Evolution in gaming technology can be a polarising subject. The risk of creating a console that used only simple motion controls back in 2006 was huge for Nintendo, but the Wii became the best selling console of all time. It took away any barrier to gaming and was simple enough that its short enjoyable-for-all experiences in the packaged Wii Sports title was all that was needed for it to become an essential household accessory. Everybody forgets 2005 when, after seeing it, pooh-poohing it and mocking its rather silly name, we all at some point said “that’ll never work.”
Fast forward ten years and we are here again. This time, we’re given the benefit of many companies telling us that this IS the future, without any of the humility Nintendo displayed before. And this discourse has started to become a large part of a growing technological consensus that the skewing of reality to create AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) experiences within the everyday world is our inevitable and logical future.
So in that respects, with an install base of over 40million users, the success of PlayStation VR is going to be a very big indicator of how ready people really are to experience virtual reality. Despite the PSVR’s focus being that of gaming, it’s ease of use, access and simplicity for development could well be make or break for a technology that has a lot riding on it. But you aren’t here to read my hyperbole, you want to know if I threw up or not.
Well I didn’t. So there.
For a gaming peripheral £350 may seem like a lot of money to shell out, bordering between PC gaming upgrades and high quality steering wheels in the price category. But what you get for that price is bloody good. A lot has been made of the comfort level of the available devices and that PSVR is the most comfortable. It is. The headset has a button on the back that adjusts a solid headband (as opposed to the elastic ones of other HMDs or head-mounted displays) that sits on your head at a roughly 30-40 degree angle and can be given extra tightness with a simple click wheel also at the back.
The HMD, instead of being pulled on to your face uses a headrest which the lens are attached to. The weight of this is then on your head rather than your face and the solid headband distributes that weight comfortably whilst wearing. It’s damn good looking too – functional, compact, spaceman-ish. It’s truly a testament to the thought and dedication of issues behind selling VR that it’s a really great aesthetic design.
The lens, which because of the headrest makes wearing glasses less of an issue but doesn’t completely eradicate said issues, sits over your eyes rather than on them. You adjust the distance to your face for comfort and focus by using a button on the bottom of the HMD that shifts the whole unit forwards and backwards. The positive is that this is very comfortable and makes taking breaks and adjustments very easy.
The negative is that you don’t get the purchase to your face that can stop moisture build up. Whilst it’s much more comfortable, it does mean that if you get hot or sweaty (an unavoidable side effect of occasional motion sickness and being a warm person) you can steam up the lenses and become a bit uncomfortable/wet around the rubber rests for your nose and face. There’s also a microphone on the headset that’s good but is also a well utilised extra in some games.
The whole package is rather interesting. You get all of the cables you need and, whilst they are a large amount of cables, they aren’t as daunting or as oppressive as you might think. Having packed up and set up the device in four different places over the first few days of having it, it’s actually straight forward and quite obvious after the first couple of goes. The processing unit looks to fit very well with the PlayStation’s design and the extension cable is long enough to not worry about tripping or getting caught with it. The sliding side of the unit that helps to shield the plugs is also a great addition. The only problems come depending on taste. The unit needs external power which is another plug in what in my case is a busy extension lead. The unit also needs support via a USB and all PS4’s have their USB ports on the front, which can be annoying if you’re trying to charge controller, use additional ones like a wheel and isn’t anywhere near as tidy as the rest of the setup is.
The unit also comes with headphones, which are sadly those annoying in ear headphones that run around the back of your neck and have the rubber stopper like ear bud which never fits exactly right. However they are great at showing off the 3D sound that VR needs. Brief explanation, all sound at the moment is 2D (left to right). 3D allows you to have another dimension (up and down) which means it can places sounds behind and below you for example as much more of a space is available to use in VR. The provided headset does it well but getting some decent 3D cans would be preferable if you want a full experience. you also get a little towel to help clean the lenses.
Playing the games on the unit is excellent. Whilst I’m not mentioning games specifically or reviewing them here, the lenses operate well although there is a film grain effect with on screen blackness. The processor has done wonders in getting the frame rate up to the 90FPS spec that is needed for these games. Whilst the quality of graphics in some cases is lacking, especially compared to the higher price market options, it doesn’t matter.
One of the joys is that the experiences have really helped in most cases negate any draw back in fidelity. I’ve barely had any trouble in a relatively small space using the full setup, with the exception of occasional move controller tracking problems where I’ve turned away from the camera. The application of the hardware appears to be spot on and it’s a good sign for the future of the peripheral. An underpowered PS4 has been tooled up to bring to life something it wasn’t even designed to do and with minimum issue to setup or technical know how. In this regard it is technically masterful and a triumph of modern gaming.
The biggest contention is what you get to play with the package. The unit comes with a demo disc that shows off some of the titles you can buy. There are also some free experiences and demos available to download (some of them are included in the US version of the demo disc). But there are a couple of annoyances. Firstly, demos are fine but PlayStation VR Worlds would have been a much better inclusion, especially for the cost outlay. Secondly, the free apps available aren’t really that long or that ready with the outstanding exception of, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, The Playroom VR. The ghost catching and monster games are stand out social experiences and great fun.
The Littlstar VR Cinema comes across very well from mobile to to PS4 in menu navigation but its content is appallingly low res. The unit can work in a cinematic mode but the lack of any actual cinema room or graphical setup is baffling. The games that are available straddle some interesting price points from £7 all the way up to £50. Given the price of the unit, I’m amazed that Sony didn’t set an upper limit price in order to help drive sales and keep games in line with the amount of experience given. It’s a very contentious issue that might have been less of one had VR Worlds come with it but it’s a talking point that is important to discuss none the less.
All told, it’s a £350 add on to the PS4 which is incredibly impressive given what it had to work with. £400 if you haven’t already got a PlayStation Camera which the unit needs for motion tracking. The Move controllers are mostly optional so you could save yourself another £60 if you wanted to. The scoring system on this site is set up for games so it’d be unfair to use it on something so different and with very little context to similar devices. Having used the other main headsets I find this the most comfortable and the lack of definition doesn’t bother me as long as software developers keep the quality rolling. Sony have done their part here and done it very well.
It may be seen as a toy, but it’s an incredible one that really makes these game experiences come alive more so than any other tech has since the Wii. I personally am happy with the money I spent for it. It was definitely worth it. But it is a very subjective purchase. Think long and hard and try it out if you can, it is after all our inevitable and logical future.