Three months ago, Sony made a big splash at E3 touting the PlayStation 4 to the world. At the same time, though, it was already laying the groundwork for another notable consumer technology venture.
As media and buyers got hands on time with the upcoming console and debated the WWE-like theatrics of the Sony and Microsoft press conferences, the company was holding top secret meetings with developers and publishers, showing off a virtual reality headset for the PS4 and drumming up support for it.
Officially, Sony isn't talking about the device, citing its long-standing policy of not commenting on rumor and speculation. But people in the know say the company is making a major push with the technology - even greater than it did with the PlayStation Move three years ago. (Like the Move, the headset will be sold separate from the console.)
The headset (which is not tied to the company's existing Wearable HDTV Personal 3D Viewer, pictured above) uses the PS4's PlayStation Eye camera, like Move did, for head tracking. This, say people who have used it, makes the headset even more accurate than the Oculus Rift - though it does present some aesthetic challenges.
At present, the working prototype for the headset, which select developers currently have in house, looks much like Oculus' better-known VR system - with ping pong balls attached. The design is not expected to be final.
While there have been reports that the system will make its debut at this year's Tokyo Game Show, those appear inaccurate. Sony does not wish to distract buyers in the days leading up to the PS4's launch - and, as yet, there are not enough games that can showcase the technology.
People with knowledge of the product say they believe the headset will launch in the fall of 2014, but that date, too, is subject to change.
While this isn't Sony's first time experimenting with virtual reality, it does appear to be the company's most serious. Several years ago, developers at GDC showcased a prototype game using the Personal 3D Viewer to select members of the media, though no version was ever released for that system. (That could be because the product was expensive and never sold in the North American market.)
The headset could be a differentiator for the PS4 - and could be part of the reason Sony is so aggressively targeting independent developers in the upcoming generation. Microsoft is not believed to be working on similar technology - and Oculus has said its focus with the Rift is PC and mobile technology.
Sony's device will certainly be a rival to Oculus. That company, though, has momentum on its side. After an incredibly successful Kickstarter, which brought in just shy of $2.5 million, Oculus raised $16 million in Series A venture capital led by Spark Capital and Matrix Partners. Sony is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, but it has been experiencing significant financial hardships in recent years, which could erase some of that financial advantage.
Oculus also has been recruiting high-level developer talent to its roster. A month ago, id Software founder John Carmack signed on to become the company's chief technical officer.
"I believe that VR will have a huge impact in the coming years, but everyone working today is a pioneer," said Carmack at the time. "The paradigms that everyone will take for granted in the future are being figured out today; probably by people reading this message. It's certainly not there yet. There is a lot more work to do, and there are problems we don't even know about that will need to be solved, but I am eager to work on them."
Oculus declined to comment on Sony's headset when contacted by GamesIndustry International.
Sony's push into virtual reality brings to mind its 'jump in with both feet' approach to 3D two years ago. That didn't work out for a number of the same danger factors as VR. Players weren't crazy about wearing the glasses - and the fast-moving 3D images, combined with the fact that gamers blink less than passive TV watchers, resulted in player headaches.
The most significant problem, however, was lack of publisher support. Sony is working hard to ensure that doesn't happen again, making something Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, said at the launch of the PlayStation 3D monitor just as relevant today.
"I think it's a very similar analogy to HD," he noted. "Content will drive adoption."