PlayStation VR can be a pain to buy and set up, but it’s worth it when you do.
One of the first things I noticed while spending a weekend evaluating PlayStation VR in the comfort of my home was that you can’t really eat or drink while playing.
Or at least not easily.
The headset completely obscures the player’s vision, so it’s basically like reaching for a can of soda or a bowl of chips with your eyes closed. And even if you can find your drink without knocking it over you probably won’t be able to take a drink from it without the aid of a straw, since the headset extends far enough that it blocks the upper edge of a tipped cup. I suppose you could take the time to pause the game, lift the headset and prop it on your forehead, but it would be awkward and uncomfortable. Plus, you’d interrupt your sense of immersion, which is kind of the whole reason to play a game in VR in the first place.
So, basically, you can’t really snack while in VR. Which is something many – probably most – of us are accustomed to and like doing while playing games. This is just one small hurdle of many that virtual reality faces in its journey toward mainstream adoption.
Sony Interactive EntertainmentThe PlayStation VR headset weighs around 600g, not including the cable.
Another is price. The PSVR starter kit – which comes with everything you need to play, except for a PlayStation 4 to which to connect it – goes for $699.99 in Canada (if you already have the PlayStation Camera and Move controllers, you can get it for $549.99). Ouch.
The good news is that PSVR is much cheaper than the competing VR platforms HTC Vive and Oculus Rift (both of which cost hundreds more and have the added expense of demanding a high-end computer), and thus represents the technology’s best chance at early adoption. The bad news is that it’s essentially a peripheral that sells for twice the price of the console to which it attaches. That’s going to scare away a lot of people.
Another issue for some people might be getting the thing up and running. While setting up PSVR stops well short of requiring an engineering degree, it’s also not nearly as simple as just plugging in a console and connecting it to your TV. Getting Sony’s VR system ready to go requires hooking up a separate PSVR Processor Unit (a small black box into which six discrete cables must be plugged), connecting and setting up a PlayStation Camera if you don’t already have one (most people don’t), jacking in the actual VR headset, connecting a set of headphones or earbuds to it, and syncing a couple of PlayStation Move controllers.
I didn’t run into any snags, but it took about 15 or 20 minutes of unpacking, careful reading and identifying various parts and cables, matching plug profiles to their respective jacks, and powering up and down my PlayStation 4. That’s not the sort of easy breezy setup experience most electronics consumers expect these days.
Sony Interactive EntertainmentThe basic PlayStation VR package — which doesn’t include PlayStation Move controllers or a PlayStation Camera (which are required, but some people already own these peripherals) — is $549.99; $150 less than the PlayStation launch bundle, which comes with everything needed to play.
You’ll also need to completely clear a pretty big space (I’d say between two and three metres in diameter) of all objects, so that you don’t walk into or whack something as you blindly move and flail about while playing. And because the headset is tethered you’ll need to exercise caution that you don’t trip over it, get tangled in it, or accidentally yank the plug out as you spin around.
This, I suspect, is why Sony has a disclaimer stating that its VR experience is not for kids under 12. It could be that the Japanese game giant is also worried about developmental effects that VR might have on youngsters, but the risk of hyper excited kids losing track of where they are in the real world and destroying living rooms is pretty real. Whatever the case, cutting kids from your target audience basically means PSVR is limited to grown up gamers.
So, assuming you’re a well-heeled adult gamer with some technical savvy, lots of space in your gaming room, and comfortable with the concept of being almost completely disconnected with the real world – I can’t stress this last point enough; you’ll be able to see nothing and hear little of what’s happening in the physical space around you so long as you’re jacked into PSVR – is Sony’s first foray into virtual reality worth considering?
Yes. It absolutely is.
Sony Interactive EntertainmentThe PlayStation VR headset has a separate screen for each eye, the better to create a natural sense of depth in virtual worlds.
I say with complete confidence that most players will be suitably amazed by the immersive nature of modern virtual reality.
Once you slip the headset on and adjust it so that the outside world is properly blocked from view – this takes a bit of time and practice, but Sony’s headset is the most easily adjustable and comfortable I’ve tried, and even accommodates my eyeglasses without discomfort (something I can’t say about the HTC Vive) – you will feel like you are in another place. I mean that literally. As you move your head and eyes to look around with full 360-degree freedom, the camera will follow your every movement with zero detectable lag, and your brain will be fooled into thinking you’re in a different world.
It really is something you need to see for yourself, but let me try to offer some examples of what I experienced.
In one game I experienced a wave of vertigo as I looked down past my virtual feet and through the glass floor of a mech cockpit into an endless void.
In another I felt a sense of height and dread as a roller coaster cart brought me up to the top of a hump in the track, teetered for an instant, then sent me careening down the other side.
In some games you can see virtual representations of your hands manipulating buttons on the Move controllers, which might take the shape of piloting controls or guns. In others, you’ll be able to interact with virtual objects around you as though they were real, like picking up a cigar and igniting it with a lighter, opening cabinet doors, or even adjusting the air vents on the dash of a car.
There were times when, growing fatigued, I instinctually wanted to lay my controller on a nearby object within the game, and it was all I could do not to reach out and see if that ethereal thing would actually support its weight.
Sony Interactive EntertainmentThe PlayStation VR headset has multiple means of adjustment and easily accommodates standard-sized eyeglasses.
Point being, it’s crazy how easily your mind is fooled. I once heard a VR developer talk about having memories of being inside virtual reality that were indistinguishable from his memories of the real world. His brain believed it had been someplace else and recorded data accordingly. I thought that was hyperbole at the time, but now I know exactly what he means. While inside virtual reality your mind switches gears – and does so with shocking speed and ease – to make you feel like you’ve been transported to a different time and place. It’s a bit like what I imagine teleportation or time travel might be like, were it possible.
You might be wondering if, given PSVR’s lower price, it’s somehow inferior to its competitors. I’ve only limited experience with other VR platforms, but nothing of what I’ve experienced with PSVR makes me think that it is substantially lesser.
Thanks to a speedy refresh rate of 120Hz I detected no hitching at all. And the games I played felt, if anything, more stable than those I’ve tried in VR on PC, which have been plagued with bugs. That said, I did notice that the PSVR field of view is just a tad smaller, which means the looking-through-goggles effect that comes with all current VR rigs is a bit more evident in PSVR. And PSVR’s slightly lower resolution headset display (960-by-1080 per eye, compared to competitors’ 1080-by-1200) makes images appear noticeably less crisp than they do on a good TV or monitor – though the same can be said of images experienced via the Rift and Vive, which offer only marginally better resolution.
The PlayStation Move controllers are also a little less sophisticated than competing peripherals. They served just fine in the relatively simple games I’ve tried, but the Vive and HTC’s directional pads/control sticks and triggers feel more natural and seem better geared for the more complicated games that are bound to come with time.
Sony Interactive EntertainmentYou’ll need to set up all this and more to get going with PlayStation VR.
On the subject of games, this is where most early adopters are going to need to keep their expectations in check. Because the weird thing about VR is that while it is clearly targeted at core gamers (at least for the time being), most of the experiences currently available for PSVR are decidedly casual if not outright rudimentary. I’m talking about puzzle games, interactive stories, on-rail shooters, point-and-click adventures, and rhythm games. (Click her for a roundup containing our impressions of a dozen early PSVR games.)
Part of the reason we aren’t seeing more in the way of traditional blockbuster action games that serious gamers like to play is simply that they take time to create. Plus, the makers of these games want to see an installed base of gamers big enough for the development of such a game to make financial sense.
But another important factor is that game designers are still working out how to do human locomotion in VR properly, and no one has cracked it yet. Plenty of articles have been written about why games in which you sit in a cockpit – and thus in the real world, too – feel good in VR (which is why we’re seeing a spate of such games, including EVE: Valkyrie og Battlezone), but those in which you move around from a first-person perspective – especially if that movement is quick and frenetic – make players feel ill.
Developers are whittling away at this problem creatively by, say, letting players teleport rather than run from location to location, or controlling movement for us by putting us on rails. But these are bandaid solutions that won’t satisfy serious gamers for long. Eventually, someone will need to work out a way to make a fast-paced first-person shooter or a cinematic third-person adventure game work in VR. This is vital for the technology’s growth.
Sony Interactive EntertainmentThe PlayStation VR Processor Unit.
Traditional games are at odds with VR in other ways, too. For example, many of the games we play are designed to encourage long play sessions, especially shooters and role-playing games. But wearing a VR headset and earphones is basically like putting on a helmet. I’ve found physical discomfort tends to set in if I play for longer than an hour at a time. And if a game demands that you stand for maximum immersion – like the excellent Batman Arkham VR, which does a terrific job making you feel like you’re the Caped Crusader – you’re probably not going to want to play even for an hour, much less two or three.
But these are problems facing VR in general, not just PSVR. And that’s all the more reason for those who’ve made the decision to dive into virtual reality to choose Sony’s hardware over Vive or Rift: Given its lower price, the PlayStation kit carries the least financial risk should this whole VR thing turns out to be a passing trend. And it might.
For the record, though, I don’t think virtual reality is going to be a fad. There’s just too much potential for it to slip away. It’s the best parts of motion control and 3D gaming rolled into a single package that is exponentially more immersive. It has some serious obstacles that need to be overcome, but there are actual, certifiable geniuses working on them as I write this. Someone’s bound to crack the movement problem. Someone’s going to figure out how to make the headset lighter and eliminate the tethered connection.
And someone’s eventually going to create a sensor you can put on your cup and straw so you can see it in the virtual world and have a sip of soda.
The sooner this happens, the sooner the gates will open for mainstream audiences – and not just for PSVR, but all virtual reality platforms.