After years of breathless hype – guilty as charged, your honor — in-home virtual reality finally arrived in 2016. But there’s a good chance you have yet to experience it.
The two biggest players in the space, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, are cost-prohibitive for most. Both require powerful computers and plenty of room on the credit card. Early adopters might be on board, but we’re years away from the kind of market penetration that most VR evangelists believe is inevitable.
Sony, however, hopes to speed things up with PlayStation VR. Releasing October 13, the company’s virtual reality play is pretty compelling: it works with any of the 40 million PS4s currently in the wild and costs much less than its PC counterparts. It’s more complicated that that, naturally, but there’s good reason to think PSVR could be the best-selling VR headset of the year.
But it isn’t the best.
Sony’s device is the most comfortable VR headset I’ve ever worn. It’s a stylish, well-designed piece of hardware. It comes with lots of exclusive launch games, some of which are legitimately entertaining. There’s plenty to dig here. But just like the other first-generation VR headsets, it’s not without significant flaws, including a noticeably degraded image compared to the Rift and the Vive and a cabling system that will turn your pleasant living room into a toddler-tripping mess of cords. Are those dealbreakers? Let’s dive in and find out.
The cost of virtual living
I’m starting here because price is often the biggest turn off for people interested in VR. They’re happy staring into a virtual horizon or manipulating a 3D sculpture, but the moment you mention the damage this will do to their wallet, they tear it off their face and laugh you out of the room.
Here, however, PSVR scores a few points.
The headset on its own costs $399. That’s down $200 from the Rift and $400 from the Vive, though it gets messier. PSVR also requires a PlayStation camera ($60), and chances are you’ll want two of Sony’s Move controllers ($100 for a twin-pack); while most PSVR games work with the PS4’s packed-in Dualshock controller, many are enhanced with the Move wands. Of course, you also need a PS4 (starting at $300), so if you’re starting from scratch and want this to work the way it should, you’re looking at an $860 investment.
That might seem insane, but it’s much cheaper than the $600 Rift or $800 Vive, especially when you add the cost of a $1,500 PC that’s required to get either system working. More importantly, 40 million of you are not starting from scratch. If you own a PS4 and also happen to own some Move wands and/or a PS4 camera, you’re looking at a frighteningly affordable way to get into some legit, big league VR.
Not so basic cable
Speaking of frightening, I present the PSVR cable situation. For a system designed to sit in your living room next to your sleek black console, the PSVR is a logistical nightmare.
Part of that has to do with the “processor unit,” a chunky black box that comes with the headset. It’s a quarter the size of a PS4 and serves as the brains of the operation, but while it looks innocuous enough, it’s a pain point.
To get your PSVR working you’ll need to:
Connect an HDMI cable from the TV to the processing unit
Connect an HDMI cable from the unit to the PS4
Connect a USB cable from the PS4 to the unit
Connect the AC adapter cable from the unit to an outlet
Connect the giant, forked cable from the headset to the unit
Connect the PlayStation camera cable to the PS4
Connect the included headphones to the headset
Somewhere, Apple’s Jony Ive just had a heart attack.
The result of all these cables is, well, ALL THESE CABLES. My living room looks like a set from an Aliens movie, just black tubes snaking around everywhere.
Compared to the Rift, the PSVR’s footprint is huge, inelegant, and simply screaming “version 1!” at every annoying cable junction. It’s somewhat akin to the HTC Vive, though the Vive can lean on the excuse that it lets you wander around a 15 square-foot space dedicated to VR. The PSVR is supposed to live in your living room, not your geeky office. I’m surprised it’s so clumsy.
The good news? All that networking madness pays off when you turn it on, because the thing just works. There are no extra steps to configure the OS or troubleshoot video cards; you just jump right into a game and you’re off.
Better still, the headset itself is miraculously comfy. I have strapped every worthwhile VR device to my face over the past few years, and the PSVR is far and away the least constricting. A soft, rubberized face guard and thick padding on the forehead and back strap ensure you won’t get that scuba-mask suction line around your eyes after playing that you get with other headsets. The backstrap is also slightly weighted, which keeps the visor from smashing down on your fragile (or in my case, cartoonishly large) nose.
With its two different adjustment buttons, it’s easy to get the PSVR feeling properly snug. It also happens to feel great with glasses, even the stupid, chunky hipster ones I stubbornly refuse to stop wearing. My only issue is with a small gap between the bottom of your face and the face guard. Sony admits this window is an intentional decision so that users can see their controller or feet if need be, but it can also be distracting when using the headset in lighted conditions.
Game the system
You’re not here for the comfiness, though. You’re here to play VR games. Sony has a headstart in this regard because unlike Oculus and HTC, the company has a few decades under its belt in publishing and designing video games.
And in some ways, it shows. I played through about half of the two dozen or so launch games (many of them were not made available to press ahead of launch), and they’re just as stunning as VR games on other devices.
“Batman Arkham VR” is a standout. Dropped into the Dark Knight’s heavy boots, you explore different sections of Gotham to piece together a mystery. The first time you see yourself in a mirror as Batman, his head turning perfectly in sync with yours, is a real treat. Though the slow-paced, detective affair isn’t what we’ve come to expect from the “Arkham” series, it’s gorgeous and plays to the strengths of the technology.
It’s short, though, and that brevity is a theme for the PSVR launch lineup.
Take “The London Heist,” one of five games in the “PlayStation VR Worlds” compilation. A punchy VR take on a Guy Ritchie-like crime film, the impressive shooter is over in about an hour. So is “Until Dawn: Rush of Blood,” a literal rollercoaster ride through a terrifying theme park. Filled with creepy moments, it loses its luster after a few 20-minute playthroughs.
Some will say that short experiences are perfect for VR, and I’m inclined to agree that wearing a headset for hours on end is discombobulating. I just wish the pricing was on par with the experiences. Most of these games will run between $20 and $40 but have much less content than traditional games released for those prices. Call it the “VR premium.”
That said, there are undoubtedly some cool experiences available at launch. The musical shooter “Rez Infinite” is great, fellow rhythm game “Thumper” is a blast and I’m a believer in the sporty mech game “Rigs: Mechanized Combat.” But there’s some padding here as well in the form of ports (“Eve: Valkyrie,” “Eve: Gunjack,” “Fated: The Silent Oath,” “Job Simulator,” “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes”). Most games feel like tech demos, an issue common to the launch of any new video game platform. It’s going to take some time before the software catches up to your vision of VR.
I have tried not to spend too much time comparing PSVR to the Rift and Vive, in part because of the pricing and audience disparity. But in terms of sheer visual fidelity, the PSVR lags behind.
Its 1920 x 1080 screen resolution is not as sharp as the 2160 X 1200 resolution you get out of both the Rift and Vive. It’s not terrible — some games overcome this with smart design and programming — but blurriness happens. This also leads to a screen-door effect, where it essentially looks like there’s a very fine grid of lines between your eye and the game image. The intensity of this varies from game to game. In “Batman,” it’s hardly noticeable. In “Driveclub VR,” it’s kind of a mess.
Still, most folks won’t really care that the PSVR can’t match the tech specs of its pricier kin because most folks aren’t going to own multiple VR devices. And it’s never quite bad enough to make you stop playing.
Other niggling tech issues are, however. Launched alongside the console in 2013, the PlayStation Camera wasn’t designed specifically for VR, so it’s quite sensitive to light and occasionally has trouble correctly tracking controllers. Turn your back to it and it will lose the Move controllers entirely. In my playtests, every so often the Dualshock and Move controllers would sway back and forth slightly for no reason, an effect that’s off-putting at best and a wee bit barfy at worst. Those Move controllers aren’t exactly fresh, either, dating back to 2010. Releasing a brand new peripheral tied to much older tech is never an ideal plan, and that rears its head every so often.
Reasonably priced, exceedingly comfortable and boasting a couple of genuinely cool VR games, PSVR accomplishes what Sony set out to do: bring VR gaming to consoles without breaking the bank or the bridge of your nose. Those with a PS4 and an interest in this technology could do much worse than invest in the new peripheral.
But like any technology, it’s probably best to wait it out. This feels very much like a first go. For all its style, the PSVR’s ugly morass of cables, random tech hiccups and lack of well-priced killer apps keep it from being a day-one purchase.
Still, we have been told (and have been telling people) for years that VR is the wave of the future, and I still firmly believe that. A great VR experience is transformative, and that holds true for PSVR. “Batman,” “Rez” and a handful of other games will do their job convincing the unconvinced that VR can open doors traditional games cannot. Just don’t feel compelled to step through quite yet.
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Ben Silverman is on Twitter at ben_silverman.