Hands-On Preview: Playstation VR

With the EB Expo been and gone, I was inundated with an abundance of fantastic games. But there was one piece of equipment at the Expo that I was very keen to try, having never tried this type of media before. I was (in my opinion) understandably sceptical about how virtual reality (or VR) would work or whether the technology was really far along to properly immerse me in the experience. After all – these experiences live or die based on how well they manage to pull you into their world.

Through a combination of shameless loitering, puppy dog eyes and some intense and yet deeply compelling stares, I was fortunate enough to be able to try both the demos that Sony were showing during my attendance at EB Expo. While they were absolutely fantastic, there are a few questions that need to be answered before I am fully convinced. However, for the most part, the technology behind Playstation VR has singlehandedly made me more of a believer than I ever could be in the experiences.

I spied the infamous Kitchen demo on the Playstation 4 Home Screen during my session but were unfortunately not permitted to give it a go. Thankfully, we did get some time with both the of the London Studio demos; The Deep, which is a largely exploratory experience and The London Heist, a totally-not-but-probably The Getaway inspired action set-piece.PlaystationVR-HeadsetThe headset itself is surprisingly stylish to look at, at least when you are talking about a Virtual Reality headset. All of this equipment is bound to be geeky and awkward looking but in terms of appearance and looks Sony’s offering is easily the best in terms of aesthetics. It looks futuristic but at the same time seems aesthetically appealing enough to be sold as a protoype. I can only imagine how hideous the original prototypes might have looked.

When I sat down to be fitted with the headset in both circumstances, the setup appeared to be nice and simple. You place the headset over your head, adjust the ocular piece (if that’s what you even call it) that sits over the bridge of your nose closer or farther from your eyes until the image is clear and then you’re more or less ready.
VR1While I can’t speak for everyone else, the headset fit comfortably over my head and between the piece that sits over your nose and the band that sits over your head there’s enough adjustment options here to (hopefully) fit everybody. One of my concerns with the front-loaded headset was that it would be heavy at the front, but thankfully, through the magic of physics, most of the weight is distributed further back across your head which makes it much more comfortably.

In the session I was involved in, the Playstation VR was fully wired and the staff at the ‘booth’ would hold these and dance around us to make sure they didn’t get in the way during our experience. Kudos to them – I imagine it’d be a hard job in some circumstances but they did an absolutely fantastic job at getting me into the worlds they were showing off. During my session, there was a little bit of a gap at the bottom of my field of view which let outside light in – however I had to be explicitly looking for it to notice it.

In terms of the visual quality – the Playstation VR is absolutely fantastic. It’s clear, there’s no dreaded “screen-door” effect and while it’s not completely photorealistic it’s realistic enough to really pull you into the experience. Make no mistakes – this isn’t like 3D on the Playstation where the picture quality is notably diminished to compensate for the effect. Playstation VR looks fantastic.PlaystationVR-TheLondonHeistThe first demo I tried was The London Heist, which was the more “game” like experience of the two demos I experienced. Clearly inspired by The Getaway or your favourite Guy Ritchie film, it basically entails a short interrogation and an action packed shoot-out in a bank. The experience opened with a burley looking bald man yelling and threatening me while blowing cigarette smoke in my face (and then flicking it at me).

Already what I noticed with the demo was just how deeply entrenched I was in the game world within minutes of putting on the headset and beginning the experience demo. I visibly felt myself flinch when this criminal threw something at me and while I knew it was a video game in my subconscious, there was still something kind of creepy and threatening about his demeanour.TLH1The man gets a phone call, and suddenly I’m asked to explain what happened earlier in the day. Suddenly, the game freezes and I realise that it actually hasn’t frozen – but I have. I was so into the moment that I forgot to physically reach out and grab the phone off the man. It’s another short but sweet moment where I realise just how far into this world I am within minutes of starting the experience. With my Move controller in hand, I reach for the phone, and the shootout begins.

I should clarify something I said earlier – I’m not exactly sure whether this demo takes place in a bank or not but I’ve had a rather healthy assumption it does. Playing out like a modern day Time Crisis, I’m stuck behind a desk with a gun and all kinds of drawers and compartments to open. And, of course, people to shoot. Most of the compartments can be interacted with to grab ammo out of, and the aim is to shoot down as many people as I canLondon2It’s at this point in the demo that I am taken aback at how remarkably intuitive and easy it is to use such old technology (the Move Motion controllers) to load and shoot my gun. I’m sure I looked ridiculous in the process, but ducking in real life made my character duck behind the desk. While crouching, I could blind fire or reload and then continue on with my shooting or take pot shots from strategically placed gaps in the desk itself.

RELATED:  PlayStation Has Announced Jim Ryan's Replacements With Two New CEOs

The gunplay definitely wasn’t the most fantastic that I’ve ever played around with in a game but it really cannot be emphasised just how immersive the whole experience is. There were times when I went to walk around the desk to get a better shot at my enemies but realised that it was outside of the scope of the demo. But I’d imagine the full Playstation VR experiences would hopefully provide such an experience in the future.

The only real complaint I’d have about The London Heist experience is that it’s bizarre to see hollow gloves interacting with the objects rather than a real arm of hand. Whether this is some kind of safeguard to prevent motion sickness or any other similar issues from surfacing wasn’t clear but it was probably the only thing that broke the immersion of the demo a bit.PlaystationVR-TheDeepThe Deep is a more “exploratory” experience than The London Heist. Rather than being given two Move Motion controllers, this experience just uses the Playstation VR headset to track your movements. It probably wasn’t, but it felt a lot shorter than The London Heist too. It’s a fairly simple concept – you begin in a shark cage and slowly descend through various “phases” until you reach the sea bed and something even more frightening.

Closer to the surface you’re treated to a rather simple display of various schools of fish and intricate reefs. It’s a rather simple experience and it’s here that I realised I shouldn’t have walked any further since I wanted to remain safe in the cage. It sounds ridiculous – but once again, after only a few minutes with The Deep, I felt like I was really there. I wanted to kneel down to examine the detail on the cage I was being lowered in – and I could. I wanted to examine the diagnostic panel on the side of the cage too – and I couldTheDeep1Fade to black and suddenly we’re further down into the ocean. There’s hardly anything down here as its pitch black. But then suddenly a jellyfish appears and illuminates the dark with a glow. Intrigued, I looked downwards to focus on it and noticed that there were three more. Before I knew it I was surrounded by these jellyfish as they glowed and lit up the entire area. It was an amazing experience and I’m sure I had a huge dumb smile on my face when I saw it.

Unfortunately I can’t remember much more of the demo beyond some rather imposing manta rays and more fish. But without a doubt the most memorable segment of The Deep was the end. After the school of glowing jellyfish I was in an area very close the sea bed. There was more light in this area and there were large rock formations too. It looked fantastic, until the star of the experience appeared. A great white shark!Deep2At first I was pretty nonchalant about its presence but as it got closer and closer I will admit that I felt my heart beating. As it swam over the top of the cage my headset boomed and I visibly reacted and screamed a few expletives. It was embarrassing, but it was testament to just how immersive the experience was with The Deep.

Of course, the shark eventually attacked and I got freaked out and the demo ended. It was a pretty fantastic experience that was very well paced.PlaystationVR-TheFuturePlaystation VR is allegedly launching in the first half of 2016 but after my experience with the hardware there are lots of questions answered but a lot of questions have been raised too.

Without a doubt, the technology is at a point where it can provide an experience that is visually compelling enough to fully immerse you in whatever game you’re playing. There’s no compromises. The visuals are fantastic and the fact that both the experiences managed to immerse one of the world’s biggest and pessimistic sceptics (hint: me) is testament to how fantastic the Playstation VR experience is.

But my biggest question are just how these experiences will translate to full games. So far, the experiences were fortunate enough to demo were largely static or on-rails segments of games but none that properly implement movement. I totally understand that Playstation VR might be marketed as more of a social experience best enjoyed with friends – but just how practical will it be to require someone to be with you to carry your cables for you? What’s to stop me from walking into my TV, walking into my wall, or toppling over my glass coffee table?

VR2These are very important design challenges that I am quite frankly excited to see developers begin to tackle and approach as Playstation VR gets closer and closer to a wider release.

Overall, I’m not quite convinced that VR is the future of video gaming, eventually supplanting a traditional display and traditional control schemes. I’m not even sure if that’s the intention of the technological movement. But it’s definitely at the point where, with widespread adoption and tackling of the aforementioned design challenges, it’s in prime position to provide some truly compelling experiences.

Consider me a believer, for now.