It’s not a secret that the tech industry is never content. Virtual Reality is having a Moment, but though the high-end HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets are finally available, consumers are already looking for the Next Big Thing. Conveniently, it’s right around the corner. Of course, I’m talking about PlayStation VR.
Sony’s headset, a companion for their PlayStation 4 console, will be available later this year, and it promises to be VR for the masses in a way that its competitors cannot. I had the opportunity to spend about an hour with the PlayStation VR and check out a number of different demos. They ran the gamut of styles, from a 3D Pong-type game that was controlled entirely through head movement to a full-on first-person shooter that was controlled with the PSVR Aim Controller—a gun-like peripheral that is the approximation of gripping a rifle, and adds an almost uncomfortable feeling of “realism” to the experience.
Having spent that time with it, here are the five things you need to know.
1. The PlayStation 4 is not a gaming PC…
The PlayStation 4 is a powerful machine that is the home to some absolutely gorgeous games. But VR is particularly taxing on a system. Both the Rift and Vive require hardware that can push out high-fidelity visuals to two 1080 x 1200 panels at 75 frames per second (the minimum recommended for smooth VR) or more, and the PlayStation 4 simply isn’t capable of doing that. Many of the best-looking console games (on any system) run at 30 frames per second, which is natural enough for smooth gameplay on a traditional screen but is simply unacceptable in VR. The slower speeds mean increased latency, guaranteeing motion sickness and a generally terrible time.
As such, the bare minimum for PlayStation VR games is 60 fps. And, though the PlayStation VR’s 1080p display requires less horsepower, locking that down is hardly an easy task. To improve the experience further, the PS4 uses a technique called “reprojection” to effectively double the frame rate from 60 fps to 120—the native refresh rate of the headset’s LCD screen. (The Rift and Vive, on the other hand, both cap at 90 Hz.) While some games will run higher natively than 60 fps, all will feel smoother than your average 60 fps experience.
Even if the games are fluid, though, something running on the PlayStation VR is never going to look as it could on a high-end PC. In my time, I encountered low polygon counts, blurry textures, pop-in, and a whole lot of aliasing. Some games are definitely more technically proficient than others, but there are limits to what the PS4 can do. The upgraded PS4 system that Sony is working on, codenamed Neo, will likely bridge the gap a bit, but it still won’t match a top-of-the-line VR experience.
By the way—any concerns of an increased “screen door” effect due to the lower resolution can be laid to rest; if anything, I found the pixels less distracting on the PlayStation VR than on other systems, perhaps due to its use of a proper RGB panel as opposed to the Pentile display found in its competitors.
2. … but it’s not priced like one either
The flip side of all that is that you can purchase both a PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation VR Launch Bundle (from the only retailer that matters) for only slightly more than the price of the HTC Vive alone. In fact, other than the recently released AMD RX 480 (and, perhaps, the NVIDIA GTX 1060), all graphics cards pitched as “VR Ready” cost as much as a PS4. The combined price may not be cheap, but for what you get, it’s a great deal. This is as close as we’re going to get to mass-market VR for quite some time, made easier by the fact that so many people already have PS4s. And, for the price, you’re getting the total package. If you have a PlayStation 4 Camera and a pair of Move controllers already, you can opt for the cheaper Headset-Only option, as well, but most people will likely go for the whole bundle, especially since it includes the PlayStation VR Worlds game disc, which offers five experiences that may not be the next Wii Sports, but will serve as a good entry point into the new medium.
3. It’s comfortable, but doesn’t fit quite like you’d expect
It’s pleasantly simple to put on the PlayStation VR. All headsets have a learning curve, but this one feels particularly elegant. A button on the back expands the headband, and a button on the front moves the screen forward and back, so you can make sure that the image is in focus. It’s easy, though it doesn’t fit quite the way I expected it to fit. The head strap sits a bit high, resting about three-quarters of the way up the back of my head. Though I could pull it down to feel more like a baseball cap, doing so lifted the displays themselves and made them difficult to view. However, compared to the front-heavy HTC Vive, it is still a very comfortable (and attractive) headset.
One more thing to note, though: I had issues with the headphones I was given in all eight demos. When I looked up, they slid back, every single time. I can’t necessarily blame the PSVR for this, since headphones aren’t included in the system, but I can say that in my time with other headsets, I haven’t had that issue. If I had to guess, it was a result of the head strap, which is a plastic that lacks the grippy, textured sides of the Vive’s elastic strap (or the convenience of the Rift’s built-in headphones). As a result, I intend to play the PlayStation VR with earbuds, which should negate the issue entirely.
4. You’re going to want the Launch Bundle
Four of the demos I played used the DualShock 4. One of them exclusively used head tracking. Three of them took advantage of the Move controllers. I’ll give you one guess as to which ones stuck in my mind. True Virtual Reality is about immersion, about the feeling of Presence. Each game went about this in a different way, and it was particularly interesting to see how the DualShock-controlled games worked through issues inherent with having head movements that are disconnected from the movements of your standard-issue controller. Some used awkward, tank-like controls reminiscent of the PS1 era, while others were a bit more traditional in their thinking, though even that has its limitations. In all cases, it was clear that developers are still trying to figure out the best way to marry the old with the new, and I expect it’ll be a while before anyone really lands on the perfect solution.
Or, maybe they never will, because a traditional controller really isn’t the perfect solution for VR. For that, you really need the true level of interactivity that can only be afforded to you by the ability to reach out and grasp the things in front of you. Being able to flick your wrist to throw a Baterang in Batman: Arkham VR, or put your hands over your shoulder to switch weapons in Farpoint, makes those experiences feel just a little bit more right. Like you’re actually Batman or on an alien world. It’s how Virtual Reality is meant to be.
5. No, seriously. You’re going to want Move controllers.
The London Heist is one of the five games included with PlayStation VR Worlds. In the section I played, you ride shotgun in a van down the highway as baddies swarm on both sides. You have a gun. You hold it in one hand and aim and fire. When the clip runs out, it drops out of the bottom of the gun. With your other hand, you pick up a clip from inside the glove compartment. You bring it over to the bottom of your gun and jam it inside. It is, of course, an oversimplified version of loading a gun, but I’ll be gosh-darned if it didn’t feel absolutely amazing.
Everything about it—the way my gun was untethered from the way I was looking; the fact that I could be doing something totally different with that second hand (e.g. grabbing a clip and readying it for when my current one ran out); the visceral physicality of hitting my hands together to reload; washing, rinsing, repeating—truly exemplified the capabilities of Virtual Reality. That is an experience that simply cannot be had with a regular controller or without the aid of a VR headset.
Sony is putting a lot of effort into PlayStation VR, and there it’s reflected in a far more diverse lineup than what’s available for existing headsets. If even a handful of them are as capable of making me feel as Present and part of the action as The London Heist (my experiences tell me they will be), then it is absolutely going to be worth the price of admission.
Plus, it has Allumette. Really, what else do you need? October can’t come soon enough.