For Sony Corp., the release of a virtual-reality headset Thursday means trying to recapture lost magic.
It has been a long time since one of its products seized the world’s imagination—perhaps since the first PlayStation videogame machine went on the market in 1994. Sony’s income statement has returned to the black after it trimmed loss-making units, but it has become increasingly unclear whether Sony’s legend will ever come back.
That is why the company has devoted thousands of staffers to its virtual-reality project over the past four years. Led by a pair of 30-year Sony veterans, the company is putting the $399 PlayStation VR on store shelves Thursday around the globe.
The headset works in tandem with the PlayStation 4 game machine, but Sony sees videogames as just one use. Using virtual reality, travelers could preview highlights of their trip and students could time-travel to the age of the dinosaurs—or so the thinking goes.
“Virtual reality is a door to worlds you have always dreamed of,” says Shuhei Yoshida, one of those two Sony veterans, who bears the title of VR ambassador. But first Sony must persuade consumers that they need a virtual-reality headset at all. Some people find the devices tiring or cumbersome to wear, and executives at rivalNintendo Co. say headset technology isn’t mature enough to reach the mainstream.
To some, the technology raises memories of 3-D televisions, another technology hyped by Sony and others that didn’t achieve mass appeal. That was one of many blows to Sony’s image as an innovator over the past two decades. The cruelest was the success of Apple Inc.’s iPod and iPhone. Music players and portable electronics had once been Sony’s specialty, going back to the transistor radio and the Walkman, but Apple seized the market with its marriage of hardware and software.
Virtual reality offers an opportunity to make a comeback, in part because of Sony’s strength in entertainment software—videogames, movies and music. “Sony is best positioned to take a leadership role in the virtual-reality industry because it still is a powerful conglomeration of electronics and entertainment,” said Minatake Kashio, director of research firm Fomalhaut Techno Solutions.
Analysts see the PlayStation VR as the first virtual-reality headset squarely targeted at consumers. Facebook Inc.’s $599 Oculus Rift and HTC Corp.’s $799 Vive are more suited to professional developers, they say, because the devices require powerful computers to run. A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment, while HTC said the Vive appeals to a wide range of consumers by offering seated, standing and room-scale setupsproviding the most immersive VR experience.
From the start of the virtual-reality project, Sony has paid particular attention to ergonomics. The product has its roots in PlayStation Move, a motion-tracking hand controller for the PlayStation 3. Though it was unsuccessful as a business, a small group of engineers in California started an experiment to use it in tracking head moves in 2010. By 2012, the research evolved into a formal project with staff in Tokyo and London.
One of the leaders was Mr. Yoshida, 52, a software specialist who joined the PlayStation business a year before the first machine went on sale in 1994. He is the kind of videogame executive who spends his spare time playing videogames. Not long ago, a television crew, thinking he was an anonymous game nerd, interviewed him at an event for game fans, later identifying him on the air only as a “man in his 50s”—a description his colleagues haven’t let him forget.
He pushed for a function allowing a player wearing the VR headset to interact with another player in the same room viewing the game on a regular TV screen. When the hardware team balked, he says he had his staff cobble together a makeshift version of the idea using a PlayStation 4 and a hand-held PlayStation Vita. “I wanted to prove that you don’t need to isolate yourself from the rest of the world to use a virtual-reality headset,” Mr. Yoshida said in an interview. The function ultimately got included.
Demands from engineers made life harder for hardware boss Masayasu Ito, 54, who like Mr. Yoshida joined Sony in 1986. A former car-audio designer, Mr. Ito says he had to tame the desire of engineers to pack the hardware with expensive features like cutting-edge display screens that would make it impossible to hit the $400 price.
Mr. Ito said he had to send prototypes back many times to improve the device’s comfort, trying to make the lock mechanism operable with one hand and balance the device’s weight. “The user experience must come first before the technical specs,” he said in an interview.
The result is a product that has won praise for its comfort in initial reviews, while continuing to draw questions whether it can move beyond a niche product for devoted gamers. Sony and outside developers plan to have more than 50 titles ready for the PlayStation VR by the end of the year, including a “Star Wars” game from Electronic Arts Inc. Capcom Co.will release its blockbuster “Resident Evil” in January next year.
Analysts say that without more content, PlayStation VR faces the same danger as 3-D TVs. “Game publishers should create strong VR-only content,” said Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute. “And the lesson from 3-D TVs is that they should deliver it quickly after the platform launch.”