Virtual Reality is on the brink of becoming the Next Big Thing when it comes to immersive interactive experiences. The Oculus Rift led the charge by opening up the scene to sizeable studios and bedroom coders alike, but it's not the only VR visor on gaming campus. Sony threw their white plastic hat into the ring with Project Morpheus earlier this year, a PS4 headset designed to bring Virtual Reality directly into our living rooms; allowing us to enter whole new worlds in the comfort of the lounge.
Keen to showcase the potential of the peripheral to developers large and small, Sony decided to bring along their latest prototypes down to sunny Brighton, demonstrating Project Morpheus to the assembled masses at the Develop Conference. Meaning, of course, that us eager press types were also able to get involved first-hand.
It's still early days for Sony's foray into virtual reality, but having emerged from the darkened booth and two virtual worlds created by the device, I can report that Project Morpheus has the potential to be absolutely massive.
I promise that this will make sense in a minute.
On paper, Project Morpheus certainly boasts some impressive raw specifications. Its hefty optics block houses a full 1920x1080 LCD display, effectively providing 960x1080 per eye, while its supposedly limited horizontal viewing angle of 90° actually appears to be far larger in practice. Several glowing beacons are positioned around the periphery of the device, from the front to the rear, allowing a camera to track the position and orientation of your head with a fine degree of precision. This should allow games and applications to accurately account for even the smallest movements, thus increasing your sense of immersion in the virtual world and helping to mitigate the effects of simulation sickness in the process.
Never mind the on-paper specs, though, because what first impressed me was the build quality and design philosophy behind the pre-production prototypes. In sharp contrast to the purely functional Oculus Rift dev kits, Project Morpheus has been crafted from day-one with the needs of the end user in mind -- #4theplayers, indeed -- resulting in a comfortable, well-machined and convenient product even at this early stage. Satisfyingly solid to hold and wear, yet surprisingly light, Sony's experience with creating high-end consumer hardware is plain to see. Donning the device is a breeze thanks to its hardwearing elasticated strap and locking plastic cover, while the eyepiece and headband supports the hefty optics block with pleasingly neutral weighting. However, ensuring that you've positioned the device in the optimal sweet spot to ensure crisp and sharp 3D visuals takes some fine manipulation, if not a little fumbling at this stage.
Bespectacled readers rejoice, because Morpheus has you covered. The entire optics block is mounted on a rail, allowing it to be pulled forwards to easily accommodate a pair of glasses in its cavernous depths without letting light seep into the bottom of the visor. Again, it's another example of how Sony are designing Project Morpheus as a desirable real-world commercial product from the ground up; as opposed to promising to address the needs of us consumers in a final retail version at a later date. Neither approach is more valid than the other, and I genuinely love how the Oculus Rift continues to iterate its way around problems and meet the demands of the development community, but it will be interesting to see which strategy results in a device that best pleases gamers as well as developers.
Hardware is nothing without exciting and innovative software applications, though. Sony therefore brought two tech demos along to Develop, and despite being carefully curated and relatively limited in gameplay scope, they're a fearsome showcase of exactly what Morpheus is capable of.
The Deep: "Immersion" Isn't Just A Buzzword
When it comes to "immersion," one of the most prevalent buzzwords in gaming, there's little better to lock you in the moment than a shark attack. Within seconds I found myself under the sea in a diving cage, at the mercy of a ravenous shark who took savage delight in knocking against the bars and biting great chunks out of the metalwork. I ducked and flinched, my movements translated by the camera with no latency or judder, allowing me to watch the aquatic adversary as it swum a full 360 around, above and below my increasingly flimsy platform.
After initial panic quickly simmered down into fascination and wonder, it's clear that maintaining immersion is equally reliant on the little details as well as voracious apex predators. The 3D effect and impression of real depth is profound, affording me a giddying view into leagues of murky water when I glanced at the bottom of the cage, followed by a squeal of delight as I realised that my body had been represented in rather flattering detail (I wish my stomach was actually that flat). I had a new wetsuit clad form, modelled from the neck to the shoulders right down to the feet, which connected perfectly with where I intuitively knew these features were. Hard to describe, but the fact is that I was physically represented in the game rooted me in the experience in an entirely new way.
Sound design was equally noteworthy, boasting binaural audio that helped to further trick my brain into believing that I was fathoms below. All-told The Deep was fascinating, and frankly, I could have spent all day in there. With more undersea creatures and some real gameplay (beyond a largely useless flare gun that showed off the lighting effects), The Deep could probably become a worthwhile downloadable game in its own right.
Street Luge: "Whoooooo!"
Whereas The Deep created its sense of place and immersion in a largely reactive and passive way (I was effectively standing still and watching as opposed to playing), Street Luge put me in the driving seat. Or more accurately: strapped me to a plank and threw me down a twisting mountain road full of oncoming traffic. Lying recumbent, I was able to control the movements of the luge by shifting my weight, registered by the tilting movement of my head being translated into inputs. Having often been underwhelmed by motion control, I was delighted that Street Luge was responsive enough to let me slide underneath an eighteen-wheeler and shoot out the other side.
The term "white-knuckle" is often overused, but just glance at my fists in the photographs above.
Though still decidedly a polished concept piece as opposed to a full game (that lacked collision physics, which had been removed at the last-minute for technical reasons), it was a thrilling and effective demonstration of Morpheus' head-tracking capabilities, and all without causing even the slightest queasy hint of simulation sickness despite fierce motion blur effects.
Does VR Have A Place In The Living Room?
We always call it how we see it here at Dealspwn.com, so despite how enraptured I was with the device and its potential applications, I still have to point out a couple of niggling concerns about Project Morpheus in its current iteration. Starting with the most banal of observations: there's a lot of cabling. My demonstrators had to spend a couple of minutes untangling the headset and headphone wires before each demonstration, which could potentially cause a tripping hazard when fully immersed. Mind you, this is just a design and engineering problem that can be instantly halved by simply using a pair of wireless cans.
It's also worth noting that the two tech demos, while profoundly impressive, neatly sidestepped how well Project Morpheus works in the most common living room scenario: sitting on a sofa. One made me stand bolt upright, the other relied on me lying recumbent atop a crash mat, while both were designed for a unique and specific mode of play. This means that Morpheus has yet to prove its worth for existing genres and more conventional games, which may well require significant mechanical retooling.
FPS games, for example, could well prove overwhelming (if not nauseating) when the contrast between what you see on the screen and what you're physically doing constantly baffles your inner ear. However, this effect can be reduced with high resolutions and low latency, as we're already seeing courtesy of countless exciting VR projects. I suspect that we'll also eventually see several familiar genres rebuilt from the ground up or scrapped entirely in terms of VR viability, which is most definitely an article for another time. We don't have the space to get into enough detail here.
Mind you, my time with Project Morpheus didn't entirely quiet some of my concerns about how isolating and antisocial VR can be in general, which I previously raised in an article entitled 'VR has no place in the living room.' Maintaining immersion relies on cutting you off completely from outside stimuli, much like a sensory deprivation tank, which doesn't quite fit into the social lounge setting that's typically the hub of the house. "But I'd dearly love to be proven wrong," I concluded. "Never underestimate the imagination and resourcefulness of developers in uncharted territory - so hopefully I'll be eating all these words soon enough."
Ultimately Project Morpheus has made me eat my words; those tasty, hasty, hyperbolic words. So long as it's priced and supported properly, VR does have a place in the living room, and by designing Project Morpheus as a desirable consumer product rather than a pet project Sony has a good chance of putting it there. Having watched AAA and indie developers queue up to test the device and emerge excited about its potential, then seeing Shugei Yoshida try several innovative VR games himself (a number of developers tell me that discussions have now already begun in earnest), Virtual Reality is one step closer to becoming reality.
NB: Apologies for the low light level in our photographs, which has significantly degraded image quality. Many thanks to Bastion PR, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and the Develop Conference organisers.