­sea; Ocu­lus will no doubt be tak­ing notes.

It’s clear that the threat of a brand the size of PlayS­ta­tion pitch­ing up at the VR party gave Ocu­lus rea­son to take stock and a deal with Face­book cer­tainly sets it up well against the in­com­ing tech ti­tans. Yet with Ocu­lus’s in­die cred tak­ing a dent – Minecraft cre­ator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson has pulled his game from Rift – it will be in­ter­est­ing to see how VR’s re­al­ity ac­tu­ally plays out. A con­sumer head­set we can all buy would be a start; Sony’s chiefs say theirs def­i­nitely won’t be out this year. Au.plays­ta­tion.com, out 2015

For a pro­to­type, Sony’s vir­tual re­al­ity head­set sure is slick. It’s the RoboCop- like vi­sor that VR de­serves. Un­like the firm’s HMZ per­sonal view­ers, which can tug your head down and tire the neck af­ter ex­tended ses­sions, weight is well dis­trib­uted – it’s easy to for­get you’re wear­ing it.

The multi-fit op­tions and ex­ten­sive cush­ion­ing make Sony’s vi­su­als ap­pear fur­ther away than the Rift’s, as if viewed through binoc­u­lars with the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion turned off, but the out­put feels more pol­ished and sta­ble, shorn of de­vel­op­ment mes­sages and crashes.

The vi­su­als are in­cred­i­bly im­mer­sive, the oc­ca­sional sight of mo­tion blur not de­tract­ing from the en­velop­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. EveValkyrie’s in­ter­ga­lac­tic dog­fight is a real StarWars mo­ment, the po­si­tional trackers al­low­ing you to look around as you sweep through tow­er­ing bat­tle sta­tions, re­turn­ing fire. But it’s TheDeep that made the big­gest splash, a shark-cage dip that slowly goes wrong, the PS4 cam­era record­ing our head­set’s trackers turn­ing fran­ti­cally in ever-in­creas­ing cir­cles as we faced a dis­tinctly Jaws- y fate. The vi­su­als are scar­ily real­is­tic.

What’s clear is repli­cat­ing your vir­tual world in the real one pays div­i­dends, too. Eve’s cock­pit sim is best taken seated, while TheDeep’s shark-cage adds scares if stand­ing, re­al­ity height­ened. Pe­riph­eral mak­ers are go­ing to make a killing.

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