Hands on with Sony's Morpheus headset at GDC

PlayStation's VR challenger put through its paces

It's easy to get cynical in this business. We're constantly besieged with unreliable promises, 'magic' business models and game changing techs that end up being anything but. It might seem crass or aloof, but we're used to being disappointed. 

Yesterday evening, as Shuhei Yoshida pulled the covers from a prototype unit of Sony's Project Morpheus headset, it felt a little different. Hardware announcements from the major players are always interesting, but the buzz at this year's GDC over the burgeoning VR scene has been tremendous. Everywhere you look, prototypes and new ideas have been clamouring for the attention of press and developers, from unknowns to the already established Oculus. 

It's definitely this year's theme, and if it feels like it's all coming at once, there's good reason for that - the tech which is enabling all of this innovation is becoming increasingly widespread and readily available. These devices haven't been cobbled together overnight, they've been on the drawing boards and in the labs of tech companies for months or even years, iterating to the point of usability and financial viability. 

Sony's Morpheus project is no exception, as R&D specialist Richard Marks explains to me, this is something that's been brewing for some time.

"There was a grass roots effort for this - there's been a real energy in Sony for VR for a while, a lot of people who are really passionate about it. All across the world, actually - in Europe, some of the same people who'd pioneered the stereo 3D as well, in America, Jeff Stafford really had a passion for it, and lots of people in Japan."

"There was a grass roots effort for this - there's been a real energy in Sony for VR for a while, a lot off people who are really passionate about it. All across the world, actually"

"Everyone was trying to do it and they all started communicating their efforts. In 2010, Shu [Yoshida] showed some around. In 2011, we started to realise that the efforts that people were making were going to become viable, that our tracking capabilities were within our price range and would be usable with the Eye camera. Maybe not the one that we had right then, but the one we've got now. 

"Graphics horsepower was a concern too, but with the PlayStation 4 it's no longer a problem. The screen and the optics were the end issue, but now they're coming down into the range where we can make a really good experience. Before that a lot of headsets were a really narrow field of view, and that's no good.

"Now that the PS4 development is out of the way, we've been able to focus on it. It might look consumer ready, but we think of it as developer ready - these are easy enough and reliable enough for developers to be able to start doing good things, but we don't think it's quite ready enough to start giving out to everyone."

We're talking at the Sony booth at GDC and I've just come from a press viewing of the hardware. Aside from 15 minutes with the early, SD version of the Oculus kit, this is the first modern VR experience I've had, and I'm thoroughly impressed. 

Three demos are on show. Castle is a knockabout medieval program which drops you into a castle courtyard and gives you a dummy, a longsword and a crossbow to play with; Deep, a project from Sony London which gradually lowers you into a shark infested abyss, ensconced in what transpires to be a pretty ineffectual shark cage; and Valkyrie - CCP's first-person 3D space combat sim, which translates the slow-paced micro-management of EVE into a whirling deep space shooter. 

"It might look consumer ready, but we think of it as developer ready - these are easy enough and reliable enough for developers to be able to start doing good things, but we don't think it's quite ready enough to start giving out to everyone"

Each shows a different aspect of the kit's potential. In Castle, it's all about physical interaction, grabbing swords and shooting targets with the crossbow in a very natural and intuitive feeling 3D environment. After smacking a hapless training dummy around with a sharp length of metal for a minute or two I was grinning from ear to ear, but when I realised I could rip his arm off and beat him around the head with it, the experience really started to hit home.

Just as the demonstrator suggested that I try and juggle some of his dismembered limbs, the skies darkened and a heavy beating of wings approached, showcasing the environmental 3D sound which adds so much to the immersion of the device. Sensing trouble, but buoyed by my mastery of an inanimate mannequin, I prepared myself to fend off whichever evil this way came, but perhaps not the arrival of an immense dragon - fully 40 feet high and occupying my entire field of vision. 

It's no Dark Souls beast, instead rendered in relatively colourful and cartoonish style, but the sheer presence of the thing is incredible. Wrapped in that headset and encompassed in headphones, the experience genuinely takes me aback - literally in fact. As I step backwards and away from the monster in real-life, my avatar follows suit, but it's too late - the vast maw reaches open and outwards and I feel myself flinching as the screen fades to black accompanied by a tremendous roar. 

It raises a key point: this is hugely immersive technology, blocking out so much of the outside world that it's very easy to forget that you're in a room full of press, wearing a helmet. For someone like me, who has problems playing STALKER unless I'm in a brightly lit room, there's a genuine potential for things to get a little too real. Yoshida made brief mention of this in the initial presentation yesterday evening, but Marks is also cautious about jumping in with titles that could be a little intimidating.

"Yeah, people might want to try some of the other stuff first before they start asking for Outlast or Dark Souls," he laughs. "I already sneak up on my son and scare the life out of him when he's playing Outlast. My kids are going to love this, though." 

"People might want to try some of the other stuff first before they start asking for Outlast or Dark Souls

The Deep demonstration also has its fair share of intimidating moments, with a giant shark circling and attacking your cage as you're lowered into darkening ocean depths armed only with a flare gun. There's a genuine sense of space above and below you which proves to be quite vertiginous, and when the cage starts shuddering and collapsing under the assault of the shark's jaws, it's enough to raise a little panic in some of the press who are playing.

Sony is clearly not the first contender in this ring and comparisons with Oculus are inevitable. I've not experienced the latest Crystal Cove enabled, HD model of the Rift, so I can't make a direct comparison, but I'm told by those who have that it's a close run thing.

One thing does seem apparent, however: the introduction of a proprietary headset seems to put to rest the rumours which had circulated about a possible compatibility between PS4 and Oculus. I ask Marks if this means that Sony has shut the door on other visors.

"The way I should answer that is that we want to give customers the best value we can. If we didn't feel we could do that, maybe we would entertain that idea, but this system is really well matched to the PS4; the camera and the DualShock. It fits really well, so I don't really understand why we'd want to have something else that doesn't fit so well. We wouldn't rule it out if we thought that it could add value, but I don't know that we can see that right now."

Whilst Deep and Castle are both impressive demos, it's CCP's Valkyrie which really grabs me. From the initial burst of acceleration as your fighter boosts from a launch tube of a much larger ship to the sight-tracked target acquisition for missiles, the 10-on-10 death match I play feels slick and polished - a consequence of it being developed from the ground-up as a VR-exclusive game. It's already confirmed for Oculus Rift, but obviously the Icelandic studio has also had Morpheus kits for a while too.

It makes sense that first-party studios and preferred partners would be given a head-start, but when will dev kits be shipping to other applicants?

"We can now make these in a large enough quantity that we can start getting them out next month"

"We can now make these in a large enough quantity that we can start getting them out next month," Marks tells me. "That's really why we're announcing right now. We've been iterating with a really small group of developers, but iterating very quickly.

"We've communicated very closely with them and they've actually gone through a lot of pain, because we've been changing the hardware from underneath them quite often. Now we're picking a place where we're starting to draw a line and say that this hardware will be supported for a while. We'll keep iterating with a small group, but this iteration is going to be much more widespread.

"You have to be a PS4 developer, but other than that, anyone who has a passion for VR and communicates their ideas to us, we're open to that. We actually think that the best ideas will come from that very creative, smaller teams because they'll be able to take more risks and try new ideas that maybe wouldn't be tried by anyone else. We're encouraging that."

Given that Sony announced today that there are now 1,000 self-publishers licensed for PS4, that creative pool is significant. As Marks clarifies, they're probably not all going to switch over at once, but they are all eligible.

Morpheus has a ways to go, and a final name to decide upon, but the headsets on show are running at 1080p, with a 90 degree viewing angle. All demos are running at 60fps. Some predictive camera tech allows Sony to cut into the current lag times, but it's something that Marks says is the first barrier which Sony wants to address.

"About 40ms is probably the best you can get out of it right now, but that's too much - it's something we want to bring down"

"A lot of the demos have about 40ms of prediction built into the tracking system," he tells me. "But that depends on your rendering system. About 40ms is probably the best you can get out of it right now, but that's too much - it's something we want to bring down. If you don't do enough on the graphics side it gets worse and you start to get some artifacts from the prediction system. We know that needs to be improved."

Helping ease that load is a small, featureless metal box which sits besides the current units, connected by cables. This separate processor generates the image which is sent to the monitor or TV which the PS4 outputs too, and which those outside the visor are watching. By doing some of that heavy lifting it allows the PS4 to focus on the double image output being sent to the visor. What form that will take in the final unit is uncertain, and like any final product details, Marks and Sony won't be drawn.

As Yoshida promised yesterday, I'm told that the Morpheus will be out as soon as possible, as cheaply as possible, with the lowest latency possible. When it does, Oculus looks like it's going to have its first serious contender.

More stories

New PlayStation update adds USB storage and cross-generation Share Play

PS5 owners will be able to save game data onto an external drive, but the games won't be playable from there

By Danielle Partis

PS3 was "a stark moment of hubris" - Layden

Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios chairman reflects on last generation's missteps and how the company changed course for PS4

By Brendan Sinclair

Latest comments (7)

Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe8 years ago
Glad you had a good time, Dan - I managed to arrange a few hours manning one of the Deep demo pod today, very keen to see the reactions to all those shark shocks - and everyone seemed to really dig it, which was great for the Morpheus team to see, very gratifying for all of our colleagues at London Studio who delivered such a great, immersive experience in that demo, but most of all, so very entertaining for all the gawkers around the stand who got to watch some fantastic and very entertaining reactions. Some priceless moments, and infectious grins all around. Castle players seemed to be having a loud and fantastic time, too.
For all of us VR nuts, this has been the best GDC ever - there's some real excitement in the air that I genuinely haven't seen the likes of in my long years in the industry. Very exciting.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jed Ashforth on 20th March 2014 6:46am

8Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Alan Resnin Journalist 8 years ago
We have more questions than answers. At a possible 300 dollar price point I cannot see it attracting the mass market.

Also questions like 5+ hour play sessions, actual games, sickness, framerate drops, downgraded graphics are still unanswered.

A controlled short demo is one thing, what I just mentioned is another.
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 8 years ago
Alan: I'm no eye doctor, but I think NO VR unit should be used for 5-hour play sessions (and I'm hoping this is being tested thoroughly with volunteers as to how long anyone SHOULD play). But we all know some core players who go all in on this will make themselves VERY willing guinea pigs with Twitch and YouTube videos galore even if the testing says no more than an hour of play and then some rest for the eyeballs and brain. No doubt that future cheer leading will be more welcome by Oculus and Sony and anyone else doing VR, as the ones who can pull it off and come up with no ill effects will be the ones looked at to to champion this tech.

Well, in addition to those being floored by tech demos currently and into the future as VR comes closer to a consumer thing.

All that said, I'd actually LOVE to see a good horror game on this tech because despite "jump scare" videos (many of which just look faked) people are just TOO damn jaded these days. Time for a full on SIREN reboot, I say. Yeah, Sony - I gave you an idea you already have in your IP library. Get on it and scare the shit out of people with this as a free pack-in game with those goggles. Anyway, I know some are cranky that this won't work with their PC or other non-Sony product... but what did you expect?

Hmmmm. Now if only SCEA would actually invite me to a press event in NYC like they used to up until they shifted out the old PR firm here to the new one that ignores people unless they're internet famous, I could cover this and be less skeptical about VR in general. Anyway, Go London Studio!
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (7)
Dear, let me introduce you; Virtual reality - Virtual reality,!

Nice to see your new editorial team is open to consider this scene now... that Sony has release their plan!
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
VR will help keep ophthalmologists busy in the next few years then :)
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
James Boulton Owner, Retro HQ Ltd8 years ago
Eye strain itself shouldn't be an issue on the VR headsets, as it's actually focussing on a near plane for long durations which is the cause of eye strain. With a VR headset, each eye is more or less focussed at infinity -- you are looking through the plane of the LCD not focussing on it. You'll do more damage to your eyes with books and your day sat in front of a monitor than with a VR headset, so they say. I've not used it long enough to notice eye issues as it's always brain related nausea which is the reason to stop for me.

Horror will certainly be an excellent genre for VR. I've played a bit of Skyrim with the Rift and having stuff jump out at you is actually properly scary.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Boulton on 21st March 2014 1:49pm

4Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Christopher Ingram Editor-at-Large, Digitally Downloaded8 years ago
The deep immersion level that these headsets offer could truly put them into the mainstream market's game rooms. The price is going to be what either makes or breaks these incredible pieces of technology.
0Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.