LOS ANGELES — Sony isn’t the first to make virtual reality a reality, but in waiting, the company has delivered a worthy experience that’s cheaper, more comfortable and more convenient than the two high-end systems already out.
That could help boost a technology that’s had a rocky start.
After four years of anticipation, Facebook’s Oculus business finally shipped its high-fidelity Rift VR headset in March, only to encounter massive delays in fulfilling orders. And Oculus still hasn’t said when it will ship motion controllers to enable VR experiences that don’t require users to sit down.
HTC and Valve, meanwhile, jointly came out with a more immersive system (with controllers) in April, but their Vive system requires users to free up an entire room and hang annoying sensors on walls.
The goal of Sony’s system isn’t so much to broaden the appeal of VR beyond gamers; after all, it comes from the company’s PlayStation gaming business and requires a PlayStation 4 game console to work. But Sony delivers where it matters most to hard-core gamers. And PlayStation VR, which comes out Thursday, retains the social aspect of gaming in letting friends watch on a television set what the VR user sees in the headset.
CHEAPER AMONG THE PRICEY BUNCH
While VR can be experienced through a cheap headset like the $15 Google Cardboard or Samsung’s $100 Gear VR, those systems don’t deliver the same level of graphics and realism as the Rift, Vive and now PlayStation. For one thing, they don’t have sophisticated position tracking to let you move around a room rather than just swivel around in a chair.
The PlayStation VR’s $400 package comes with the headset, cables, crappy headphones and a disc filled with demos. Another $100 gets you a required camera for motion tracking and a pair of Move motion controllers. A PlayStation 4 is necessary and starts at $300, so if you’re starting from scratch, you’re spending at least $800.
By contrast, the other systems require high-end PCs that already cost more than $1,000. The general-purpose laptop you may already own won’t be fast enough. The Rift itself is another $600 without its Oculus Touch controllers, and the Vive costs $800 with controllers.
Of course, none of this includes games. They’re extra.
CONTENT IS KING
Sony boasts that about 50 titles will be available by the end of the year. I have tried more than a dozen and have been impressed with the lineup’s depth and diversity.
There’s nothing as compelling as a “BioShock” or “Dragon Age” game that’s available for traditional game systems. But a few exclusive titles offer more than just a glimpse at PlayStation VR’s possibilities. “RIGS” is a VR rendition of the multiplayer soccer sensation “Rocket League.” The crime caper “The Heist” felt like I was inside a Guy Ritchie movie that I didn’t want to end. “Until Dawn: Rush of Blood” is the best haunted house I’ve visited in years — better yet, no long lines.
There’s plenty to keep gamers occupied for months, and more are on the way.
NOT TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT
Both the Rift and the Vive are worn like goggles, with the straps coming around the sides near the ears. The PlayStation’s visor hangs down from a halo-like ring worn around the top of the head. The different seems minor at first, but the result is more evenly distributed weight and less pressure around the eyes. It could also make the headset feel more comfortable with glasses, though a colleague still had to deal with lenses fogging up.
The design also makes it easier to glance at a phone or find a drink. Just push a button to slide the visor out, without needing to go through the rigmarole of detaching the entire headpiece.
Still, the nausea-inducing issues with the other VR systems are present here, too. I don’t consider myself prone to motion sickness, but I can’t handle more than 30 minutes or so in VR at a time.
The Rift and the Vive have better screen resolution, while Sony’s system boosts more frames per second for smoother video. But don’t get bogged down on specs. The differences are negligible.
And the PlayStation VR preserves the social aspect of gaming. What you see inside the headset is replicated on a TV screen, so others in the same room can follow along. The Rift and the Vive can simulcast on a computer monitor — not quite the same as a big-screen TV.
The TV also can be used for multiplayer experiences, with the VR user battling players looking at the screen. Sony throws in “The Playroom VR” with a couple of fun examples of asymmetrical gameplay. Nothing like that is available yet for Rift or Vive.
You can dodge obstacles in a street luge game by moving your head, or use an on-screen rendition of standard DualShock 4 controllers in the spatial puzzler “Super Hybercube.” The best games, though, use the wand-like Move motion controllers, with light-emitting bulbs positioned above a trigger and other buttons. These controllers aren’t as sleek as Vive or Rift remotes, but they get the job done of mimicking hands in virtual space.
The Vive offers the most immersive experience given that it uses two sensors mounted on opposite corners of a room. But I was pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the PlayStation camera. I was able to fluidly execute a 180-degree spin as the Dark Knight in “Batman: Arkham VR.”
The Sony system is also way easier to install. You just plug it into the PS4.
A NEW REALITY
Despite all its strides, PlayStation VR won’t be for everyone . Besides gawking at the whimsical animated VR movie “Allumette” or streaming Netflix on a virtual screen that looks way bigger than your actual TV, there’s little available for non-gaming fans. That’s a limitation with the Rift and the Vive, too.
Even most average gamers won’t need the PlayStation VR. The available experiences aren’t on par with what gamers have come to expect from countless hours of “Grand Theft Auto” or “Call of Duty.”
But for anyone who’s been excited about the lofty promises of VR, Sony has delivered a worthy wired experience that’s comfortable for both your noggin and your wallet.