Welcome… To the (un)real world…
Yes, I started this review off with a bad Matrix pun, but what else did you expect from me? Sony’s Virtual Reality headset, once known as Project Morpheus, is finally upon us, and with it comes the most affordable way to dive into VR Gaming. HTC’s Vive and the pioneering Oculus Rift have paved the way in the expensive PC market, but Sony are looking to bring VR to the mass market with their £349 PlayStation VR unit. In fact, a brand new PS4 console, PSVR, PlayStation Camera and 2 Move controllers will still set you back around £50 less than the Vive costs on its own, so it really is the most affordable way to experience the VR revolution. We’ll have a whole heap of software reviews and impressions coming soon, but for now, here’s what I think of the hardware itself.
You know Sony’s going all out when they make a fancy box, and they’ve done just that with the PSVR. Check out our unboxing video above if you don’t believe me! Included in the box is the headset itself, the processing unit, all the cables you need, a (suitably branded!) cleaning cloth and a set of headphones. It’s important to note that the PlayStation camera, which is required, is not included in the standard package, but multiple retailers are doing bundles which include either the old design or the new, rounder, redesign. After a quick setup process you’re advised to pop the headset on and make sure the text is all clear and legible. Once you’ve done that, you’re away into the world of Virtual Reality!
The headset itself is, by a country mile, the most comfortable of all the VR headsets that I’ve tried. Sony’s design team have done an amazing job in making the PSVR unit light without feeling flimsy or cheap, and comfortable to wear without forcing the display onto your face. Essentially, all of the weight of the unit is taken on the (very well padded) headband, rather than pulling the screen into your face like the Vive and Rift do. The display unit is then suspended in front of your face, with a rubber surround providing the “blackout” curtains around you. When the screen is off (or black whilst games load) there is a little bit of light leakage for me when I have my glasses on, but it is minimal, and as soon as anything is displayed on the screen, it practically disappears. Putting the headset on is a straightforward affair. Simply press the button underneath the display unit and pull it out, grip the front and back of the headband, press the button at the back and stretch it over your head. Once it’s on, press the button on the display unit again and slide it back until it’s comfortably over your face. As mentioned above, I wear glasses, and there was very little in the way of discomfort, in fact, I could happily wear this thing for a few hours. Regarding the audio, I’d recommend using a decent pair of headphones that you’re comfortable with, as the supplied earbuds are functional, but not much more impressive than that. Regardless of what you have on your ears, the processing unit will provide 3D audio that will far outstrip anything your average Surround Sound system will produce!
Adjusting the unit is an entirely manual affair, meaning the first half an hour or so of play will undoubtedly have you shifting the unit around until you find the sweet spot where everything is in focus. Once you know where that is though, it’s incredibly easy to return to it when you put it back on. One thing I do want to highlight, however, is the option to adjust the pupil distance. The HTC Vive has the ability to do this by twisting a small dial on the side of the display unit, whereas the PSVR does it all through software. Somewhat confusingly, this option is hidden away in a menu setting, rather than it being part of the initial setup. I will admit that I felt a little bit uncomfortable with one or two games before I amended this setting, but after that it was instantly, and noticeably, better. The PlayStation camera takes a photo of your face from two sides, and allows you to tell it precisely where the centres of your pupils are. From this, the software will tell the headset exactly where to display the images so that they’re perfectly focused for you. It’s a feature that really should be highlighted, as it could lead to some bad experiences for some people if left untouched from the default.
The headset is adorned with 12 blue LED lights that work in conjunction with the PlayStation Camera to track your movements, and I’m massively impressed with the accuracy that this works. There is no perceptible input lag at all, and the headset feels incredibly responsive. This is absolutely crucial to any VR experience, as input lag will immediately lead to copious amounts of vomit in most cases! I’m not 100% sure if the tracking is done exclusively with the camera or if there are extra sensors within the headset itself, but every subtle move that my head made during my time in PlayStation VR was picked up perfectly, and the immersion that is provided is absolutely fantastic. Hidden away in the front of the headset is a surprisingly high quality microphone, which is absolutely perfect for voice chat, with all audio coming through crystal clear, not only according to friends I chatted with but also hearing developers on multiplayer sessions as well.
Moving on to the display and the optics, the PSVR does a more than admirable job when you take into account the fact that it’s considerably cheaper than its PC rivals. With a 1080p OLED display spread across both eyes (compared to the Vive and Rift’s 1200p displays), you’d think that the PSVR would be at a considerable disadvantage. Well, the difference isn’t as massive as you’d think, and the dreaded “Screen Door Effect” is virtually non-existent with PSVR. Screen Door Effect is a strange phenomenon where you can see the gaps between each pixel on the display, and is prevalent in VR thanks to the fact that your eyes are extremely close to the screen, which in turn is being magnified with the headset’s optics. The PSVR has managed to combat this by using 3 subpixels for every pixel of the display. What this means is that the gaps between pixels is much smaller than the Rift and Vive, resulting in less Screen Door Effect. The long and short of it is that even though the PSVR’s resolution isn’t as high as the more expensive PC units, it occasionally looks clearer than them both. Of course, the games will look better on the more expensive brethren due to the nature of the beasts required to power them, but that’s to be expected.
Setup for the PlayStation VR is relatively straightforward, and the processing unit definitely brings back memories of the HTC Vive setup. The below video explains it all, but it is essentially a case of connecting a few cables and sitting the box next to your PS4. If I had it my way, the box would be a little bit heavier, as it is very light and has the potential to get pulled off the shelf you’re on if you yank on the cable a bit too vigorously, but it’s a minor quibble as the extension cable you get to connect the headset is long enough for most living rooms.
The rumour that seems to be coming from development circles is that Sony is demanding that games clock in at least 60fps to pass certification for PSVR, and it’s a welcome requirement if true, as I’ve used games in the Vive that dipped well below 60 and caused me some physical discomfort. Graphical performance will obviously vary from game to game, but on the whole the stuff I’ve played so far has been incredibly smooth. It seems like Sony have given developers the right tools to develop immersive and interesting titles, and I can only hope that this continues and makes PlayStation VR a platform that will last. From the launch lineup that we’ve had chance to play, it’s definitely refreshing to have a bunch of what feel like well-polished, fully featured games, rather than wading through a slew of half-cocked and rushed projects from studios and individuals who are just trying to make a quick buck before you strike any small amount of gold.
If you want to go all out with the PSVR experience, you’ll need to pick up a couple of PlayStation Move controllers. For the most part, these work extremely well, although not to the quite the same degree of fidelity as the Vive’s proprietary controllers. However, like HTC’s offering, the sense of immersion using them is increased indefinitely as opposed to using the Dual Shock 4.
Until the recent preview event that we attended, I was relatively sceptical on how well the PlayStation VR would perform, particularly on the standard PS4 model. However, after an extended time with the unit and a bunch of software, I’ve been left hugely impressed with Sony’s offering. Whilst the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive will be the go-to headsets for those with ultra PCs and a suitably healthy bank balance, the PlayStation VR truly is punching above its weight. Easily the most comfortable headset on the market, Sony have found the perfect sweet spot between price and performance. My time with the hardware so far has been a genuine joy, and and whilst I still think that VR will be a novelty for some time to come, this is the biggest opportunity that the technology has to hit the mainstream, and I sincerely hope it lives up to its potential.