The VR battles lines have been drawn.
The Oculus Rift struck first, but has been suffering from several setbacks like accusations of operating on a closed platform. Valve has hedged its bet on the HTC Vive, the best headset on a technical level with the arguably worst library right now.
And now here comes a new challenger, Sony, in an attempt to balance the strengths of both into the cheapest consumer-grade tech to date. The thing is, despite how well it works, I’m still unsure if it’s enough to really spark the VR revolution.
Product: PlayStation VR
MSRP: $399.99 (base unit), $499.99 (Move and camera bundle)
When I first unpacked the PSVR box, I was a little overwhelmed. I’ve built PCs from scratch before, but this many cords for a console add-on was unwieldy as hell. In all it probably took me around 30 minutes to hook up, which is roughly the same amount of time as the Oculus (which was the easiest to setup in my experience), and less time than the HTC Vive.
It’s mainly because the PSVR requires a processor box for 3D audio (that weighs 12.9oz, or less than a pound), which has inputs for two HDMI cables (one from the TV to the box, and another from the PS4 to the box). Then there’s the matter of hooking up the PlayStation Camera, and taking up one of the coveted USB slots just for the PSVR. Since my setup involves using a wireless headset receiver via USB, I have to unplug devices constantly to charge my controllers. It’s mostly an annoyance, and one based on the limitations of the PS4.
As for the lightweight 1.3 pound headset, it’s very clear that it’s the least powerful of the big three (and it doesn’t have a top-end gaming PC powering it), but it’s not so much of an issue that it takes you out of the experience. The PS4 is still a capable machine (especially the Pro, in theory), and the actual headset sports a 5.7 inch OLED panel, with a resolution of 1080p per eye. Sony also mandates that games run at least 60FPS at all times (and I didn’t notice any real drops during my tests), or it will not certify that particular game for release.
Sony’s “Nintendo Seal of Quality” approach seems to be working so far and is relatively future-proof.
Because of all of the tethers involved, PSVR isn’t quite as comfortable as its competitors, though it leverages its ability to allow you to enjoy it in a living room setting by virtue of where most consoles are housed.
When it comes to inconveniences, it’s mainly the remote that’s attached to the unit itself by way of the principle cord, which has the ability to power up (or down) the unit or control the volume. Whereas the Oculus Rift has a handy wireless remote that’s easy to grab (and intuitive to use) while the helmet is on, it’s more annoying to fumble about for the nondescript cord and feel out a flat surface with an awkward column of four buttons.
The included earbuds are also very low-end, and even after using my own, I found them getting wrapped around the PSVR’s cord if I stood up and moved around too much while utilizing room-scale VR. You can use any standard 3.5mm compatible headphones, mind, but wireless devices are not supported. None of it is a deal-breaker and I wouldn’t say any major corners were cut at all, but you can see why it’s cheaper than its competition after just an hour of use.
It’s withstood the test of time, though. I had several hours-long sessions and didn’t feel any major discomfort with the actual headset — despite Sony’s recommendation of “15 minute breaks every hour.” The tension dial (which you can twist at the back to make the PSVR tighter or looser) and the visor adjustment at the front give you as much control as you could need. Though, I did find it was more prone to god rays (a shimmering effect that impacts the immersion factor) than the other two headsets unless you configured it just right — so if you’re taking it off repeatedly, be prepared to re-focus.
Like most hardware launches outside of the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, you’re not really getting anything that I could call an outright system-seller. You have “experiences,” (a common phrase with VR launches these days) which, while enjoyable, are just that, such as the hour-long Batman: Arkham VR, with several surprises like Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and token ports like Job Simulator. Rez Infinite, a flagship PSVR release (and one of the few Sony didn’t have available for retail testing pre-launch), doesn’t even require the headset.
But by no means is this a bad opening salvo. If you absolutely cannot resist the call of VR and don’t own a gaming PC, you’ll have plenty to mess around with, and everything will feel relatively novel.
You can read our launch software reviews here, and many more will arrive in the weeks to come:
The VR experience:
I’m a fully-fledged VR user at this point after about six months of Oculus use. I’m not even close to the level of saying it will “change everything,” or that I even spend most of my time using it, but I am happy with the advancements that have been made even in the past year. Several times a week I’m either plugged into Minecraft VR or replaying some other game just to get a fix of something different. I’m going to be doing the same with PSVR.
I wouldn’t say it takes “perfect conditions,” for me to dive into VR, but there are moments where I want to escape to a plane that traditional games won’t take me to. And given the nature of playing anything on PC, there are certain provisos, bugs, and compatibility problems to take into account — especially with the proprietary software of the Oculus Rift. Sony has managed to marry the ease of use of a console with VR for the first time, and that plays a part in my decision to choose between them when I only have a few free snippets of time to spare.
It also sports a “cinematic mode” that lets you browse your menus and play anything in 2D (with size options that simulate a screen of 117, 163, and 226 inches), but the functionality is far less than that of the Virtual Desktop app for the Rift and Vive. I can see potential down the road for people only playing PS4 with it and seamlessly flipping in and out of VR apps, but for now it’s not ideal for watching videos, especially movies, if you have a modern 4K capable television and a sound system.
Another big game-changer is the concept of displaying a separate image (or, the headset’s screen) on the TV — an extra function of the aforementioned 12.9oz processor unit box. How it will be used remains to be seen as there isn’t really much at launch that supports it outside of the minigame-laden PlayRoom VR, but I like the idea. As I mentioned in my Oculus Rift review, the isolating experience of using a headset on PC creeps up on you over time, and I lament not being able to share the experience with my wife directly. With the PlayStation VR I can — at least in theory.
Like most Sony related accessories, we basically have to hope it doesn’t give up on it too soon. There’s a future where Sony gets a year lead on a dominant VR landscape where even casual consumers are picking up a device, and there’s another (darker?) timeline a year from now where developers have abandoned it, instead relegating the headset to hour-long minigames as side experiences.
We’re sort of seeing that right now with Rise of the Tomb Raider, which has no VR support outside of one small hour-long game mode. Developers have had ample time to decide how far they want to go with VR, and already we’re seeing some “one foot in, one foot out of the pool” behavior.
Nothing has changed — VR is still a luxury, but right now Sony has the most potential in hooking people in. Even at its worst, the PlayStation VR is a competitor.
[A full retail PlayStation VR headset was provided by Sony for testing.]