It’s just so typical. You wait many years for a consumer-friendly virtual reality headset then two come along at once.
This is the old joke currently facing VR fanatics at the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco , where Sony is now offering hands-on time with its newly announced Project Morpheus headset for PS4 – just as indie tech company Oculus is showing off the revised dev kit for its long-awaited alternative, the Oculus Rift.
But while the Rift, which was successfully crowd-funded in August 2012, is aimed at the thriving PC gaming scene, Morpheus is for console owners – ostensibly, a very different breed of gamer. So can it work?
Sony certainly hasn’t gone into this lightly, or indeed quickly. The technology behind Project Morpheus has been in development for three years, under the watchful eye of R&D chief Richard Marks, who oversaw the development of the groundbreaking EyeToy peripheral. At the GDC unveiling event on Tuesday, president of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida revealed that the team had been working with a makeshift HMD featuring two Move controllers duct-taped to it, and the Santa Monica studio has a God of War demo running on the tech in 2011.
The current Morpheus model is not complete but based around the current DualShock and PlayStation camera platforms, it is up-to-date. With its 1080p screen, 90-degree field of view and 360-degree head-tracking, the fundaments are in place – it seems the device will also recognise Move as a virtual controller, which means you’ll be able to look down in the game world and see it in your hands, perhaps as a gun, a torch, or a tennis racquet.
The attitude seems to be right too. Richard Marks and colleague Anton Mikhailov stressed during their GDC talk that VR can’t just be about games, it has to be about all sorts of immersive experiences. The concept of virtual tourism was mentioned – the idea of simple exploring virtual words, whether based on ‘real’ places or not could be vital.
What’s clear is that functionality can’t be dictated from the top. Kinect on Xbox 360 largely failed as a games peripheral, but when the development code was opened up to the public, homebrew motion controller applications flourished, with dozens of amazing implementations. That is why Morpheus was revealed here at GDC – its success is going to be largely down to developers figuring out what the hell to do with it. A bottom-up approach, if you will.
Motion and emotion
So what do the developers make of it. “We think this could be as revolutionary to console gaming as the Wii was,” says Si Stratton of Cardiff-based studio Mr Dog, which is working on both virtual reality games and movies. “Morpheus will inspire innovation in gaming – we’ve heard of a company that has already developed a game where you can move around without a controller – something that’s relatively easy on in VR as you can tell where the player is looking.
“Having said that, Sony seems to be designing the headset to combine with other controllers such as steering wheels and the PlayStation Move, as it believes this will be a more immersive experience. Combining the headset with other Sony devices on the Playstation will be the big advantage they have over the Oculus, but it means that in order to get the most out of games you’ll have to buy more kit.”
Other VR veterans are more cautious. “It’s definitely a good start – but it is not superior to Oculus yet,” says Hrafn Thorri Thorisson, co-founder of Aldin Dynamics, a Reykjavík studio that specialises in virtual reality simulations. “Personally I found the announcement rather vague – so many facts were left unsaid or undecided. Developers will need to know more about the specifications and what the hardware is capable of. It is also unclear how far along they are in creating the developer kit, and when developers can gain access to the hardware.”
More details are slowly emerging from the hands-on sessions at GDC, however. The Guardian has heard that although the visual fidelity of Morpheus is currently inferior to the latest iteration of Oculus Rift (developers say there is some blurring – but this is a prototype, remember), the Sony device is more comfortable and appears to be taking positional data from the Move controllers. This means that it can track player movement across the room and translate that into the virtual space – so you’re also walking through that at the same time. The new Oculus Rift DK2 headset does this, too, but it will be interesting to see how the implementations compare. Physical movements like peering around corners are going to be important in developing and maintaining the sense of “being there”.
But there are other concerns. The Rift audience is an enthusiast one; so far the device has flourished through a global network of early adopters who are willing to overlook some of the fundamental difficulties – such as nausea. “Ultimately, Sony’s audience is a lot more mainstream than the Oculus Rift’s,” says Stratton. ”It will live and die on whether they’ve solved the motion sickness issue when playing for long periods. No one wants to come home from work, plug in their PS4 and feel ill.”
But beyond the technical comparisons, other developers are unsure about the concept of a virtual reality tech attached to a mainstream console. “The fearful scenario is that Sony will use the VR as a peripheral, like a Playstation Eye or Kinect,” says designer and artist Daniël Ernst who has created a series of virtual dioramas for Oculus Rift, including Shoe Box and the forthcoming Great Gottlie. “Although games are an ideal platform for playful experimentation, the potential of VR surpasses that of gaming. If Sony treats it like a gimmick, people will get tired of it as fast as they did with the 3D TV.”
At the Morpheus event, Marks was very keen to stress that Sony understands the wider implications of VR. In a slide shown at the event, he laid out his vision for the technology, and at number one on the list was, “VR is a medium not a peripheral”. Marks spoke about the need to explore this new visual realm, to respect its differences. “It’s like the wild west,” he concluded. “There are no rules right now, and there’s no killer genre you have to support – it’s a once-in-a-career situation.”
Marks also emphasised the profound effect of presence in virtual worlds. Narrative 2D games rely on story and plotting to engross players, but when they put on a virtual reality headset, just being in the environment is often enough to engage interest. Scenic elements, once take for granted, become fascinating.
”We do relate to spaces differently when we’re in them,” says veteran game designer and author Jesse Schell. “I saw a research project once where they were trying to understand the difference between mouse and keyboard input and HMDs. They created a virtual room that had letters on the walls, and they asked the players question like ‘how many Zs are there?’.
“The players using the standard mouse and keyboard interface would spend extra time checking, because they weren’t sure if they had missed something. But the player viewing the virtual version of the room through an HMD was like ‘there’s one, there’s one, there’s one, I’m done’. He knew it – and he was right. The mouse guy couldn’t be sure because he didn’t have that same connection to the space.”
It all comes down to ambition. Project Morpheus as a PS4 peripheral is exciting to gamers right now, but developers feel it may also be limiting. The expanse of unexplored territory when it comes to virtual reality spaces is vast – will it be harmful to lock that off into just another gaming gimmick?
“The hopeful scenario is that Sony learned from the failure of Playstation Move, Kinect and the 3D TV and will treat and market the Morpheus beyond the Playstation 4,” says Ernst. “I want to be able to use the device with my PC too. I mean, I can hook up my TV to my PC, my Wii, my Xbox, my ipad and so on. Why not treat the Morpheus like that? Then Oculus will have a good competitor and the consumer will benefit from it. Also, other people will then use the VR helmet for other more serious purposes such as architecture or defense, which can create a broad solid foundation.
“Sony has the distribution prowess to introduce VR as the followup to the TV, and it has solid development studios for software. The company has been looking for a new Walkman. This is it.”
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