The first home console virtual reality headset finally debuts next week, just in time for the holidays, and it's coming exclusively to the PlayStation 4. Now that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have set the benchmark on virtual reality technologies and experiences, can the PlayStation VR successfully migrate to consoles and make it a staple for mainstream consumers?
Gamers, developers, and tech enthusiasts have had some time now to familiarize themselves with the next major evolution in virtual reality video gaming on the PC thanks to Valve, HTC, and most especially, Oculus VR, who pioneered modern virtual reality before being acquired by Facebook. The Rift and Vive are already available on PC with the first wave of tech demos, experiences, VR movies, and video game support offering a foundation for Sony to build from in designing its much more affordable and casual-focused headset for the PS4. And they've done a commendable job balancing compromise with functionality. PlayStation VR (mostly) works despite inconsistent performance issues and tech limitations, and when it does, it can be magical.
PlayStation VR aims to bring the next level of immersive and interactive entertainment to your console and home entertainment setup, but it requires a lot of hardware. Thankfully, PS4 owners may already have some of it if they kept their underutilized PlayStation Move controllers from the PS3 era which now have a reason to exist, and same goes for the PS4 camera. Users who don't have these can take advantage of the PlayStation VR launch bundle which includes the VR headset (formally known as Project Morpheus), two Move controllers, the new PS camera (same specs as before though), as well as a copy of PlayStation VR Worlds - and all of these are truly a must for someone willing to invest in the headset in the first place. But it's not cheap.
The PlayStation VR launch bundle costs a hefty $499.99 USD / $699.99 CAD and if you just want the PlayStation VR headset (with the required cabling), that retails at $399.99 USD / $549.99 CAD.
Make no mistake. Virtual Reality is currently a premium experience, a limited one in its early days, and certainly catering mostly towards early adopters who are willing to subject themselves to the burden of a light game library and the growing pains of the first wave of VR headsets. This will change though with time.
Setting Up PlayStation VR
The PS VR headset itself is rather bulky in appearance but it's pleasantly light in weight and comfortable enough for a lengthy period of use. It's very stable and doesn't move around thanks to being easy to configure to any head size with simple-to-use buttons on the back and front right of the unit. Before getting into a play session, establishing the 'sweet spot' where the optics are most clear is essential, and that can be wildly different for each individual. Be prepared for sweat and blurry lenses if you, like me, have the lens really close to your face though. There is enough room, when adjusting the front piece for users who wear glasses.
Connecting the PlayStation VR headset to the PlayStation 4 however, is an ugly process, teased by the abundance of wiring teased in the official unboxing video. Given the limited specs of the PS4 (when it comes to VR, at least), there's a standalone PlayStation VR Processing Unit that serves as the liaison between the headset and PS4 console to process 3D audio, and support the Social Screen which mirrors what you see on the headset's OLED display to your TV (so others can view and potentially partake in game experiences), as well as the Cinematic mode of which any game or non-VR experience can be played as if you're in a theater (albeit, in lower resolution than your HD TV).
PlayStation VR Display Specs
- Display Method OLED
- Panel Size 5.7 inches
- Panel Resolution 1920×RGB×1080 (960×RGB×1080 per eye)
There are a lot of required connections to make so managing space and defining a safe play area is something to master for positioning players with enough room to move and be visible by the camera, without causing too much cord tangling. With that in mind, and with the extreme amount of cord management required, the PlayStation VR is arguably the most complex hardware peripheral ever designed for consoles.
But Does It Work?
The PlayStation VR and PS Camera take advantage of the LED tracking lights in the headset, the same way it does for the light bar on the standard PS4 DualShock 4 controllers and the PS Move controllers. The headset itself also has built-in motion sensors in addition to the LEDs on the front and back so you can look in full 360 degrees. It's not entirely dependent on line of sight like the controllers are and the wire coming from it (and inline remote) are well-positioned to support ease of movement. This technology has limitations though and in several of the PlayStation VR launch titles, has been a source of issues.
The London Heist and Ocean Descent mini-games featured in PlayStation VR Worlds are silky smooth and are must-play experiences alongside other wonderful launch titles like Batman: Arkham VR, Tumble VR, and the short VR film Allumette. But on the other end of the spectrum, VR Luge caused motion sickness for us and was a very limiting experience, while Until Dawn: Rush of Blood simply could not or would not track or calibrate correctly. The Move controllers would not sync up with how they were held in-game, and the entire screen kept shifting to one side or the other, an issue we experienced in several launch titles.
PlayStation VR is supposed to let users calibrate the headset and their relative position by holding down the 'Options' button on the DualShock 4 (and the 'Start' button on the Move controller) but this didn't work as intended in most cases for us. The only surefire way to fully reset the position or center the screen when it shifts on its own was to shut the system down and restart. That was a source of frustration in certain games but not an issue in other titles, and the same can be said for the frequent jitter/shaky movement even when stationary in certain in- game menus or experiences. We suspect some of this can be addressed in software updates.
When it comes to audio, we opted to use 5.1 surround sound from standard speakers but the unit comes with 3D audio support through the 3.5mm jack on the inline headset controller. It's important to note that the 3D sound only works through here so if you're plugged in via the DualShock 4 controller, the console itself, or wirelessly through Sony's own PULSE Elite Wireless Headsets, you're out of luck on that front unless you plug in.
Virtual reality gaming and related experiences still seem experimental at this point and it shows across the spectrum of PlayStation VR launch titles.
It's All About The Games
A virtual reality headset is only as good a what you can do with it and with the dozen launch titles we put time into, many were indeed incredible entry level VR games with the crucial caveat that they're short and aren't really replayable. Most of what we'd recommend are, in reality, bite-sized experiences that can be classified as demos - including one which wasn't even a game, but a short film (Allumette is a magical experience and we can't stress that enough!).
Some of them, like Batman: Arkham VR really showcase the potential for eventual triple-A sized, high quality gaming experiences and others, like Job Simulator, are purely for fun and laughs, and prove that indie devs may dominate this scene for a while. Sony has made great strides already in locking down impressive developer support thanks to the massive user base of the PS4, leading to some major exclusives to the PS VR. In addition to the obvious big brand license of Batman: Arkham, PS VR also exclusively has the Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare "Jackal Assault" mission on the way which we were able to play at Call of Duty XP, as well Star Wars Battlefront's Rogue One: X-Wing VR Mission, among others. The latter two lend themselves perfectly to VR like launch title Battlezone does since they're in-cockpit vehicle-based experiences. On that front, Driveclub VR, RIGS Mechanized Combat League, and EVE: Valkyrie are coming too.
Not all games lend themselves to VR, and long play sessions are not recommended for obvious health reasons, but PlayStation VR is hands-down something new and exciting even if it becomes little more than a novelty for most users. This is just the beginning.
Is PlayStation VR Worth It?
The greatest barrier to entry on VR is that it simply cannot be judged from afar. Seeing is not believing with VR. It must be experienced. There are no videos you can watch to feel like you're looking (and moving and interacting) around a 3D environment unless you have the hardware, so for users yet to experience this through the growing number of VR hardware options, PlayStation VR will be something special but make sure to demo it before forking over the hefty price.
Sony had the challenge of working with relatively limited tech power since the PlayStation 4's specs are below the recommended PC specs for its chief competition in the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift but it works and can get better. We can only the latter comes true for the Move controllers which are dated and problematic. That being said, the PlayStation VR launch bundle - which includes everything you need to get going, including motion controllers - is still more affordable than the Rift (which doesn't ship with controllers) and the Vive.
The PS VR does not offer a consumer friendly setup through its hardware design choices but after that learning curve there's fun to be had enjoying the best games and experiences already available and coming within the PS VR launch window. Trust us when we say that VR tech overshadowed the unveilings of the current-gen consoles at E3 2013 and with the PlayStation VR headset, you'll finally see why. Using the hardware is all about finding the sweet spot and managing limitations and expectations. On the software side, expect Sony to continue to tweak and provide firmware updates, and developers to work on mastering gameplay experiences and better designing with virtual reality immersion in mind.
Some PS VR games track noticeably better than others, some have more options for calibration, some run smoother, and some still cause nausea, so its's going to take patience. If you're willing to pay the premium for what's best described as as a prototype and understand the limitations of the games, there's magic to be had with PS VR. This is new territory for PlayStation and gaming as a whole, so if you want in on the ground floor for a tease of what the future can be - and this goes beyond just games - PlayStation VR is absolutely worth trying and sharing.
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The PlayStation VR launch bundle (including 2 Move controllers, PlayStation VR Worlds, and the PS Camera) launches October 13th, 2016.