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Could PlayStation VR be what virtual reality was waiting for?

“This is the year it all begins.”

The PlayStation VR is in many ways virtual reality’s next big chance to seize the public’s attention and finally make the leap from curiosity to mainstream must-have.


Speaking with some of the most well-regarded innovators, scientists and creators in VR of the past four decades, many point to the potential of the console-powered headset.

Today is the turning point for VR, says Nonny de la Pena, the creator of VR-driven immersive journalism and considered by many to be the "godmother of VR." With the launch of the PlayStation VR headset, suddenly 40 million people have the ability to get a powerful VR machine for $400.

"This is the point when things get really real," she said.

Scott Fisher, whose impact on VR dates back to the 1970s and continues today, said the power of the console to get virtual reality out to a broader market is "huge."

PlayStation VR
"This is the point when things get really real."

These are the people who have stuck with virtual reality despite its decades of ups and downs, its peaks of near tremendous success and seemingly bottomless drops of absolute failure.

For these VR luminaries the PlayStation VR’s potential success goes far beyond helping out Sony’s bottom line.

That doesn’t seem lost on Shawn Layden, chairman of Worldwide Studios at Sony Interactive Entertainment and president of Sony Interactive Entertainment America. Layden has been with the company for nearly 20 years, watching and helping with all four of the company’s PlayStation console launches, countless games, peripherals and add-ons.

And he was here to oversee all content development for first-party games for the PlayStation VR, "to make sure we have a great launch line-up," he said.

30 games live, 20 coming

As the console rolls out today, it does so with a robust lineup that matches, at least in numbers, the launch titles for the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. There are 31 titles available for the headset with another two coming by the end of the month. Layden told me that there will be 50 by the end of the year.

Among the launch titles are a mix of games that don’t require the PSVR, more than a few "experiences," puzzle games, mini-game collections, shooters, platformers, action games, survival horror and adventure titles. It’s a robust myriad of play that shows the guiding hand of a company well-versed in launching hardware that lives and dies by its games.

Layden said it’s also a clear indication that no one really yet knows what sort of game or experience will drive this new market.

"We’re trying to take the whole gaming experience, trying to imagine if you could immerse yourself and be inside the game what would be the best title," he said. "So right now our games are really right across the board. From Thumper to Headmaster to Eve to becoming the Batman, there are a lot of different things to see where the VR market goes.

"No one knows what the killer app is going to be."

Hunting for the killer app

Layden said that Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios in Europe, Japan and North America are playing a big role in supporting the platform. That includes the likes of Guerrilla Cambridge, which created RIGS Mechanized Combat League for launch, SIE Japan Studio which developed The Playroom VR, and London Studio, which developed PlayStation VR Worlds.

Sony Pictures

While PlayStation's focus for the PSVR remains chiefly games, that doesn't mean that other divisions of Sony aren't interested in the device in different ways.

Layden pointed out that the headset will support some non-gaming apps, like Hulu, Littlestar VR Cinema and Vrideo after launch, but then he mentioned an interesting demo PlayStation gave to some Sony people recently.

"Up in our campus, a number of show-runners looked at PSVR and had a go," he said. "They came away saying, ‘Oh my god, this is going to disrupt the concept of a narrative. How do we do a story where the reader or an enthusiast can go through at their own pace and look at what they want to?'

"The film and and TV community were absolutely blown away by it, but also very excited."

The tour was put together by Sony Pictures, he added.

"Certainly games are what we know best," Layden said. "Our first step is our strongest play, which is gaming."

Worlds, which includes five wildly different VR experiences in one game, was among my favorite launch titles.

The game drops you into a cavernous room and lets you choose between The London Heist, Ocean Descent, VR Luge, Danger Ball and Scavenger’s Odyssey.

While all five delivered unique, creative and intriguing experiences, it was The London Heist that most hooked me.

The London Heist is itself a collection of games. While it offers snapshot, story-driven gameplay that has you shooting it out while driving along a highway, the thing that I couldn’t seem to put down were the interactive shooting ranges in the game.

The London Heist lets you use two PlayStation Move controllers to control both of your hands. Gripping the controller essentially sticks a gun into each hand. To reload, a player lowers the butt of the gun onto one of the magazines balanced on the table in front of them in the virtual shooting range. When you’ve fired all of your shots, the magazine automatically drops from the bottom of the gun, making it clear you’re out of ammo.

Initially, the game simply uses pop-up targets spread around a cluttered room and times how long it takes you to hit the targets. Your score is a mix of precision and the time it takes you to clear the range. But this mode of the game offers up a variety of ranges with ever increasing difficult and distractions. My favorite was a doozie.

In this particular range, a set of tracks runs a half circle in front of you, about halfway down the room. Trash bins in two colors are located along the tracks. Once the game starts you have to shoot paint cans into the trash bin matching its color. While this is going on, targets still pop-up for you to shoot. Finally, sometime during the course of the timer, small circular targets pop up with starts on them. Hit all five and you earn yourself a bonus round.

I found this range the best at pushing me to fire both guns simultaneously and to push both my hand-eye coordination and basic reasoning skills to their limits. (Maybe that’s a sign of my age.)

To top it off, all of the modes have online high scores and when I was playing, pre-launch, there was one score that was maybe ten times higher than mine. And it was killing me. So I couldn’t put the game down.

The London Heist also happens to be a perfect example of the sort of game that Layden suspects will do well on PSVR.

"I like that because it hearkens back to arcade gaming."

"I think we find that the VR experience to work really well in short form," he said. "I like that because it hearkens back to arcade gaming."

He added that there’s a reason that I liked the London Studio game so much; it’s the studio with perhaps the most experience with this evolving technology.

"They were there with the Eye Toy, with Singstar, with the original Move games," he said. "They were also on the leading edge for VR development.

"We just let their ambitions fly free."

No one knows what to expect

While all of the titles on PlayStation VR Worlds are obviously meant to only be short experiences, Layden hinted that they could be turned into full games at some point. When I asked him if it was possible that PlayStation was using the collection to test the waters and determine which of the experiences should be turned into a full game, he responded with: "That would seem like a smart thing to do."

Which returns us to the idea that despite the fact that the PlayStation VR headset is the third major release of a HMD for virtual reality (fourth if you count the mobile-powered Gear VR) in recent years, no one really knows what to expect yet.

Layden said Sony didn’t really do anything but watch when the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift was released. "I don’t think anything we have done post those launches have been reactive to those launches. We’re coming to market in October by design because we wanted to spend the summer and meet with consumers and let them try the experience."

So far, he said, there have been a quarter of a million demos, all of them overwhelmingly positive. (Richard Marks who helped create the headset, puts that number at closer to a third of a million.)

A measured approach

Layden describes PlayStation’s slow reveal and confirmation of PSVR as measured. Remember, Sony first introduced the device as Project Morpheus during the 2014 Game Developers Conference. At the time, the company said it wasn’t sure if it would ever actually ship the device.

In 2014, PlayStation’s Shuhei Yoshida told Polygon that two things had to happen for the device to become a retail product: It would need amazing content and it would need to be improved from a good system to a great one.

Looking back, Layden said the company wasn’t so much hesitant as it was being careful.


"We were being very measured on how to introduce new technology to the world," he said. "We didn’t want to lumber [the PlayStation VR] with hopes and wishes and expectations and hype that it couldn’t meet.

"We wanted to come out with this being very thoughtful and mindful."

That approached seems to have worked in terms of attracting developers. This morning, Sony announced that more than 230 developers and publishers are working on titles for the headset.

The best is yet to come

Layden tells me that some of the best games are yet to come.

Big titles like Crytek’s Robinson: The Journey (Nov. 8), Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight (Nov. 8), Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One: X-Wing VR Mission (holiday) and Farpoint (2017) are all looming on the horizon.

Farpoint

Farpoint is the most compelling on that list not just because it will deliver a very noticeable upgrade in graphics when running on the PlayStation 4 Pro, but because among all of the titles coming the PSVR it is the one that feels most like dropping you into a fully realized world.

In Farpoint, players will use a motion-sensing, gun-like PlayStation VR Aim controller to wander through the desert landscape of a distant planet. The game tracks your movements and while you can’t simply walk through the world, you can move around in a limited way, picking off enemies, hiding behind cover and swiveling to take down the giant spiders trying to sneak up on you from behind.

I spent 15 minutes or so playing through the early demo in New York City and was astounded at how much bigger the experience felt than PSVR’s launch titles. The Impulse Gear-developed title is a clear sign that what PlayStation has in store for the headset will make the launch titles feel like demos and bite-sized appetizers.

Farpoint

Layden declined to say if PlayStation was considering an upgrade path for the PSVR to match the PS4 and its upcoming PS4 Pro release. Though he did note that Sony is making money on each PSVR headset sold, seemingly lessening the need for a redesign in the near future.

"I’m still ten days away from getting the first generation out the door," he said. "This is a new frontier for all of us, Sony and its players. Anyone who says they can predict the future is not telling the truth. But people do feel like the time has come for bringing VR to the consumer level.

"This is the year it all begins."Babykayak

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