If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be playing around with something like Playstation VR in my own living room, I would have laughed at you before going back to dancing to Fergalicious. But here we are: I, a regular person of modest income, have a virtual reality set in my home. 17 year old me was an idiot.
2016 has seen virtual reality come into people’s homes, but until now it has been an expensive venture for only the most die hard tech fans, costing a little over AUD$1000 on top of the several thousand dollar PCs required to use them. Now Playstation VR is by no means cheap, its much more palatable price point and simple compatibility with a PS4 makes it arguably the best chance VR has at finding a place in the average consumer market.
But the simplicity and affordability of PSVR also comes at the cost of quality, at least compared to the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. While PSVR is by no means an unsatisfactory VR experience, the more cost effective technologies it relies on present some disappointing limitations. But despite all that, overall this layman’s VR is a great piece of kit.
In order to get PSVR up and running, you require not only the headset with its control box and cabling, but also a Playstation Camera, which is not bundled into the standard retail offering. This is where the costs start adding up, because the headset pack itself will set you back AUD$549, and the camera another $89. And then there’s the Playstation Move controllers spied in the above photo, a failed, weirdly sex toy shaped motion control peripheral from the PS3 days. Unless you have some lying around from 2010 like I did, a pair of new ones will set you back a ridiculous (as it’s six year old tech) AUD$119. So really, assuming you’ve already got a PS4, a proper PSVR set up will cost you around AUD$757. Still considerably cheaper than a Vive, but nothing to scoff at.
Setting it all up is surprisingly easy, although a cable management nightmare. The included manual features illustrations of which cables go where, further aided by the cables themselves being clearly numbered in order of connection. Essentially, the PS4’s HDMI cable plugs into the control box, with a new HDMI cable then going from the control box to your TV, then the headset’s long cable plugs into the front of the control box, followed by a USB cable going from the control box to one of your PS4’s USB ports. In the end, it all looks like this:
And then there’s the Playstation Camera. Setting this thing up will either be a no brainer or an awkward task depending on your living room. The camera needs to be positioned at the head height of whomever is going to wear the headset, meaning in my case it had to be about six feet off the ground whenever I played a standing game and around three feet when sitting. Yes, you’ll be moving the camera around a lot, especially if you’re showcasing your new toy to multiple users (phrasing?), and the inconvenience of that will differ from person to person.
In my case, my TV stand is pretty low to the ground so even if I found a way to clip it to the top of my TV it would have been too low. So instead I had to fashioned a little tower of empty Pop Vinyl figurine boxes on the window sill behind it. Not the most glamorous solution, but it surprisingly worked well enough.
The actual PSVR headset itself is well made, and surprisingly comfortable to wear for extended periods of time (for a little over an hour in my tests). Rather than suctioning to your skull like a weird scuba mask, the headset visor hangs in front of your face, the distance of which can be adjusted to find the perfect focus point and allow room for glasses. It also allows you to slide the visor forward to quickly check your surroundings, swap controllers or scratch your nose without taking off the entire thing, all of which you’ll be doing often. Granted, the lack of suction means light from outside the visor can creep in from the nose gap, but while I was immersed in the game I hardly noticed it.
As for the headband itself, it works like an elastic or spring loaded system. By holding a button on the back you can stretch it out and then slide it over your head, although I admit it felt like I was going to break it whenever I did so. From there it can be tightened, and the rubbery crocodile-scales texture of the inner lining sits comfortably. Something to note though, the headset will totally destroy your hairdo, as evidenced by this photo where just an hour of use made my fringe look like it was dreading an oncoming tsunami:
Once you’ve gone through the process of hooking it all up, using PSVR is as simple as pressing the power button on the headset, putting it on, plugging in a 3.5mm headset and you’re good to go. The control box acts as an HDMI switch, meaning you don’t need to unplug it to use your PS4 normally, so you can jump in and out of VR with amazing ease. This is a godsend since there’s enough tinkering to be done whenever someone else uses the headset, such as adjusting camera height, so not having to disassemble the mass of cabling every time you want to just play a normal game would be a nightmare.
Now, on to what we’re all here for: what it’s like to actually use this thing.
First off, wow, PSVR actually works. Once you boot up your first couple of games and get placed in a virtual environment where you can look in all directions, seeing and hearing things like you were literally standing in that exact spot, you’d be hard pressed not to crack a smile. As much as it’s become a marketing buzzword in the video games industry, VR is rightfully sold on the promise of “immersion,” and most of the time PSVR nails it.
The first time I was standing in Playstation VR Worlds‘ main menu room, represented as a giant atrium where an orb floats in front of you, I was in awe of how I felt like I was actually there. Not there there, as in I didn’t mistake it for reality since the graphics are nowhere near up to snuff for that (more on that in a minute), but I felt like I was in a space the same size. Although I was subconsciously aware I was still standing in my tiny living room, it suddenly felt like it was many metres wide and tall. Or diving back into the shark cage in Ocean Descent, I felt like the open depths of the ocean were stretched out before me, to the point when the shark ripped the cage door off I had to take the headset off out of sheer fear of deep water.
Seriously, this is immersion unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced, and just for being able to bring that into my teeny home makes Playstation VR a triumph.
However, as I mentioned in the introduction, PSVR has made some obvious concessions in order to hit a price point significantly lower than its PC counterparts. The most prominent concession is of course the lower graphics. The headset comprises of a single 5.7inch 1920×1080 OLED screen compared to the Rift and Vive’s combined 2160×1200 across two screens. Sure, 1920×1080 games look pretty sharp on our Smart TVs, but when the screen is pressed right up against your eyeballs and magnified through lenses, you can start to see the pixels pretty clearly. The results vary from game to game, but overall there’s a general jaggedness in many titles thanks to both the lower resolution in the screen and the PS4 being significantly under powered compared to a high-end PC.
Don’t get me wrong, the graphical quality of PSVR is certainly not a deal breaker and I was never taken out of the immersion because of it, but what’s missing is those little details. PSVR’s graphics are pretty much a case of “good enough,” where they do their job selling the experience but can leave a lot to be desired. Unless an object is right up in your face, the finer detailing will not be visible, and anything in the distance will either be very jagged or blurry and bland. Reading text is also a bit hit and miss, often requiring the perfect viewing angle to make it legible.
Having said that, every game I tested ran pretty smoothly, with frame rate drops a rarity and even when they did occur it was never enough to induce nausea. The current PS4 is handling every VR game I threw at it surprisingly well, and we’ll just have to wait and see what the upcoming PS4 Pro brings to the table. But if any of you were worried the current model wouldn’t hack it, it most certainly does, at least for now. I do have concerns about the vanilla PS4’s longevity with PSVR as a lot of VR games are static experiences or cockpit games, meaning it isn’t rendering huge environments. Once developers start expanding their VR ambitions perhaps then the PS4 might struggle and the Pro could become a necessity, but for the time being it’s handling itself just fine.
Where the PSVR experience handles itself less fine is with its accompanying accessories, namely the Playstation Camera and Playstation Move controllers. Just quickly, while the Move controllers are considered an optional accessory since every VR game is playable with just a Dual Shock 4, if a game supports them then they really are a necessity. Rummaging through the desk in The London Heist for the diamond just isn’t the same without tangible hands, as is firing a gun and then picking up and manually insert new ammo clips. The same goes for Until Dawn: Rush of Blood; being able to actually dual wield your guns makes the experience much more satisfying. Again, VR is all about immersion, and having both your hands work and move like actual hands is a large part of that.
However, the Camera’s ability to track the indicator lights on both the PSVR headset and the Move controllers is less than perfect. The Playstation Camera is a clever way for Sony to cheaply create an experience similar to what the Vive’s Lighthouse room-scale sensors can do, and 80 per cent of the time it’s fine, but there are certain circumstances where the Camera’s limitations are very obvious. Specifically any time you turn your back on it, move outside of its viewing angle or if your hands are too close to your face.
In the former, the headset has lights on the back to allow tracking to continue, but as soon your body blocks the Move lights then your hands either disappear in-game or they just freeze until they can be seen again. With VR intending to be a 360 degree experience, this is a pretty big oversight. On that same topic, that 360 degrees should also apply as a sphere not a circle, but the Camera’s viewing angle doesn’t really allow for ceiling to floor tracking. From the waist up it’s fine, I rarely moved my arms or head out of range since most PSVR games either should be played sitting or don’t involve much walking. But you can’t bend down and touch things below waist height unlike with the Vive, which isn’t an issue until you instinctively want to do it and then it kind of breaks the illusion.
As for the proximity issue, the resolution of the Camera seems to struggle with differentiating the Move lights from the headset ones if they’re too close together. There were times in Rush of Blood and London Heist where I was trying to shoot something slightly to my left with a gun in my right hand, and the Camera got confused and thought I’d moved my head forward, so the my virtual world would lurch forward and back as it kept second guessing itself. I felt like a pigeon must whenever it walks around, its head thrusting back and forth like Glenn Quagmire on fast forward.
Most of these issues could be fixed with a newer Playstation Camera, with a higher image resolution and wider viewing angle. As for the 360 degree problem, perhaps a way to have two camera covering all angles? Of course, that would require a new Camera and possibly a new PS4 that has two Camera ports, and suddenly a full on PSVR experience is seeming less cheap…
Finally, some thoughts on VR and nausea. I’ve encountered a lot of people who’ve said the static experiences like Ocean Descent and London Heist and roller coaster stuff like VR Luge and Rush of Blood have been fine, yet intense, player controlled locomotion based games like Driveclub VR, RIGS, EVE Valkyrie and Resident Evil VII have caused discomfort or even intense illness. I appear to be one of the lucky ones, having tried some of those experiences to test my stomach and came away pretty well. I couldn’t play for hours on end, but that’s more a VR thing generally at the moment. It’s tiring and more full on than regular gaming, and perhaps I’ll get used to it, but I do prefer the more static experiences over the moving ones. And heck, perhaps a game will come along that’ll make me want to tear my own stomach out with nausea, but so far so good.
For those it nauseates, it’s unfortunate and it highlights that PSVR needs some kind of system for highlighting the likelihood a game might induce discomfort, similar to the Oculus Store’s rating system. And for better facilities for people to try this thing out before they drop the cash on it, like retailer demos or demos in Sony locations. Just don’t charge people for it like GAME in the UK are trying to, that ain’t cool.
In the end, Playstation VR has achieved what it set out to do: it has brought VR into my living room. I had concerns my small living room would not accommodate the technology, but its primarily static or sitting experiences make it work in smaller spaces, and even made me wish it would use more of my tiny space. Its graphics aren’t that of the Vive and the Rift, and its tracking technology leaves some to be desired, but it being the cheaper of the three you’re getting what you’re paying for. The limitations are obvious, but in the right kind of games they’re rarely experienced. And your average user probably won’t mind, this being intended as the average consumer’s VR and all.
The ultimate question is will Sony and other game developers continue to support it and make more than just short demos? Only time will tell, but I’m not here to review the game library, I’m here to review the hardware itself, and on that front, despite its limitations due to ageing accessories, it does its job well.