By now, most people will be aware that Sony has invested a lot of time and energy in its flagship Virtual Reality project known as PlayStation VR (also miswritten as Playstation VR) or PSVR for short. But what exactly is virtual reality and how do you know if it's for you?
In 1950, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi sat down for lunch with his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and posited a simple question. If the Universe is so enormous, then where are all the aliens? Many great minds wrestled with this "Fermi Paradox." They offered numerous explanations as to why the apparent contradiction held.
Some argued that periodic extinctions kept the number of civilizations low. Others suggested that the Earth might just so happen to be inside a galactic nature reserve. The less optimistic amongst these thinkers simply felt that we are alone in the universe.
Still, one of the more compelling solutions to Fermi’s throw-away observation rests on the nature of reality itself. For humans at least, the constraints of the physical universe tend to chafe. As a species, we dream of soaring through skies, or else of exploring strange new worlds in ships capable of improbable velocities.
We imagine ourselves walking on the ocean floor or daydream about what it would be like to be a movie star, astronaut or superhero. Such dreams are vivid and exciting and pay no heed to real-world limitations.
So why not create a virtual universe and play in a world bereft of rules? The technology to explore outer space marches in step with the ability to create an inner space of our own. Reality – bland by comparison – loses its luster. As Exploration slows to a crawl and then ceases entirely, E.T stays home.
PlayStation VR Technical Specifications
To be clear, PlayStation VR is no substitute for reality. As one of several early-adopter forays into the VR market, it is defined as much by its limitations as it is by its technical achievements. If humanity ever chooses to live in a Matrix-style rule-free fantasy, it will not do so for some time to come. The technology just is not there yet. Which is not to say that Sony has not poured incredible amounts of time, effort, love, and expertise into its flagship PlayStation VR project.
Back in March, Sony cut the price of PSVR down to a rather tempting $299 and in doing so, positioned itself as the only real entry point for VR enthusiasts. For that price, you get (almost), everything you need. The camera, headset, cables, are included as well as a download code for VR worlds – a collection of VR experiences made by Sony themselves.
Sony’s PlayStation Move motion controllers require an additional expense. Fortunately, most games are playable without them although the experience tends to diminish without the added immersion of being able to sway your arms around brings. At any rate, Sony highlights those games that categorically need the move controller. So it is best to check before you buy. Of course, the system itself requires either a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 4 Pro to function.
The VR experience
Setting up the VR set takes a little patience. First and most importantly a safe play area has to be chosen and then cleared of all obstacles. The VR system tracks motion through the use of the camera which needs to be set up next to – or on top of – the TV connected to your PlayStation.
The Play area itself should be around seven feet away from the camera. Since the VR headset restricts vision, it is essential that you remove anything breakable or liable to constitute a tripping hazard before play begins.
Which version should you get?
Both the camera and processor unit plug into the back of the PlayStation. The processor unit resembles a small black rectangle that acts as a hub for cables going into and out of both the VR unit and the PlayStation 4 console. Confusing the issues somewhat is the existence of two versions of Playstation VR.
Version 1 of the PSVR set came out before the widescale adoption of 4K televisions with High Dynamic Range (HDR), capabilities. While the PSVR set is incapable of displaying 4K or HDR itself, the initial releases saw users having to unplug the processor unit to enjoy 4K/HDR visuals on the big screen. Of curse, this is a somewhat tiresome chore. Thankfully, Version 2 of the PSVR corrected this problem. Even for those still using standard HD televisions, it’s recommended to future-proof the purchase by going for the V2 model. The V1 model number is CUH-ZVR1, while V2 is CUH-ZVR2.
Putting the headset on for the first time requires a little patience. Depressing a button at the back adjusts the diameter of the wrap-around visor so that you can affix it in place around your head. A dial at the back allows for fine tuning by either tightening or loosening the headset. At the front, a button allows the visor to slide closer or further away from the face. This feature is essential not only for focusing the image but also to ensure full immersion via a soft rubber seal tight enough to block light from the outside.
Once the headset is in place, the display will switch to a "camera-eye view" and provide directions as to where best to stand for optimal performance. Two inbuilt earbuds provide sound, but the option to play the sound directly from the TV is also available.
Like any other electronic device, the PlayStation VR set needs to be treated with a little care. Still, the construction is sturdy enough. The fact that Sony’s developers are old-hands when it comes to consumer electronics is probably all the reassurance one needs -- that and the tough, durable plastic construction, of course. Indeed, after repeated usage, there were no apparent signs of wear and tear. At any rate, Sony offers a one-year limited warranty on each purchase.
It is also quite light, an essential consideration for anyone wishing to spend extended periods immersed in a virtual world.
PlayStation VR features a 5.7-inch OLED Screen capable of displaying a maximum resolution of 1080p per eye with a Refresh Rate of 120Hz or 90Hz. It also offers a rather generous 100-degree field of vision. That is close enough to the average human field of 114 degrees (across the horizontal plane), for the difference to be negligible. The ability to physically move the screen closer or further away from the face means that getting a crystal-clear image is quite easy. Condensation, however, can be a problem and wiping the screen is difficult to do without removing the headset. It's worth noting that the screen quality is sufficiently high that scratching should not be an issue. Still removing facial jewelry before play is probably a good idea.
Other VR Sets.
To be sure, PlayStation VR is not the only virtual reality set out there. Samsung and Google both released budget options for mobile phones, but neither offering delivers a true VR gaming experience. As a consequence, the market quickly became dominated by just three serious contenders: PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, and HTC’s Vive.
The Oculus Rift family
As one of the earliest commercially available VR units Oculus Rift’s origins stretch all the way back to a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012. Purchased by Facebook in 2014, the set saw release in March 2016. Although it is priced at a rather modest $399, the headset itself needs to be hooked up to a PC running a Nvidia 960 GPU or better. Or at least that used to be the case.
In 2019, Oculus intends to release the Occulus Quest, a stand-alone, wire-free VR experience for just $399. A spiritual successor to the Oculus Go and described as an "all in one gaming system," the aggressive price point certainly makes it one to watch.
HTC Vive and Vive Pro
Released just weeks after Oculus Rift’s initial foray, the Vive, which is developed by HTC and Valve, quickly positioned itself as a premium VR experience. While the cost of the standard set dropped to $499 earlier this year, the Vive Pro starter kit will set you back a wince-worthy $1,098. To make things worse, both versions of the Vive need to be hooked up to a fairly beefy PC.
Still, you get a lot of bang for your buck. The Vive Pro screen provides a resolution of 2880 x 1600. That output of around 615 PPI makes for a peerlessly crystal-clear image. The addition of a wireless adapter will set you back an additional $299, but the freedom of movement it allows might justify the expense.
Regardless, that the Vive Pro offers a genuinely immersive VR experience is not in question. The real issue is the price-point-barrier. Once you have dropped the cost of a high-end PC into the mix, the chances of change from a $2000 price tag are slim indeed. Opting for the standard set mitigates the pain somewhat but at the cost of the premium features.
We tested PlayStation VR V2 on a PS4 Pro console hooked up to 4K Samsung Smart TV sampling a variety of games, software, and PSVR experiences, along the way. Despite positioning itself as an entry point for VR gaming, Sony’s device is a real contender for the VR crown. Unable to compete with the sheer luxury of a VIVE Pro and incapable of matching the financial muscle behind Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Sony’s familiarity with (and dominance of), the gaming market nevertheless gives it the edge it needs.
The VR experience software bundled with the set offer user a first taste of what VR can do. Riding to the bottom of the ocean in a shark cage elicits the kind of wow-factor you will want dinner party guests to experience over and over again. Immersed in a 360-degree environment the inevitable shark attack reinforces the notion that scary can be fun.
Tipping the scale
Because PSVR’s trickery is convincing enough for you to lose all sense of scale; Batman VR offers vertigo-inducing moments of pure terror as you peer off the side of a building at the busy street far below. Riding towards a dragon in Skyrim VR, the sudden realization that the dragon is – well, dragon-sized -- hits you before you have time to turn tail and flee. PlayStation VR enhances Resident Evil’s paranoia-inducing moments with peeks around corners and the ability to spin round at the sound of approaching footsteps.
It all comes at a price of course. The worlds thus far created feel real but not quite real enough. As your eyes walk around a virtual landscape, your motor functions tell you that you are standing on the spot. Climbing down a slope while standing on a flat plane is something the human mind was never meant to process. The result is eye strain, headaches, and -- in the worst cases-- nausea.
Of course, software developers are well aware of the phenomena and make efforts to mitigate it as much as possible. Common to many games such as Doom VFR is the ability to teleport from location to location thus avoiding the inevitable disorientation that comes with moving through a virtual realm. In other games such as the rather brilliant Star Trek Bridge Crew, the simple fact that you are encouraged to play seated removes oculomotor difficulties altogether.
At any rate, while prolonged play is generally discouraged discomfort tends to dissipate over time. After several weeks of VR, gaming disorientation ceases to be a problem. Initial forays into VR consisting of 20-minute bursts soon turn into extended playtime.
With a wealth of games available, inevitable shovelware does surface from time to time. Not all "VR compatible," games began with VR in mind. Others such as Star Wars Battlefront’s free VR add-on offers a limited one-mission experience. That said, the VR catalog is impressive and growing by the day. Plenty of sites offer advice on which games to avoid and which ones are must-haves.
PSVR Pros and Cons
Sony set out to make VR gaming a mainstream affair, and they have mostly succeeded in that task. With over 70 million PlayStation 4’s installed in living rooms across the globe PlayStation VR positioned itself as a peripheral geared towards mass consumption. Software companies responded positively to the marketing push. As a consequence, the PSVR enjoys a broader range of quality VR content than any of the competitors currently on the market. It's robust design, and brand familiarity have pushed it towards being the go-to VR experience for most consumers.
PSVR might not offer the best VR experience out there, but, its low buy-in combined with a robust software library makes it hard to resist.