One of the keys to launching a successful virtual reality headset is to turn the isolating technology into a social experience, said Shuhei Yoshida, head of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios.
Last week, Yoshida unveiled Sony's Project Morpheus during the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Project Morpheus is a virtual reality headset that rests on a user's head and slips onto their face like ski goggles or a snorkel mask. Inside the mask is a single high definition screen that displays a view of a virtual world. Tracking technology allows the user to look around by moving their head. The still-experimental device is designed to plug into a PlayStation 4.
While Project Morpheus isn't the first functioning virtual reality headset designed for gaming, it's certainly the one with the biggest company backing it.
People at three different studios within Sony were playing around with the technology independently before the company officially got behind it and put the groups together to create something. Sony research and design engineer Richard Marks said he believes that the increased interest in virtual reality is driven by advancements in technology that make creating such devices easier.
"There's a set of technologies that are needed for VR and a lot of them are happening simultaneously, the display, the graphics, and the tracking," he said. "And so that's why other companies will try to do it too, it makes sense. We happen to have the luxury to be able to pull on a lot of the areas that are necessary because our company has quite a wide berth of technology, Sony, well even PlayStation has a wide berth. So we have, I feel, some advantage there, but I do think a lot of other people will be looking at different angles where they can contribute to this whole space. So I think other people actually are believing too that this can be a big space in the future, a real medium."
While the interest from tech companies is growing, Yoshida was quick to point out that the reality of virtual reality is still pretty formless.
"It's not even a niche yet," he said.
Sony hasn't even decided if they will launch the concept as a retail project, though Yoshida said they "really, really want to bring it to the market." He added that if it's going to happen, it will happen on the PlayStation 4.
While Sony showed off several games for the system at GDC last week, it sounds like the key to making the product a success won't necessarily be the games. Sony sees a future where people will use their headset to visit Mars or examine a hotel room before booking a stay.
"I don't think we want to limit it to games," Yoshida said. "The other way to say it is that we want to expand the definition of games."
Marks added that the ability to visit the worlds in books or movies through virtual reality could be one of the system's killer apps.
"Many people in the world would love to walk around in [Harry Potter's] Hogwarts and get that feeling of actually being in Hogwarts, or [Lord of the Rings'] Rivendale or the wall of [Game of Thrones'] Westeros, which was something that was just shown at South by Southwest in virtual reality," Marks said. "That kind of thing is something that non-gamers even really like."
Yoshida understands that technology that has to be worn like a helmet and that requires a console and a least the PS4's camera peripheral to work, could be a hard sell even to gamers. And, he said, people will have to experience it to become a "believer."
"Everyone has that path, that moment of truth of, ‘Ah, actually this is great,'" he said. "When they try, many of them I believe want this. And in that case the word of mouth can spread from the people who tried it to the people surrounding that person. So what we designed in Project Morpheus, that we believe is very important, is what we call the social screen."
The social screen is a concept that includes several elements. One is the idea that while a person is viewing the game world through their headset, the television will be showing non-players what the gamer sees in an undistorted, high-definition image.
This allows the audience to experience just a bit of what the player sees. It also means Sony can incorporate asymmetrical gaming into their Project Morpheus titles on day one of the device.
For instance, in The Deep, the player is a scuba diver dropping into an ocean in a steel cage. The Deep, Yoshida says, has a second screen tablet component that would allow a second player to trace a line along the screen which would guide a sea turtle in the game. That turtle, in turn, can be used to attract and maneuver a shark in the ocean, which can harass and attack the player.
"So we are making it so game designers can design what Nintendo calls asymmetry game design," he said. "So that one person can be running away, and all the other people are chasing, or one person is running through a haunted house and the other people can place traps or ghosts or something like that. So that makes it a social experience so there will be more people interest in trying this and it won't be as awkward for you to use it with other people around."
Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.