Virtual reality is something that science fiction has featured to some degree or another for decades, so the idea of entering an alternate, digital reality is hardly something that’s new. This application for video games was mostly speculative until very recently, even though some historically solid but poorly aged attempts were made in previous decades.
We now find ourselves living in a time where consumer-grade VR equipment is being made not only available to the general public, but at a reasonable cost. It makes sense that the biggest companies like Microsoft and Sony are fully exploring the potential of VR, but they aren’t the only ones we’ll talk about today, because gaming is only one of the aims that VR equipment has in mind.
Design and Aesthetic
One of the first things I considered when trying to decide on whether or not to give the whole VR thing a chance was the comfort and usability of the headset itself. Given that this, for the time being, is how the whole of the VR world would be displayed, it needed to be comfortable, (reasonably) light, and easy to use. The other big concern I had going into this was the fact that I wear prescription eyeglasses and didn’t know if this was a barrier to entry. It certainly had been in previous iterations of VR that I had tried, as the mask was designed without this consideration in mind.
I can first and confidently say that the PSVR headset is about as comfortable as I would’ve expected from such a device – if not slightly more so. The forehead support does an excellent job of allowing the headset itself to rest on the top of the head while keeping the visor exactly where it needs to be. A band extends around the back of the user’s head and can be extended or shortened, after which you lock it in place using a really clever design.
The entire design of this headset could aptly be described as clever, because it exists as a near perfect blend of comfort, form and function. Practically everything here is adjustable, and the mechanisms used for adjustment are at once prominent in function but subdued in design – you only find them when you mean to, and otherwise they remain blissfully absent from your awareness.
Immersion is something crucial to a good VR experience, and this headset passes the test in terms of comfort and ergonomic design. Users can opt to use the Gold or Platinum headsets over the device (which I found enhanced the immersion remarkably), but it also comes with a very nice set of earbuds that are specifically designed to clip to the device and dangle just at ear level when not in use.
Outside Looking In
My experience with other VR devices has been limited to say the least, having only tried an Oculus Rift hands on in my local phone store. With my limited experience between the two devices I can say that the performance parity is more or less on par, depending on the setup afforded the headset. I’ve seen some incredible stuff with bleeding edge phones and Cardboard, but for the sake of this review we’re going to consider the stand-alone headsets that are in the same category.
The display itself, situated inside the visor, does exactly what it needs to do – and does it pretty well all the same. The visual fidelity isn’t exactly the best when you’re watching a movie in Sony’s still-impressive Cinema Mode, or when you’re playing a game that doesn’t have a dedicated VR mode. For games and applications that don’t feature direct VR support, the visor simply displays the play area and screen for the device. You can actively change the size of the display, but regardless the feeling is similar to sitting in a movie theater with a large screen in front of you.
In games that do feature VR support or are directly and only playable in VR, the result can differ greatly depending upon a number of things. Some games, like Capcom’s Resident Evil VII looked incredible in VR, with the visuals having clearly been worked on to make it look as appealing as possible. Other games, like Battlezone and Thumper, do more with less and use simplistic visual design that looks sharp and high-fidelity on the PSVR screen.
In the end, the screen is high-quality enough given my limited exposure to other options in the market. I’m sure that there is a much higher quality screen out there, but this one does the job just fine in almost every instance. Aliasing is the only issue that popped up from time to time, but it honestly didn’t make a huge difference.
More Than Just Games
One of the things I was most impressed by is the support for third party applications that the headset features. After I finished setting everything up I was prompted to update a number of applications so that they could support VR features. YouTube, for instance, offers a VR mode that allows you to enjoy a wide-range of 360 videos about pretty much anything.
The standout for me was probably Hulu for the sheer amount of VR content that they’ve provided via their service. The first thing that you’ll notice upon using Hulu in PSVR is that you’re loaded into a virtual space that you can heavily customize; some of the choices included an upscale apartment with large windows and customizable vistas, or a movie theater. In addition to the location and views, you can select the ambiance of the location as well. Dim or normal lights, or even a disco style lighting are all available. Once you’ve set up your digs appropriately, you can watch anything on Hulu on the big screen in front of you.
Something else that Hulu does is provide a number of tailored experiences in basically two forms. The first of the two is a special “viewing environment” that is a haunted house, launched as part of last year’s Huluween event. This environment is selected by default when watching one of the spooky short films offered up alongside it.
The second set of entertainment options for Hulu include a full 360 degree experience where things happen around you without any interaction – an immersive movie if you will. These experiences were largely hit or miss with me, as some were well done but others looked glitchy and poorly synced for the PSVR.
On the whole, these alternative entertainment experiences offered a great time with minimal effort or input; you simply need an active account with that particular service and it’s included alongside everything else.
Not exactly a shot against the system or headset as a whole, but the setup for PSVR required a few too many cables and whatnot for my preference. I understand the necessity here, so this complaint is minimal and reserved as a final passing mention, but it’s far from the “plug and play” option advertised so frequently by Sony.
Putting that aside, once the device is set up it’s a breeze to use, making it incredibly easy to swap between VR and non-VR activities on the fly. I found myself booting up basically everything to see what games and apps had added VR support; and that is a list that grows by the day.
This device recently featured a price drop, and there are several bundles available for you to choose from. Some come with everything, such as the camera, move controllers and software, but you can purchase the headset all by itself if you already have the other bits.
Given what this headset does, what it stands to be capable of in the future, and the price, I can confidently recommend that anyone with a mild to passing interest in VR take a chance and pick one up. There is most to this device than a passing gimmick or temporary source of entertainment, and I feel that it will only go upward from here. Getting in on the ground-floor of something like this can be fun, because you can see where it’s been and try to guess where it’s going.
My money is on success, and I can’t wait to see where this goes next.