In the still-young history of virtual reality, March of 2014 stands as a watershed moment: That was the month, as stockholders (and Kickstarters) know all too well, that Facebook turned Oculus into a billion-dollar company. However, March 2014 was also the month that Sony made a little news of its own. Not only was the Japanese company working on its own VR headset, it announced, but it already had a prototype to show off. With "Project Morpheus," Sony put the world on notice that virtual reality wouldn't be a one-company town.
Sony PlayStation VR
The most affordable of the positionally tracked VR systems (especially if you already own a PS4). A robust slate of games available at launch means you'll have plenty to do. Deceptively great ergonomics make the headset more comfortable, for longer.
Incrementally less powerful than the Rift or Vive. Almost exclusively game-centered thus far. If you need the camera or motion controllers, the bundle is an extra $100. Light leakage is a serious issue, especially when playing during daylight hours. (Daylight can also affect tracking precision.)
In the two and a half years since, Project Morpheus has gone through its own evolution. Some of that is descriptive—it's now known as PlayStation VR—but more of it is strategic. The $399 PSVR is the first of an emerging "middle class" of virtual reality: in both price and performance, it splits the difference between high-end, PC-driven headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and mobile solutions like the Samsung Gear VR and Google's new Daydream View. More importantly, the PlayStation 4 game console that it connects to has sold more than 40 million units worldwide.
That's an enormous opportunity: If even a fraction of those 40 million homes bring PSVR into their living rooms, Sony will win the hardware wars of the first generation of consumer VR—and win handily. And if word of mouth is kind following next Friday's release, the PSVR might just have a shot at turning virtual reality into a Nintendo Wii-like crossover phenomenon.
Face the Future
Where the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are relatively understated black headsets, the PSVR makes no bones about its futuristic intent. Its black eyebox is girded in curvilinear white plastic, as are two padded zones that comprise its headband. Earlier this year, I wrote that it could have come out of an R&D department in Tron, and that effect is even more pronounced when it's sitting among its VR siblings.
That stark palette also underscores the PSVR's most obvious distinctive functional design element: the eyebox and headband have been completely uncoupled, allowing for a two-part adjustment process. Depress the button on the rear of the headband, and you can slide the unit over your head, tightening it with a rotary dial; then a button on the bottom of the eyebox (Sony calls it the "scope") lets you slide that toward your eyes to find a sweet spot of focus. In the front of the headband, a padded black arc fits against your forehead, and distributes most of the unit's weight. In fact, while the PSVR weighs in at 624 grams—well over the 495 grams my Rift weighs—none of it rests on your eye/nose/cheek zone, making the PSVR the most comfortable of the three high-end options. I've used the PSVR in its various prototype iterations a lot since 2014, but never for prolonged periods, so to be able to do so without any pain points or "VR face" was, frankly, a happy surprise.
Another surprising advantage the PSVR holds over its competitors: setup. There's a light (but not small) external processor unit that acts as a bridge between your PS4 and the headset; update your PS4, plug in your PlayStation Camera (the one you hopefully already own, since it's not included), and you're more or less ready to go. Oddly, you still need to turn the headset on; the PSVR is the only unit of its kind that has a dedicated power button, placed on an inline remote control that also contains a headphone jack and volume buttons. (Why a mic is integrated into the headset but sound isn't, a la the Vive, is a question for another time.)
Once you're wearing the headset, what's most interesting is what you don't see: any kind of dedicated VR interface. Rather, the PSVR's home environment is the same PS4 menu that's simultaneously on your TV set; it's not until you launch a game or experience that you find yourself in any sort of 360-degree environment. However, that also means that you can launch and play any game while wearing the PSVR; it'll just be on a widescreen 2-D display suspended in front of you. To navigate the menu and launch games, you can use either the PS4's Dualshock controller or optional PS Move motion controllers. (If you need both the Camera and the Move, a launch bundle contains both accessories, as well as a game, for $499.)
Without things to do, of course, a VR system is effectively worthless. Thankfully, the PSVR has 29 games available on Day One, with at least another 12 expected in the system's "launch window" (aka, "before the holidays"). While some of the launch games available necessitate PS Move controllers, the majority of them work just fine with a DualShock 4. In fact, a number of games take advantage of that controller's trackability to bring a virtualized game controller into VR; seeing your DualShock in the middle of a VR game, all its buttons and sticks perfectly mapped, makes using a standard game controller almost as intuitive as the arguably better-suited-to-VR PS Moves.
Much has been made of the PSVR's specs being less advanced than the Rift's and Vive's—both the headset itself and the horsepower of the system powering the content. And while it's true that the PSVR's display runs at a mere 1080p, Sony has claimed that its OLED screen displays fuller RGB for every pixel, leading to a display that's crisper than one would expect given its resolution. Similarly, while a PS4 released in 2013 can't match the get-up-and-go of a cutting-edge desktop PC, putting a half-dozen games through their paces was just about hiccup-free. (And Sony's upgraded PS4 Pro console, coming next month, has enough of a spec bump to make it a fair fight—or at least a fair-ish one.)
The most glaring flaw in the user experience is actually a design issue, not a performance one: rubber flaps that extend from the eyebox to the cheeks and nose are meant to prevent light leakage, but don't come close to blacking out the outside world. Similarly, the headset and PS Move tracking falters significantly in brighter rooms—so much so that western-facing living room window made a Saturday-afternoon playthrough of Batman: Arkham VR impossible.
But while nothing about the PSVR can be said to be better than the headsets that Oculus and HTC turned out earlier this year—other than ergonomics—that's not what matters. Not at all, in fact. What matters is that this thing works in your living room. What matters is that it's comfortable, immersive, and intuitive. What matters is that it invites people to see what you're doing, even participate in what you're doing (which it does, via asymmetric games like VR Playroom—which is free, and might just turn out to be the Wii Games of the platform.) What matters is that, while it's not cheap by any stretch, it's at $400 a not-out-of-the-realm-of-possibility purchase for holiday presents, high school kids with jobs, and people who already have a PS4 and want to see what the fuss is about.
The PSVR does all those things, and does them well. So no, despite my own predictions back in January, we can't know if this thing is going to be a Wii. But we do know what it's not going to be—and that's a Virtual Boy.