The heads of Rewind, Territory and Vrse.works tell us what they make of Sony Playstation VR - and what they'd like to make for it.
At a launch event in San Fransisco last night, Sony revealed its long-awaited virtual reality headset for the PlayStation games console – and said that it will go on sale around the world in October. We caught up with the heads of leading VR production companies – all of whom are producing projects for it or have had demos of the headset – to get their initial verdict on the most mainstream of VR headsets. We asked them what they made of the Sony VR experience, what experiences it's most suitable for – and whether they think it will be a success.
The PlayStation VR will cost £349 (or €399, US$399 or ¥44,800) and will ship in October. It had originally been scheduled to launch in the first half of this year, but Sony will wait until later this year to ensure there's a broad selection of VR games and enough headsets to avoid shortages, said Andrew House, president of CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment (below). He was speaking at an event on the sidelines of the Games Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco.
That's a good deal cheaper than the competing Oculus Rift headset, which will cost £499/$599, and the HTC Vive, which will cost £579/$799 bundled with accessories. Both are due on sale later in 2016.
We spoke to Rewind, Territory Studio and Vrse.works. Rewind has produced VR experiences including collaborating on Bjork's captivating Stonemilker music video, a special VR episode of Strictly Come Dancing for the BBC and VR for Red Bull. Vrse.works has created VR films including powerful documentaries for The New York Times and the terrifying Catatonic. Territory created Puzzle's Godlike interactive VR music video, which combine motion-captured footage with CG.
Below this, our own Martyn Williams gives his verdict on the Playstation VR after trying it at the launch event.
Neil Bennett: What are your initial thoughts on the Sony PlayStation VR headset and experience?
Patrick Milling Smith, co-founder of Vrse.works: "I am pleasantly surprised on a few different fronts. At first, there was concern that a PS4-powered VR headset might “poison the well” with substandard performance, but Sony has made huge strides in developing a viable virtual reality platform. Though aesthetically similar to the Project Morpheus prototype shown at GDC 2014 - the display, optics, and ergonomics have all been dramatically improved. Additionally, sample content like London Heist combines engaging story elements with interactivity to show what’s possible in VR as a new medium."
Sol Rogers, CEO of Rewind: "Playstation VR will be the most influential, fastest adopted headset this year. Why? It's price - compared to Oculus and HTC Vive - makes it accessible and there are already over 30 million active PS4 users in the world who have the hardware and just need a headset to experience VR.
"Plus the PS4 has it's own app store already so users are used to buying content and with over 50 games expected to be available at launch, there's going to be a lot of choice. Playstation VR is going to have a huge impact on the consumption and creation of VR content."
David Sheldon Hicks, creative director of Territory Studio: "As with all headsets, TV’s, record players…. it’s as good as the media you put on the device. If the experience is engaging, entertaining, insightful and just generally well executed then we have a meaningful experience. The technology is the enabler.
"Having said that, I was totally inspired when I first tried the headset. VR in general is a paradigm shift in entertainment and media in general. To have head movements synchronise with a viewing medium is very powerful, mix movement and interaction in the mix and the experience is richer than can be described. You really do have to try it to understand what a massive deal VR is."
NB: What kind of experiences do you think its particularly suitable for?
PMS: "Playstation has a household device and is often shared by the entire family. This has the potential to expose virtual reality to a wider audience than PC gaming and opens up opportunities for new categories of content. Of course, gaming will be a strong (if not primary) use case for PlayStation VR, but almost any form of passive or interactive entertainment can evolve make great use of virtual reality."
DSH: "Games will be a major factor in VR. It makes so much sense to be playing a first person shooter or RPG in a VR environment where you can truly admire the craftsmanship that has gone into a well-made game.
"I also think live events for home audiences could be amplified through VR, such as music gigs and sport. Imagine watching the Six Nations rugby in a VR headset, from the viewpoint of a head cam! Or an F1 race from the point of view of the driver. There really is so much potential to transport viewers into the action."
NB: What kind of experiences would you like to create for it?
PMS: "So far, we’ve primarily used stereo 360 video to develop a basic vocabulary of storytelling in virtual reality. The photorealistic nature of live action video does a great job of establishing the humanity of a virtual character at the expense of interactivity. Ultimately, we’d like to see the convergence of photography and realtime rendering, allowing us to explore interactivity with believable virtual environments and characters."
DSH: "We work a lot in feature films, and I’m enjoying the potential crossovers in this area. Creating mini-VR experiences that enhance the major film release. Maybe we get to walk around the set, or view part of the film from a particular characters viewpoint."
NB: Does it matter than it’s not as technically capable as the Oculus Rift?
PMS: "Yes and no. From a content-creation perspective, the performance of the intended platform has to be factored into development. Playstation VR is optimised for the graphical capability of the PS4, resulting in a stable target that artists and technologists can optimise around - and we’re already getting more out of it than we expected.
"From an end user standpoint, it’s largely irrelevant as we’re already seeing some amazing experiences with the technology. Being a technical half-step behind the current Oculus Rift (and HTC Vive) places Playstation VR in pretty good company."
DSH: "I think both technologies are extremely capable, and it’s the content creators not the tech that makes for an amazing experience. If great artists, designers and the creative community as a whole pick up a particular platform it will be defined by them. I always enjoy creating for new technologies as the rules are there to be created, and through innovating we learn new creative possibilities. It’s really exciting."
Martyn Williams' PlayStation VR verdict
At the event in the San Fransisco, I had the chance to try out the PlayStation VR and a few of the VR games under development.
The headset is lighter than it looks and fit comfortably on my head, even with my glasses on. The first job when slipping it on is adjusting it up and down so the center of the screen is in the center of your field of vision. The display can also be moved closer or further away from the user.
Once set up, just slip on a pair of headphones -- they aren't integrated into the headset -- and fire up some games.
In one game I tried, Battlezone from U.K.-based Rebellion games, I piloted a tank around a futuristic battlefield, shooting at other tanks and firing at aircraft.
I could look around the inside of my tank and see other displays, panels and switches and look around the virtual one. At one point, I was craning my head upwards to try and spot aircraft above.
As I got into the game, it was easy to suspend reality and the entire experience felt much more immersive than a conventional game on a TV screen.
The PlayStation VR features a 5.7-inch OLED display with 960- by 1080-pixel resolution. That's good enough to enjoy the games but still falls well short of real life, so you'll still be able tell you're in a game.
Sony says there's an 18 millisecond lag between movement and it appearing on screen – fast enough to make everything seem real and that was certainly the case when I tried it out.