Sony joins the virtual reality revolution with Project Morpheus
There’s a vast chasm between what virtual reality is right now and what it could be. Today, it takes the form of dazzling tech demos that all but a few can only absorb secondhand; one day, it might be that an accessible, affordable VR headset in every living room transforms how we interact with media, and even how future generations are trained and educated.
As a result, it’s easy to get carried away. But there’s reason to be excited: Sony’s Project Morpheus headset, revealed at GDC as expected, represents another huge step forward for a technology that, before this March, had been largely defined by the team at Oculus VR (which now has serious money behind it, with the announcement following GDC that Facebook had bought it for $2 billion).
Sony’s arrival brings in more investment and further validation of the technology, but appropriately for such an intangible concept, Morpheus’s unveiling was light on solid details. Its price and release date are unknown, its codename was only decided upon a week before GDC, and the prototype shown on the show floor in San Francisco will continue to evolve, so its capabilities are sure to be very different by the time it ends up on shelves. As a proposition for consumers, it needs a concise explanation and a platform-defining game – CCP’s EVE Valkyrie is a tantalising glimpse at what this tech might provide, but it’s no Wii Sports. The demos Sony has shown so far are also short, intuitive VR experiences that do what existing videogames can’t without feeling too alien.
The Castle was the more videogame-like of the two firstparty offerings shown at GDC. Grasping two Move controllers, you interact with an empty suit of armour, your virtual hands able to punch, slap, and even grab with a squeeze of the trigger. Later on, cradling a virtual crossbow in our phantom hands makes a simple shooting gallery feel real enough to make us briefly forget we’re holding a Move controller, such is the fidelity of the tracking and the resultant immersion of Sony’s prototype headset.
The Deep, meanwhile, is an early indication of just how powerful a sense of place can be in VR, seeing you descend into the dark depths of the ocean, awaiting an inevitable shark attack. The sense of anticipation and dread might be too much for those of a sensitive disposition; during Sony’s reveal event and afterwards, there was talk of VR experiences potentially overwhelming players if they followed the rules of ‘traditional’ game design. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney is familiar with both Morpheus and Rift, and believes that part of the thrill is in feeling out the boundaries of what the tech can do. “It’s often counterintuitive – some of the things you could get away with on a television-based game will make you barf,” he notes. “Some of the best [VR] experiences are at quite a different pace than you would expect.”
The closest we have to traditional videogames on Morpheus right now
are a Thief demo and EVE Valkyrie. In the latter, the stomach-churning effect of a barrel roll and the simpler thrill of just looking about your cockpit are almost enough to make you forget that there’s incoming fire to avoid. “It makes for an astonishing three-to-five-minute experience. It’s now our responsibility to turn that into a real game,” says CCP’s David Reid. “We are moving swiftly toward a full vertical slice with all of the systems in the game. And from there, [it’s about] building more content, more maps, more missions and more modes as we head towards launch.”
While Valkyrie and its ilk have been fantastic showcases of virtual reality’s potential, Sony’s arrival in the space lends it a new air of legitimacy and, in the process, raises expectations. Oculus Rift’s dev kit was made available to anyone prepared to back the project on Kickstarter, its release resulting in a rush of experimental, proofof-concept prototypes, many made by small, unknown teams. Sony is not making Morpheus for those developers, or at least not solely for them. If Rift proved the concept, Morpheus, with its native PS4 support, will define production values. The challenge is no longer simply how to make VR work in games, but how to make it work in big-budget productions made to sell millions.
As motion control and mobile gaming history have made abundantly clear, a shoehorn won’t help. While many studios will seek to port existing firstperson games to Morpheus with a few tweaks, it’s doubtful that process will bring us any real breakthroughs. “You can probably play Battlefield with it and it’d be pretty cool, but I think the most successful games will be the games that are designed exclusively for virtual reality,” says Avalanche founder and creative director Christofer
Sundberg. “Driving games will be absolutely fantastic, and, having seen some of their demos, aural games could be pretty cool, too – that’s what fascinated me the most, the sound. I think a game like The Hunter would be pretty cool to have in VR. I would love to play a horror game on it, too.”
While big publishers get their houses in order, however, Reid expects indies – or the indie spirit, at least – to continue to be at VR’s forefront. “We gravitated toward this as an opportunity to not just make a successful business and make a great game, but to be first in a new
If Rift proved the concept, then Morpheus, with its native PS4 support, will define production values
frontier,” he says. “In that spirit, it’s typically something you’ll find more in the independent developer community, so I would expect the early VR efforts to come from smaller folks who are looking to make a mark on something new, as opposed to expecting it to come from some of the larger publishers.”
The bigger companies
will have to balance their desire to experiment with new ways to play alongside the need to recoup their investment in an unproven sector. With that in mind, Avalanche CTO Linus Blomberg’s pragmatic view is understandable. “It’s so difficult with peripherals like that to make a bet before there’s actually a market out there,” he says. “Obviously, for [Sony’s] internal studios it makes sense, but for us it’s difficult. But it’s really impressive from a technical perspective and everyone I’ve met that has experienced it has said it’s mind-blowing.”
As the company behind Unreal Engine 4, Epic is duty-bound to keep pace with new advances and the technical challenges they pose. So it’s little surprise that Morpheus and VR in general are uppermost in Sweeney’s thoughts. “What’s really exciting is thinking about how it’s going to evolve in the coming years,” he says. “Imagine version five or six of these technologies –
that’s when you have a product that could appeal to billions of people. It could fundamentally change the way that you interact with computers, and it’ll be able to simulate reality in a way that’s so physically accurate that you’ll have a very hard time telling the difference between what’s real and what’s not.
”You have to wonder what it’ll be like in the future when children grow up with such high-quality VR that it becomes very hard to distinguish reality from computer gaming. That’s really profoundly exciting.”
It’s also where money comes into it. It’s hard not to see Oculus VR’s Facebook deal as a response to the emergence of such a well-financed competitor, even if the reality is more complex. Oculus CTO
John Carmack’s admission after the deal that his company could avoid “several embarrassing scaling crises” is telling. If VR is to survive the mass market, it will not do so driven only by a startup with under $100 million in venture capitalist backing. Whatever Facebook’s plans are, the deal puts Rift on a more even footing with Sony, which can click its fingers and source all the components it needs to put Morpheus into production on a scale that the pre-Facebook Oculus could only have dreamed of. If this really is to be VR’s second coming, March 2014 should be remembered as the month that changed everything.
Sony’s TheCastle demo (above, left) places a Move controller in each hand, a squeeze of the trigger forming a fist or grabbing the hilt of a sword. Meanwhile, while playing VR Thief (top), we’re told by Sony to avoid using the unoptimised dash move because of the risk of extreme disorientation
From top: Epic CEO Tim Sweeny; CCP’s chief marketing officer, David Reid