Sony's take on the virtual reality headset.
Steeped in sensory overload, Las Vegas is the perfect location to bring virtual reality to the world. With annual tech trade show CES in full swing, the near-final iterations of VR headsets from Sony, HTC and Facebook/Oculus are all on display and vying for media attention. All three headsets will launch in the coming months, making 2016 the year virtual reality becomes an actual reality.
My first foray into what I thought would be a VR experience took place in 1995 when Nintendo unleashed its Virtual Boy. While perusing an in-store demo, I was drawn to Virtual Boy like a nerdy moth to a video game flame. I eagerly anticipated being magically transported into an interactive wonderland of visual delights but instead, the horror that awaited me was a retina-burning, migraine-inducing sea of red pixels that bore a passing resemblance to Mario on a tennis court. For a variety of reasons, Nintendo had opted for a monochrome display so all games used red sprites on a black background. The Virtual Boy was a disaster.
More than twenty-years later, virtual reality technology has come a long way with big companies spending big money on VR. Facebook acquired VR company Oculus in a staggering $2 billion deal in 2014. Taiwanese smartphone and tablet manufacturer HTC has partnered with American video game and digital distribution company Valve to produce Vive. And, with one of the most anticipated VR device about to hit the market, electronics giant Sony has rebranded its 'Project Morpheus' as PlayStation VR.
So, how good is PlayStation VR?
The first thing I noticed as I tried the demo model here at CES was how lightweight and ergonomic the headset is.
It's exceptionally good. The first thing I noticed as I tried the demo model here at CES was how lightweight and ergonomic the headset is. While it looks slightly bulky and cumbersome, when you put it on, you quickly forget you're even wearing it. By slightly tilting the headset visor up or down, you can incrementally refine the focus to ensure it's optimized for any modest vision deficiencies you might have. If you wear glasses, the headset fits right over top without any issues.
Once I had the headset on, the Sony rep (who I could no longer see) handed me two PlayStation Move controllers which are basically wand-like devices with colorful glowing orbs on the end. The camera is able to track the location of the orbs which transfers to movement in the digital world. The VR headset doesn't have built-in audio so the rep put a set of headphones over my ears, and I was ready to go.
Keep in mind, these devices are not consoles in and of themselves. They still need a powerful computer to process the HD video. While the headsets from Oculus and HTC require powerful PCs to run the units, Sony's PlayStation VR runs on their PlayStation 4 game console.
I spent some time with a demo called 'The London Heist' which Sony is developing internally. In this particular game, each controller represents one of your hands. Move the controller and your floating disembodied hands move in correlation.
As the demo started, I was racing down the highway in the passenger seat of a van. The first thing that struck me is how immersive the experience was. The graphics aren't photorealistic by any stretch of the imagination but the sense of presence is so overwhelming that you believe you're actually in digital world you're seeing. If you turn your head to the right, you can look at the driver as if he's sitting right beside you. (We're in London so the steering wheel is on that side.) Turn your head to the left and you can look out the window to see the scenery racing by.
My surly chauffeur then punched out the broken glass, threw me a gun and told me to get to work.
Each controller has a trigger underneath which, in this case, is the action button. By pressing the trigger as I reach for the glove box, it opens up to reveal a soda can and a couple of gun magazines. There's also a cup with straw on the dashboard that I pick up and bring to my mouth, almost expecting to taste a delicious bubbly cola. While it's fascinating to just play around in the car, the real fun started when we were attacked by thugs on motorcycles. The driver ran into one of the bikers which sent him flying onto the front windshield of the van, leaving it cracked and damaged. My surly chauffeur then punched out the remaining broken glass, threw me a gun and told me to get to work.
For the next several minutes, I was living out an action movie. Cars and motorcycles pulled in front of me from the left and the right, driven by weapon-toting goons. By pointing the controller like I would a gun, the precision aiming let me fire back while ducking and dodging the oncoming bullets. The coolest part of the experience was when I ran out of ammo and had to reload, from a bag of gun magazines sitting in a bag between the seats. I had to turn my right hand sideways to reveal the bottom of the gun and then slide a magazine into place with my left hand. It's a simple gesture but really helps sell the experience as if it's really happening.
It wasn't until the demo ended that I realized exactly how immersed in the experience I was. I had absolutely no idea what was going on in the actual world as I was completely present in my car chase. I thought I might feel self-conscious about waving my arms around and wearing a goofy looking helmet in front of a crowd of people but once I was transported to my virtual passenger seat, that was my now-conscious environment and I forgot I was sitting in a massive conference hall in Las Vegas. There could have been a marching band of monkeys prancing by and I would have had no idea.
While I sometimes feel nauseous during long car rides, I felt totally fine in my virtual car-seat.
Although virtual reality is presenting you with simulated motion, it's realistic enough to convince your brain it's really happening. And when the motion you sense with your inner ear is different from the motion you visualize, it can confuse your brain and make you feel like throwing up. This is the cause of real life carsickness and why some people feel like tossing their cookies during long rides in the back seat. VR headset manufacturers are well aware of this phenomenon and have implemented considerable measures to keep users from experiencing motion sickness. But inevitably, there will be certain people who simply can't use it without wanting to vomit their tasty gaming snacks all over the floor. While I sometimes feel nauseous during long car rides, I felt totally fine in my virtual car-seat.
It's important to note this doesn't just slightly enhance the world of traditional gaming, it hits the reset button on how your senses interact with a digital world. But that certainly doesn't mean it's going to be a runaway success right out of the gate. The casual gamer likely isn't going to be picking this up en masse until the software library develops and the price comes down.
Even if it ends up cheaper than the Oculus launch price of $599, PlayStation VR will still be a substantial investment. And the steep price is only one barrier. History has taught us that game console hardware add-ons are almost never successful. One primary reason add-ons don't gain traction is because they fragment the user base which subsequently hurts the software lineup. Developers need to be convinced they'll be able to recoup their investment making a game that only a subset of the install base will even have the ability to play. Another challenge posed by VR headsets is marketing them effectively. It's almost impossible to convey what the experience is like without having someone actually put on the headset to try it for themselves. How can you sell somebody something when they can't fully understand what it is they're buying? If you're exclusively using in-store demos to convince people they want it, customer acquisition costs are staggering. Word of mouth will be crucial to its success so a user's first experience had better be damned good. From what I've seen so far, it is damned good.
Early adopters are likely to be hardcore gamers and tech enthusiasts who are willing to spend some decent coin to be the first to get their hands on the shiny new virtual toy.
If you're worried that like 3D television, VR might be a gimmick or passing fad, now that I've tried it out, I'm confident in saying it's the real deal and here for the long haul. It's extremely impressive technology that's only going to become more ubiquitous as time goes on. And the applications for VR extend well beyond gaming. It could conceivably train employees highly technical skills, take users on a virtual vacation, and provide companies with innovative ways to show-off their products to consumers. Those applications might be better suited to the PC infrastructure of Oculus and Vive, but Sony insists it has plans for VR content beyond traditional gaming.
In the end, my first true VR experience was exhilarating. It left me wanting more and fantasizing about which digital worlds I might one day be exploring. The very thought of skulking around a haunted mansion in a survival horror game both terrifies and delights me. The anxiety might actually be too intense for my artery-clogged heart to handle but then again, after the horrifying experience Virtual Boy gave me over 20 years ago, I'm ready for anything. While hardcore techies with money to spend will likely be the early adopters of the first wave of virtual reality, it will someday become technology for the masses. It's too good not to succeed.