Playstation VR proves the appeal of virtual reality—with some growing pains

Sony’s first volley in the VR wars is the most affordable of the high-end headsets, and the games deliver. But the first-gen hardware is cumbersome

The Playstation VR headset

The Playstation VR headset. (Sony)

Virtual reality is one of those technologies that polarizes people into one of two camps. There are those who have tried it, and are wowed by it, and there are those who haven’t.

Those who haven’t invariably doubt VR, and with good reason: it came and went more than a decade ago without fulfilling its hype and promise. It’s also a technology that makes people look silly while using it.

Facebook-owned Oculus and Taiwanese phone maker HTC have had to live with these truisms since introducing their respective VR headsets, the Rift and the Vive, earlier this year. Sony will now have to deal with them as well when its PlayStation VR headset launches on Oct. 13.

For those of us who write about technology and who have indeed tried VR, it can be tough to describe. It truly is one of those magical technologies that has to be experienced, as hyperbolic as it sounds. It gets the mind reeling about future possibilities, which is far more exciting than the latest app or incremental smartphone update.

A good illustration of this unique experience on the Playstation VR comes from Rocksteady, the British video game studio behind the smash-hit Batman Arkham series. Batman: Arkham VR, one of the flagship launch titles, starts with a scene that’s familiar to anyone who has followed the Caped Crusader’s adventures through pop culture.

A young Bruce Wayne and his parents Thomas and Martha have just emerged into a dark and foreboding alleyway behind Gotham City’s Monarch Theatre. As depicted in scores of comic books, movies and TV shows, the Waynes are then brutally gunned down by a mugger. The violent episode spurs the young child into his eventual lifelong anti-crime crusade.

It’s different in VR because you, the viewer, are young Bruce in full high-definition first-person view. You can look all around and take in the sights and sounds of the alley, and see the lifeless bodies of your parents lying on each side of you. When the mugger leans in close to threaten you, it’s terrifying. It’s like he’s all around you.

We’ve witnessed this scene umpteen times before, but it’s more visceral in VR. You get a sense of what it’s like to actually be Bruce Wayne in the middle of that horrible scene. No medium has ever come closer to replicating that feeling.

That, in a nutshell, is VR’s value proposition. It puts you, the user, in the middle of everything – literally. When it’s done well, you not only see and hear everything around you, you feel it too. That’s why it’s a technology to get excited rather than cynical about.

It’s what Sony and its competitors are counting on with their respective products. Sony’s entry, however, is likely to be the most successful yet by virtue of the fact that it has the lowest barrier to entry.

Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are expensive to start at $599 (U.S.) and $799, respectively, and both require high-end PCs to run, which add anywhere from $1,000 to several thousand dollars to the total bill. Oculus’s still-unreleased Touch handheld controllers will also cost another several hundred dollars.

PlayStation VR, meanwhile, retails for $399 ($549 Canadian), plus $74 for the associated motion-tracking camera. There’s also the $379 cost of a PlayStation 4 console, although many households already have one. Lastly, many games are also better with two wand-like Move controllers, which sell for $129.

Without the console, that’s a total cost of $750 in Canada. With a PS4 added, it’s around $1,100, which is still the least-expensive high-end VR option available. Any cheaper and we’re getting into low-powered phone-based systems like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google’s newly announced Daydream View.

There’s no shortage of content launching with PlayStation VR – 29 titles off the bat, plus a further 14 within the next few months. Many are short and bite-sized.

Batman: Arkham VR, which has players investigate crime scenes around Gotham, is about an hour-long. Allumette – not a game, but rather an animated short movie – clocks in at under 10 minutes.

Harmonix Music VR, from the creators of Guitar Hero, invites players to sit back and watch trippy three-dimensional visualizations set to music. It’s best enjoyed in short spurts, unless of course there are hallucinogens included.

A few games are longer. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, which sets players off on a roller-coaster like shooting ride through a house of horrors, runs a couple of hours. EVE: Valkyrie – which, unlike the other titles, wasn’t available for testing before launch – promises many hours of online multiplayer action.

The hardware itself handles the titles well, but it does have some issues.

Cables, in these early days of VR, are unfortunately a problem – and boy does the PlayStation VR have a lot of them.

There’s the cable that connects the headset to the processor unit, which acts as the user’s leash. The processor unit, which adds graphics power to the console, also needs a cable to connect to the PS4.

Then there are cables that connect the earphones to the headset, plus a couple more to charge the Move controllers. Oh, and there’s a cable that goes from the camera to the console.

In an age where everything else is wireless, it’s a giant horrible mess.

The headset itself is a complex piece of hardware too, featuring two separate tightening mechanisms. A dial at the back tightens the band that goes around your head while a button on the front, underneath the lenses, slides the face mask backward and forward. Aligning the two just right gets that correct mix of sharp image and comfort.

Truth be told, I never really did find a sweet spot even after using the PlayStation VR for several hours. I was constantly adjusting both mechanisms, alternating between comfort and slightly blurry vision, and a squeezing sensation coupled with a sharp picture.

Many of the games require the Move controllers, which are devices I’d hoped to never see again after the motion gaming craze died down a few years ago. Nevertheless, the controllers act as your virtual hands, allowing you to push buttons and pick up items. They’re not as precise as, say, HTC Vive’s handhelds, which allow for more fine-tuned control.

These are minor gripes, to be expected in a first-generation product. The important thing is that it’s easy to get immersed and even lost in the virtual worlds being served up. Taking off the headset and rejoining actual reality can be quite jarring, which means it’s mission accomplished for Sony.

The real reality around PlayStation VR – the physical hardware – is going to improve with time. The headset will get smaller, lighter and more comfortable and at least some of those cables will go away. The games, meanwhile, will get better, longer and more immersive.

PlayStation VR is thus a promising product and the beginning of something that can be truly transformative. Its hardware foibles mean it’s not necessarily ready for the mainstream audience it’s shooting for, but techies and early adopter game aficionados are going to want to check it out.

My wife, a non-techie, tried it out and she quickly became a convert. Such is the persuasive power of VR – it really is something that needs to be experienced.

Sony supplied a trial unit for the purposes of this review.