At a conference where the VR experience is everywhere, no new product is creating more excitement than Sony’s Playstation VR, which was announced at a keynote yesterday and is on display at the GDC 2016 Expo today. While the line to test Oculus — long-considered to be the holy grail of virtual reality evolution — dwindled at noon, the amount of people waiting to try PS VR was growing longer and longer, with sessions (arranged in advance) already full until 3 p.m. And considering that the official presentation and demo had just been unleashed on the conference-goers, it’s likely that the wait is just going to get longer and longer.
The Playstation VR: Development and innovations talk started at 11 a.m., but a line had already wound its way around the lobby to the room’s entrance by 10:30. Blue-shirted staff members tried to corral everyone into orderly lines (while politely reminding us to “keep it moving” and “there’s plenty of room for everyone”) and then tried — in vain — to get everyone to avoid the aisles and sit in the center due to the clearly full house they were going to have. “Defrag the room,” a staff member yelled, while people laughed politely and ignored him (partly because it was a lame joke, and partly because the room was already so close and so hot that moving nearer to other people was a proposition not many of us were excited about. Was the heat and the yelling worth it? Absolutely.
Yesterday, Sony announced that VR would be coming in October 2016 and would be a companion to the Playstation 4. At $399, Sony’s hoping that the VR won’t just be an affordable addition to someone’s already existing PS4, but will be a fairly priced entry point into the virtual reality market, with gaming that’s focused on both single and social play (got one VR set and four controllers? According to Sony, you’ve got enough for a party). And with a headset they’re claiming is so comfortable to wear and easy to use, they’re hoping that even grandma will get into the business of joining the family in the virtual world. And yes, they’re expecting her to headbutt her opponents with the best of them when she takes on a virtual city of vulnerable citizens in The Playroom, which will come as a virtual download with every VR purchase. Yes, Chris Norden – Senior Staff Developer Support Engineer, SCEA — reminds us several times, we’ll be getting a game when we buy the package, all rumors to the contrary be damned.
Here’s everything else you need to know about the VR courtesy of Sony’s presentation:
The Playstation VR system will feature a 1920X1080 Custom OLED panel with full RGB pixels and a 120Hz refresh rate. It will feature low pixel resistance, as little latency as possible (promised but not expanded upon), and will work with the Playstation MOVE controllers (they’re alive!) or with a wireless Dualshock controller. The audio, which one can’t truly experience unless they’ve got the set on, will be object-based and 3D, meaning that when you’ve got the headphones on, you’ll be able to hear sounds all around you. Norden says that you’ll not only be able to hear sounds above and below you (below sounds terrifying, frankly) but will actually be able to point to where the noises might be coming from. No great sound system? No problem. The VR is a self-contained unit and will provide a standardized experience for all users. Headphones will come with the system, but users will be able to sub in their own if they’d like.
Developers will be able to define their game’s play area and make it easy for users who are flailing around as they fight a giant sea monster (a proof-of-concept that was demonstrated toward the end of the presentation) to avoid chairs, couches, or the solitary ballpit (RIP DASHCON) that was used to illustrate the obstacles one might face while playing. If the user moves out of the play area, they’ll be notified to get back in line and continue playing a safe distance away from the cat that’s decided to take a nap right in front of your legs.
What’s coolest about the system (which I can’t wait to try several hours from now) is that it has both a mirrored and a separate screen mode. In the former, everyone can see what’s going on in the headset user’s screen. In the latter, which will be used for more social interactions, the user wearing the visor will see something different than the people around them. In the Playroom for instance, the person wearing the visor sees a first-person view of adorable robot citizens fleeing, while everyone else sees themselves being chased on the TV screen. And if the player playing the boss wants to see themselves? The game’s got giant mirrors which will track their movements onscreen. In another game, the user wearing the headset can provide ammunition to their teammates simply by looking their way. That’s pretty cool, especially if you want to play but may not be as good at games as some of your friends.
One more important thing: Norden points out that a lot has been made of the “processing unit” that comes with the system. While some have speculated that the PU provides extra GPU and/or CPU power, Norden insists that it does no such thing and that the PS4 system is quite capable of handling the VR and its requirements. In addition, the unit isn’t an “expansion” or an “upgrade” and isn’t, Norden tells us, accessible by developers.
So what does the mysterious black box do? It provides “object-based 3D audio processing,” displays the social screen, and makes it possible for the system to display the “PS4 interface in cinematic mode” which will allow you to play your favorite non-VR games on a giant virtual screen, which ensures that none of us will ever leave the comforts of Netflix again and come one step closer to becoming the people of the future as imagined in Wall-E.
There are currently 250 developers working on titles for the Playstation VR (and Sony’s offering a lot of help to anyone who’s interested in developing content for the system) and 50 games are expected to be released within the year. While it’s impossible to speculate about quality right now, Sony promises a “curated” selection of ‘high-quality” software that encompasses both game and non-game entertainment titles. No software titles that run below a “60Hz framerate (with 120 Hz reprojection/scanout)” will be allowed.
Oh, and apparently, the VR is perfect for meetings. Skype and telephone calls might be the norm now, but Norden says he’s had some of his best multi-hour meetings while wearing the headset.