PlayStation VR is supposed to be the savior of virtual reality, a much-hyped technology yet to find meaningful mainstream acceptance outside of novelty or a neat curiosity.
VR seems to be in an awkward place: a teenage phase where people who aren’t price-conscious have already picked up one of PSVR’s competitors — the Oculus Rift or Valve and HTC’s Vive platform — but a mainstream breakthrough has yet to occur.
Sony wants to change that — to be the first company that finds a large audience for VR.
That’s a lot of weight to carry. If Sony successfully attracts the attention of an entirely new audience to VR and those players have a bad experience with the platform, they may reject the technology as a whole. And PlayStation VR finds itself in the odd position of being a more affordable VR platform than its competitors as well as a very expensive peripheral — or rather, a series of very expensive peripherals, working together to create the VR experience.
To make that hard sell easier, Sony is bringing along one of the better software lineups of any peripheral, and even some consoles, with a suite of titles that juggle name recognition and credibility. Batman is right here next to Battlezone. There is Rez and an included Resident Evil 7 demo. Very few people saw Thumper coming, and it’s already one of my favorite games of the year. Combine PlayStation VR’s lower-than-its-competitors price point and a stuffed launch lineup, and one major question remains: Is the PlayStation 4 itself up to the task of powering good VR experiences? And is PlayStation VR user-friendly enough in practice to hold on to the attention of the mainstream?
Sony's mainstream push for PlayStation VR starts with its pricing.
PlayStation VR is available at two price points. The version most buyers will likely need is $499: It comes with the PlayStation VR headset and Processor Unit, the PlayStation 4's camera peripheral (which PSVR requires to function — the headset isn't usable without it), and two PlayStation Move wand controllers. The $499 bundle also contains PlayStation VR Worlds, a surprisingly robust collection of games and experiences designed explicitly for PSVR. That shark demo and London Heist game Sony has shown off for so long? They're on the Worlds disc, and there's a lot more content there. The collection is $39.99 when bought separately.
Sony is also selling a version of the PSVR that contains only the headset and Processor Unit. At $399, this version excludes the camera and the Move controllers, which wouldn't be so bad. But the $399 version also doesn't include PlayStation VR Worlds. You're losing out on $200 worth of hardware and software to save $100.
If by some chance you already own a PlayStation 4 camera, as well as functioning PlayStation Move controllers, you could buy the $399 product. But it's hard to come away from the whole situation without feeling like Sony couldn't try harder to make the $399 option look like a bad deal from start to finish. At least both boxes include a physical disc containing demo software of various PSVR games. A physical demo disc! In 2016! It's a charming touch, and the demos include content from a good selection of games.
Bundle pricing notwithstanding, it's no exaggeration to say that price could be Sony's greatest weapon in the war for hearts and minds of consumers looking to enter the VR market. At the most basic point of comparison, the PSVR kit most people will buy is $499, which is $100 less than the Oculus Rift — not including the platform's Touch controllers, a pair of which costs $200 — and $300 less than the Vive (which does come with a pair of motion controllers).
Apples-to-apples comparisons are a little difficult here, because there are philosophical differences between each platform. The Vive intends to be a solution for "room-scale" VR, whereas the Rift and PSVR are more stationary experiences. But not only is PSVR at least $100 less than its nearest competitor, it requires less of an investment elsewhere. Where the Rift and Vive require dedicated PCs that start in the neighborhood of around $900 (on the conservative side), PSVR works with the PlayStation 4 consoles many people already own, and which currently retail at a starting price of $299.
This is somewhat complicated by Sony’s introduction of the PlayStation 4 Pro later this year, which is being released in part as a means of running VR titles better than the base system can. But even that system will start at $399. PlayStation VR is the least expensive VR platform by a good margin, while offering more control options at launch than the Rift.
This is still a high price tag on its face — PSVR costs at least $100 more than the console it requires to play it. But if someone is even casually interested in VR, Sony’s ask is a dramatically easier-to-swallow proposition. PSVR games will not look as good as similar titles can on the Rift or Vive, and developers for the system will have to sacrifice details and polygons to hit the minimum frame rate necessary to keep players from becoming ill.
But PSVR offers an enjoyable, effective VR solution at a much lower point of entry. And it does so with what might be the best-made, most comfortable hardware of the bunch.
THE HARDWARE AND CONTROLS
PlayStation VR is an entire platform consisting of multiple parts and, as a whole, looks like a finished, thoughtful product without giving off the sense that the head-mounted display is an expensive piece of technology that could be easily broken. It’s approachable, which is a great contrast to the super-serious stylings of other headsets. Sony did its homework. This is a comfortable headset that avoids many of the mistakes of its competitors.
The PlayStation VR display looks like nothing so much as a retro Daft Punk helmet. It’s a charmingly goofy-looking device. There’s a high contrast in materials between the white plastic, the black face, accents and cushions, and the blue lights that allow the PlayStation Camera to track the headset.
The black cushion where the hardware meets your forehead and the back of your head is made from a comfortable, textured plastic material. This material can easily be wiped down between users, a subtle but important luxury you may only appreciate after using a Rift or Vive drenched in someone else’s head sweat.
This seemingly simple forethought on the part of Sony’s engineers is part of what makes the PlayStation VR the most comfortable VR headset ever made. This is in part due to how customizable the headset’s fit is. A button on the back of the strap allows the top section of the headset to accommodate a variety of head sizes. You can also bring the screen closer to your eyes by depressing the button on the bottom of the front portion of the head-mounted display. A dial on the rear of the hardware can further tighten the fit if needed.
It took a few tries to learn which buttons I had to press and hold to adjust the headset’s fit, and to learn how Sony wanted me to put the headset on and take it off. But the result is a headset that carries all its weight on the hard plastic strap, without sacrificing ease of adjustment. This is a large step up from the Velcro on the Rift and the elastic on the Vive.
The PlayStation VR also fits around glasses much more comfortably than its contemporaries, and you can adjust the headset to fit someone’s head very quickly, which makes it easier to pass from person to person. Once you learn what you’re doing, you learn to slide the screen all the way out, depress the rear button, pull the headset over your head, and then bring the screen in via the bottom button under the front of the hardware. It’s a two-step process that feels easy rather than fiddly, and leads to a good fit every time.
If you slide the front of the hardware out all the way — and this is very important — it also gives you enough room to drink a soda while in VR.
In terms of children, my older kids had little trouble save my 7-year-old, who found it a bit large, although he was ultimately still able to play comfortably. Sony itself warns against letting children under the age of 12 use PlayStation VR, and I both supervise and limit the time my younger kids spend in VR.
The PlayStation VR is also, strangely enough, the heaviest of the non-portable VR headsets. Sony even pointed out that it added weights to the rear strap to balance the system. It’s all a matter of where the weight is distributed, and how the hardware touches your face. You adjust the strap’s size and then slide the screen toward your eyes, which is a system that allows the optics and screen to be supported by the circular strap, not your nose or forehead. Sony moved the weight of the hardware to the strap itself, which allows the front of the hardware to almost hang in front of your eyes. It’s an incredibly comfortable design.
The soft plastic mask found around the headset itself — what Sony calls "The Scope" — is easy on your skin, but there’s a slightly disappointing amount of light let in from your environment. This is one of the reasons the PlayStation VR is best played in a dark room, but more on that later.
The headset’s cable also includes a small inline remote that includes the power button, a mute option for the built-in microphone, and buttons for increasing or decreasing the volume. The volume-up control includes a small nub so you can find it by touch, while the power button is sunken a bit to avoid accidental presses. The PSVR comes with wired earbuds, which are as good as you’d expect for included earbuds, but any wired headphones can be plugged into the remote for 3D audio. Sony warns that wireless headphones will only output in stereo, but considering you already have a large VR headset hanging in front of your eyes, connecting wired headphones to the cable that’s already running to the processor unit doesn’t seem like a big ask.
One of the most immediately striking features of the PlayStation VR while in use is that, unlike the Rift and Vive, the PSVR does not use Fresnel lenses. That means that white text on a black background doesn’t streak, nor do bright colors in general emit the so-called "god rays" that can be so annoying on other headsets. It’s a sharp display, and seeing vibrant whites floating in the black without the smearing effect is better than the Rift or Vive. There is still a bit of bloom and ghosting on bright colors, but this is a big step up from the competition.
While bright colors on black backgrounds look better on the PSVR than they do on other headsets, you still get a similar sense of there being a kind of texture on deep blacks, as if there were cheesecloth lying under the image. It’s more noticeable in very dark scenes, and can be distracting if you’re used to the velvet blacks of more traditional, high-quality displays.
The PlayStation VR also differs from the Rift and Vive in that it uses a single 5.7-inch 1080p display, which offers an effective resolution of 960 x 1080 pixels per eye. This is a slight decrease from the per-eye 1080 x 1200 resolution of the Rift and the Vive, which offer a single screen for each eye; the difference in design explains why Rift and Vive offer a physical adjustment for interpupillary distance, while the PSVR allows you to adjust the IPD via software. The Rift and Vive headsets offer a field of view of 110 degrees, versus the "approximately" 100-degree field of view of the PSVR. These are modest trade-offs for the creation of a headset that comes in at such a lower cost.
|PlayStation VR||Oculus Rift||HTC Vive|
|Resolution||960 x 1080 per eye||1080 x 1200 per eye||1080 x 1200 per eye|
|Field of view||100 degrees||110 degrees||110 degrees|
The lower resolution, and the effort the PlayStation 4 must be expending to run PSVR games at the high frame rates necessary to make the player comfortable in VR, leads to some very aliased text and images; there simply isn’t that much power left to process the image after the demands of comfortable VR are met. To Sony’s credit — and this is a testament to the optimization work of developers — I struggled to find instances where games dropped frame rates and made me queasy. There are some games that are more intense than others, but that intensity was due to being on a frickin’ haunted roller coaster in Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, not dropped frames.
PlayStation VR maps your position in 3D space by tracking the blue lights on the front, sides and rear of the headset with the PlayStation Camera, while gyro sensors in the set help track your head’s rotation as you look around the virtual world. This is where things get a bit floaty.
The PlayStation Camera just doesn’t seem quite as reliable as the sensor on the Oculus Rift or the Lighthouse sensors of the Vive. I had issues during the first hour of my testing due to the fact the camera could see the sliding glass door behind me and to the left; the light from outside seemed to confuse the device. My advice? Dim the lights as much as possible in your play space.
There is also a noticeable but usually subtle and limited effect I call "warble." If you sit perfectly still, or try to hold your hand with the Move controller as still as possible, there is still often a small wiggle to your movement in 3D space.
This warble can be decreased somewhat by dimming the lights in your room, which also helps with tracking issues involving the PlayStation Camera. But this problem was present in most situations during my testing, even though you usually have to look for it to know it’s there.
In more normal lighting conditions, things sometimes got weird when the Move controllers’ tracking failed, like seeing my virtual hand or arm in VR do something impossible. It’s a strange situation; it always makes me uncomfortable to watch my wrist suddenly snap backward. The tracking seemed to fail on PlayStation VR more often than with the Vive. Sony’s tracking technology may be less expensive to implement and sell, but it can’t quite match the competition.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve had wonderful sessions of Tumble where the tracking felt next to perfect and I was able to complete touchy moves in the game, even with a tiny bit of the aforementioned warble. But I had a terrible time during a round of London Heist where I was trying to aim at the game’s thugs and the controllers lost tracking again and again.
Not every PSVR game requires the Move controllers. Many launch games can use either two Move controllers or a single DualShock 4, thanks to Sony’s foresight in adding a light to the front of the gamepad. Many games actually show a DualShock 4 floating in space so you can look down at it, in virtual reality, to see the buttons, which is a neat touch and adds to the sense of actually being there. You may not be able to see your hands in these games, but you can see what your hands are holding, and that’s almost as good, not to mention a huge step up from the standard wireless Xbox One controller of the Oculus Rift.
Games like Batman: Arkham VR and Until Dawn: Rush of Blood aren’t quite as good with the standard controller, but they work. But other games require Move, such as Job Simulator and some of the experiences in Harmonix Music VR. If you skip the Move controllers, be very careful about what you buy, and maybe wait for reviews to see how well the DualShock 4 works in the games you care about.
Sony is selling the PlayStation VR platform as a less expensive alternative to other headsets, but its setup complexity sits somewhere between the Rift (easy) and the Vive (do I attach these sensors to the walls?).
However you decide to buy all the hardware, be advised that there is a lot of it. The $499 bundle comes with:
- PlayStation VR Core Bundle
- VR headset
- Processor Unit
- VR headset connection cable
- HDMI cable
- USB cable
- stereo earbuds
- AC power cord
- AC adaptor
- PlayStation VR Demo Disc
- PlayStation Camera
- two PlayStation Move motion controllers
- PlayStation VR Worlds
The large instruction manual packed on top of the PlayStation VR hardware walks you through setup as if you were putting together a piece of Ikea furniture, and it feels like there are just as many steps. Luckily, the system was even boxed with care, with the large, image-heavy instructions on the very top, and then the cables, and then the PlayStation VR headset itself, nestled in a surprisingly hardy cardboard box surrounded with foam padding. The cables even include small, numbered tags wrapped around them to help in following the instructions to see what plugs in where, and how it all comes together.
First, the PS4 connects to the Processor Unit via USB and an HDMI cable. The Processor Unit (which has its own AC adapter) in turn snakes out a cable to the PSVR headset, which connects to that cable using its own cable with an HDMI and AUX connection. The Processor Unit also sends an HDMI cable to your television. As mentioned before, PlayStation VR also requires the use of the PlayStation Camera, which plugs into the back of your PlayStation 4.
If that seems hard to follow, you’re right. It’s a bit hard to follow. There’s a lot going on here. The good news is that Sony took a lot of care in packing all the equipment, and they’ve done a great job of explaining how it all fits together.
PlayStation VR isn’t tricky to set up as long as you follow the included instructions and don’t mind a bit of prep before you get started. The downside is that you’ll be left with a mess of cables around your home theater unless you plan ahead and manage things as you go; this is easily the most complex peripheral I’ve ever attached to a console.
Tearing everything down can be just as annoying, as you have to unplug, wrap and find a way to store a rather large number of cables and accessories if you’re hoping to travel with the system. It’s a far cry from the simplicity of the Rift, with the single sensor that connects via USB and a carrying case that keeps everything in one place. There’s no easy way to store and travel with all the components of the PlayStation VR, including the Move controllers and PlayStation Camera, although it’s very likely that third-party accessory companies will have a field day with boxes that feature a large number of slots and tabs for your cables. The good news is the PlayStation 4 is much easier to travel with than a standard PC, and requires fewer cables and accessories to use. I say this as someone with their PS4 literally near their feet in a backpack on a plane.
Also be aware that charging the two Move controllers along with a DualShock 4 can be a pain: DualShock 4 controllers charge with a micro USB cable, while Move controllers charge with a mini USB cable. This is probably due to one piece of equipment being old as hell and the other being the DualShock 4.
Sony suggests a play space of 9.8 feet by 6.2 feet, with the player approximately 5 feet from the camera. The company also says the recommended way to play is sitting, although some games we’ve tried offer a standing alternative, and Job Simulator all but requires standing. The image of the ideal setup shows a sitting figure with plenty of room to move their head or even take a single step in any direction if they were standing, although no games I’ve played required steps during the game itself.
In reality, you can get by with much less space; if you stand up, hold your arms out and can spin without hitting anything, you should be fine for the vast majority of the experiences PSVR has to offer. Like so many details, the PSVR falls comfortably between the Rift’s seated experience and Vive’s room-scale ideal, offering what, for many, will be more welcoming and capable middle ground.
YOU DON'T NEED A SCREEN (BUT YOU'LL WANT ONE)
One of the more noteworthy abilities of the PlayStation VR is the hardware’s ability to work without a television or monitor. You can connect the PlayStation VR to the processor unit, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Camera and jump straight into cinema mode without an HDMI cable connected to an external display at all.
Surprisingly, this is a unique feature among VR headsets. You can play any PS4 game in "Cinematic Mode," which is a fancy way of saying you see a floating, flat screen of adjustable size against a black background within VR. You can watch movies here, or play standard games as well as the expected VR games, and use the full suite of menus and options you’d have otherwise.
PlayStation VR can be — if you don’t want to connect or screen or lug your display anywhere — a completely stand-alone experience. It’s likely to continue to enjoy that advantage until Microsoft or Apple integrates a hardware-agnostic VR mode into their operating systems.
And that brings us to one of the best features of the platform.
The PlayStation VR’s Processor Unit, the plastic chunk that looks a bit like a tiny PlayStation 4, is more than an unholy collection of ports — it’s one of the most potent advantages the PlayStation VR offers in an increasingly crowded VR market.
The Rift and Vive generate one "widescreen" field of view for players by providing two displays, one for each eye. They output a single eye's view to a 2D monitor for most games, which results in an oddly proportioned video window. It’s not ideal, it’s not fun to watch for other players and bystanders, and it makes capturing or streaming game footage an epic pain in the ass.
Meanwhile, the PSVR’s Processor Unit accepts the stereoscopic video signal sent from the PS4 to the PSVR headset, and processes it to send a 2D video signal to a connected television. This allows you to see a full, widescreen version of whatever the player is seeing from within the headset. For every game. This view is also available for streaming.
While games like Job Simulator have introduced a third-person camera and streaming options on the Vive, the developer was only able to do so as a byproduct of creating a world that left minimum-spec systems with the processing overhead necessary to render a second point of view. It was also extra work; each Rift and Vive game needs to find its own solution. Sony included hardware to help handle the task, and made the feature mandatory.
Sony calls this the "Social Screen," and the company has also pointed out that the streamed or captured video is a lower-quality version of what you see in the headset — indeed, you can tell the resolution is rather low, and small text can be a bit hard to read — but what it lacks in quality it makes up for in ubiquity. There will never be a PlayStation VR game that can’t be shared in this way. It’s been great fun to play a game like Wayward Sky while I’m in the headset, while my kids point out things I should try or puzzle solutions I may have missed. It’s a huge step up from the small, often portrait-style orientation most games offer on the Rift and Vive.
This also allows you to stream any PlayStation VR game to show viewers exactly what you’re seeing: Just hit the DualShock 4's "Share" button as in a standard PS4 game. Considering the ad hoc and inconsistent nature of game capture and streaming on the Rift and Vive, this is a huge competitive advantage.
To get back to the standard resolution of your television, you need to shut off the PlayStation VR using the power button on the inline remote and then close out the application you were running in VR. If you just shut down the headset, the screen will remain in the lower-quality mode while the VR application is running in the background. This tripped me up enough that I had to ask Sony for a fix.
The Social Screen also supports multiplayer games where a second player can work with or against you. It’s unlikely we’ll see this in many games; VR is already taxing enough for the PlayStation 4 hardware, even with the Processor Unit handling the Social Screen, but it’s a neat idea that can at least be found in Playroom VR and Tumble at launch.
I spent the majority of my time with the PlayStation VR shifting between a vague disappointment at the visuals in some games and amazement at how well it all worked. PlayStation VR is a leap forward for VR in some ways, while remaining a reminder of just how much computing power is required for this technology to be effective. The games that were built from the ground up for VR, and with the limitations of the hardware in mind, looked amazing.
PlayStation VR will not take experiences that look like standard PlayStation 4 games and put them into VR. Virtual reality requires a substantial amount of processing overhead, and the compromises needed to get games working at a frame rate high enough that player doesn’t become ill may be surprising for people who don’t understand how much optimization needs to go into these games. DriveClub VR may look slightly bare-bones, for instance, but once it starts moving ... it’s pretty great to feel like you’re actually in the middle of a race.
The number of games available at launch, and their overall quality, is impressive. You're even given a generous amount of content with your initial purchase, before you pay money for any of the other launch games. The demo disc is filled with content, you get PlayStation VR Worlds with the $499 bundle, and Playroom VR is also included with any purchase of the PlayStation VR.
Despite some minor annoyances — the system is a bit of a pain to set up, there are a lot of wires involved and the PlayStation Camera can sometimes lose tracking momentarily due to light pollution — this is virtual reality. This is good virtual reality. I felt like I went places. I shot scary clowns. I saw moving short films. I was in space. I was underwater. I grabbed objects and turned them around in front of my face to explore them. I was inside the game. It was everything I loved about VR, at a price that’s much lower than the competition, using extra hardware that makes sharing those experiences with those around you or watching a stream a seamless process.
Even if you get the most expensive PlayStation VR bundle and wait for a PlayStation 4 Pro, you’re coming in at under $1,000. That’s not inexpensive, but for an entire VR platform and the hardware to run it, it’s a major step down from the $1,600 or more you’ll need for the HTC Vive, while offering an already impressive software library and a headset that’s so much more comfortable, even with glasses, that it’s almost a joke.
My fear is that PlayStation VR will continue to entrench players into their already-decided-upon positions: The bar won’t move if fans of VR are excited about a more affordable option for effective presence, while critics see it as just another gimmick in an overhyped field. PlayStation VR has to convert more people to the world of VR, and that’s a very large challenge.
Sony created something exceptional. Now it’s a question of whether there’s a market for it.