PlayStation VR (PSVR) arrives this week, marking the latest development for virtual reality. At $399, it’s more expensive than Google’s VR headset, Daydream View, but considerably less than Rift or HTC Vive.
The actual price is more like $499 since you’ll want the PlayStation camera and the Move controllers. But since PSVR works with PlayStation 4 consoles, it eliminates the need for a high-end computer. Welcome to the least expensive tethered headset on the market.
Sony’s entry should kickstart VR gaming, especially with Eve: Valkyrie and Driveclub VR. Once you’re behind the wheel in virtual reality, it’s hard to go back to the confines of a flat screen.
Like Google with its forthcoming Daydream VR headset, the headset design emphasizes comfort. Let’s face it, it’s awkward wearing a heavy object directly on your face. Some day, people will pass by these devices in museums and wonder how we ever did it.
Adi Robertson described Sony’s design in The Verge,
Where Oculus goes for an understated, late-Gibsonian cyberpunk aesthetic and the Vive is aggressively industrial, Sony’s design has the clean white curves of a ‘60s science fiction spaceship interior, setting off a black front panel and rubber face mask. The external PlayStation Camera tracks it with a matrix of glowing blue lights: six lining the headset’s edges, two on the back, and one right in the middle of the front panel.
But in the end, how PlayStation VR looks is not nearly as important as how it feels. And while it is the heaviest VR headset available, Sony’s design works. The plastic ring that fits over your forehead actually makes it feel like the lightest. Yes, you can wear this for hours.
Playstation VR reviews
PlayStation VR does not have the resolution of Oculus or Vive but makes up for it with incredibly fluid graphics. Business Insider notes some issues with the motion-tracking and positioning of the hand controllers, but it has not impacted everyone. And the hand controllers have taken some flak for their poorly arranged buttons.
But the early reviews are strongly positive. Will Freeman in The Guardian said,
Sony’s effort excels at imparting the medium’s trump card, that of “presence”. It’s the powerful feeling of really occupying the worlds within VR and the reason for embarrassment when trying to put a real-world controller down on a virtual, in-game table, a good sign that disbelief is being suspended with aplomb.
All specs aside, that’s probably the best mark of quality. When you try to put a real object down on a virtual object, the illusion is complete.
VR and Gaming as a social activity
But while PSVR makes for an incredibly intense gaming experience, it runs into the currently isolating nature of VR. As much as we want to flee our flat screens for immersive environments, gaming is definitely a social activity. As Robertson notes,
. . . if you like gaming around other people — even if that just means sitting down to play while your partner reads beside you — then shutting out the world with a VR game isn’t necessarily a welcome change. Even if someone can see what you’re doing via the mirrored screen, you can’t tell if they’re in the room, which is an uncomfortable and alienating experience. There are a couple of local multiplayer games like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, in which one player wears a headset and the other coaches them through a bomb defusal from outside VR. But there’s no getting around the fact that headsets can be isolating, and it’s more jarring than usual here because of how social the regular console gaming experience usually is.
Kids in dorms, families in living rooms – are we really willing to block everyone out? Social VR is coming rapidly – look at Facebook’s incredible work on Oculus – but it’s not there yet. For the moment, gaming is highly social and virtual reality is not. Using it in your living room around others will seem weird at best, and positively rude at worst. If you think technology has already made families appear dysfunctional, just wait.
More than games, but how much more?
Sony is quite clear on its PlayStation VR site – “Games come first.” But it is positioning PSVR to be about more than gaming. Two of our favorite VR experiences are included, Invasion! and Allumette. And you’ll find the ever-popular Job Simulator as part of the package. Chris Milk’s carefully curated Within studio is here, as are the dedicated VR channel Little Star Cinema.
PlayStation 4 Magazine lists other experiences from Alchemy Cinema:
- Atomic Ghost Fleet – where you dive into the waters at Bikini Atoll
- Cocos Shark Island – explore the tropical reefs off of Costa Rica
- First Life VR by David Attenborough – the prolific documentary filmmaker provides yet another underwater experience.
But you wonder how far Sony will dive into other VR experiences given PlayStation’s gaming pedigree. It is hard to see businesses using it for workplace training with the awkward hand controllers. And universities exploring high-end VR will opt for Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Or decide to wait out the current rush of developments and go with the much less expensive Google Daydream.
Sony and Google
Speaking of which, both Sony and Google will be battling it out in the consumer market over the holidays. Samsung’s Gear VR is a nonplayer given the current meltdown (that has sadly become a literal description) of the Note 7. The 40 million PlayStation consoles already sold gives Sony a clear advantage, especially when the Google headset requires a Daydream enabled phone.
We’ll give the initial edge to Sony. But as we get deeper into 2017, expect Google to grab the larger market share. Gaming is a big market, but not that big. Google Daydream is targeting the entire landscape of VR – games, entertainment, journalism and education.
PlayStation VR will definitely help popularize virtual reality. But in the end, a tethered headset is still makes you feel like a dog on a leash. And for that, it needs to be not just good enough, but perfect. PlayStation VR will be a hit, but we still expect mobile VR to come out on top.
Emory Craig is a writer, speaker, and VR consultant with extensive experience in art, new media, and higher education. He speaks at global conferences on innovation, education, and ethical technology in the future. He has published widely and worked with the US Agency for International Development, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Living at the intersection of learning, games, and immersive storytelling, he is fascinated by AI-based avatars, digital twins, and the ethical implications of blurring the boundaries between the real and the virtual.