PSVR: The Mainstream Is Not For Now

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PSVR: The Mainstream Is Not For Now
October 6, 2016

Sony’s entry into the world of consumer virtual reality is an impressive start but it’s not yet the affordable high-end VR experience some are dreaming of.
 
Since the phenomenally successful crowd-funding campaign for Oculus Rift in 2012, the idea of an affordable – and functional – virtual reality headset has obsessed the consumer technology industry. Afterwards, we saw video game publisher Valve partner with phone manufacturer HTC on the high-end Vive headset; we saw the smartphone-powered Gear VR and the budget priced Google Cardboard – and most recently the arrival of Daydream VR as a major element of Google’s own Pixel phone offering.
 
And of course, the games industry has been watching too. In 2014, Sony announced Project Morpheus, the codename for its own PlayStation 4-compatible VR headset, promising an affordable high-end and easy-to-use solution. Now named PlayStation VR, that headset is ready to launch, with an impressive range of games and applications. But can it really cross the difficult divide between specialist geek toy and mass entertainment proposition?
The technology

PlayStation VR is a virtual reality head-mounted display unit (HMD) that plugs into your PlayStation 4 console. It features a 5.7 inch OLED display, which offers a 1920 x 1080 high-definition screen resolution, a 100-degree field of view and a 120Hz refresh rate. The resolution is less than the higher-end (and more expensive) Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets for the PC, which both offer 2160 x 1200 resolution. However, the possible refresh rate (the amount of images per second that the screen can display) is slightly higher on PlayStation VR, and the device displays more subpixels than its PC competitors which leads to a reduction in the ‘screen door’ effect, which sometimes renders the spaces between pixels visible on a VR display.
 
It’s certainly a very striking design, looking a little like some kind of Star Wars space helmet, with its curved white chassis and array of blue lights. Putting it on involves pressing a button at the rear, then gently pulling the back headrest to lengthen the head band, before slipping it over your face. It can be worn with glasses, although the fit is rather tight. Overall, it’s reasonable light and comfortable, comparing favourably with the Rift and Vive. A rubberised masking area around the HMD screen blocks out any exterior light.
 
Once it’s on, you see the PlayStation 4 menu on the display in front of you and this can be navigated with a Dual Shock controller or a PlayStation Move. You can either head into a game or watch a video or Blu-ray disc via the cinematic mode which has three different viewing sizes (selectable via the settings menu), the largest of which really does feel like you’re watching in a cinema – albeit one with a rather low resolution projector.
 
The headset contains an accelerometer and gyroscope so it can track your head movements in conjunction with the PlayStation Camera (which is a required purchase if you don’t already have one). PlayStation VR must remain plugged in to the PS4 at all times, via a long cable to its processor unit, which in turn plugs into the console. You must also plug in and wear wired headphones to get the benefit of the device’s 3D sound. This is all fine for games where you can just sit down (DriveClub, London Heist, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, etc), but then you have to get more active you’ll need to think about where the wires are trailing, and if the camera can still track all your movements. You may also have to adjust the camera between games if their degrees of physicality are different, which can be a faff.
 
The set-up
Sony has done a fantastic job of making PlayStation VR easy to set up. You attach a little plastic box called the processor unit to the TV then to the console, with another cable leading to the headset. When you switch PlayStation VR on for the first time there’s a short configuration process and then you’re in. The screen position can be reset at any time by pressing the option button on your Dual Shock controller. Some users have reported jittery onscreen interfaces and menus, but these can usually be reduced by changing the lighting conditions in the room and reconfiguring the camera position. This is by far the most intuitive process out of all the major headsets.
 
One annoying element is that the processor unit doesn’t support HDR, so if you have a 4K TV and want to get the benefit of HDR effects while playing PS4 games, you’ll need to unplug the unit and plug the HDMI cable back into your TV to use the console as normal. If you don’t have a 4K TV, or don’t mind missing out on the HDR, you can leave the VR plugged in.
The games

The PlayStation VR headset comes with a disc of short demos, but other games need to be purchased at prices ranging from £15 (Super Stardust Ultra VR, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, Batman: Arkham VR) to the full-price £40-£50 range (Battlezone and DriveClub VR). Early favourites include:
Batman: Arkham VR – basic, lets you dress as the Dark Knight then attempt a simple detecting task
Headmaster – a simple but amusing football heading sim
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood – an on-rails shooter set on a rather terrifying ghost train. 
Eagle Flight – a multiplayer flying sim where you swoop over the streets of Paris
Super Hypercube – a sort of trippy inhabitable Tetris puzzler
Promising games like Farpoint, Robinson: The Journey, Star Trek: Bridge Crew and Resident Evil 7 will come later. Sony says more than 50 titles will be released before Christmas.
The experience

What becomes immediately clear to those who’ve used other current headsets is that the PlayStation 4 lacks the processing power of a high-end PC, and with the extra computational demands of producing a virtual reality image, the game visuals are noticeably more blocky than those on the Vive or Rift. At distance, objects begin to become blurred and indistinct, and there is slight haze over most scenes, especially in darker scenes. While more contained projects such as London Heist, Batman: Arkham VR and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood achieve impressive character models and scenic details, more complex and processor-intensive games – DriveClub VR for example – sometimes have the look of earlier generation PlayStation titles.
 
In terms of providing the technical aspects of an immersive experience, PlayStation VR is mostly very impressive. There is almost no noticeable latency or lag (the slight delays in processing movement that contribute most toward motion sickness), and for the most part, the camera tracks the movement of your head and controller well. With some of the more physically demanding titles – especially Job Simulator – the single camera can lose sight of your hands making it almost impossible to carry out certain moves. But then, Sony has opted to use a cheap convenient optical solution rather than dedicated room-scale tracking systems like the Vive. This is another reason why the unit is cheaper.
 
Whatever the technical compromises, there are plenty of moments where the physical immersion is almost uncanny. Standing looking at yourself in the Batman outfit in Arkham VR, throwing donuts around the office in Job Simulator, being stalked in Ocean Descent by a shark, or simply trying to pick up and light cigar in London Heist give you an incredible sense of presence in the world, especially if you’re using dual PlayStation Move controllers which provide genuine tactile agency in the world.
Incidentally, the PlayStation VR also promises a more social VR experience. For all games, the television screen shows what the headset wearer can see, so there’s a spectator element – however, some titles are also set to allow asymmetrical multiplayer, with TV users and PS VR wearers competing or cooperating on tasks. Sony’s own PlayRoom VR, set for launch in November, is an example.
 
The nausea question
It’s the one thing everyone wants to know: will it make me throw up on my new Ikea rug? For the most part, Sony has solved the lag problems that lead to motion sickness – the excellent refresh rates mean there’s imperceptible delay between moving your head and seeing that move on screen.
However, while playing faster titles that feature a lot of movement, including Battlezone and the multiplayer vehicle combat game RIGS, nausea is more likely, especially in long play sessions. We did experience motion sickness after playing Battlezone for an hour, but were unable to repeat the sensation the following evening, despite trying extremely hard by making lots of erratic movements in the game world.
Before each game, the screen warns you that some people experience nausea in virtual reality and players are advised to take regular breaks.
 
The price
The PlayStation VR headset costs £350, but you’ll also need a PlayStation Camera which costs £40. If you want to get the most out of games like PlayStation Heist, Until Dawn or Job Simulator, you’ll definitely need two PlayStation Move controllers as well: these are around £30 each. Then, all games are available separately.
 
Verdict

Well, this is tricky. PlayStation VR is a very interesting virtual reality product. The headset is extremely comfortable, the set-up and user interface are excellent and there are some genuinely diverting titles already available. Graphical fidelity is reasonable and for most users, any hint of nausea will be limited to extended play sessions on the most graphically intense titles. Sony Computer Entertainment has a brilliant research and development team and this product follows other innovations like the PlayStation Eye and Wonderbook as something fascinating and full of potential.
 
But is this the beginning of mass consumer interest in VR? Probably not. The lower screen resolution and reliance on a single camera motion tracking system will put off those who have experienced Vive and Oculus Rift, while newcomers will still find the cumbersome headset itself a major barrier to enjoyment – even if it is relatively comfortable. The games are mostly demo experiences that show of scintillating possibilities without exploring them any deeper, and already the limits of the hardware set up are being exposed – especially by more spatially demanding titles.
 
It could be that PlayStation 4 Pro, with its increased processing power, will solve some of the graphical issues, but it’s too early to tell, and we really have to review the experience as it stands, with the games and applications available. Right now, PlayStation VR is something of a specialist toy, a neat thing to show off with, and to get an understanding of where virtual reality may go. But it isn’t a ‘must-have Xmas purchase’ for most families. It is too expensive, and once the initial thrill of virtual presence fades, the limits may well present themselves as much as the possibilities.
 
The enthusiasm of early adopters and the raw thrill of experiencing a whole new audio-visual paradigm has carried a lot of the hype and interest in VR along over the last four years. However, we’re now being asked to consider the technology as a mainstream commercial reality, and it feels like those days are still a long way off. PlayStation VR is a much, much better experience than, say, Kinect or 3D TV. But it is not a mass consumer proposition in the way the Wii controller was. 
 
However, for those who can afford it and simply can’t wait to experience virtual reality beyond the more limited functionality offered by smartphone-based solutions, PlayStation VR is unlikely to disappoint. Whatever the limitations, there is magic in this box.
 

  • Pros: cheaper than Vive or Rift; excellent set-up procedure; lots of games, decent graphical performance; comfortable headset; generally reliable motion sensing
  • Cons: costs more if you need a camera and Move controller; relatively low resolution means some blurring and lack of detail; more intense games may cause motion sickness in some; it’s wired so cable can get in the way; camera doesn’t always pick up movements with some games

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