Sony will venture into uncharted territory next year. It will take PlayStation games to the next level with virtual reality and its Morpheus headset. I had a chance to try it at IFA 2015 in Berlin. It was great - but not yet mind-blowing.
Hands on with Morpheus VR
We skipped the last few game-focused conventions so IFA was my first chance to try the “Project Morpheus” headset that Sony will release for PlayStation 4 in the first half of 2016. Oculus Rift and HTC/Valve’s Vive are also set for release in early 2016. We are on the verge of a virtual reality breakthrough.
For the demonstration Sony had brought EVE Valkyrie, Headmaster, and The Deep. Unfortunately, the Eve Valkyrie demo was broken the first day so I started with Headmaster. In essence you have to head footballs towards a goal and hit targets inside. The virtual stadium is pretty dark but feels very alive.
The moment you strap on Morpheus you feel a small sensation. I have tried Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR several times so VR is not new stuff for me but it continues to be a fascinating experience every time. Every time a new place, a new environment, a different atmosphere. The stadium feels real and you immediately feel part of the space. It is a very powerful feeling that you have to experience to understand it. It is a virtual space that looks 3-dimensional to the eye. Just looking around can be fascinating; a sky full of stars, grass below the feet, and a ball flying towards you!
Headmaster is not a particularly advanced or forward-thinking game but it is a good example of a scenario that can work without a controller. It just uses the VR headset with sensors. By moving your head you can head the ball that shoots towards you at high speed. It works well but the sensors in the headset are not 100% accurate yet (either that or I’m really bad) and need calibration.
A weird thing, however, is that there is no physical/haptic feedback built into the headset. You move your head towards the ball but the only way you will know whether you have hit the ball or not is to wait a few moments and check to see if the ball moves towards the goal. A haptic system would be appreciated. On the other hand, the headset is extremely comfortable. It is so light that you quickly forget about it.
In The Deep you are in a cage underwater. You can look around at fish and corals. The textures are still somewhat rough but you still feel present and to me this was a more impressive demo, even though you mostly just stand still and look around with a flashlight in your hand. Later in the demo, as you dive deeper, you get attacked by a shark. It is intense, dark and actually quite frightening. I am an avid diver myself so I am looking forward to more underwater games.
I returned the next day to try EVE Valkyrie but the lines were too long for my patience (and schedule) so I will have to return another time to try more games. Game developers are still trying to figure out what works in VR so I am not too sad about missing out on some of the early game titles.
OLED is great but resolution is not
The Morpheus headset utilizes OLED display technology. The first VR headset prototypes used LCD displays but LCD technology is not very good for fast motion. The refresh rate is currently 120 Hz, the field of view is 100 degrees, and the resolution is 1920x1080 pixels (games likely run lower). Unfortunately the low resolution shows. The experience of using Morpheus can best be described as looking through a lens that is not perfectly adjusted.
To be clear, it is still a great experience but not a perfectly sharp and consistent experience. Sony has time to improve Morpheus before release but it is time that we start to look at VR products realistically and honestly. And honestly, if I had to play the next Uncharted game or any full-length PlayStation game in VR I would expect more from the headset hardware. The latest Oculus Rift offers a better experience and even that experience is far from perfect.
Maybe I am more skeptical or accustomed to looking at display technology than other people. I am sure that many people will be pleasantly surprised once these products hit the market, but I also think that we will see some pushback. The hype train is in full gear at the moment but the hardware - to me - still feel very “first-gen”. The VR headsets are surely impressive but not mind-blowing yet. VR has the potential to be mind-blowing but it will take time. And then there is the awkward social situation of strapping on a full-face headset.
All in all, Sony’s Morpheus is an exciting start and so much better than Sony’s “Personal 3D Viewers”. I have already decided to invest in the first-gen Morpheus for my living room PS4 but I am just not yet convinced that mass market consumers will feel the same way in 2016.