Founder, Enhance Games
the man behind Sega Rally, Space Channel 5 and Lumines, took a step back from game creation in 2012 in order to focus on academic work and his band Genki Rockets. But the prospect of working in VR has reinvigorated his passion for making games, and Rez Infinite is the first result of his re-engagement with the medium in which he’s enjoyed a formidable run of successes.
We thought you were done with games – what’s the story behind your decision to come back?
With every new technology that became available I would challenge myself to take the thoughts, visions and concepts that were in my head and execute them in game form. But once we shipped Child Of Eden, I felt like trying to squeeze all these ideas into a screen, where the output is flat no matter how great your TV is, was very limiting. I felt like I couldn’t go any further, so I took a break. And that time served to recharge my batteries. So with the arrival of VR, that really triggered me to… come back is not the right phrase. But it was the right time for me to continue on that path I was always on. And honestly, this is probably the most exciting time in my career – I’ve never felt so energised. I’m really excited by the possibilities I see in VR.
What was it like taking those first steps with VR?
It’s the same with every new piece of hardware: you don’t really have a lot of other examples to go by. So I put on the headset and it’s a blank white screen; I didn’t have any content to look at, or refer to. But as I’ve been doing studies and research in VR since I was a student, I think I was familiar enough to have an idea of what an experience in VR should be. So I was full of, I guess, nerves, but expectation and excitement, and also lingering concerns: ‘How am I going to really do this?’ But one thing’s for sure: because Rez in my head, from the beginning, really existed in a VR-like world, I knew that when the time came, Rez was going to be the first thing I would try to accomplish in VR. So I was telling myself that – it was a promise to myself, and I was committed to fulfilling that goal. And how did you do that, given Rez is a Sega game? Rez remains with Sega – it’s their IP. I started early discussions with them maybe three years ago when I was teaching, and they’ve been very supportive. Obviously there are very strong connections between myself and Rez. And because of the hardware it’s available for – whether it was the original Rez on DC and PS2, or Rez HD on Xbox 360 – a lot of people have told us, ‘Well, it’s kind of a hassle to hook up my Xbox 360 because I have an Xbox One’, or whatever. It meant a lot for me to go back and say, ‘OK, I want to put this on a new piece of hardware’. Fast forward to today, Sega are one of my greatest supporters and partners, and are really cheerleading me. Rez Infinite is going to run in native 4K on PlayStation 4 Pro, so to really call this the ultimate version of Rez and have everyone support me in the endeavour is really important to me.
So it’s really just a case of ‘Give me more power’?
Yeah. From what we know today, I can sense what the future might bring to what I do. That in turn gives me more inspiration and energy about what I want to make in the next five or ten years. The only thing I want to do is start getting my hands dirty with these ideas. It’s the happiest time, the most exciting time. I really have to thank technology for allowing me to do this.
So what does the future hold?
If I can be so bold as to say that synaesthesia is going to be this common theme, a common thread that I want to lay the foundations for, and kind of own in games… [laughs] I think it could be possible that this concept can be either applied to, or blended with, a game in any genre. I wouldn’t cross out anything at this point, and that’s what excites me about it. And it feels like that’s going to be the next wave of game ideas.
Trying to pursue the real – mimicking real-life scenarios in virtual reality – is one thing. But even in non-VR gaming, I feel like we’re about to come to a very closed situation, where you’ve seen similar things enough times, and there’s a limit to how much of that you can consume. So trying to come up with a fresh, never-before-seen experience is inevitable. It’s a natural progression, something game creators like us are going to want to pursue. So that’s where I see myself, and the ideas I already have brewing in my head.
SWITCHING FROM RIFT OR VIVE TO PSVR FEELS LIKE KICKING OFF HEAVY BOOTS AND EASING INTO A FAVOURITE PAIR OF TRAINERS
“We wanted to make sure the whole thing was usable operationally without the user doing anything on top of wearing it,” Araki tells us. “So that people with or without glasses could use it – that was our objective. And the user interface on the band was physically minimised – everything is done mechanically inside. The band is extendable like a rubber band, but once you turn and click the dial, it locks. The whole thing could have been designed so that the user would have to do that themselves, but that would be a cumbersome step. The concept was to make it simple and easy, so the wearer could just use VR [without hassle].”
Once on, PSVR also feels considerably lighter than its pricier PC-powered counterparts. Even the cable running from the headset to PSVR’s separate Processing Unit (a potentially confusing title for a box that simply handles 3D audio, mirrored or separate social screens, and the transformation of PS4’s user interface into cinematic mode) is notably skinny – a fact that Sony is particularly proud of and keen to note. The overall reduction of weight and pressure makes switching from Rift or Vive to PSVR feel like kicking off heavy boots and easing into a favourite pair of trainers.
“Initially our focus was on the front area, and how to optimise the weight of that section,” Araki explains. “We worked on the thickness of each layer to come up with the optimal solution, and the whole thing was very challenging, design-wise. It’s true that the lighter the frontal part, the better – but in addition to that, where the centre of gravity sits is also very important. If that point is at the front, then while the whole thing may be lightweight, you’d still feel it. So we moved some of the weightier parts on the band, so that the centre of gravity was in the middle of your head. The overall weight of the unit is greater as a result, but when you wear it you still feel comfortable.”
“The unit we have now,” Kura notes, “just feels like you’re wearing a hat.”
THE PROTOTYPE WAS“A BOX OF IRON AND STEEL”, WITH AN LCD SCREEN ATTACHED INSIDE AND A MOVE CONTROLLER STRAPPED ON TOP
Another, less obvious, aspect of PSVR’s approach to user comfort is the absence of any particular odour. It may seem like a frivolous observation, but the cheap-car-like aroma of Rift and Vive’s plastics and fabrics have accelerated the onset of motion sickness through association for at least one Edge staffer. When we talk to Araki about this point, he reveals that the team spent a great deal of time testing components to ensure that none would leak any form of gas when they changed temperature.
“Nothing would’ve been hazardous to people’s health,” Araki clarifies, “but if there was any smell, we discussed it with the manufacturing team to eliminate all of those components.”
This attention to detail permeates the design, from large-scale usability considerations such as eliminating Velcro straps and ensuring users can wear glasses without them being pushed into their face, down to the bespoke spacing of each unit’s screen.
“Basically there’s an ideal distance for the virtual image that has to be set,” Araki explains. “It’s a function of the lens and of the parts used in the body, but those parts come with inconsistency because we do a considerable volume of manufacturing and we have a lot of dies and moulds for each part. Therefore, in order to adjust the distance of the virtual image to the distance we want to set, we take measurements to identify the exact position that will bring about the optimal distance on a particular unit, and then we make adjustments on each one, using a different number of spacers from one unit to the next.”
All of this effort could have been undermined had Sony’s team followed through on its initial plan to use LCD panels for the display rather than the OLED panels favoured by Oculus and HTC. At the beginning of its life, PSVR started out as a cobbledtogether prototype built by five R&D employees in the US and described by Ito as “a box of iron
“INITIALLY, PEOPLE WERE LAUGHING AND ASKING WHAT THE HELL THEY WERE DOING! BUT ONCE YOU EXPERIENCE IT, THERE’S AN AMAZEMENT”
and steel” with an LCD screen attached inside and a Move controller strapped to the top.
“Initially, people were laughing and asking what the hell they were doing!” he laughs. “But once you experience it, there’s an amazement, a surprise. SIE Worldwide Studios was the first entity that wanted to create a game for this, so they joined, and then we also got interested from the hardware side, and wanted to mass-produce the thing. But there was a delay in the LCD display that made people feel seasick, so we changed to OLED, which has minimal latency. Changing the panel was the biggest difficulty we encountered along the way.”
The OLED’s 120Hz refresh rate is a major contributing factor to PSVR’s crisp, smooth visuals, but it’s just one part of a larger concerted effort to solve a number of problems with current VR hardware. Images on PSVR’s display are rendered sharply, and the screen-door effect is less pronounced than it is on its more expensive competitors. Araki, Ito and Kuri are reluctant to give away too much about how they’ve achieved this level of quality, but tell us that it’s the combined result of several innovations, along with carefully checked prioritisation.
“There’s magnification involved,” Ito explains, “and some types of lens and magnification will make the pixels visible. So we had to develop something new in order to ensure that the distance between them was minimal, so that even when they were expanded under magnification, [separation between pixels] would still not become visible.”
“This isn’t limited to just the OLED – it’s the totality of the optical design,” Araki notes. “Because OLED technology keeps changing and evolving, it was
a matter of timing as to which level of OLED we were able to actually use. When we started designing this hardware to make it a commercial product, we were able to get our hands on the best available OLED at the time. But then the next question is: how do we produce a beautiful picture using that OLED technology? And it’s a matter of balance. Field of view is very important because it’s a head-mounted display, but if we just try to expand the field of view, it stretches the original image and degrades its quality. So we created several versions that might satisfy the user, and we chose the one which gave an optimal balance [between FOV and image quality].
“Another balancing question is whether you go for the quality of image or the lightness of the headset. Weight is an important aspect of the whole thing, of course, and we thoroughly researched what would be optimal. But in that process we’ve always gone for quality of image over reducing weight, and with that approach we’ve been able to realise the quality of the image we have now.
“And we knew that the screen-door effect would be a challenge when we started development work, so we took a unique approach to resolving that problem. I can’t give you the specifics, but it’s not just one piece of technology: we worked on signal processing, and also optical technology, and I think we’ve been successful in that respect.”
The resulting whole is a headset that encourages you to spend more time using it than we’re
THE “WE SCREEN-DOORKNEW THAT EFFECT WOULD BE A CHALLENGE WHEN WE STARTED, SO WE TOOK A UNIQUE APPROACH TO RESOLVING IT”
accustomed to with its competitors, simply because it’s more comfortable – a fact also noted by several of the developers on these pages, whose work has required them to spend more time wearing PSVR hardware than anyone. But one area in which Sony can’t compete with Rift is integrated audio. Instead, PSVR is packaged with a pair of earbuds that you plug into the headset’s in-line remote control. “Users have all kinds of headphones themselves, and probably want to use their own,” Ito tells us when we ask him about the decision. “That’s why we avoided headphones this time.” It’s a small inconvenience given the benefits the setup offers elsewhere.
Another advantage for PSVR users is
immediate access to motion controls without investing in Move controllers, thanks to the DualShock hardware’s light bar. HTC’s Vive comes with packed-in controllers, but that’s part of a package that costs nearly £700. And Oculus is still to make its Touch controllers available for Rift – a move that has undermined games such as
The Climb, which have been forced to work with Xbox controllers. While PSVR games will play significantly differently depending on which type of controller you use, and both Sony and its development partners recommend using Move controllers for the best possible experience, the ability to reach into virtual worlds using the standard DualShock pad shouldn’t be underestimated.
Neither should the base PS4 hardware, it turns out. There has been some vocal concern regarding PSVR’s ability to reproject 60fps imagery at 120fps – a technique not required by powerful PCs capable of rendering natively at 120fps – but the actual difference in graphical quality between PSVR and its more expensive competitors feels minimal, and in many cases not even noticeable. Time with DriveClub
VR, Robinson: The Journey or EVE: Valkyrie is enough to quash doubts about PSVR’s credentials. It’s a crucial consideration given that Sony’s VR solution
TIME WITH DRIVECLUB VR, ROBINSON: THE JOURNEY OR EVE: VALKYRIE IS ENOUGH TO QUASH DOUBTS ABOUT PSVR’S CREDENTIALS
costs £200 less than an Oculus Rift, while base PS4 hardware has recently been on sale at £150.
With aspirations of making a Walkman-sized impact, Sony’s PSVR designers aren’t afraid to think big. And with good reason: their hardware stands to give VR a jolting shot in the arm, pulling it out of the enthusiast niche and into the realm of the commercial mainstream. Here is the most comfortable and attractively designed VR headset to date, at a price point that feels palatable compared to the offerings of Oculus and HTC, with a marketing campaign that aims to reach out beyond early adopters. Crucially, it is powered by the world’s leading console.
“PSVR is an enhancement to PS4, but it isn’t a peripheral,” Ito muses. “It is its own platform. Honestly speaking, I’ve no idea what’s going to happen in ten or 20 years’ time, but I have the evolution of PS4 games in mind. I don’t know whether we’ve been successful yet – it’s for others to make that judgement. But we’re one step towards changing that world.”
Araki tells us that his team was careful to concentrate the moving parts of the PSVR headband in one area at the back, along with a counterweight, to better distribute its mass
“Look at the results we’ve achieved,” Ito offers in response to doubts over PS4’s VR credentials. “You don’t get sick. You have to experience it. I don’t think there’s a problem”
The base PSVR package: 01 The bundled earbuds have a short lead for plugging into the remote. 02 The core headset. 03 An in-line remote handles volume, mute and power. 04 USB lead to connect PS4 and Processing Unit. 05 HDMI lead for daisychaining the PU. 06 The PU handles 3D audio and the social screen. 07 An extension to the VR headset connection cable. 08 AC power leads
01 The PSVR-dedicated Aim gun 01 may look 06 unusual, but it performs well in-game. It uses the same light-tracking technology that is incorporated in the DualShock 02 and Move 03 controllers to communicate with the revamped PlayStation 4 Camera
06 (the original model is also compatible). With the new-look PS4 04 on sale now and PS4 Pro 06 due soon, Sony’s family of console hardware is growing quickly 03 02 04 05
Kuri on PSVR’s colour scheme: “We want our VR to be used by as broad a customer base as possible. It should be approachable, and white is a better colour for that”
The complexity of the hardware becomes clear as Araki disassembles a retail-ready PSVR unit. The journey from hacked-together prototype to carefully balanced consumer product has involved years of refinement