The challenge with Sony’s virtual reality headset Project Morpheus, and even Oculus was upfront about this fact, is to do virtual reality well.
The post-Oculus world has a minimum level of quality for virtual reality that new products have to at least match, if not clear, and Sony’s push into console-based virtual reality could poison the well for other companies if their high-profile hardware isn’t up to the task.
Luckily, it works well. Very well.
The headset itself looks like it was sneezed on by a character from Tron, and it rests on the top of your head before you tighten straps to keep it in place. The optics can be moved towards or away from your head, I was able to keep my glasses on and still be comfortable, and the unit was pleasantly lightweight. It didn’t take long before I forgot I was wearing it so I could focus on the scene.
The first demo put you inside a diving cage, and you have a flare gun that you can use to scare away schools of fish. A shark swims around, and ultimately attacks you, and it’s hard to keep your balance while the cage is moving around you. They pulled off a neat trick with positional tracking; you can look down at your feet and your knees bend if you move up and down. It added to the sense of presence, a key factor in whether virtual reality works for the user.
It’s not all perfect, though. There was some light bleed from under the screen that could be distracting, although you’ll likely not notice it once the game begins. The field of view is also less than perfect, you can see black bars to the left and right of your eyes. It’s not terrible, but when you combine it with the light from the bottom of the screen it can become very clear that you’re not perfectly immersed in the game.
It added to the sense of presence, a key factor in whether virtual reality works for the user
The next demo used the Move controls to slap around a medieval dummy in armor, and you could pick up swords to cut off the dummy's legs, arms and head. You could pick up the sword, hold the dummy's arm, slice through the shoulder with the sword and then throw the useless limb away. I felt like a butcher, and tried to cut off the dummy's head so I could throw it into the air to hit like a baseball. It didn't quite work, but it was a fun experiment.
That's the other problem: The Move controllers work very well the majority of the time, but in the course of playing the demo the calibration failed enough times to be frustration. It's very strange in virtual reality to feel like your hands in the game are your hands in real life, and that feeling is handled very well, until there is a glitch and your hand jumps five feet in the wrong direction. It takes you completely out of the experience, and can almost make you sick.
The other interesting bit is that Sony showed two demos where you're standing up. They encourage you to bounce up and down, to take a step or two in any direction. The Rift is often demoed as a sit down experience, and Sony seems to be very comfortable having you on your feet, allowing for much more motion.
The Move controllers, or the PlayStation 4 controllers with their built-in lights and the PlayStation camera, may not be up to the task of becoming high-precision positional tracking devices. This is also the first time the hardware has been shown to the public, and there's no solid release date, so there's plenty of room for these things to be improved.
The headset itself is also ... conspicuous. It's comfortable while worn, but it's covered in lights, and combined with the light from the controllers you can start to feel like you're inside a very strange rave. It's not a problem once you're inside the game, but it can be very strange to watch someone flail around with lighted controllers while their head is also covered in lights. Those lights are most likely used for calibration with the camera, but they make the helmet feel like a prop from a Daft Punk video.
These are nit picks though, and they can be adjusted or fixed for the final version. Sony's challenge was to prove that it could do virtual reality as well as the Oculus Rift, and they passed that test with ease.
The display looks wonderful, the demos were running at 60 frames per second, the screens looked just about as good as the Rift Development Kit 2, and the issues with light bleed and field of view can be fixed with a different fitting around the eyes and a slightly different display.
Sony has nailed the hard parts of virtual reality, and now it's just a matter of finishing the hardware and shoring up software support. Based on these early demos, they're onto something special.