Ten Experiential Questions about PlayStation VR


It’s been two and a half years since Sony unveiled Project Morpheus to the world. Now rebranded as PlayStation VR, the headset recently landed on store shelves, and it is, in every sense of the word, a game changer. We’ve got our hands on one and have spent the last couple of weeks playing around with it. And we imagine that there are a lot of people still on the fence who might have some questions. So, we’re answering twenty of them (how cool is that?). Unfortunately, metrics have shown us that people don’t like novella-length articles, so we’ve decided to split this into two parts. We’ll answer the first ten questions in this article.

Here, we’re discussing what it’s like to be in virtual reality and use the PlayStation VR headset. The companion piece is the more technical side of things: What it is, how it works, etc. You don’t need to read both, of course, but if you’re curious about the technology, I’d recommend it. If you’re unfamiliar with the system, you may want to start with the technical breakdown.

Sony Playstation VR headset

Okay, first things first: Why is virtual reality such a big deal?

It can be hard for someone who has never tried virtual reality to really understand just how unique and incredible the experience is. Our industry has a habit of using the same superlatives for every new technology, so when a truly important one comes out, no one knows how to really identify it. Another way to word this question might be, “Why isn’t VR the next 3D?” and it’s because 3D can be cool, done right, and it can affect the way you play a particular game to some degree, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the gaming experience. A 2D experience can give you 90% of what a 3D experience can. Neither a 2D nor a 3D experience can give you half of what VR does. The best 3D you’ve ever seen in your life is in a VR headset, because there’s no cross-talk, since entirely separate images are being rendered for each eye.

Done right, virtual reality gives you a sense of “presence” in a world that is not your own. Presence is the thing that developers and creators are trying to achieve, because when it works, it’s magical.

Earlier this year, I wrote extensively about a VR project called Allumette (which is available for PSVR, by the way). The fifteen minutes I spent watching that story unfold was life-changing, and I don’t use this term lightly. It made me understand some fascinating things about the rules of storytelling inside and outside of VR and also about the way images can trick your gut, even if they don’t always trick your brain. Allumette has forever altered the way I think of the impact digital worlds can have. On a TV, that wouldn’t have been possible.

Allumette VR animated film by Penrose Studios

How is it better than the Google Cardboard and/or Gear VR headset I have for my phone, though?

Imagine a puzzle game. It’s simple, geometric. It looks like something you could run on a phone. A block hovers right in front of you. You have to get it through a hole in an enormous wall. The wall comes at you. You go through it. Another block attaches to your first block. Another wall appears with another hole. Now you have to manipulate the block to make it fit through the hole. You use a controller. It still seems like the kind of thing you do on a phone. But then it builds. Soon, you have 30 blocks. They’re opaque. You can’t even see the hole that they have to fit into. So you stand up. And now you can see over your blocks. Now you see the hole. Now you can manipulate your blocks. You could also duck beneath the blocks, or lean to either side, if you don’t like the idea of standing. However, your head moves, the perspective will move too. That you cannot do on a phone. That game, by the way, is real. It is called SuperHyperCube. It is amazing.

Playstation VR game Superhypercube

At B&H, we’ve deemed this distinction the one between “Smartphone VR Headsets” and “Gaming VR headsets.” A Smartphone headset, à la the Gear VR, is connected to a smartphone and uses smartphone apps. It’s inherently limited. You can view 360-degree videos and photos, play some basic games, etc., but you’re a fixed figure in that world. The phone can track as you spin, but not as you move.

Samsung Gear VR 2016 Edition Virtual Reality Smartphone Headset

Gaming VR headsets, like the PlayStation VR or HTC Vive, are much more capable in two ways, the latter of which is far more important: 1) They hook up to more powerful hardware, so the rendered content looks better, and 2) They have external tracking hardware that allows you to stand up and look over your blocks and feel like you’re genuinely a part of your game (or other experience).

Is there anything else that I don’t technically “need” but really should have?

Not all games require the motion-tracking Move Controllers, but some do… and for a real VR experience, they’re crucial.

Sony PlayStation Move Motion Controller

Less obviously, you’re going to want a decent pair of headphones. The package comes with a pair of not-great earbuds, but they’re really not enough. And I’ll admit to having some egg on my face here: When I last wrote about PlayStation VR for this blog, I said I intended to play with earbuds rather than headphones, as the demo set fell off me every time I looked up. That was a bad call.

Having tried it with earbuds, both the included pair and some Shure SE215s, as well as a big ol’ pair of Audio-Technica M50x headphones, I can unequivocally state that the latter makes for a far more compelling experience. 3D audio is a crucial part of VR, staying in a single apparent spot in space as you move yourself around. Over-ear headphones expand the apparent soundscape in a way that makes a big difference in the feeling of immersion. The M50x’s also haven’t fallen off my head like the wireless Sony pair I had during the demo. Whether that’s a result of the headphones themselves or something about the headset, I don’t know.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Monitor Headphones

Do the Move controllers really matter that much?

Imagine a game set in a dystopian future. You’re in a museum. You are given the chance to experience some approximation of life—well, work, as though there’s a difference, am I right?—in 2016-ish. You can live the life (work) that I am living right now as I am typing this. You reach out with your actual hands and pick up a not-actual cartridge. You’re in an office. A robot comes to you. It asks you to type a card for a colleague. You again use your real-life hands (but not fingers) to tap some real-fake buttons on a very-fake keyboard. Something coherent appears on the fake computer you are looking at through an effectively real computer screen. You “print” the card. You pick it up. You hand it to the robot.

That game is also real. It is called Job Simulator. You have probably seen it on YouTube.

Playstation VR game Job Simulator

Job Simulator would not work without the Move controller (or something like it), because it requires you to reach out and touch things. It needs your hands to be separated and for them to be individually tracked.

Some games are better played with a DualShock 4 (which can be tracked but not separated), and some games use no controller at all. But, for a game like Job Simulator, one that asks you to get up and get into the experience, the Move is the only way to go.

Is the headset comfortable?

Surprisingly so. I’ve used it on multiple occasions for more than an hour straight without issue, as have friends with whom I’ve played. However, it does require some fiddling to get right. Don’t skimp on the setup time. Before long, you’ll be doing it near-instantly, but get a feel for the “right” fit before jumping into things for the first time.

Sony Playstation VR headset

Does it work with eyeglasses?

Yes and no. The front button allows you to move it forward and back, meaning that it will accommodate your glasses, so you will be able to see everything fine. However, if it’s out too far, the rubber shieldings that block out external light may not fully fill the gaps between your face and the headset itself. You definitely want to avoid that if at all possible, and it’s much more likely to happen if you’re wearing glasses than if you are not. If you wear glasses and push it all the way back to make sure the light is blocked, you may feel a little bit squished. So… you can, but if you can avoid it, you probably should.

Your results, however, will vary depending on the size of your glasses, shape of your face, etc.

Sony Playstation VR headset

Can you see anything outside the headset?

Not if you’re wearing it correctly, but many of the games are well aware that you may not be totally comfortable with a controller in your hands. The PlayStation VR does not assume that you have been using DualShock controllers since 1997 (we’re coming up on 20 years for that design—wow). Because of this, many games will show you some visual representation of the controller in your hands. In Job Simulator, you see two things that look like Move controllers. In SuperHyperCube, you see a DualShock 4. They float in the nothingness and track with your movements. You know where they are and can “see” the buttons. I like that.

Sony DualShock 4 Wireless Controller

When games start up, you’ll often see a camera feed in your headset, showing you and the space around you. It will ask you if everything is clear. Whether it is or not, you’ll say yes. This is the only time you see yourself, unless a friend takes a video of you playing Job Simulator and then posts it on Facebook and makes fun of you.

On that note: Can I play with friends?

Imagine a block-stacking game. You have a number of blocks. You need to reach a certain height. You reach out and grab blocks. You put them on top of each other. Suddenly, a fan appears, trying to blow them over. Then a laser appears, starting to burn your blocks down. They fall off. Outside the world of your headset, a friend laughs. “Got you,” they say.

Because, while you’ve been building your block tower in your own little world, your friend has been seeing the situation from a different perspective. Staring at a separate display, they are playing a game of obstruction.

And, yet again, this game is real. It’s called Tumble VR. It’s more fun than it probably sounds.

Playstation VR game Tumble VR

During the majority of games, including Tumble VR in single-player mode, your secondary display shows (mostly) what the player is seeing. Due to the different aspect ratio per eye, the feed does not take up an entire 16:9 display, but it still crops the top and bottom of the image a bit. This can be fun in and of itself, especially if the game has comedic or otherwise interesting story elements. You can also enjoy watching them look ridiculous, as in Job Simulator (which is also very funny, making it a particularly enjoyable game to watch someone else play). However, it would be disingenuous to call VR a social experience. Only one person is really experiencing it at a time, even if you’re playing a game with some kind of multiplayer mode.

How’s the current games lineup in general?

As with all system launches, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but there are some genuinely great titles. Aside from the ones I’ve mentioned, three in particular stand out: Rez Infinite, an update on the classic game that is generally amazing in VR but also includes a brand new, VR-specific area that will blow your mind; Headmaster, a game in which you hit soccer balls with your head while a disembodied voice yells at you—it’s very reminiscent of Portal. I love Portal, Headmaster, and Thumper, a rhythm-based... uh… racer? I dunno, I’m not even going to try to describe, but I have fallen madly in love with it.

Playstation VR game Thumper

But there are more than a dozen other titles, and a lot of them are at least worth looking into, especially if you’re new to VR. We’re in the early days of this technology, which means that even the games that aren’t all that good are still fundamentally interesting. You can see the way that developers are working to work out the Dos and Don’ts of a new medium. That isn’t to say you should just get every game just because it’s in VR, but it does make games that aren’t as well constructed still worth trying in a way that mediocre games usually aren’t.

Hmm… alright. Is there anything else I should be aware of before making my decision?

Over the past few years, I’ve spent less and less time playing video games. I still love them, but it’s become harder to fit them into my life, and I’ve seen less reason to. The PlayStation VR has changed that. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been constantly jumping back into some of these new experiences in a way I simply haven’t jumped into other games. This has been the best time I’ve had playing video games in a very, very long while.

Playstation VR game REZ Infinite

And for others too: I invited a friend of mine who is unemployed and broke to come test out the headset. I’ve had a half dozen friends get in some playtime thus far. She noted that she didn’t have a PS4, so she couldn’t get a headset, but that it was something she’d like to do… eventually. It wasn’t her main priority, though. She spent the next 90 minutes with a headset on.

About an hour in, she said: “I need this. How do I get this? I need one right now.”