Image: Flickr/Bago Games
“You have no idea what we're going to talk about,” said Shushei Yoshida with a wink, kicking off Sony's Game Developer's Conference event with a reference to the worst-kept secret in gaming: that Sony would be announcing its virtual reality headset for use with the PS4.
The president of Sony Computer Entertainment's Worldwide Studios spoke effusively about Project Morpheus, the portentous moniker it's chosen for its device, and the possibilities, practicalities and myriad potential applications it provides, from gaming to virtual tourism and even a 'trip' to Mars.
Oculus also used the Game Developer's Conference to show off their latest prototype of the Rift, the Kickstarted VR device first unveiled a year ago. Oculus and Sony's systems are ostensibly rivals, both boasting high resolutions and real-time head-tracking. And though nothing’s been announced yet, Microsoft is also rumoured to have its own VR plans for Xbox.
Following several false starts in the past (most notably Nintendo's astoundingly painful Virtual Boy), virtual reality is, once again, the buzzphrase of gaming. Yet despite technical innovations, there have been longstanding concerns with VR that Sony, Oculus, and Microsoft will have to address if they'd like to see widespread adoption of the tech. How do the latest offerings shape up on some of the major issues?
First up is cost. There’s been no word yet from any of the main players as to how much a consumer VR headset will set gamers back, but with two HD displays apiece you're almost certainly talking well into three digits, plus the extras you may need or want to enjoy the full experience. Sony's kit is designed to integrate with the new PS Move controller, and the PS Eye camera, not to mention games and the PS4 itself.
More practically, there’s the issue of potential motion sickness: a problem with VR since its inception. Your body doesn't always accept the feeling of 'being' somewhere without actually being there: inner ears dislike the eyes telling them they're moving when they disagree, and over time they retaliate in the only way they know how. Latency between moving your head and the headset mirroring the move only compounds this. Both Sony and Oculus's kits operate with motion detection speeds of 1000Hz (a vast improvement from the Rift's previously sluggish 250 Hz), which, with any luck, will counteract this.
Motherboard's Meghan Neal tried out a new Oculus prototype last week.
But then there’s the eyes themselves: focusing on HD tellies mere inches away isn't good for them, and over time they can hurt. If the resolution is too low and blur is too high you can also begin to feel nauseous (an effect early adopters of the Rift reported). Both headsets seem to address these issues directly with twin 960x1080 displays producing crisp images less prone to motion blur, with the Rift's 5.6 inch OLED screens allowing an approximate 110-degree field of view and the Morpheus’ 5-inch LCDs giving 90 degrees. The OLED displays might just give the Rift the edge here, but both devices will undoubtedly see improvements before launch.
Sickness aside, general comfort is also something to take into account if you want to be immersed in virtual reality for any length of time. Oculus now weighs in at 440g owing to a few new additions to the design, and Morpheus's heft currently unknown, though Sony points out that no weight will be placed on the nose or cheeks, consigning the brunt of the bulk to the bonce.
Competition between the tech offerings will also likely depend largely on what you can do with it—which means good games and developers. In addition to its first-party studios, Sony already lists Epic and Crytek among Morpheus's advocates, while Oculus can count id Software and Valve among its well-publicised gaggle of fans. Lack of good games, it seems, shouldn't be a problem.
Both systems are still in the prototype stage, so details are still very much up in the air. While VR has staked a clear claim on the future of gaming, quite which products will end up as the gamer’s choice, and which risk joining Virtual Boy on the technological scrapheap, remains to be seen.