Sony’s bid for the virtual reality market is by far the most likely to succeed in the immediate future. With a comparatively low cost of entry, the 40 million PlayStation 4s and counting mean that there’s a huge potential market for Sony to try and reach out to. It’s a good thing, then, that PlayStation VR does a pretty good job of selling virtual reality.
So much of that depends on the actual games, though. This review is focussed on the hardware, but we’ve also got reviews of many of the early launch games on the way between now and launch.
By now, the PlayStation VR’s design should be pretty familiar to anyone with a passing interest. It’s an attractive bit of kit with clean lines, the somewhat iconic array of LED tracking lights and a number of clever and well thought out features.
The biggest advantage it has compared to Oculus Rift and HTC Vive is how it sits on your head. Instead of strapping the screen to your face, a single, easily extendable white band runs from your forehead to the rear of you head. This then hangs the actual screen in front of your face, and for long term use feels like the best system so far.
Putting it on is a fairly simple affair, as well, and good for sharing with other people of all head sizes. A single button at the back lets you pull the crown open, before it retracts to fit your head, while a button underneath the screen lets you move this in and out, easily letting you find the right point at which things are in focus. To secure it further, a little wheel is at the rear that can tighten the crown a little more, but even without doing so, it always felt nice and secure on my head.
It even works nicely with larger headphones. The provided in-ear ones are good, but my bulky over-ear Sennheisers fit just fine, with the cups just about fitting under the PSVR’s headband after a little fiddling. It’s not precise, but the thing about the PSVR is that there’s flexibility to shift things around to suit.
The one disadvantage is that you might find that the soft rubber shroud that blocks out any surrounding light might allow for some leakage around your nose and cheeks, especially when in a bright environment. You can shift the headset a little to counter that, but that would also cut off the airflow. The major plus side is just how easy it is to shift the screen forward and see a small part of your surroundings, which is useful when trying to find your controller, headphones or glancing to see what notifications have popped up on your phone.
A cable drapes from the left hand side around the back of your neck and down to the floor, plugging into the long, thick extension cable that heads back to the PSVR processing box. It’s easy to forget about after a short while – unless you really hate things touching your neck – and it leaves a simple set of controls on your right breast, with the power button, volume controls and a mute button for the microphone, as well as a 3.5mm jack for headphones, which you will need to use for the PSVR’s 3D audio processing.
Whatever headphones or headset you want to use, they need to be plugged into this little remote control, because PSVR processes the 3D audio. You can happily chat with people in a party, but not via a USB headset, rather making use of a microphone that points downward from the PSVR screen. The position of the headset’s crown works pretty well with larger headphones, even if it takes a little shuffling of things to get it to sit right.
This all plugs into the processor unit, a small black box that can happily sit alongside the original PlayStation 4 design – oddly, it doesn’t adopt the form of the newer models – and with an LED status light in the front. One section slides back to allow the cables heading to the PSVR to be recessed into the box and present a smoother, more uniform front. A nice touch is the way that the PlayStation symbols are used to help you see which cable is meant to go where.
The Set Up
Adding PSVR to your gaming set up is going to add a huge mess of cables. It’s all fairly self explanatory, but you have USB, power, HDMI in and out, as well as the long paired up extension cable that heads to the PSVR itself. It’s not a pretty sight, but the processor unit is an integral part of the system, taking what the PS4 outputs and translating it for the headset, while also providing a Social Screen image to be displayed on the TV. At it’s simplest, that’s the right eye of what the PSVR player is seeing – so not a full 1080p image – but depending on the game and what developers want to achieve, could be an entirely different view into the game world, as we’ll see with Playroom VR.
All of this means that the PSVR is designed to be a permanent part of your gaming set up. When the PS4 turns on, the processing unit comes alive, its LED turning from red to white, simply to passthrough the standard HDMI signal. The long extension cable suddenly makes a lot of sense, as does the presentational style of the PSVR’s box, letting you quickly detach the PSVR and pack it away safely until the next time you wish to use it.
Thankfully, the software set up process isn’t too taxing. I initially struggled with the PS Camera, for not being far enough away from the device when it was calibrating, but most of the steps involved centre around actually putting on the headset and getting used to it. Every time you load up a game, you’re presented with the PS Camera’s view, to ensure that you’re in the right spot and that your play area is clear.
Putting It To Use
The first thing you’re likely to encounter when putting the headset on is the PlayStation Dynamic Menu, projected as a huge screen within a black void. You can also play non-VR games in this way, with three screen sizes, but it’s really just a nice curiosity, as opposed to a TV replacement. There’s more than enough dedicated VR games to keep you occupied, though.
Getting the best out of the system is all down to the games and what they’re trying to do. There’s already a broad variety of these on PSVR, from first person and on the rails shooters to racing games and the more sedate adventures. Each developer seems to have slightly different approaches, which is quite fascinating to see, even if they have varying degrees of success.
While there is a play area within the PS Camera’s field of view, PSVR is based around a seated or standing experience. There is a minor potential for moving around within this area, and you can happily lean and move back and forth, but it’s not equivalent to the HTC Vive’s room scale VR.
There’s universal compatibility with the DualShock 4, but a number of games do also make use of the PlayStation Move controller. Tumble VR affords you more precision with just a single controller, Arkham VR gives you Batman’s hands, and Rush of Blood lets you dual wield guns. For the best experience, it’s good to have a pair of these on hand, but you’ll almost always be able to make do without.
One things is important, and that’s to take breaks regularly. The first few times you use VR are very draining, especially on the eyes, and it’s something that you need to build up gradually. Even so, VR is a much more intense form of gaming, simply because there’s so little escape from the world. Being able to shift the headset forward easily and browse my phone for a few moments did me a world of good every time.
So much of what PSVR can and will do will be defined by the developers, but there are some clear limitations to what the systems does. The inescapable fact about PSVR, and to a slightly lesser extent its two competitors, is that a 1080p screen resolution is not enough for seamless VR. All games on the system have noticeable aliasing, though some are worse than others, and this depends very much on the art style and how far off into the distance the game asks you to focus.
A well designed game will let you get past this quite quickly and immerse you in the world, but the aliasing can take you out of the moment in certain cases, as can trying to make out small text or the twinkling of distant lights as they move from one pixel to the next. You can also see the grain of the OLED screen’s pixels in darker scenes, though that’s just the nature of the technology.
A lot of this is simply down to the power of the PlayStation 4. In comparison to the minimum system requirements for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, it’s woefully underpowered, and so it’s quite remarkable what some developers are able to get out of the system. That said, some games struggle more than others, and while Batman: Arkham VR looks great, VR Luge in the VR Worlds collection is far from the system at its best. The PlayStation 4 Pro ought to allow for games to take that next visual step, especially with cutting down on aliasing through supersampling.
There’s other niggles, such as how the processor unit has a fan that acts in concert with my original PS4 – I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, but I think it actually harmonises – and how the use of visible light spectrum for tracking can lead to issues in overly bright sunlit rooms, and how you can occlude and disrupt tracking because of the single PS Camera. Oh, and if you plan on combining a PS4 Pro with a HDR TV, the processor unit doesn’t passthrough the HDR signal, quite bafflingly.
I’m also hoping that Sony can come up with a way of dealing with notifications in game. I feel like I’m bombarded with notification sounds, but then struggle to actually figure out what they were for when I back out to the PDM. Most of these will be trophies, but it’s impossible to distinguish between those and messages or download notifications. Currently, adjusting audio will bring a tiny little pop up, and having an icon such as this for other notifications would be good.
Lastly, there’s the cost. £350 is the most frequently touted number, but if you don’t have a PlayStation Camera or Move controllers, those are extras, pushing the price up by at least £100.
Though there are some quite clear limits to what the PlayStation VR can do, it’s a fantastic bit of kit, and can feel remarkably close to what it’s much pricier rivals are able to do. There’s plenty of room for it to grow, as well, whether it’s in combining it with the increased power of the PlayStation 4 Pro down the line, or simply from developers of all sizes continuing to explore what gaming in VR can actually be.