Playstation VR: First Impressions

The future, or DA FOOTUR?

My first experience with virtual reality was back in the mid 90s. I was in primary school and the local Dick Smith Electronics (back when it was still worth visiting) had a demo set up for some VR unit that I’ve since forgotten. It was attached to a PC running Duke Nukem 3D, and it was basically an early, awful LCD screen shoved into a heavy visor, plugged in to the VGA port of the graphics card. It had this weird little puck thing with a few buttons on it that you used to move around and shoot. Before I used it, my mum had to sign a waiver that it might make me violently ill. I remember that I couldn’t see jack shit (and the guy looking after it had to keep resetting it, otherwise it got ridiculously blurry) and I got suck on E1M1 when I fell down a hole and couldn’t jump. But man, I was taken – for a minute, I felt like I was Duke Nukem.

Looking back on it, it was friggin’ awful, and that’s probably why VR has taken a very long time to get anywhere near being decent. But that’s changed. The Oculus Rift demonstrated that VR can be a viable technology, and the HTC Vive took it a step further to add room scale VR. The Playstation VR is an intermediate step between the two – more flexible than the Rift, but not as much as the Vive. It’s also the cheapest option (provided you own a PS4). So, how is it? Is it worth it? Read on!

What is it?

All of this is in the box. All of it is mandatory!
All of this is in the box. All of it is mandatory!

PSVR is a VR headset for the Playstation 4. It’s Sony’s answer to the Rift and the Vive. To use it, you’ll need a PS4 and a PS Camera – which pretty much nobody owns because nobody had a use for one until now. It’s also recommended to have some PS Move controllers too – unfortunately, I don’t have any because they’re out of stock everywhere, so I’m stuck with my regular old DS4.

The box contains a large amount of stuff. You get the headset itself, the processing box, an AC adapter for the box, a HDMI cable, a set of cables to connect the headset to the box, some earphones, and a USB cable. Honestly, it’s a bit of a mess. Setup isn’t difficult provided you can read, but it’s a bit involved.

Basically, the processing unit that comes with it only functions to handle positional audio which is piped to the VR headset’s earphone jack, as well as to handle the “social screen” feature which allows the TV and headset to display different content at the same time. It isn’t a new GPU/CPU unit, it doesn’t add any new processing grunt. Basically, the HDMI output from the PS4 runs to the processing unit, which then outputs the signal to the TV via HDMI again. The unit also plugs into the headset by two connectors, and into the PS4 via USB. It gets its power from a separate AC adapter.

The headset unit itself has its own power button, and an earphone jack with its own volume control. You’ll want to use this – even if you don’t use the earphones Sony gives you – since it helps to immerse you in the experience.

How much space will you need? The PS VR is designed to be used seated – it isn’t room sale like the Vive, but you can stand up and twist around to a certain degree. I sit about 2.5m back and have about 1m either side of me, and this keeps me squarely within the Camera’s field of view. I didn’t have any problems with the PSVR losing tracking at any point. You can’t sit too close or stand too far back, or it’ll get confused, but most lounge rooms should have enough space. If you intend to use the Move controllers for more immersive experiences, you’ll need more space.

Setup is a straightforward process – you plug everything in, turn it all on, and it walks you through setting it up. Fitting the unit is as simple as moving the front goggles part backwards or forwards, and adjusting the headband until you can see the text clearly. From there, you’re good to go. Taking it off as as easy as releasing the headband – you don’t need to adjust the goggles. Once you’ve got it set up a few times, you’ll be able to quickly take it on and off.

Also in the box is a demo disc that showcases some of the VR games.

What’s good?

The unit itself - comfortable and stylish.
The unit itself – comfortable and stylish.

To be fair, I’ve never used a Rift or a Vive, so I can’t really compare it. That said, this is a more affordable prospect for most people, so many are likely to get their feet wet with VR using something like this, so I don’t know if the comparison is really fair. Most people won’t splash out for a VR-capable system (for the record, I do own a VR ready PC, and have the space for a Vive).

That said… holy shit, this actually works. Most “immersive experience” nonsense doesn’t work with me – those video theme park rides or 3D movies never really had much of an impact on me, because I felt too disconnected. But damn, I actually felt it this time. The first demo I tried was the PS VR Worlds demo – which places you in a diving cage descending to the ocean floor. It was incredible, and I immediately got lost in the experience. I could look anywhere, including behind me, to watch all of the sea like moving around me. Looking down into the dark abyss almost gave me a sense of vertigo – I don’t do overly well with heights – although I was sitting down so it sort of lessened the impact somewhat. I could lean forward to examine the little control panel in the cage, I could look directly up to see the cable stretching into the light above me… it honestly was like being there. It’s the most immersive gaming experience I’ve ever had.

The tracking was actually flawless for me – there wasn’t a time when it failed to detect where I was looking, even when I twisted around to look behind me. I could look anywhere I liked, and it’d just keep tracking.

I also tested out the demos for Battlezone, Eve: Valkyrie, Drive VR, and RIGS Mechanized Combat. Battlezone was a freakin’ blast – it’s an update of the classic arcade tank shooter, and it felt awesome. Valkyrie is set in the EVE Online universe and is a space shooter. This demonstrated some of the possibilities for how VR enhances gameplay. I could actually keep my head on a swivel to look around for the enemy, helping me feel like I was an actual pilot. Sure, Track IR has been doing this for years – but this was far, far superior since I could just use my eyes like I would if I was a real pilot.

Drive VR was slightly less impressive – it was blurry, difficult to see, and just didn’t feel right. I could sort of use real driving techniques, like looking through a corner, but it all looked a little too fuzzy for me to really enjoy the experience (more on that in a bit). RIGS Mechanized Combat actually made me feel a little bit ill, which I didn’t expect. Unlike the other games, this is actually a first person shooter of sorts, and although I have no idea what the hell is going on, I did enjoy playing. It was one of the more immersive experiences, but it did make me feel a bit ill playing it.

During gameplay I didn’t run into any real issues with slow framerates, device errors, a headache, or nausea until I played RIGS. The headset was really comfortable although it did take a bit of fiddling around to get it set up for my eyes (I don’t wear glasses either). I wore it for around 2 hours initially with no real negative effects.

What’s bad?

My setup - I sit about 2.5m back or so.
My setup – I sit about 2.5m back or so.

It’s not all perfect, of course. Firstly, the PSVR can’t hold up to the Rift or the Vive when it comes to visual quality, and that’s entirely down to the processing power of the PS4. It’s definitely good enough but some things look a bit blurry or fuzzy – and the games that strive for realism are the ones that suffer the most. It isn’t 1080p quality and it probably never will be – the PS4 has to maintain a constant FPS otherwise you’ll feel awfully sick. Drive VR looks like a mess – you can’t read the speedometer, some of the text looks like balls, and even the track looks like a mess. Other games look awesome and don’t have this problem, so YMMV between games.

The headset is comfortable, but there can be an issue with light bleed. I was actually able to mostly eliminate it, but the goggles will fog up and make things harder to see. It wasn’t distracting for me but it’s not a tight fit. The display will need to breathe, so there’s going to have to be some gap.

The cables are annoying, but there isn’t going to be a wireless VR solution for a long time yet – the latency would make such a thing impractical. Yes, your phone can do it, but your phone isn’t doing the processing power required by real time 3D graphics in games. You’re going to have to get used to it. You’ll need to do a bit of cable management and dead with cables running across the floor. It looks inelegant, but it’s your only option.

Also you’ll never forget that you’re in a virtual world – most of the graphics are deliberately removed from reality, probably to allow for the processing power required to deliver the framerates needed, but honestly it doesn’t matter. It’s still one of the most immersive experiences you can possibly have, and it’ll leave you stunned.

Finally, it has to be said that the PC will have the better VR experience – purely because of the raw processing power available to push pixels faster than the PS4 can. But you’ll also pay a high premium for that benefit, and as the games increase in complexity, the hardware demand will increase.

Verdict: Awesome

VR is stunning, and the PS VR is one of the easiest ways to get into it. It retails for about $560AUD for the headset itself, but you’ll need to pay $90 for the camera. While most games can be played with your DS4 controller, some (namely the most immersive games) are only going to play well with Move controllers – so about $120 for two. So it’s not really a cheap proposition… until you consider that the HTC Vive on its own is nearly $1200AUD (at the current exchange rate when I wrote this), plus you’ll need a beefy PC to run it, and the floor space to use it properly. The Rift isn’t much better once you add in the controllers.

While it isn’t as technically competent as the Rift or the Vive, it’s outstanding for the price, and works exceptionally well. Most people won’t care, simply because the experience is that good. Another point is that the PS VR seems to have good first party support. VR on the PC is still mostly the realm of small indie games that are more like tech demos than actual games. The PS VR seems to have better support from developers and honestly looks like it’ll get better support than the Vive (or the Rift for that matter). That’s ultimately going to be one of the reasons why I think it’ll be popular – it’s more likely to have some decent games rather than a bunch of silly screw-around “games” or tech demos.

So do I recommend the PS VR? Hell yeah, I do! If you’re interested in VR, this is probably the best way to get in, especially if you have a PS4. It isn’t flawless but it’s an exceptional bit of kit, and Sony did an outstanding job with it.

I’ll most with more impressions (after playing a few more games) soon.

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