Why PlayStation VR Has the Advantage in the Impending VR War
First, let’s start by saying that before anyone accuses me of blatant fanboyism, I have no pony in this race. I do enjoy Sony products and own several, but I also own a PC — although not one beefy enough to handle either the Rift or the Vive.
That being said, I have experienced all of the above, Dev Kit 2, v.1 of the Vive (not the most recent) and extended time with all of them.
The most recent was at December’s PlayStation Experience 2015 event. I was able to sit down for extended hands-on time with Sony’s PlayStation VR headset. First, they’ve made some really smart upgrades to the device since its inception, including not only a vertical slide to lock in focus, but a tightening wheel on the back that can help bring everything into crystal clear view.
After spending about a total of an hour with the device, my thoughts on the technology have changed dramatically. While it is a great piece of hardware, it is light years inferior to the top-of-the-line Vive. So how is it that the PSVR has the advantage I am positing?
The biggest perceived change I can think while spending time with the device is that I truly believe that photorealism doesn’t matter. Your brain simply ‘accepts’ the world it is now occupying as the real one, regardless of how many polygons are being pushed. Now I’m not saying that breathtaking views don’t add to the realism. It does. But as I will illustrate below; many of the PSVR’s experiences were markedly worse in terms of textures, popup and more; but it didn’t matter. What mattered, was that it ‘felt’ right — natural. There were systems to learn, but the best of them had you forgetting you were adapting to a system, but instead mimicking a mechanical language you are already familiar with in a virtual one.
The first demo I sat down with was SuperHyperCube, developed by Kokoromi and published by Polytron Corporation.
The premise was simple – you get a block and have to fit it through an oncoming hole in an otherwise solid plane. The virtual reality spin on it was that you could look *around* the cube to see what the oncoming hole looks like. As you successfully pass through, more blocks are added to your flying cube contraption, forcing you to roll it on the x, y and z axis to fit through the next plane. The graphics in this trailer are MUCH more vivid than what you get in the VR version. I would almost liken it to just a step up from the Virtual Boy by Nintendo. It had that kind of red-tinged flush to it; and the white glow of an old CRT used to play Asteroids. And it absolutely did not matter. When I strapped the VR headset on, I understood the mechanics, and this was my room — my reality now. I wasn’t sitting in a chair with glowing headband, headset and controller in my hand being observed by four Sony reps; I was in that virtual room, traveling at hypersonic speed with the cube, oblivious to the outside world.
The next piece of software I demoed was London Heist: The Getaway by Sony London. In this version, I spawned into the cab of a British truck (the driver was on the right). A PlayStation Move wand was put into each of my hands, utilizing the trigger on the wands to pick things up. Within moments, the virtual hands were my own. While I never forgot I was playing a game, I did forget those weren’t my hands. I could almost feel opening the glovebox. When I needed to reload my gun, jamming the wand in my left hand into the bottom of the wand in my right hand felt perfect. I opened the door as we were driving and leaned out to look behind me. My brain did that “You’re gonna fall out of the car!” jerkback response and I just started laughing and shooting at the thugs behind us like a maniac once I regained my balance. It ended too quickly. I think it’s one of the best and most engaging things I’ve ever played, on anything. The sense of depth in the cab itself is completely realistic, again, even though the graphics are nowhere near the best thing you’ve ever seen. My only concern is that this is such a small slice, can a full game be made out of this? I hope the answer is yes.
Next was EVE Valkyrie, developed by CCP, which was stunning. The graphics were impressive, the sound was crazy and the gameplay was strikingly fun. The rush of speed your mind tricks you into feeling as you rocket out of the hangar is both surprising and amazing. The dogfights are about as chaotic as you would expect some grandiose space battle to be. There were a couple times I felt disoriented, but for the majority it was a seamless transition.
Another title I tried for this article was Distance, developed by Refract. This was a futuristic driving/survival simulator that clearly was NOT designed from the ground up for PlayStation VR. They had the ‘normal’ version in the booth that you could play, but while the game was good, there were certain aspects that did not translate well into the virtual space. Cornering was WAY too touchy, causing me not only to spin out, ramp off the side to my death and disorient me, but also was the first game I played that seriously got me to that ‘I’m going to hurl’ moment. I know these games are in early, early stages of development, so hopefully that’s something that will be addressed.
The last piece of software I spent some quality time with was the newly announced (at the time) Rez: Infinite, running at 120 frames per second with 3D Audio on PSVR.
The game will run at 60 frames per second with 7.1 surround sound audio on PS4. Let me tell you, this is an example of software that will move units. It feels polished already. If you are familiar with Rez controls — they are *exactly* the same. You can hold down the x button, use the cursor to mark targets and then release to fire. But the VR addition is that you can mark targets with your head tracking, as well. The vistas are breathtaking and several of them have you flying high above the city floor – an effect that caused me to pause several times throughout the seven minute playthrough.
Barring that, I have nothing negative to say about Rez: Infinite. If you liked the original, you’re going to love the PlayStation VR version.
Now, to address anyone accuses me of only pandering; let’s talk about the problems inherent to the system. First, I got a good look at the VR device/box , and it’s something else you’ll have to make room for on your entertainment center. It isn’t that big; about maybe four PlayStation TV units in size, but with a cable running out of it to the visor.
And probably the largest issue I have with it so far — it’s going to be very, very difficult for one person to put the visor, headphones and a wand (or even a single controller) in each hand by themselves. Each VR area had a Sony rep to assist you. In several demos I removed my own paraphernalia just to see what the process was like. I ended up with Morpheus (I can’t not call the Visor that, sorry Sony) in my left hand, my headphones and controller in my right and cords, cords everywhere!
This is going to be a drawback for ALL the first generation consumer VR headsets.
It made me wonder how the legal team has shored up for people falling out of chairs, running into walls or expensive HDTV sets, being trapped in all this equipment while trying to tend to an emergency… if people sued for throwing their Wii controllers through their televisions, I can see the lawsuits lining up now. The boot up disclaimers are going to be twelve minutes long, with an X required on each screen. That’s a hyperbolic assumption, but I wonder how close to reality it might very well be.
With the exception of Rez Infinite, I’m just not really sure these would translate into $60, full games that would hold your attention for more than an hour at a time.
The good news is that after trying Oculus I and II and the Vive, my impression is that the PlayStation VR quality has the chops to hang in there. While it may not push the most polygons, frame rate or resolution for certain games, your brain won’t care. As long as it is good enough, which every experience I had was, you truly will be transported into the game (and at a fraction of what our PC brethren will have to pay).
Lastly, Sony still faces the same ‘Palmer Lucky’ that the entire Virtual Reality industry currently faces – how do you market something that has to be experienced to be understood? I was talking with my Sony rep after the Getaway about how the developers have nailed the kinetic vocabulary of 1:1 movement with your hands in the game. You have to make words up to even have some semblance of a reasonable conversation about these things even with people who have done it themselves. It’s a major hurdle — and until someone cracks the code, we’re all going to seem like nerds in glowy headsets trying to escape reality.
But even Goldman Sachs agrees this is going to be big business – an estimated 80 billion dollars by 2025 in hardware sales alone.
I would gauge Sony’s current readiness for War as a 7.5 out of 10. Rez Infinite shows they can make a full scale game, but how many will they have ready for launch? Their price point, even at a potential $400.00, gives them a major leg up. But they are going to have to start announcing more full titles and a marketing campaign that communicates the essence of this amazing potential into something ANYONE can understand. Even with lowered textures and frame rates, the mind adjusts. Also, they have this:
Taking classic games and translating them to a quality VR experience could tip the boat in their favor. With Sony being so open and helpful to up-and-coming and indy developers, PlayStation VR has almost all the ingredients for a winning business strategy. Only time will tell if they can fit the remaining pieces to drive consumer adoption and legitimize mainstream opinion.