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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.

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