The worst thing about jumping on the bandwagon of really new tech is that, most of the time, it just doesn’t work that well. Remember the first mainstream touch screen devices of the late 90s? Or the first laptops? They were terribly clunky, unresponsive, and most important — pricey. But we do it anyway, because it’s human nature to want the shiniest, coolest thing. Heck, I still remember lugging around a bulky Sega Game Gear as a kid, so proud of having “cutting edge” portable gaming, even though the battery life was so bad my parents began yelling at me for asking them to buy too many batteries (the handheld needed six AA batteries just to run for three or four hours).
We are at this stage with virtual reality. Seemingly every major electronic company is pumping out its own headset, and while it’s a very cool glimpse into the future, the reality is the tech isn’t quite there. Resolution just isn’t high enough to offer true immersion (at least not like the way we envisioned VR in sci-fi movies and novels), and they’re either too expensive and require too many resources (a high-end computer, lots of space, etc) or cheap quick fixes.
Sony’s PlayStation VR is, in many ways, the most accessible of the current flood of VR headsets. It’s much cheaper than the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive — and doesn’t require a really expensive high-end PC — and it’s a bit more powerful than, say, the Samsung Gear VR. The headset costs around $400 (about HK$3,180) and only needs a PlayStation 4 console and a PlayStation Camera. Setup is quick and easy — about ten minutes — and most important for people living in Asia, you don’t need a lot of space in front of the TV.
Sony’s headset differs from other headsets in that the slots for eyes and the headband that holds the device in place are separate, making for a two-part adjustment process that allows for more variations. These fit the head much more comfortably than the Samsung Gear VR (Note: I have no tried the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive) but by many accounts, the PlayStation VR fits better than those two headsets too, especially for people who want to wear glasses along with the headset
Another major departure from other VR headset is that there is no “VR interface” for the PlayStation VR, like the ones you’d find on the Gear VR. What you see once you turn the PS VR on is the same launch screen you’d see if you are playing the PS4 normally, displayed in a flat state in front of you. It’s not until you start a game does the graphic “surround” you and become an immersive VR experience. Navigation is done via the PS4 controller — which you surely have — or that PlayStation Move controller (which you’d have to buy separately). Most of the time, the PS4 controller is more than enough.
There are more than 25 titles on launch day (October 13) in Asia, and of those, I tried out Batman Arkham VR and Battlezone. As a Batman fan, the Arkham game proved to be an interesting departure from almost all other games based on the Dark Knight, in that there is very little action. This is a puzzle-solving game, where you’re simulating Batman’s detective traits, not physical prowess.
Battlezone, meanwhile, is a pretty generic tank shooter that you’d find on a dozen of other VR headsets already. It’s fun for first-time players — the immersion of “moving” inside the tank and panning across a battlefield to take down an aircraft is cool. But soon, your eyes will strain and you might get a bit dizzy. This isn’t a specific knock on the PS VR — the Gear VR also gave me similar problems — though the PS VR’s 1080p resolution doesn’t help matters. That resolution (the same on, say, the iPhone 7 Plus or the OnePlus 3) is fine for smartphones (in fact, I’ve always stated that I think quad HD on smartphone displays is overkill) and TVs, but when you’re using for VR, with images blown up in front of your face, it’s a bit underpowered.
And therein lies the problem I mentioned earlier: at the end of the day, none of these VR headsets have the tech ready yet to pump out truly seamless, immersive, and life-like content. Let’s not talk 1080p, even Samsung’s quad HD display on the Gear VR isn’t “clear” enough for VR — you still see pixels and blurry shots. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive offer 2160 x 1200 resolution, but it likely won’t be enough.
Low resolution aside though, the PS VR does a fine job in pumping out the image otherwise. With nine tracking positional-tracking LEDs that Sony says has a latency of only 18 milliseconds, and a 120HZ refresh rate, the graphics mostly run smooth without the jittery-ness of cheaper VR headsets.
Sony did a great job on the audio front. The VR supports 3D audio, and the earbuds that come with the headset are solid. In Batman Arkham VR, when a character approach you from behind, you can hear the difference versus if that same person was approaching you from the side or the front.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about the software. We know the graphics won’t blow you away, but if the games are fun, all is forgiven. While Batman Arkham VR is fun, it’s a very short game. More titles are on the way, and for fans who like racing games, Drive Club VR is looking amazing. London Heist, which will need the Move controller, should be great fun too.