Virtual reality has taken another step towards the mainstream, with gaming giant Sony now in the fray with its PlayStation VR headset. Launched last week for $399, the PS VR gives gamers the chance to experience VR in the comfort of their own living rooms. In terms of the VR space, it’s a system that is a jump from the Google Cardboard and Samsung VR experiences, while less expensive than the higher-end systems like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive gear.
Sony sent me the PS VR last week, right before the public launch of the system. After spending a few days with the equipment, I’m left with mixed feelings about the system and VR in general. Certainly, this will be a hit of the holiday shopping season (my kids absolutely loved trying it out), but you can tell that we’re still at a starting point in VR with some of the glitches, gaming experiences and how VR should fit in with the rest of the gaming ecosystem.
The hardware – hope you like wires
The heart of the PlayStation VR is the headset, which looks and feels like lots of other VR headsets on the market – it goes over your head to provide the virtual space for your eyes. The back of the headset can then be tightened with a dial, and a button lets you release the grip to loosen it up when you are taking it off.
The fit doesn’t create a completely darkened area – there are spaces where light can seep in from the bottom and sides. This isn’t a bad thing, though, as it does give your brain a chance to realize that you’re still in the real world, and you don’t really notice it once you’re in the VR space and looking forward. The headset is also designed to allow users who wear glasses to continue to wear them while using the headset. This, however, makes the headset a bit more uncomfortable – as I tightened the headset in the back it made for a tight grip with my glasses on the bridge of my nose and sides of my face near my ears. Because there’s no manual focus with the headset, if you need glasses when you’re playing video games you’re going to need them with this device. It took a few trial-and-error attempts before I figured out the best way to keep the images in focus, and it still wasn’t 100% perfect for me (even calibrating the VR settings in the PS4 menus didn’t solve the problem completely).
The other big thing you notice with the PS VR is the amount of wires that get introduced into the system. The back of the headset has a cable that connects to the system’s processing unit, which sits between the PS4 and your HDMI TV and connects with additional cables/wires. While setting up the system wasn’t overly difficult, I did notice that cable management would soon become a larger issue. In addition to the cables that connect the headset to the processing unit, which then gets connected to the PS4 and the TV, there’s also the introduction of the PlayStation Camera (which includes its own cable that plugs into the back of the PS4) and the two Move Controllers, which need to be charged/recharged via its own USB cables.
This is fine if you’re going to just leave the system the way it was, but the limited number of USB ports on the PS4 (there’s only two) means you’ll be plugging and unplugging cables a lot if you want to do things beyond VR. For example, both the Disney Infinity and LEGO Dimensions games that my kids love to play require one USB slot in order to power up their “toys-to-life” action figures. In addition, my kids never remember to recharge their controllers, which means at least one controller (I bought three for this purpose) is being recharged while others are being used. A Bluetooth headset for non-VR gaming that I use utilizes the optical audio output port on the back, but also needs a USB port in the front of the console. Basically, the USB port management will either require a lot of plugging/unplugging or the additional purchase of a USB hub in order to keep everyone happy.
The VR gaming experience
Once I set everything up on the hardware side, I had to re-arrange some of the living room space as well. The PSVR utilizes the PlayStation Camera for head and controller tracking, much like the Kinect camera did with the Xbox 360 (and Xbox One). In my case, this means moving a coffee table away in order to achieve enough space for moving around. Some of the games require that you stand in this open space, using the Move Controllers. Other games let you sit down (either on an existing couch, or you can move a chair into the play zone if you want).
The system comes with the PlayStation VR Demo Disc, a collection of 18 VR titles for games that are available for purchase. Some of the games offer a sample of gameplay, while others let you watch videos of what the full game may offer. It’s a good mix of experiences, showing you everything from space battles (EVE: Valkyrie) to driving (Driveclub VR) to horror experiences (the Kitchen demo was quite disturbing) and tank battles (Battlezone). Some of the demos were not even demos, but glorified screen shots (Hustle Kings VR, which didn’t let you even try to play virtual pool). Some of the demos were also very confusing, with limited instructions on what the purpose of the game was or why you’d want to buy it. The clear favorite on this disc was Job Simulator, which provides a virtual “office space” demonstration. You’d never think that pretending to work at an office would be a thing that excels in the VR space, but it’s done with such a sense of humor (the premise: it’s now 2050 and robots have taken over all of the jobs, so this simulator gives humans a sense of what it was like to work in an office, convenience store or restaurant in the “old days”). For this particular game, you use the Move Controllers to manipulate different objects in the cube, like pouring a cup of coffee, eating a donut or turning on your computer. My kids absolutely loved it, especially when they figured out they could throw those objects at other “co-workers” and do things like eat a moldy donut (giving them a VR vomit experience). They were sad that it was only a five-minute demo, and have been begging me to buy the $30 full version.
Speaking of kids, Sony recommends that children under the age of 12 don’t use the VR system, which feels more like a legal/liability disclaimer more than a serious warning. Because VR is such a new thing, and because it can cause motion sickness and dizziness, it feels like VR companies are hedging their bets in terms of figuring out the proper age for who can use this safely. In my tests of the system, I allowed my three kids (ages 10, 9 and 7) to use the PS VR headset (with my supervision, I was in the room the entire time) for short periods of time, and they all seemed to survive the experience. I’m not saying this is a “Don’t try this at home, kids”, but rather this is a decision all parents will have to make, as this system is going to be on a lot of kids wish lists.
While I didn’t play any full versions of games (interestingly, I looked around retailers like GameStop and Best Buy and they didn’t seem to have a lot of the new titles), I did download a free version called Playroom VR that I would definitely recommend. This is a party-style game that includes a bunch of mini-game VR experiences, but also lets non-VR people (friends, other family members) to play along. The highlight of the Playroom VR game is a mini-game where the VR user acts like a Godzilla-like creature, destroying buildings with their head while the other non-VR players run away and then eventually throw objects at the monster to try to defeat it. What’s cool about this – the VR player sees the game from the creature’s perspective, while the non-VR players view the action from their perspective on the TV. It’s a cool way to get people into the game, making VR a less solitary experience. Another cool mini-game I enjoyed had a VR player taking on the role of a sheriff in an Old West saloon trying to find a bad guy, with the TV players shouting out instructions to identify the culprit (the TV players could see who the bad guy is and would have to describe this to the VR player).
One other interesting feature of the PlayStation VR that I didn’t realize until I experienced it – you could play regular games and view videos with the headset on and create a “virtual theater” experience. The feeling is like if you were sitting up close at a movie theater, and this giant screen was about five feet away from you. I didn’t like playing Destiny or watching Netflix with the headset on, but it’s possible. Add-on headphones (such as the Plantronics Rig VR or the Turtle Beach Ear Force Stealth 350VR) give you an even more virtual experience, but that will add extra bulk to your head (and more cables!). If you want to go that route, invest in a full VR headphone offering, as the earbuds that come with the PlayStation VR aren’t very good.
The dizziness factor
Another big issue with a lot of these VR systems is the possibility of dizziness and motion sickness. Sony provides warnings before you load the PS VR on your head about the possibility of such an experience. First-time users of VR should definitely heed such warnings – it does take some time to get used to the idea of some of these environments. Thankfully, the motions I experienced with the PS VR were not as rough as with some of the Google Cardboard-like experiences – the improved VR graphics help here. I did experience some dizziness after trying the EVE: Valkyrie demo (the space battle game), which happened when I tried to spin the spaceship I was flying.
Granted, as a middle-aged man playing this game, I’m a little bit out of the target demographic, and younger players might not be affected as much as I am. I’m finding myself experiencing dizziness and vertigo-like symptoms a lot more as I get older. However, this aspect of the VR system would likely prevent long-term gaming sessions with the device – unlike a 2-3 hour session playing a shooter or other normal video game.
The 50,000-foot view
The big decision that many people will need to make is whether the $400 (plus additional costs if you don’t already own the Move Controllers and PlayStation Camera accessories) will ultimately be worth it for the gaming console. The initial lineup of games and experiences feel like you’d normally see with a console launch – some were good, some were meh, and some felt like VR add-ons to existing games that you could certainly play without VR (such as the DriveClub VR racing game). Coming later this year will be the Star Wars Battlefront VR mission and the Star Trek Bridge Crew VR game, for example, so there will certainly be a bunch of titles that will take advantage of the hardware. In 2017 we’ll see a game called Farpoint, a Destiny and Halo-like video first-person shooter that will also include another gun-like shooting accessory for players to use.
At the moment, the PlayStation VR feels a lot like an add-on accessory (like the Kinect, Guitar Hero controllers, the Nintendo Wii) that garners a lot of initial enthusiasm and excitement, but then wanes as players return to playing games on the couch with just a controller. There might be that killer app waiting on the horizon that requires VR, but we likely won’t see that until 2017 or later, as developers begin to toy with the platform.
Until then, the PlayStation VR is a solid accessory that should entertain users for a long time while we wait for the truly spectacular games.
Grade: 4 stars (out of five)
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