The battle for Virtual Reality has begun. In one corner we find the Oculus Rift, the original crowd-funded trendsetter with a legion of coders, John Carmack and a social media juggernaut behind it, whereas in the other we find Project Morpheus. Sony's newly-revealed peripheral has been years in the offing and comes to the table as a viable consumer product, designed specifically for the end user from the get-go. Though Valve and Samsung are waiting in the wings at this very early stage, warning shots are already being fired by press, pundits and gamers on both side of the debate. Which is sharper? Which is more immersive? Which is... better?
So it's time we got involved. Now that we've tested both the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus prototypes first-hand, we can finally compare the two devices against each other. Put simply, there's no contest.
Or to put it another way: the two visors aren't actually competing with one another, and they probably never will.
This might seem bizarre, but Oculus Rift and Morpheus are actually markedly different in terms of who and where they're currently targeting. Oculus Rift is designed primarily around the PC ecosystem, high-end hobbyists and developers keen to chance their arm. The sort of dedicated PC gamer who can afford to maintain a beefy rig (and who already has one set up, more to the point), alongside coders raring to develop for the exciting new hardware. Even if the worst case scenario of the VR push failing, if new steward Facebook doesn't manage to push the Rift into smart TVs and set-top boxes, I'm convinced that it will remain a vibrant indie, PC, homebrew and hardware hack scene with applications from gaming to architecture, remote manipulation and design.
Conversely, Project Morpheus seems to be designed and even revealed as a peripheral, an extension of the PlayStation brand. A radical new way of experiencing PlayStation games and media in our living rooms, capable of supporting a new wave of AAA exclusives and indie titles, prompting gamers to buy a PS4 or upgrade the console they already own. Sony seems to view it as a peripheral and a new platform, powered by a console with locked-in specifications (hence easy to optimise for in terms of hitting all-important resolution and latency targets, though lacking power compared to a flame-gouting liquid-cooled monster PC) and that boasts a dedicated existing audience.
In effect, Oculus Rift currently owns the upstairs of the house, replacing PC monitors, providing immersive access to a whole suite of modified PC titles and in-progress projects. Meanwhile Sony will be keen to convince people who already own a PS4 to buy into a new way to play, or more accurately experience, their favourite hobby in the living room.
Yes, yes, I hear you. "But I've plugged my PC into my living room telly via HDMI!" Good for you, and I do the same, but the fact is that the vast majority of gamers don't. Compared to an ergonomic chair and desk, balancing your gaming keyboard on your lap while lounging on the sofa isn't exactly ideal, and living room PC gaming still has a handful of convenience wrinkles to iron out to appeal to a wider mainstream audience used to consoles and smart devices. Right now, and for the near future, the two devices aren't even on the same playing field.
This could change, of course. Ubiquitous game streaming could bring both devices head-to-head depending on the latency involved, especially if Valve's Steam Machines initiative really takes off (I remain excited yet unconvinced), though more importantly Facebook could convince TV and set-top box manufacturers to support the Rift as standard. When this happens, we'll judge both retail headsets based on both their specifications and quality of their image, balancing how comfortable and practical they are for us users. Oculus Rift certainly seems to have the upper hand when it comes to the former, whereas Sony's experience at hardware manufacturing is likely to lock down the latter.
But for now, it's better that we look at the two devices as allies in bringing VR to the masses. They need each other. We're on the cusp here, folks, and having at least two strong well-supported devices will be key to ensuring that Virtual Reality becomes a reality. When publishers and developers know that their games have two potential markets, making ports possible and investment more likely, when two major companies do their best to really educate the public about what VR has to offer and keep each other honest, we'll start to see some cool tech become real products on store shelves.
And, of course, let's remember that neither headset is anywhere near finished yet.