Sony is in a good place when it comes to virtual reality.
The company has a long history of creating high-quality displays, and Project Morpheus, the virtual reality platform Sony showed at GDC, won’t even be its first head-mounted offering. Sony's hardware and software demos compared favorably to the Oculus Rift development kit 2, and the PlayStation 4 is leading the next-generation sales race, not to mention the hardware is demonstrably more powerful than the Xbox One. Speed and power are important when it comes to rendering a scene in virtual reality with the necessary high frame rate.
It goes even deeper than that, however. Every Dual Shock 4 can be paired with the now-rare PlayStation camera to create a controller that supports positional tracking. It's unlikely that Sony will ask you to purchase Move controllers if you want to interact with objects in 3D space.
The future of virtual reality software is being created by the indie space, at least for the time being, and Sony’s indie outreach programs are some of the industry’s best. Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida confirmed that the company has people looking into the world of independent virtual reality development.
Even Nate Mitchell from Oculus went on the record to say that a high-quality virtual reality solution from Sony would be a good thing for everyone involved. With all of these positives, you think there would be a major "but" coming to round out this story...
Except there’s no hidden "gotcha," at least so far. This is all great news for virtual reality enthusiasts, and Sony is in the enviable position of allowing Oculus to light the path forward. That puts the Rift in control of the future of virtual reality, at least in the short term.
An unknown market
There was always a question about whether there is a market for one virtual reality headset, much less two, and that question still exists. There is much we don’t know when it comes to pricing and launch titles, and answering those questions will give everyone much more to go on when it comes to assessing these products’ chances in the market place.
To be blunt: Anything above $200 is a hard sell, and both headsets will almost assuredly be over $200. Anything above $400 is likely to be dead on arrival. The development kit 2 is shipping at $350, and that includes the OLED screen with low persistence and the external camera. It's unlikely that a console peripheral can survive when it's launched at the same price as the console itself, and price sensitivity is a much bigger issue on the PlayStation 4 than it will be for VR enthusiasts who already own high-end PCs.
It’s rare to see development hardware cost less than retail products, so it’s likely that Oculus will be able to hit the sub-$400 price point. Sony’s pricing is an open question. Yoshida declined to comment on potential pricing at GDC.
Enthusiasts are already putting together custom drivers, hacking existing games to support virtual reality, and creating interesting experiences that will never find a home on a console. Rift owners will be rewarded for their early adoption and choice of platform by being exposed to a much wider variety of experiences.
"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," Sony’s Richard Marks told Polygon. "That kind of thing is something that non-gamers even really like."
It’s great that Sony is open to that sort of experience, but many of those experiences are already freely available on the Rift. I’ve walked around Hogwarts, visited the world of Spirited Away, and even seen the fourth wall in Seinfeld’s apartment. The difference is that enthusiasts can create these programs for fun and release them for free on the Rift, while getting the license for an official Hogwarts experience on Morpheus will be significantly more challenging. That's what the Rift will offer early adopters: A wide field to play in, and few rules.
Independent virtual reality development is evolving rapidly, and the state of the art is a moving target. Innovation will happen on the PC, and Sony will benefit from picking from the best from that world before polishing it for consoles. Console audiences aren’t as excited about trying half-finished games or buggy initial releases and will be looking for strong, finished games for their hardware. Think of Project Morpheus as a platform where the greatest indie hits of the Rift will find a home, and the flotsam will be ignored.
A high-quality virtual reality solution on the PlayStation 4 means that developers will have another market for their games, and with around 25 people working on games like Eve: Valkyrie, another home means that a return on investment is much more likely. Having a destination on the PC and the current most-popular next-generation system for virtual reality games will help nudge larger teams, and more of them, to begin working in virtual reality.
Sony is open about the fact that Morpheus may never be released to the public, but the quality of the hardware and software demos at GDC are a good indication that they’re taking virtual reality seriously. A future where the Oculus Rift is home to the most interesting and innovative virtual reality games while serving as a sort of incubator for Project Morpheus games isn’t hard to imagine. More than one Rift developer I spoke to at GDC mentioned, as a sort of half-serious joke, that they were hoping for a call from Sony about their game.
Microsoft almost certainly has its own virtual reality hardware locked up in a lab somewhere, ready to go into more active production if there is evidence the market exists. There is every possibility that within two years we live in a world where there’s a viable virtual reality solution for the PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
The fear is that three sets of hardware will splinter the community and lead to an ugly death of consumer VR, with no single product gaining a critical mass. That fear could be unfounded. If anything, we need to hope that all three potential products are as similar as possible, making it easy to port experiences from the PC to Project Morpheus to whatever Microsoft may call their own hardware.
Think of Project Morpheus as a platform where the greatest indie hits of the Rift will find a home, and the flotsam will be ignored
While hoping for virtual reality standards is probably being overly optimistic, the idea that all three helmets will sports a high-definition, low-persistence display with positional tracking and similar control methods isn’t far-fetched. The closer these pieces of hardware are to each other in terms of features and specs, the better for the development community and ultimately the fans. If there is the possibility of launching a game on the PC and both next-generation consoles, you can expect AAA studios to begin to seriously look at virtual reality for their larger projects.
Sony has achieved its goal for now. The company dominated the news cycle during GDC, and Sony will now be mentioned in every story about virtual reality moving forward. This was a massive win in terms of PR, but it also shows that Sony is serious about getting into virtual reality if there seems to be a market for it. It’s also another way in which Microsoft is shown to be lagging behind the pack this generation.
Sony is in the enviable position of being all over the news while not having to risk much else to see if virtual reality is real in the consumer space. The Oculus Rift will be the canary in the coal mine, sent out to market first with what is likely to be an aggressive price point and a wide variety of interesting games.
If the Rift takes off? Sony cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of war. If it flops and virtual reality as a trend dies before it lived? Sony gets to shrug and move on to the next thing.
It’s a smart play, and it puts the Rift back in control of the future of virtual reality. If they’re able to show that there is money to be made, however? The gold rush will begin almost immediately.