The problem with virtual reality (beyond looking like a tremendous doof while wearing a helmet and waving your arms around) is that it’s a hard sell unless you’ve actually tried it out. Breathless write-ups and game trailers and all the rest of the stuff normally used to sell video games just doesn’t work for VR. It’s like seeing a still from a movie — the basic idea is there, but none of the actual excitement or joy of the medium really gets across.
If you wanted to try out VR, you had two routes. You could use a smartphone and the Samsung Gear ($99) or Google Cardboard (essentially free) to get a sense of it, or you could build or buy a high-end PC for around $800 to $1,000 and get an Oculus Rift ($599) or HTC Vive ($799).
Mobile headsets are how most people have tried out VR — a press release claims 1 million people used a Gear VR headset in April of this year. They’re good at giving an initial taste of VR but rarely do a great job at providing “presence,” creating a world that moves along with you so well it fools your lizard brain into believing the polygons being rendered in front of your face actually exist.
The Oculus Rift and especially the HTC Vive are startlingly good at giving you a sense of presence. I’ve flinched away from things I knew weren’t real, or warily crept up to the edge of a fake cliff on top of a fake Mt. Everest and quickly backed away. But the install base for these expensive headsets remains small — Steam, the most popular game store (and backer of the HTC Vive), shows just 0.19 percent of users surveyed have a Vive, and 0.09 percent own an Oculus Rift.
Sony’s PlayStation VR wants to thread that needle, using the 43 million PlayStation 4 consoles it’s already sold to provide the computing power for a mass-market VR headset that delivers a high-end experience. After nearly a week of using the PSVR extensively, I’m confident in saying Sony nailed it. For any PS4 owner with an interest in trying out VR who can lay out $499 for the full package of the VR headset plus camera plus controllers, this is an easy buy — if you can find one (it’s already sold out on Amazon and at GameStop). My only question is whether it’ll also be the VR headset that breaks out of the core gamer market and enters widespread adoption.
Let me tick off the ways the PSVR works. First off, it’s actually comfortable to wear. It weighs 660 grams, or about 1.3 pounds, but the headset uses a band around your head to keep most of the weight off your face, while the screen itself hangs in front of your eyes — and all of it is stupid easy to adjust. (With the added benefit that you can wear glasses and still use it.)
Second, despite the PS4 being relatively underpowered compared to the PCs running VR headsets, the PSVR is silky smooth, running everything at 60 frames per second and following your head movements without any noticeable lag — a vital part of avoiding motion sickness. And its single OLED screen is largely able to avoid the “screen door” effect, where the individual pixels become apparent. No other VR headset out there can say that.
Third, it smartly uses two Move controllers (included in a $499 launch bundle, which I highly recommend getting instead of just buying the headset for $399) to give you a way to naturally interact with the virtual world in front of you. The Move controller in the real world looks a lot like a magic wand (or maybe a light-up adult toy), but, once you have the headset on, it can work effectively as a pool cue or a gun or a way to paint in 3-D. The tracking isn’t always perfect, but it’s precise enough that things like carefully stacking blocks or lining up a shot are doable.
Finally, Sony has brought its full weight as the best-selling console of the current generation to bear on publishers, wrangling an impressive lineup of launch-day games, many of them exclusive to the PSVR. Well-regarded developers Rocksteady have Batman: Arkham VR, an impressive, if short, tour de force of showing off ways to use VR to its full effect. Wayward Sky from Uber Entertainment re-creates the point-and-click adventure game (think Monkey’s Island or Grim Fandango) with you hovering over levels from a god’s-eye view, peering into rooms and around corners to figure out puzzles. Rebellion Developments’ Battlezone takes an arcade classic from the ’80s and neatly updates it for today, using procedurally generated levels, permadeath, and some interesting strategy around the edges to deepen some very fun tank battles.
There are some downsides. While the headset plus accessories is cheaper than the Oculus or Vive, it’s still $500 — or more than the PlayStation 4 itself cost when it first hit the market. It also adds a significant amount of extra wiring to your home entertainment setup, including a huge cord to the headset itself. After two generations of video-game consoles that largely did away with wires snaking across the floor, it can start to feel messy. (A headset stand plus controller charging station helps mitigate this somewhat.) There’s also the issue of space: While most of the games for PSVR can be played sitting down, it’s recommended you have a “play area” at least ten feet deep. Considering that the room with my TV, couch, and PS4 is barely ten feet wide to begin with, that’s an impossible request. Those living in smaller apartments or dorm rooms are going to feel the space crunch even more.
Then there’s the fact endemic to all efforts in virtual reality: The vocabulary of virtual-reality games is still developing, and some of the launch titles illustrate how a game can go wrong. Two of the games included in the combo sampler VR Worlds gave me motion sickness (something I haven’t experienced to date using VR). One had me racing down hills on a street luge, with the occasional upward jaunt where you catch air — which would immediately confuse the hell out of my inner ear and stomach. Another had me jumping around in space from asteroid to asteroid, with my horizontal plane constantly shifting around. I had to stop after a few minutes, feeling dizzy and clammy. By the time I tried out Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, a haunted-house shooter set on an actual roller coaster, I had learned to simply close one eye when going up and down steep inclines — it was the only way I could stop myself from getting dizzy.
There’s the notion among VR true believers that eventually everyone gets over this effect, and your inner ear learns to accept that what it sees isn’t actually happening to your body. But trying to sell an expensive new medium to consumers with the promise that eventually they’ll stop feeling sick is, uh, not gonna go over well with mainstream audiences.
And it’s mainstream audiences I wonder about. I think the PSVR is going to do quite well with gamers. But I also think virtual reality’s real promise is far beyond just appealing to gamers with more immersive ways to blow shit up. But I’m torn as to whether the PSVR will be the thing that makes good on that.
There are plenty of signs that it could. The short VR film Allumette is a lovely 20-minute experience that plays out a bit like a stop-motion Pixar film that you can actively move around in, craning your head inside houses and airships to see exactly what’s going on. It’s the type of thing I would show to my parents to give them a sense of what VR is like. I watched as someone who very much does not play video games quickly got sucked into Tumble VR, a puzzle game that plays out a bit like an extremely complicated session of Jenga, thanks to controls being dead simple and the spatial relationships of everything being crystal clear thanks to depth perception suddenly being a factor. And overall, VR is great at presenting games where you can simply point and lift and move around naturally, stripping away the layers of abstraction that have built up after 40 years of game controllers that grew more and more complicated. Given the right circumstances, the PSVR could easily become popular with people whose favorite video game to date has been Angry Birds.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone who isn’t already into games plunking down the cash for these things. And unlike, say, the Nintendo Wii, which suddenly radically expanded the concept of who actually plays video games by allowing almost anyone to join in on the fun, VR is by its nature a physically isolating experience that is meant to be played by yourself in — per the PSVR instruction manual — a dark room.
The PSVR will do just fine even if it doesn’t break through to a more mainstream audience. It’ll end up selling many, many millions of units and give Sony the dominant spot in the gaming VR landscape. My guess is the PSVR will mainly be enjoyed by gamers, with everyone else just watching as users swing their head around, waving their magic wands at nothing anybody else can see quite yet.