It has 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.
Here, we’ll discuss the more technical side of things, while the other article will focus on what it’s like to use the headset. You don’t need to read both, of course, but if you’re on the fence, you probably should. If you’re unfamiliar with the system, this is the better place to start, but it doesn’t really matter.
1. Is PlayStation VR an entirely new console?
No, it’s an add-on to the PlayStation 4. If you want to play any PSVR games, you must also have a PS4. Of course, you can hook up pretty much any HDMI source to the headset, and it will automatically create a windowed mode that allows you to view that content on a simulated big screen. Windowed images on the headset aren’t all that sharp, but it’s pretty cool as a bonus feature.
2. Do I need anything other than a PS4?
Yes, you’ll need a PlayStation Camera. Though the Camera’s got a new, cylindrical design, it’s functionally the same as the one that accompanied the system at launch. If you have that old rectangular one, you can use it, no problem. Certain games also require the use of PlayStation Move controllers, and it would behoove you to get those, regardless. They allow your hands to be tracked separately from each other, which adds immensely to the VR experience.
3. What’s in the box?!
Well, Mr. Brad Pitt, you get everything you need to set it all up. The necessary cables, a pair of earbuds, and something I haven’t mentioned yet: the Processing Unit. This little box, which looks like a tiny, more rectangular PlayStation 4, doesn’t increase the power of the PS4, as some had initially assumed, but it does handle some of the VR-specific processing that’s required to get the headset to interface properly with your system.
4. Can my [insert technologically incompetent relative here] set this thing up?
Hmmm… probably? It may seem complicated when you open the box, but a quick look at the included instruction booklet shows how simple it really is. The booklet itself is oddly large, with a whole lot of negative space, showing just a handful of very basic, numbered diagrams, corresponding with the physically numbered cables. Not too bad.
Pretty much all of the setup relates to the Processing Unit included with every PlayStation VR. The box ends up a mess of wires: It’s got a separate dual-voltage AC adapter, a micro-USB port, three HDMI ports (one input from the PS4), and two outputs (one to an external display and one to the headset), as well as another, seemingly proprietary port that goes to the headset. But, again, everything is clearly marked and/or color-coded, so it’s not as intimidating as it looks at first glance.
Once you’ve done that and put your camera where it needs to go—the camera cable for that isn’t quite as long as you might hope, so you may have to reconfigure your living room setup a little bit—just jack your headphones into the controller on your headset’s cable and you’re ready to put on the headset.
5. Well, how hard is that to set up?
Not too hard, though it will likely take a few minutes the first time around. To fit it, you use two buttons: one on the back of the head strap and one on the front, underneath the headset. The former allows you to size it to your head, and the latter adjusts how close or far it is from your eyes. Once it’s set right, you twist a dial on the back strap that tightens it, relieving the pressure from your face.
Everyone is going to find that it fits a little bit differently, so I can’t really give you any advice, but I will say that you shouldn’t give up. If things seem mostly fine but are still a little blurry, it’s going to make your time a lot less fun than it would otherwise be. The first time or two, spend a couple of minutes trying to get it looking good. You’ll be extremely thankful you did, and soon it becomes second nature. I was fitting and sizing, even after letting others try it, in seconds rather than minutes.
6. How does it track you?
A combination of the PlayStation Camera, LEDs, and accelerometers/gyroscopes. The headset itself is covered in bright blue lights on all sides, even the back. The PlayStation Camera can track those lights, and that motion data gets sent on over to the console, where it translates that data into in-game movement. The light bar on the DualShock 4 and the glowing balls on the top of each Move controller are also tracked by the camera. All of them also use gyroscopes and/or accelerometers to track twists, turns, and other precise movements.
The ultimate VR experience is one that allows you to move around. It’s not just about head tracking but whole body tracking (which, thus far, really just means controller tracking). This is known as “Room-Scale” VR, and it has been the HTC Vive’s key selling point. That device, which uses a technology called Lighthouse, uses two infrared cameras and a whole lot of IR LEDs for tracking both the headset and the controllers. The Oculus Rift also uses IR for tracking, but currently only works with a single camera. This will change with the long-awaited release of their Touch Controllers.
7. Can PlayStation VR do “Room-Scale” VR?
Yes, and no. The instructions recommend approximately nine feet of depth by five feet of width, but it can work with less space. Many games don’t require much movement at all, but others, like the excellent Job Simulator, ask you to get up and move around in a limited capacity. My cramped New York City apartment means that I can’t test the limits of that usable space, but I also didn’t run into issues while walking in the space I had, which is probably about the 9 x 5' that’s recommended. What will be a problem, however, is turning away from the camera entirely. The lights on the back mean that the headset can still be tracked, but as soon as those Move controller lights disappear from view, things get a little wonky. Once they’re back, it fixes fairly quickly, but it’s a genuine limitation of a single-camera system.
8. What’s inside the headset?
The headset uses a single 5.7" 1080p OLED display. It has a unique, hexagonal sub-pixel structure, making the pixels appear smaller than they otherwise would. This is crucial, since it has a lower resolution than its competitors, and even than the phone-based alternatives. Though you’ll probably notice the pixels, they’re much less distracting than you might think. In fact, the only time they ever really stuck out to me was when I was in a windowed mode. When in VR proper, it was never an issue.
The display has a 120 Hz refresh rate, which is higher than the PC-based competition (which cap at 90). However, the games do not run at that speed, since the horsepower required is far above what the PlayStation 4 can generally output. Instead, they can make use of a technology called “reprojection” to interpolate frames, which can turn 60 fps into a 120 fps equivalent—it’s basically the frame-rate version of resolution upscaling. And, as with upscaling, it’s not quite as sharp as a native implementation (and certain games will run natively with higher frame rates because of that), but it’s nonetheless an effective workaround.
Both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have implemented variations on this technology, which has dropped the hardware requirements of both headsets dramatically. The required hardware is still much more expensive than a PlayStation 4, however.
Inside, your field of view is 100 degrees, which results in blackness to the left and right of your view. It’s slightly more limited than competing headsets (and, in fact, than the most recent Gear VR), but it’s not too big a deal. It’s kind of interesting, because it doesn’t stop you from feeling like you’re a part of a different world; it just makes you feel as though you’re seeing this other world through goggles. And, of course, you are. More to the point: You have no peripheral vision. This is a limitation of all VR headsets, and I think we’re still a few generations away from headsets with screens that completely cover your vision. It’s not a deal breaker, by any means.
9. How do the games look?
For many, this is a crucial question, and not everyone is going to be happy with the answer. If you’re looking for games that are as visually stunning as, say, Uncharted 4, you’re going to be disappointed. They’re not. This is a result of that frame rate requirement I mentioned before: Uncharted 4 runs at 30 fps. The slower frame rate allows for more detailed textures, longer draw distances. And while a traditional game can drop below that frame rate every so often without too many issues, that would be catastrophic for VR.
This is not to say you can’t have a great-looking game on PlayStation VR, but a game needs to be designed for that purpose. The best-looking launch title is undoubtedly Batman: Arkham VR, which is pretty gorgeous… but it’s functionally limited and feels more like a tech demo than anything. I look forward to a fuller game to take on that challenge, and I expect we’ll see one sooner rather than later.
10. Hmm… I heard the PlayStation 4 Pro is more powerful. Does that make a difference?
Absolutely it does. As I mentioned in my report from the system’s September announcement, I got a chance to test out Farpoint, a virtual reality FPS that uses the PS4 Aim Controller. I had previously used it on a traditional PS4, and the difference between the two was striking. Though PSVR games must be shown to work on both the original and the upgraded version before they pass Sony’s QA, let’s be honest: The Pro version of the game will be superior. Already, a number of the PSVR launch titles have received updates. In some cases, this results in a faster frame rate—in others, higher image fidelity. A large part of why I bought a PlayStation Pro was for the improved PlayStation VR experience. It’s definitely not bad with the original system, as I said before—in fact, it’s quite good—but I won’t pretend like the more powerful console won’t give you an objectively better experience.