Dream ma­chine

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

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