PlayStation VR is a strong start for virtual reality on consoles, showing that it not only can be done, but it can be done well; the system is home to some of the best VR content I’ve played yet.
Powered by the now three year old foundation of PS4, I’m blown away by the visuals that have been achieved through PSVR. I’m especially interested to see how things improve further with the launch of PS4 Pro.
PSVR’s 1920×1080 OLED panel resolution might be lower on paper than the headset’s two major competitors, but with its RGB pixel structure, it’s perfectly capable of creating powerfully immersive experiences and beautiful virtual worlds, despite a few display flaws.
The ergonomics of PlayStation VR feel class-leading in many ways when compared to the Rift and Vive, with a design that maximizes both field of view and comfort. However, I really would have liked to see built-in headphones to eliminate an extra cable, not to mention bulk, from a pair of headphones not designed to be worn with a VR headset.
PSVR’s visible-light camera-based tracking system is likely to be its biggest challenge going forward. It feels only just over the ‘good enough’ line and is notably less accurate and responsive compared to the more expensive Rift and Vive.
By no surprise and no mistake, PlayStation VR is in a big way all about the price. Consoles have always been about value. And despite being based on demonstrably less powerful hardware, PSVR delivers a VR experience that punches above its weight class and makes a strong argument for both existing and new console players to jump into VR right now.
Sony’s years of hardware design experience shines through on PlayStation VR. Right out of the gate back when the company announced (the formerly named) Project Morpheus, the headset’s ergonomic design was already matured very close to what you’ll get out of the retail box. It’s an elegant design that feels more sophisticated than the Vive and more ergonomic than the Rift. That elegance may however lead to some fragility however.
Unboxing the PlayStation VR ‘core’ headset (the package without the camera and Move controllers) was a fun experience. The outer box design mimics that of PlayStation’s overall playful branding, but slides away to reveal a strong inner cardboard box that’s thoughtfully designed around the elegant headset within. From the minimal grey exterior to the blue interior and and the diagonally-opening lid held in place with a white ribbon, Sony is conveying a sense of uniqueness to what’s inside, and for many people who are opening what’s ostensibly a $400 or $500 peripheral (depending upon which package was purchased), it certainly should feel special.
After cracking the diagonal shell open, players are greeted with a series of smaller boxes which contain cables aplenty. All are removed easily with finger holes, and reveal the pearl within the box, the PSVR headset itself. There’s a surprising number of cables and bits in the box, but most of it is in service with connecting the PSVR’s breakout box to the PS4; fear not, only a single cable will run away from the breakout box to the headset, and setup is actually pretty painless (more on that later).
Plastic is the predominant material found on the headset, and while it’s elegantly designed, it doesn’t have quite the premium feel of the Rifts svelte fabrics or the firm feel of the Vive. The overall impression the PSVR leaves is of greater fragility than it’s PC powered counterparts.
Part of that has to do with the materials, but a larger part is likely due to the design of the headset which has a fairly large display assembly connected by a relatively small mounting strut. With the leverage provided by the display assembly, there’s some flex to PSVR’s overall shape. This may have been a necessary sacrifice in order to have the comfort of a hanging-style design that’s also highly adjustable (which we’ll talk more about later).
Generally speaking, you’re unlikely to feel comfortable tossing PlayStation VR around like you might one of the PS4 controllers, but then again, neither of the other major headsets out there feel quite ready for that level of handling either.
The inner padding of the headset that rests on your forehead and squeezed behind your head is squishy and comfortable, providing a lot of wiggle room when it comes to tightening the headset your comfort.
Because the display assembly doesn’t rely on resting against your face like the Rift and Vive, the shielding around the lenses is made of a lightweight and highly flexible rubber that will quite easily defer to the frame of a pair of glasses, making PSVR potentially the most glasses-friendly high-end VR headset out there.
Sony’s approach is very different. PlayStation VR uses a ‘hanging’ style display enclosure which doesn’t rely at all on pressure from your face to keep it in place. Instead, the display hangs down from the structure of the headset while transferring a great majority of the weight to the top of your forehead (which, if you poke around up there a bit, you’ll notice has very little muscle compared to your face). From your forehead, the circle of the headset’s body wraps low behind your head to act as an anchor for the forehead section.
Sony opted to go with a ‘Bring Your Own Headphones’ approach, and they include a pair of inexpensive earbuds with PSVR. Headphones can be attached via a 3.5mm port on the side of the inline ‘remote’ that sits along the headset’s cord. The PlayStation VR breakout box spits out spatial 3D audio to whatever headphones you plug in there.
The included earbuds didn’t fit me very well initially, but there’s a pair of smaller and larger rubber tips that you should try on for size before giving up on the earbuds all together. I took the the smaller size and have mostly enjoyed using the earbuds rather than adding the additional weight and bulk of a pair of over-ear headphones.
No matter which approach I took, I was still left itching for an integrated headphone solution like those found on the Rift. Dealing with an extra headphone cable is already bothersome, but so too is fiddling with the headphones to find the right/left while the headset is already on. For those with expensive headphones of your own that you’d like to employ with PSVR, I’ll remind you that the Rift’s headphones are removable for that purpose as well, giving us a good model for how audio on a VR headset should be done.
The PlayStation Move motion controllers suffer from a similar problem, and appear to have more tracking jitter than the headset (likely owed to their singular tracking light source). They still work well enough for intuitive motion gaming, but don’t have the same impressive accuracy that we’ve seen with the HTC Vive or Oculus Touch controllers. Fast movements especially (like swinging a sword or throwing things with much vigor) seem to be eschewed by most of the content we’ve seen so far, possibly due to limitations with the tracking.
Some PSVR experiences cause you to raise the Move controllers up in front of your head (like when aiming a gun), which can easily occlude the small number of markers on the headset, causing it to jitter more until you put your arms down. The PS4 controller seems to be the least accurately tracked of object of the bunch. As such, it tends not to be used in experiences which require accurate tracking.
However at least one game I tried, Tumblr VR (which is a pretty cool game), can be played using the DualShock controller to balance blocks atop one another, but it’s jittery tracking can really detract from the experience. Thankfully the game supports the Move controllers which makes a huge difference.
When you first take everything out of the PlayStation VR box, you’re gonna be looking at a lot of individual cables and pieces. There’s a big instruction booklet included, but thankfully there’s big pictures and one step on each page.
Most of the cables are in service of connecting the PSVR breakout box to the PlayStation 4. The breakout box has an HDMI cable that goes to the PS4 and an HDMI cable that goes to the TV. It also has it’s own power adapter and a USB cable that needs to run to the PS4. So over by your TV you may have a big of a table mess, but the headset itself has one thin cable that runs from the headset to the breakout box and plugs in with two ends.
The whole thing took me about 10 minutes to set up as I lazily followed the big pictures in the instruction booklet. Once I hooked everything up the PS4 already knew all about the PlayStation VR system—like long-lost best buds—I didn’t have to download any updates or install anything to start using PSVR right away.
Once you’re ready to pop the headset on, pull the back strap outward and loop it behind your head, resting the remainder of the unit on your forehead. The back strap goes down low around the crown of your head and you can give the crank on the back a few turns to start tightening things up. Using the button under the right side of the display assembly, slide the lenses in as close as they will comfortably get, then adjust up and down to find the sweet spot where everything is sharp. Once done, give that crank a few more turns to keep everything in place. Now you’re ready to game.
One very cool feature of PSVR is the ability to operate your entire PS4 on a virtual big screen. Before even launching a game or putting in the demo disk, you’re able to see the usual PS4 home screen inside the headset. You can launch and play any and all PS4 games, apps, and content through the headset as though you’re sitting in front of a massive TV (you can adjust the size of the virtual screen to small, medium, and large).
Despite the cable nightmare, the lower-resolution screen and expensive games catalogue, I couldn’t recommend picking up PlayStation VR more. It’s an absolute blast and, if you can afford the £350 price tag, a must-buy for any avid PS4 fan and gamer. Not only is it a great way to experience a brand new medium without the need to fork over astronomical amounts of money, it’s unbelievably good fun, even if you’re just sat watching a friend or family member get lost in a virtual world.
If you’ve never tried VR before, I’d still recommend trying to go hands-on with a demo unit or a friend’s headset first, if only to ensure your stomach is strong enough. Although it is cheaper than its PC-powered cousins, £350 is not an inconsiderable amount of money to drop on something you can’t play without feeling sick.
However, aside from this concern, PlayStation VR is, quite easily, the most compelling and exciting games product on the market right now and with such a reasonable price, PlayStation 4’s install base and Sony’s expertise, it has the potential to spark a revolution in gaming. I just hope the attention is there in the days following its release.