I almost didn’t get to try Playstation VR. After a morning talk at GDC which extolled the new system’s virtues (exciting, but somewhat flat when you’re not wearing the headset), I signed up to try it out at 3:30, only to have my reservation mysteriously vanish an hour before I was due to test it. The rest of the day’s slots, eagerly pounced upon by other conference attendees who wandered the hall whispering its name, were already taken up and I was near tears by the time Sony’s press team took some pity on me and allowed me to experience the VR for myself in a private booth reserved for VIPs (and not 30-somethings having panic attacks on a convention floor).
I’ve tried VR in other forms several times. When i was a kid, I put on one of those giant helmets at the arcade and wandered around a crudely drawn castle while an evil bird ate me alive. As an adult, I tried virtual reality goggles at The Adult Entertainment Expo two years in a row (it got considerably more real the second time). I was impressed, but not enough that I’d shell out more than $400 for a machine that would allow me to play video games in a hyper-realistic setting. And while the VR presentation put me at the edge of my seat–especially when I watched two people don headsets and then slap each other silly on a virtual playground–I wasn’t expecting the Playstation VR to turn me into a drooling fanboy within five minutes. But let me tell you one thing: The PS VR is amazing and once it comes out, none of us will ever leave the house again.
Once I entered the private room, I was helped by a woman named Vicky, who told me she’d ease me into the experience and promised to take lots of pictures of me looking silly as I tried to maneuver my way through the virtual world she was going to put me through. She showed me how to adjust the headset (it pulls in and out in the front and the back) and then helped me put it on. The first thing I noticed was how comfortable it was. While past VR headsets have been criticized for feeling heavy or unwieldy — almost as if one was taking on the role of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Man In the Iron Mask — Sony’s headset was light and didn’t put any pressure on my face. Of course, it wasn’t something I would suggest wearing any longer than an hour at a time (and even then, you’d probably need to ease into it), but it didn’t make me feel like my head had been shackled and that I needed to shake it around screaming “I am not an animal” like John Hurt in The Elephant Man. In fact, the only thing I asked Vicky as she strapped me in and put on my headphones was “Am I going to die?”
In response, Vicky just handed me my Move controllers and told me that the trigger would allow me to grab things. “There’ll be things all over the car, she said. “Just try touching it all.” Oh sh*t, I thought. I don’t even know how to drive a car. Not even in video games. The last time I played Grand Theft Auto V, I had a panic attack as I accidentally drove my car into pedestrian after pedestrian while screaming “sorry” and trying to avoid them. But with the controllers in my hand and the headphones now snugly on my ears, it was too late to protest.
The first thing you see once the PS VR turns on is the usual blue welcome screen that greets you on the PS4. The only difference is that it’s bigger and looks like you’re viewing it from a prime seat in your own home theater. While Vicky couldn’t tell me whether the screen got bigger and closer when you watched Netflix or played a non-VR game, Andrew (who was running PR) told me that what I’d seen was tiny in comparison to what the VR could do. “It’s like watching it in a stadium,” he told me. That’s cool, but what was most impressive was that it felt like even the blue was all around me. Sure, moving my head too far to the left or right would break the spell, but the VR was immersive from the beginning. The only issue I noticed right off was a little white light coming in under my right eye (possibly something that could be fixed with headset adjustment) and that certain parts of the screen were lighter than others. Once Vicky switched to the game, there was a little blurring, but it was nothing that would make using the VR a huge problem. And with a price point much cheaper than both the Vive and the Oculus, this could definitely be forgiven.
The demo I tried, London Heist, an immersive car-chase scenario in which I rode passenger (thank god) while my angry British partner kept yelling at me to reload and fire at motorcyclists chasing us after a (presumed) robbery, was both enjoyable and very stressful. Vicky wasn’t joking when she told me to try touching everything in the car. While changing the radio station was awkward (you have to move your head to the right and trigger the motion at the same time or it looks like your hands–which are ghosts and have no arms–have taken on a mind of their own, which is jarring), picking up a beer can and chucking it at my partner was fun (that’s what you get for keeping a messy car), and I actually tried to drink a cup of soda with a straw sticking out of the lid (we’re not quite there yet; the second I tilted my head back I dropped it and was unable to pick it back up again).
Fortunately, rummaging around the bottom of the car for the spilled soda gave me plenty of time to hide as motorists on either side of the car (and one on top) tried to murder us. My partner threw me a gun, and suddenly I was in a shootout that I wasn’t expecting (with an empty gun). Vicky, who was watching me vigilantly from the sidelines let me struggle for a bit before gently removing my left headphone and telling me to load the gun by shoving the clip in the bottom. Fun! (I died shortly after, even though I opened the door, leaned out — so cool — and tried to shoot as hard as I could.) Then it was over. The screen faded to red and a “to be continued” flashed across my field of vision before the headset was removed.
In comparison to other VR experiences I’ve had, Sony’s was by far the most enjoyable. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it was perfect. The controls aren’t as intuitive as they’re made out to be (I kept hitting buttons that did nothing on the move controller), the graphics are more reminiscent of PS3 than the PS4, and the whole ghost hands thing (where are my arms?) kept me from truly feeling like I was immersed in the world I’d been plopped in. But the adrenaline rush was there, and while I didn’t feel like I was riding Back to the Future at Universal Studios as I hurtled down a highway at dangerous speeds, there was the distinct feeling that I was accelerating, even while sitting still. While this could possibly cause some nausea down the road, it was exhilarating more than anything else in the moment.
Will I buy Playstation VR when it comes out? Probably. The jury’s still out, however, on whether I’d use it primarily to enjoy the actual VR experience or play the PS4 games I already own from a new and closer perspective. Of course, I thought as I took off the helmet and lifted myself onto legs that had turned a little rubbery, I could also play it safe and just use it to lay back and watch Netflix, which I’m certain will become a popular pastime for many once the system is released in October.