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