PS VR vs PC VR, And Why It All Depends On Sony
PSVR might be a good thing for Vive & Oculus
The bloom has slowly been coming off VR's rose on PC, as expensive hardware, floor space requirements, image quality issues, cabling woes, the delay to Oculus Touch controllers and too many underwhelming, bite-size launch titles transformed this from beautiful dream to compromised reality. The show's not over, of course: this is but generation one, from both a software and hardware perspective, but it needs a new fire lit under it.
Meanwhile, on PlayStation, the excitement is on the rise rather than the wane.
Clearly this can be at least partially attributed to PlayStation VR not being released until October, so prospective fans' heads are currently as filled with fond imaginings of ultimate escapism as I know I was in the months leading up to the Vive's release. Their optimism is aided and abetted by three big factors, however, and while I am both burned by PC VR hype and very conscious of the failures of PS Move and Kinect I do believe that PSVR has at least a shot at going big.
The first factor is that PSVR, while in most respects lesser hardware than Oculus Rift and Vive, looks set to be a slicker, easier, more straightforwardly compatible headset that removes both the need for a high-end graphics card and doesn't involve quite so many cables and accessories. My work room is a maze of wires thanks to the Vive, it took half a day to setup and I'm already looking at replacing what is an only year-old £350 graphics card in order to be able to use Valve's headset at anything like its full potential.
By contrast, in theory I can just plug a PSVR into my PS4 and it'll be hot to trot - the console's infuriating propensity to install a massive firmware update every other time I turn it on notwithstanding.
In theory, anyway; I must admit that I look at the contents of the PSVR box and feel tired at the thought of having to plug all that stuff in, then find somewhere to tuck it all away again when I'm not using it. The headset does, after all, have its own breakout box, which is primarily dedicated to enabling various dual-display trickery so that the HDTV can have a function to perform while you're off in facebox land.
That aside, there's simply no way that Sony will allow PSVR setup and usage to be even remotely as involved as Vive or Rift's are - it needs to be something that parents can hurriedly configure for their kids on Christmas day, and it needs to be something that someone who doesn't ever go into settings menus can use. If they can get this right, despite all those cables, PSVR could be something that Normals look upon and think "yeah, I can see that in my lounge" as opposed to either being scared of the complexity or put off by the 'orrible mess it'll make of their TV cabinet.
Factor two! It's cost. Obviously it's cost. Despite all the technocrati braying about how £600+ for a Vive or Rift was perfectly reasonable for bleeding-edge, high-end tech and that people happily spend that much on an only marginally changed new tellingbone from Cupertino, the fact remains that it's a shitload of money, especially when it's for a fairly speculative add-on to an existing system rather than a whole new device, and clearly that limits it to sub-set of monied early-adopters.
I mean, it's two PlayStation 4s, and for many just that console is a major, multi-year investment. £350 for PSVR kicks down a great many doors that Vive and Rift could not, although even then it's a long way North of suck it and see curiousity, or even Christmas wish-lists. I do think we need to see it sub-£300, and ideally £199, in order to have a realistic shot at mass adoption, but I appreciate entirely that there are costs to be met. Still, at least it's not in 'cancel the family holiday!' territory.
Factor three is what we're seeing at E3 this week - a slew of big-name brands and licenses announcing VR titles. If you want yer Key Demographic on board, you need Batman and Star Wars on there - and PSVR is getting Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham VR at launch along with an X-Wing VR mission for Star Wars: Battlefront. Ideally there'd Call of Duty or Battlefield too, and there are indeed rumours, but those guys are clearly biding their time for now. There's Resident Evil 7 and Final Fantasy XV too, along with various first-party stuff, and all-told it's a much stronger hand than the more imaginative but far less familiar fare we saw for the Vive and Rift launches. (Of course, some or even much of this may come to PC too - I do wonder if PC will end up getting a middleground headset, probably not from Oculus or Valve, that can do stuff like this at PSVR quality for a similar price.)
For a mass audience, the question of 'OK, but what do I play on it?' is handily answered by a bit of superheroing or X-Winging, though it remains to be seen if such things can become fully-fleshed experiences or suffer from the same short-lived mini-game woes which has characterised so much of PC VR. At least, it seems, the PS4's DualShock pad will be the primary means of interaction, which means this thing would seem to be catering for the trad. gaming audience right out of the gate rather than trying to do a Wii.
These are strong factors that make PSVR a more commercially viable prospect than the higher-end but more niche offerings currently available on PC, and I'm not actually saying that in order to kick anyone when they're down. If Sony get this right and PSVR does well, then VR becomes truly established and we're definitely going to benefit from that over here, whether it's with more games (and more ambitious games) for Vive and Oculus, a mid-range headset for the masses or the fast-tracked release of an even higher-end headset that resolves image quality gripes, as well as further investment in the wireless facebox of our dreams. I believe that PC VR needs PlayStation VR to succeed if it's to find its feet any time soon.
Fingers crossed this can happen in tandem with sufficient adoption of the new-gen graphics cards from NVIDIA (and hopefully AMD in due course) that boast tech designed to cut down on the requirement for a PC's GPU as it renders two different scenes simultaneously, which promises an enormous boost to frame rate and therefore scene complexity and even anti-aliasing. As well as being a boon to upcoming dedicated VR ports, such as Bethesda's DOOM and Fallout VR side projects due next year, this would open the door to simply playing non-VR games on a giant virtual screen, which is something I'm very keen to do but is essentially impossible with my current hardware.
Against all these potential positives for PSVR and what it might mean for virtual reality as a whole is the matter of specs - both of the headset itself and the looming discrepancy between launch PS4 and the upcoming '4K' revision, the PS4 Neo. Which I'll get to shortly, but the all-encompassing fact is that, on either hardware SKU, PSVR's resolution is a whole lot lower than VR's leading lights on PC.
PSVR has a per-eye res of 960 x 1,080 against Vive and Rift's 1,080 x 1,200, which doesn't immediately look like an enormous step-down, but do the multiplication and we're talking about 1,296,000 pixels vs 1,036,800 - a quarter million pixels fewer. Given that Vive and Oculus already put out an image that has the disappointing appearance (if not numbers) of 720p, worsened by the immense magnification involved in pushing the thing right against your peepers, we can expect to notice this shortfall.
In fact, PSVR's resolution matches that of the much older Oculus DK2, which I know from experience was fairly blocky and created huge legibility issues for in-game text. This may not be quite the problem it sounds, so long as every PSVR game is designed with this in mind, and finds ways to make big fat fonts not look too ridiculous. Fine for punchy old Batman, but more problematic for anything with dialogue trees or big inventories. Doesn't mean that it can't be overcome with smart UI thinking, but it's definitely a major roadblock to getting any old thing going on PSVR, and that may complicate getting out sufficient full-fat, big name games to make PSVR a big commercial success.
Then there's the matter of the PlayStation 4's own specs, which are a long way South of the GTX 970 minimum required to not have an awful time with a Vive. Against that is that PS4 has single-spec, known quantity hardware which developers can optimise for to a degree they simply can't for the wide spread of PC systems. Doesn't mean there won't be big compromises in prettiness, especially because PSVR boasts a 120 Hz refresh rate (against Vive and Rift's 90, and the DK2's 75).
If you're unfortunate enough to follow the wars in consoleland, you'll know that there's no end of bellyaching about PS4 and Xbone games not even managing the magic 60 frames per second - so 120, or even 90, is a tall order for the hardware. Especially once you weave in the fact that Sony want to do all kinds of display mirroring onto an HDTV, and even interactive stuff for a second player.
Again, extreme optimisation for fixed spec is PSVR's ace in the hole, but there's no escaping that what we'll see will be a step down in image quality from the best and brightest of PC VR. The key question is whether it's good enough to make the hardware appealing to enough people.
A further spanner in the works is the matter of PS4 Neo, a third generation (the second had the same specs but is less nosiy) of PlayStation 4 hardware whose headline feature is to games at 4K. While uncharacteristically water-muddying for the console market, and also particularly aggravating for those of us who already have a PS4 (I bought one like four months ago, for Chrissakes), it's an understandable move given how many people have recently picked up 4K TVs. Not that there's much 4K stuff around to watch as yet, but having actual 4K games rather than upscaled 1080p will make them feel a whole lot better about their ultra-res purchase.
The lingering question, though, is whether PSVR is really made for PS Neo, and if anyone who picks up a headset to use with their first or second-gen PS4 is going to be horribly disappointed - either because games look like bum or because the most exciting stuff simply isn't released for the older hardware. If this isn't played right, it'd be a huge kick in the plums for VR. Unless, of course, Neo is a runaway success, but I suspect it'll take a few years before anything like a majority of existing PS4 users pick one up, especially as there'll now be suspicion that yet another hardware revision could be right around the corner.
To their credit, Sony are making the right noises so far, claiming that all the PSVR games shown at E3 were running on current-gen PS4s rather than the as-yet unseen Neo. "What we can say is that we have a fertile ground of 40m PS4s, all of which will run PlayStation VR," global head of marketing and sales Jim Ryan told MCV recently. Hopefully that's true, but I suppose PS4 Neo means they get a second crack at things if the first-gen PSVR experience is too much of a disappointment.
PS boss Andrew House has also claimed that plans are very much for the two PS4s to co-exist. "All games will support the standard PS4 and we anticipate all or a very large majority of games will also support the high-end PS4," he told the Financial Times earlier this month. Most of all, with PSVR due in October and Neo neither seen or having had full specs revealed as yet, there's a big chance that the facebox will be available far in advance of the new-gen PS4, and as such it's unlikely that it's been designed primarily for that.
If anything, I would guess at a more 4K-esque second gen of PSVR for PS4 Neo - either similar to the Vive and Rift specs or, ideally, even higher res, thus opening the doors to us getting second wave headsets on PC that escape the image quality disappointments of what's currently available. I would guess at that being at least two years away, however.
But the biggest black mark against PSVR is that both Sony and Microsoft have repeatedly failed to turn their consoles into anything more than traditional gaming boxes. Cameras and motion controllers and PVR features and movie stores and social hubs: none of it has really worked, with the exception of most everyone installing Netflix, Spotify and iPlayer apps.
The Wii broke through the wall because it was a brand new paradigm that brought in brand new people, but virtual reality, in its current forms at least, is too complicated, uncomfortable and, to some people, flat-out weird or even scary, to possibly do that. Even drilling down, does the Call of Duty or Destiny audience really care about it? They certainly didn't care about PS Move or Kinect. Perhaps Batman and Star Wars - and, if chatter is correct, even COD itself - will prove to be the deciders. The fact remains, though, that Sony are asking their audience to go out of their box + TV comfort zone and it remains to be seen if the promise of VR is enticing about to motivate that.
I hate to say it, because the PC's flexibility and power makes it a superior test bed with the potential for far better experiences, but I think VR's gaming future does depend heavily on PSVR: the best shot there is at easy, affordable, mass market hardware that'll sell the concept to the wider world. If it takes off it's good news for VR everywhere. If it doesn't, well, I fear it'll be quite some time before we see much from VR beyond watching porn on smartphones. Depending, of course, on what Apple might be up to.