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Power to the People

PSVR marks the beginning of true consumer VR, but will it stick?

As PSVR kits start wending their way to homes across the world tomorrow, Sony ushers in the first real wave of consumer VR, at least at the sort of scale likely to prick the attentions of the big publishers. Whilst the Vive and the Rift are well embedded amongst enthusiasts and early adopters, it's really going to be the PlayStation 4 where the first major battles are fought for the hearts and minds of a more sceptical mainstream audience less accustomed to fiddling around with drivers and hardware settings.

I'm in the incredibly privileged position of owning four VR HMDs: Vive, Rift, GearVR and now PSVR, and I've been impressed with them all, to varying degrees, but Sony definitely has the edge on the competition when it comes to mass market appeal. As the first VR device to enter thousands of homes worldwide, much of the immediate future of public VR opinion rests heavy on its impact.

Firstly, it's a beautiful piece of kit. Not just because its smooth lines and futurist headlamps make it look more at home in the living room than its slightly brutalist counterparts, but because it's been put together by a company with a rugged pedigree of building reliable consumer electronics, operating at scale. The external processing unit is slick and unobtrusive, although the orientation of the heavy wires to the front of the device does ruin its profile somewhat and there's no real sensible way to store everything without using up a lot of surface area.

Of the three tethered units, PSVR is definitely the most comfortable, with a more natural fit and better light exclusion, still sitting comfortably after sessions of over an hour thanks to the weight of the device sitting on top of the head, rather than the nose and cheeks. Whilst I did experience some of the nagging temple pain reported elsewhere early on, a little repositioning soon took the pressure off. Fellow myopia sufferers can relax, too, as the headset fits comfortably over most glasses, although this does reduce the comfort somewhat if you're a big-frame wearer.

What's in the box?

Adjusting the fit of the HMD is natural, too, with a tension dial and a button release system on both the diadem and the faceplate meaning that removal is quick, with the faceplate slide especially useful to refresh tired eyes. The inner sleeve around the nose and lenses is soft and close fitting without inducing sweating, an absolute must when you're going to be passing the headset around, and despite the lack of lens width adjustment, there were no problems with either my improbably large head or my girlfriend's regular cranium. My only gripe about the fit is the occasional inevitable tangling of wires, particularly with the short-leash headphones which come in the box. Still, they're no more obtrusive than the cabling on either the Vive or Rift.

Set up is about as straightforward as can be expected, with several wires between the breakout box, the TV and the PS4 itself and the time from opening the box to first game was 20 minutes. Sadly, the breakout box does take up one of the PS4's precious USB ports, leaving just one to charge Dualshocks and the Move controllers, leading to some annoying juggling of cables to keep everything juiced up. If you haven't already, it's probably time to invest in a dedicated multiple controller charging cradle or a USB hub. Crucially, however, the PSVR just works. There's a firmware update, of course, but no fiddling with making sure each piece of hardware is up to date independently, and no removing and reinstalling of USB device managers every time you use it. This is no longer the realm of the patient enthusiast, happy to tinker and tweak. VR is now a plug and play device - absolutely critical to any battle for the living room.

Once the headset is powered up and put on, the results are still impressive. Having spent a reasonable amount of time in the Vive and Rift, exposed only to a relatively early version of the PSVR, I was concerned that the comparative lack of GPU power would render the experience disappointing, but Sony has done a great job of reducing the screen door effect with sub-pixel density. The cross platform titles I played, Job Simulator and EVE Valkyrie, were virtually indistinguishable from their PC-based counterparts, exhibiting two very different art and play styles with confidence and aplomb.

Of course, there are differences. You're more likely to notice the jagged serration on the edges of objects here, distant objects can quickly become smudges of colour and small text is difficult to read to the point of impossibility, but I've generally been very pleasantly surprised with the quality of the display. I've experienced next to no motion sickness, either, with a touch of the tipsy wobbles in Job Simulator likely as much to do with the onset of a cold as anything else. eSport-friendly RIGS, however, proved to be a harder pill to swallow, with long burst of play recommended only for the very strong of stomach. Overall, though, Whether you're performing evasive manoeuvres in the dark in Valkyrie or tossing sharp bits of metal around the Batcave, PSVR feels convincing and comfortable. That said, I'm fairly robust when it comes to motion sickness anyway, so there's a chance that others might not feel the same way.

As for the software launch line up, Sony's first party efforts show clear polish, with The London Heist and The Deep offering the perfect quick win tasters for VR newbies and curious friends with varying levels of confidence, although they're unlikely to be experiences you return to often. Along with the colourful but relatively simplistic VR Playroom, these demos are more for orientation than serious long-term play. Third-party software is predictably something more of a mixed bag, but generally of a similarly high standard. Valkyrie is tremendous, and an incredible achievement in player comfort to not induce any sickness as you swoop around space debris at high speed, whilst weird, gulag-based heading sim Headmaster was a surprising hit for a man who has no interest whatsoever in football. Rez Infinite is as weird as ever, perhaps even more so, and offers an intense hit for those who desperately want to live a Tron-like daymare.

The full impact of the PS4 Pro's extra guts remains to be seen, but Mark Cerny has indicated that it'll be palpable.

Sadly, despite all this positivity, it's also relatively easy to see where the limitations of the hardware lie. More ambitious launch titles such as DriveClub are muddy and soft, making the full pricetag even less palatable. Add in the lack of a shared profile with existing copies of the non-VR DriveClub and you can expect Sony's racer to stick in the craw of more than a few customers. Both Loading: Human and Here They Lie are valiant indie efforts to increase the scope of the VR experience, but end up being perfect examples of why cockpit based games which don't require walking are going to be prevalent. Both use awkward hybrid controls systems with jumping turn and smooth walking - nothing which made me feel queasy, but certainly nothing which encourages extended sessions, either.

There were some other issues, too, with the field of view shifting gradually around to the right in games like Hustle Kings, leaving you sitting at awkward angles. Whilst holding down the option button recentres the view in almost every game, in these cases of rotational drift, it seemed to be disabled, making for frustrating play.

Still, what Sony has achieved here, on ageing hardware at relatively low cost, is nothing short of amazing. Having lived through the disappointing futures of Kinect and 3D gaming already, I had prepared a healthy well of cynicism to see me through the early stages of VR, half expecting a stumbled and over-hyped launch phase to set the medium back considerably. Thankfully, what I've seen of all three major players is gradually dispelling that wariness, and the deftness with which Sony has made the transition to the living room is to be applauded. What comes next, with the improved power of the PS4 Pro, has suddenly become a lot more interesting.

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Dan Pearson avatar

Dan Pearson