Can a virtual world actually beat reality? As a Californian living within close proximity to the ocean and treated to nearly year-round sunshine, the thought of wanting to venture away from reality never crossed my mind. Under sunny skies in San Francisco, California in a room full of journalists outside the Games Developer Conference, I was able to test Sony’s vision for how a virtual world may work.
I watched fellow journalists – many of whom have never donned a virtual reality headset before – put on the Playstation VR, a $400 device that won’t be available until October this year. Andrew House, President and Group CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment in the US, defended the late launch, saying that the PlayStation group wanted to give developers enough time to create compelling, high quality content and to provide Sony time to manufacture enough units to satiate demand.
So what’s the experience like now that we know when the headset’s coming out and how much it will be? Pretty much the same as before: really fun.
PSVR: Design and comfort
Sony’s PlayStation VR headset is arguably the most stylish of all the VR headsets out there. Sony’s experience designing consumer-facing technology shines through, from the sleek black and white design, to the padded rubber finish round the eyes and the blue lights that also act as head tracking points.
Putting on VR is a simple affair. A plastic crown fits over your head, and a button on the rear helps with adjusting the size of the opening to secure the VR. A tight fit is important for sports games, like Headmaster, where you’re moving your head to butt soccer balls.
There’s enough cushioning inside the headband for comfort, which is useful for extended gaming. Once the PlayStation VR is securely fitted on your head, the screen, that’s attached to a front visor, can slide forward to your face. And just like magic, you’re transported to a different reality once you gaze into the screen.
The PlayStation VR doesn’t come with its own headphones, so if you want to immerse yourself, you’ll need to supply your own earphones. All the demos I saw used on-ear or over-the-ear headphones, but in-ear earbuds will also work. Thanks to intelligent algorithms, when your head moves, the direction of the audio will also change in what Sony dubs 3D audio. It’s surround sound at its best, and when combined with the screen’s low latency and high refresh rate, gives a very realistic experience.
The headphones connect to the same wire that tethers the Gear VR to your PlayStation, and this cord management, hopefully, will mean that you won’t be tripping around on cables when you’re immersed in your game in a reality so close to you.
PSVR: Display and tracking
To make the virtual appear life-life, Sony made a very responsive screen. The RGB display delivers a combined full HD resolution, or roughly 960 x 1080 pixels to each eye. The 5.7-inch OLED screen is similar in size to what you’d get with Samsung’s Galaxy Note 5 attached to a Gear VR.
It’s not as high a resolution as HTC Vive’s two 1080 x 1200 displays, one per eye, but it’s still impressive. The approximately 100-degree field of view is broadly similar to that of Oculus Rift – you can definitely see the edges of the display, though, and the black borders surrounding it.
Sony has worked hard to make sure that PSVR doesn’t cause motion sickness. Chief on the list of technical features tackling this is the 120Hz refresh rate. This basically means that the headset updates 120 times a second, which produces a very smooth image, pleasing on the eye.
When I peered into this alternate universe – whether that’s playing an office worker in the game Job Simulator or watching an animated short film titled Alumette – I noticed that there was a slight degree of pixelation, but that didn’t bother me. Once you start becoming immersed in the experience, the technology begins fading away, and at this point, you’re seeing a vision of an alternate reality, rather than a screen.
If you look closely at the screen, however, you’ll also notice a screen door effect. This is similar to the orange peel effect of screen protectors in the early days of smartphones.
When the technology disappears and you begin to truly experience and immerse yourself in the virtual world, the best way to summarize this experience is awe. I briefly took off the PlayStation VR to look around the room, and after the familiar clicking sound of headbands being tightened and screens being locked into place, I saw the same visceral reaction on my colleagues’ faces: a slight opening of the jaw in amazement followed by an instant smile.
PSVR: Games from GDC 2016
Some VR experiences work fine with just the headset and the Move camera, but more interactive games will require additional controllers. For instance, Rigs, a futuristic e-sports game where you play a robot battling other robots in an arena, will require a PlayStation DualShock controller. Walts of the Wizard, an interactive game where you take on the role of a spell-casting wizard, requires you to use the Move controllers to throw objects and cook up your own potions.
Perhaps one of the best demonstration of VR gaming so far is a game called Xing. Set in the afterlife, Xing takes its inspiration from Myst, one of the best-selling graphic adventure puzzle games on PC. In Xing, you’ll move through different scenes and levels, exploring the afterlife, co-creator James Steininger explained. The unique part about Xing, compared to many of the other virtual titles showcased by Sony, is that it allows the player to play the game in numerous ways.
Like Myst, you can play Xing without a virtual reality headset. Steininger explained that the game was initially conceived for console play, but when the team of three learned about VR gaming, it made sense. When you play on PlayStation 4 with a PlayStation VR, you can control the game either through the DualShock or Move controllers, giving it a lot of flexibility.
For older generations of gamers who like to experience gaming at a social level, playing with a VR headset will be a new experience. Whereas I remember growing up and inviting friends over to play Super Mario Brothers on my Nintendo, sitting with Steininger on the couch when he had the PlayStation VR on his head and the Move controllers in his hand was an interesting experience, to say the least. With VR gaming, you really need more space to move around, panning through the game’s scenery, and also space to grab, touch and experience the world. There’s a tactile experience, meaning that I had to dodge Steininger’s Move controller on several occasions during our conversation when he was exploring the afterlife.
But that doesn’t mean that VR gaming is an anti-social experience. To provide the most real virtual experience, Sony limits just one PlayStation VR to be connected to a PlayStation 4 at this time, but you can still achieve several different ways of social gaming.
In a social VR demo of a concept beach ping-pong game, Martin Echenique, Manager of Online Engineering at Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, explained that you can play against other internet-connected VR players. In the demo, Echenique showed that you can play virtual ping-pong with three other players in different locations.
Provided you have a fast enough internet connection, I didn’t notice any lags or delays with the ping-pong game. It was a simple demo, and at this time, Echenique doesn’t know if the game will ever get commercialized.
To optimize for frame-rate, audio quality and game performance, the game currently only allows for four players to connect simultaneously. Echenique’s team had previously tried the game with eight players, but noticed a degradation in audio quality, so they pushed back the limit. “Theoretically, we don’t know what the limits would be if you didn’t care about quality,” Echenique explained, saying that you can probably connect even more remote VR players.
If you all want to be in the same room, PlayStation VR also allows for asymmetrical game play. For example, in a strategy game, the lead player can wear the Gear VR. Other players in the room can join in on the game with regular controllers and experiencing the game on the TV screen, rather than the VR’s 5.7-inch frame.
At this stage, the graphics in these early demos are very cartoonish, admits Cy Wise, a community manager for Owlchemy Labs, the creator of Job Simulator. In one of the levels of Job Simulator, I played the role of an office worker, placed inside a cubicle. A narrated voice gave me tasks, which I can choose to complete or ignore and explore my office space. Like my real office cubicle, I could pick up the stapler, throw the tape dispenser, plug in my PC or turn on my monitor. Despite its life-like feel, the graphics were displayed in a cartoon fashion.
“But because you’re interacting with the objects and so immersed in the game, it really feels real,” Wise said. When I took off the PlayStation VR, the realness made going back to reality feel jarring—seconds ago, I was talking to Wise from my office cubicle, and now I am continuing our chat transported in a television screen with Move controllers in my fist.
“Some things that you don’t expect to be interesting in a regular game become really become interesting when you’re in virtual reality,” Steininger told me. Developers are finding ways to make the virtual world better, and because your attention can shift when you’re panning your head and exploring a new 360-degree world in gaming, they have to find new ways to re-direct you to what you should be doing in the game.
Storytelling in virtual reality is different than storytelling for a bigger screen, said Pimrose Studio founder Eugene Chang. For films and shorts, certain genres will work better than others in the virtual space. You don’t want objects to be too close to your face.
Additionally, in virtual reality, developers try not to zoom in on objects. Things in virtual worlds should in a 1:1 scale.
PSVR: Games from E3
When PlayStation VR was given a release date at the Game Developers Conference in March, it was alongside the unveiling of a new game called London Heist. At the time, it was a fairly simple demo that lacked a lot of interactivity.
You started the demo sat down, about to be tortured by a burly-looking Londoner in a vest. You thankfully received a phone call before everything went a bit Game of Thrones, which resulted in a flashback to a scene where you were stealing some sort of gem from a fancy-looking mansion.
That part of the demo was playable again at E3, with the addition of what appeared to be improved graphics and motion controls. The graphics are still fairly basic – the key to PSVR’s excellent sense of immersion is the 120Hz refresh rate, which puts quite a strain on the PS4’s graphics processor.
However, the controls were much improved at E3. We used the PlayStation Move controller in both hands, and pulled open drawers and used keys in doors to find the gem. We also picked up a gun and aimed and fired, using our second hand to reload fresh ammunition into the gun.
The brand new part of the demo was pretty similar to an on-rails shooter like Time Crisis or Virtua Cop. You start off in a van driving down the motorway. Another burly-looking man is in the driving seat, you’re the passenger. As you look around the car, you can use the Move controller to interact with objects – opening the glove compartment, pulling down the sun visor, even opening the door if you want.
Before long, you’re being chased by guys on motorbikes. Your partner throws you a gun – you grab it off the dashboard and start opening fire. There’s a big bag of ammunition in between you and the driver – when you run out of bullets, you have to grab a clip and put it in the bottom of the gun. It’s actually very satisfying to perform this simple action – you really start to feel like you’re in an action movie, frantically scrambling to reload your gun on a high speed pursuit.
It’s pretty basic stuff in gameplay terms, but if we’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s that even simple experiences are vastly improved by the immersiveness of VR. If anything, London Heist is probably a good indication of the sort of experiences we can expect in the early days of VR. We’re not sure if most of London Heist will be an on-rails shooter, but expect this genre to make a comeback on VR headsets.
Capcom’s PlayStation VR demo was as scary as it was surprising. It’s a combination of a tech demo (Capcom has made a new VR engine, and this is the proof of concept) and an offshoot of its survival horror series Resident Evil. It’s also the only true horror game we’ve seen for PSVR, and damn creepy it is too.
You control the game using a standard PS4 DualShock controller. This acts as your hands, which have been tied up. You find yourself sat in a dirty abandoned kitchen, with blood and bodies all around you. You appear to be on your own, until someone gets up off the floor. This man has also been tied up, but he has a knife, and asks you to hold out your hands so he can free you. He tries a couple of times in vein, before a very pale and clearly disturbed young woman appears behind him.
The woman is very reminiscent of Japanese horror staples, think the girl from The Ring. She creeps up on the man and stabs him, apparently killing him, before coming to check you out. However, the man gets up, attacks the girl and then a fight ensues, with both parties disappearing around the corner as the fight continues. Before long, the man’s severed head rolls towards you, and then you start to hear the girl creeping up behind you, before she covers your face with her hands and the demo ends.
Kitchen isn’t the best PSVR demo from a technical standpoint – it’s actually quite nauseating when the girl gets up close to you or puts her hands over your face. Also, the controls didn’t quite work properly – our hands were flapping all over the place during the demo. However, it is a strong indication of how well horror will work on PSVR, and Capcom are the masters of this particular genre.
UK-based studio Rebellion is best known for the Sniper Elite series, but it’s dipping its toe into the VR waters with a remake of this 1980s Atari arcade classic. The original is generally considered as the first ever virtual reality game, so it’s appropriate that Rebellion is rebuilding it for PlayStation VR (as well as other VR headsets, potentially).
Rebellion picked up the license for Battlezone at auction when Atari’s assets were sold off in 2013. It’s basically a futuristic tank battle game where you take down land and air-based enemies using a variety of weapons. You control the game using a standard DualShock controller – the left stick moves the tank, while the right stick aims the gun. You can shoot standard rockets or a swarm shot, and the idea is to use the radar at the bottom of the screen to spot the enemies and take them out as quickly as possible.
Again, this is a simple experience that’s definitely improved by the immersiveness of VR. The graphics are retro-styled rather than being realistic, but it’s an impressive demo given that work only started earlier this year. Hopefully a wide selection of game modes and multiplayer will round out this package, and a cool soundtrack wouldn’t hurt either.
PSVR: Early verdict
At launch, Sony hopes to have 50 titles available from over 230 developers of varying size. Sony hasn’t discussed any pricing on games, and the demos shown in San Francisco vary in length.
Some games take on multiple levels and will require many hours to complete, while others can be finished in a few hours at most. It’s still too early if Sony will allow for multiple game classifications, like complete games at full price for more serious gamers and more inexpensive games that are faster to complete for casual gamers.
Right now, it’s a tight race between Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. Because Oculus uses more powerful PC hardware, its games and demos are better from a visual perspective, but Sony has access to some of the best game makers in the world, so we suspect the finished games for PSVR will be better overall.
Read this: PlayStation VR vs Oculus Rift
Whether this altered sense of reality with virtual gaming will feed to gaming addiction is unclear, but one thing is clear: despite some of the glitches in a few of the games demoed at GDC today, the virtual worlds I experienced makes going back to reality seem just a little less real.
In the end, your choice of VR headset will pretty much come down to the device you game on; if it’s PC, check out Rift or Vive, if it’s PS4, go for PSVR. Most third party developers making games for PSVR are also making them for Rift, so you won’t be missing out either way.
Additional reporting by Guy Cocker