2016 has lived up to its billing as the “year of virtual reality,” with products at the high end (and ) and in the mobile arena ( , , ) offering VR options across the spectrum.
Now a new contender appears, with an established brand and a gigantic install base. The PlayStation VR, available October 13, represents the most accessible path to VR if only because every one of the roughly 45 million PlayStation 4 owners already has half the required hardware.
It’s also the only “full” VR system — that is, one with spatial and motion tracking — that’ll get you up and running from scratch for under $700, £630 or AU$1,050. By itself, if you already have a PS4, it’s $399, £349 or AU$550. The combined cost (PC plus headset) for Oculus and Vive currently sits north of $1,200.
To be sure, this is an expensive toy and certainly not for everyone. In fact, Sony says it’s not designed for kids 12 years and under. But considering its price and the fact that you may already have half the hardware sitting in your living room, the PSVR presents a very compelling proposition.
Combine that with PlayStation’s well-established distribution platform, close relationship to the developers crafting these VR experiences and quality control, and the PSVR is a more worry-free answer to the potentially confusing world of PC-based VR.
Setting up either of the two existing PC-connected VR rigs isn’t pretty. The same goes with the PSVR. It’s not an overly complicated process, but the interconnected wired web that results isn’t necessarily something you can tuck away out of sight.
You’ll need an extra outlet to power the PSVR’s processor unit and you’ll also need to devote one of the PS4’s two USB slots so that it can talk to the console. The unit is about the size of three CD jewel cases stacked on top of each other — this of course needs a place to live as well.
The whole thing took me about 10 minutes to connect my first time. When it’s all done and dusted, what you’re left with feels inelegant and messy, but part of VR is being tethered to a long wire. That’s just where the tech is right now. Compared to theand , the PSVR is no better or worse in that department.
Buying the standard $399 PSVR kit assumes you already own a PlayStation Camera and two Move controllers. You absolutely need the camera to use the PSVR and two Move controllers are all but required. If you don’t possess these items you’ll need to purchase them separately. But don’t do that. For $499, Sony sells a bundle that includes everything you need — save for a PS4 — and packs-in the mini-game collection VR Worlds as a bonus. It’s a good deal if you’re missing some of the prerequisites.
With everything connected and the headset on, I was surprised that booting up the PS4 didn’t force me to start any kind of in-depth setup. A few quick adjustments and I was mostly ready to go. When you press the headset’s inline power button, the console switches into VR mode which shifts the menu screen to the headset and mirrors a lower res version of what you’re seeing onto the TV.
Intuitive icons explain that you can recenter the home screen if you need to at any time (which is probably something I do at least twice a session). Instead of a general initial setup, most software will activate a number of calibration check marks so that you get the best optimal performance for that specific experience. Long story short, at the very least you’ll probably be doing some kind of minimal adjustment to your VR play area each time you play. The more I played, the more I learned which games needed more finessing than others.
In the manual, Sony says you need approximately a 10 by 6 foot area (about 3 by 2 meters) needed for play, but I was able to get it working fine in a space only about 7 by 4 foot (about 2 by 1.5 meters). The PSVR seems relaxed about how much space you need, and even a few square feet of floor space could end up working for a handful of games.
Included with our review kit was a PowerA $50 stand — think mannequin head — to hold and organize all of the PSVR accessories. It’s actually something worth checking out because there’s not a really good place to store all of these items when you’re not using them. The stand also charges two controllers and a DualShock4 PlayStation controller simultaneously. It has a spot to hang the headset too, but it tends to droop down too much.
Lastly, if you’re at all concerned about HDR compatibility, the PSVR’s processing unit will not pass an HDR signal through. You’ll need to use a direct HDMI connection for HDR to work whether you’re using a PS4 or PS4 Pro.
What is experiencing PSVR really like?
The question I get asked most about PSVR is, “Does it work?” Make no mistake: I let out an audible gasp the first time I tried Batman Arkham VR. It felt similar to the first time I demoed the HTC Vive Portal: Aperture Robot Repair demo. That feeling of shocking immersion is certainly ever-present. The PSVR lets you escape the world you currently occupy and warp into a fully 3D artificial existence. It works.
But, it can also make you dizzy. If the camera isn’t tracking you well, the artificial floor can start to drift while playing. That’s a weird feeling! It feels like you’re drunk and can’t hold yourself up.
Judging from my limited time with Oculus Rift but hours with the HTC Vive, I found the overall experience to be in the same ballpark as the other “full VR” hardware out there. I say this as it relates to the VR immersion — not necessarily the visual fidelity. The Rift and Vive offer slightly higher screen resolutions and variable performance depending on PC specs. The PSVR, on the other hand, is locked into the same performance across the board because it’s powered by a PS4.
Solid headset, controllers are just OK
The best part of the PSVR is its headset. Out of all the VR headsets I’ve worn I think this is the most comfortable, but certainly not the lightest. The headset has a slightly plasticky feel to it, but I wouldn’t call it cheap. It seems to be able to adjust to most head sizes (note: I have what some call an enormous head and it fits fine) and I like its retractable band adjuster and sliding viewfinder. That said, I can’t wear it — or any other VR headset — for more than 30 to 45 minutes tops, without getting the overwhelming sense that I need to take a break.
It’s easy to muck up the lenses in the headset. Whether it was my eyelashes or just accidental smudges from adjusting it for comfort, I found myself cleaning the two lenses a lot. There’s an included shammy for doing just that.
And then there’s the sweating. Am I a person who sweats a lot normally? Yes. But everyone I’ve let try this thing ends up with a nice moist patch above their eyebrows. That’s just the way it is. Is it a deal breaker? Not at all. Just don’t spend an hour with the PSVR immediately before you need to look somewhat presentable.
I do like that the headset has inline buttons to control volume. This is also where you plug in the included earbuds (you can also bring your own, but you won’t get the PSVR’s 3D audio). It’s easy to tangle yourself up in the wires from the buds too, which can be frustrating if you accidentally rip them out.
The controllers and room tracking, as they’re currently set up, leave a little to be desired. More often than not, something needs adjusting. The camera seems to have a difficult time tracking movement of the Move wands when you’ve turned around 180 degrees because the lenses physically can’t see them. It feels like the system tries to guestimate where they might be located when out of sight, but we’re not entirely sure what’s going on in these situations.
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