This was supposed to be the year virtual reality broke out. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the first two high-end consumer devices on the market, arrived this spring to critical praise and preorders that sold out within minutes. Then… they plateaued. Despite some great experiences, months of near-total unavailability dulled the post-release buzz for both headsets, particularly the Rift. Neither the Rift or the Vive ecosystems produced a killer app that was big enough to push VR out of the margins, especially given the high cost of a headset and gaming PC. While 360-degree video has at least gotten a toehold in popular culture, the dream of sophisticated VR gaming — which arguably resurrected virtual reality in the first place — remains far away for most people.
But there are three months left in the year, and one thing that could change that: PlayStation VR.
PlayStation VR is Sony’s attempt at bringing virtual reality to its PlayStation 4 console, starting next week. Arriving right in time for the holidays, it’s being positioned as a (relatively) cheap, unintimidating gaming headset, designed for a device that might already be sitting in your living room. The Rift and Vive had to be judged on a sort of abstract scale of quality — on whether they were good ambassadors for the medium of VR, and good harbingers of things to come. The question for PlayStation VR is simpler: if you’re one of the millions of people who own a PlayStation 4, should you get one?
PayStation VR was initially announced as something called “Project Morpheus” in 2014, and despite some visual tweaks, the core design hasn’t changed. Where Oculus goes for an understated, late-Gibsonian cyberpunk aesthetic and the Vive is aggressively industrial, Sony’s design has the clean white curves of a ‘60s science fiction spaceship interior, setting off a black front panel and rubber face mask. The external PlayStation Camera tracks it with a matrix of glowing blue lights: six lining the headset’s edges, two on the back, and one right in the middle of the front panel. The shape echoes Sony’s old HMZ personal viewer, but without the futile effort at making a headset seem small and sleek. PlayStation VR is unapologetically eye-catching, and whether that’s a good or bad thing is a matter of personal taste.
PLAYSTATION VR IS UNAPOLOGETICALLY EYE-CATCHING
Looks aside, PlayStation VR is ridiculously comfortable. Your average virtual reality headset is strapped on like a ski mask, which ensures a snug fit but can also squeeze your face unpleasantly. PSVR, by contrast, has a padded plastic ring that rests on your head a bit like a hard hat. To put it on, you’ll push a button to loosen the sides, stretch it over your upper skull, and fine-tune the tightness with a dial on the back. The screen is anchored to the front of the ring, where it almost floats in front of your face. Another button lets you adjust the focus by sliding the screen in and out, which also means it fits easily over glasses.
PSVR still asks you to clamp something around your head, and it’s certainly possible to give yourself a headache by putting it on wrong. But its weight is distributed much more evenly than other headsets, so it’s not constantly pushing down on your forehead and cheekbones. At 610 grams, it’s the heaviest of the VR headsets, but it feels like the lightest. The design also neatly solves a few of VR’s subtler problems. I didn’t come out of sessions with telltale mask lines around my eyes, just a small dent at my hairline. I’d still worry about smudging makeup, but far less than with any other headset. And since the face mask is made of rubber sheets instead of foam, it’s not going to be soaking up dirt or sweat. That rubber also blocks out light incredibly well, neatly closing the gaps between your face and the screen. The only major downside is that it starts slipping out of place if you look straight up or rapidly shake your head, something that becomes an issue with gaze-controlled arcade games like PlayStation VR Worlds’ “Danger Ball.”
At the same time, holding out for total perfection is the wrong move. I don’t want PlayStation VR to become the only headset that people build for; it’s just not ambitious enough. But even this early in the game, Sony is providing a home for interesting, low-key experiences that highlight some of the medium’s strengths. More than any single piece of cutting-edge technology, the key to making VR succeed is just getting more people to use VR. And with PlayStation VR, Sony has just made that a lot easier.
• Ridiculously comfortable
• Accessible and (relatively) affordable
• Some good, low-key launch titles
• Substandard motion controls
• Piecemeal system can be confusing
• Needs more risky, ambitious VR experiments