GamesBeat

Virtual reality: Sony’s refreshingly honest thoughts on Oculus Rift, not needing triple-A, and similarities to the Wii U (exclusive)

Project Morpheus

Above: The PlayStation 4's Project Morpheus virtual-reality headset.

Image Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment

Historically, Sony executives don’t directly acknowledge their competitors all that often — at least to the public and to media. Shuhei Yoshida, however, sure doesn’t mind talking about the Oculus Rift.

That could be because the president of Worldwide Studios for Sony Computer Entertainment doesn’t seem to consider the upcoming virtual-reality (VR) headset to be a rival to his company’s (also upcoming) Project Morpheus. In fact, he thinks the upstart Oculus platform, which raised $2.4 million via crowdsourcing on Kickstarter, could help out Sony’s own VR efforts when Project Morpheus lands on that little-known console called the PlayStation 4.

Yoshida has some rather interesting opinions on the Oculus Rift, almost seeing it and Project Morpheus teaming up in this new, near-future VR market. You may also be surprised to hear that he’s not really looking for big-name games to help prop up Morpheus on the PS4, which is contrary to popular thinking. Triple-A software can sell new hardware, but Yoshida actually has his eyes on the indies to help get gamers excited about Sony’s VR set. And, in some ways, he’s even comparing the system to Nintendo’s Wii U console.

Read why in our exclusive interview.

GamesBeat: You told me that you don’t necessarily view the Oculus Rift as a competitor. Why not?

Shuhei Yoshida

Above: Shuhei Yoshida

Image Credit: Mast Photography

Shuhei Yoshida: VR … I was telling my people that it’s going to be like PlayStation 1 was to 3D real-time graphics for games. PS1 was the very first console that allowed developers to use realtime 3D rendering tech to make games. Initially, they were very limited arcade games, like Ridge Racer or Virtua Fighter. People weren’t sure how 3D graphics could be used for games. Some people at the large Japanese publishers were very skeptical about 3D graphics tech. But after 20 years, things have really progressed. We have amazing games like The Last of Us or Journey or Beyond — games that use 3D realtime rendering for a variety of things.

When I look at VR, it’s still very early. It’s not even starting in a real way. When we launch Project Morpheus, or when they launch Oculus as a consumer product, I can see another 20 years of progress for all kinds of things. I feel like what Mark Zuckerberg [CEO of Facebook, which recently acquired Oculus for $2B] is saying — he’s looking more at a future vision of what this can be, rather than the initial or second year.

We are still really trying to define or discover what works and what’s required for the hardware tech. Our team feels that we’re getting closer, but there are certain things that still have to be improved to make a good consumer product. The Oculus guys are saying the same thing. Even their DK2 [development kit 2] is pretty good, but still, they see some other areas they still have to work on.

So in trying these things, we are kind of helping each other. For example, DK2 has low persistence. It’s pretty good. We don’t have that. What we have is the 3D audio worked out … how we’re going to mix that and make it much easier, more comfortable to wear, for the PlayStation Move interaction that’s integrated with the headset. The positional tracking.

We’re pushing different things. Like everything in engineering, once someone does it, it’s common knowledge. Engineers, when they see that another person has done it, that elevates their perspective to push further. At this stage, we’re helping each other and trying to find solutions to a lot of problems that we’re trying to solve.

That’s the very basic way I look at the Oculus. That’s the technical side of things. Even though we don’t work with each other directly, we’re helping each other as far as announcing something or showing a proof of concept or publishing some documents or something like that.

GamesBeat: How about outside of technical considerations?

Yoshida: Another area is just creating buzz. We’ve been in stealth mode developing this for a few years. But we’ve been doing it behind closed doors. Oculus was out there in the public eye. They announced the Kickstarter and showed off their handmade prototypes and sold a lot of DK1s to developers. Developers got started making some interesting stuff. By creating and showing this proof of concept to the world, that really helped lots of people to say, “Wow, VR can be possible pretty soon.” That awareness and outreach to developers are really helping us as we introduce the Project Morpheus dev kit.

Lots of people are already making games on PC using Oculus. Those people are almost prototyping for Project Morpheus. Many people might be still thinking, “It’s fun to work with this tech, but can this be a real business? Can we put lots of resources into this and complete a game and make money back?” By having two players catering to both PC and PS4, developers feel it’s a bit less risky to make this investment. Even though indie guys are very passionate people who might do this just for the sake of it, showing them the two different platforms where they’ll eventually be able to release their game — that reduces their risk in development. That’s another area where we help each other instead of competing with each other.

GamesBeat: Isn’t it strange that a company like Sony that’s been around a very long time in the technology space is forming a sort of symbiotic relationship with a small, upstart company that got its start from Kickstarter?

Yoshida: No, no. We’re very small, really. Project Morpheus may be a similar size compared to the Oculus guys. We have a larger organization and tech that we can reach, so that’s a benefit for us, and the capital that we have … now, with venture money and Facebook money, they have a lot of that, too.

But Project Morpheus has been a very small R&D project. So in that sense, Project Morpheus has always felt like a venture operation. They’re financially supported by [Sony Computer Entertainment], but it’s in the spirit of a startup company. We’re not making a new product for an existing market. We’re trying to break into something that doesn’t exist yet.

GamesBeat: Sony is obviously a big company with a lot of resources, but do you think Oculus has an edge when it comes to brand recognition in the consumer-VR market at this point? Especially because you don’t even have a final name for Project Morpheus yet.

Yoshida: No, I don’t think so. Lots of people, smart people, send tweets to me. It’s very interesting and informative. Someone tweeted me a link to an article that showed, OK, so VR is a big thing. Facebook, Oculus, Sony were all talking about it at [the 2014 Game Developers Conference].

But is VR mass market? I forget where this article was, but it showed the buzz around Oculus and Morpheus compared to Xbox or PlayStation or the iPhone. It’s still tiny — the amount of buzz around the world. So I don’t think we should be worried about brand recognition yet. Project Morpheus is project name. We don’t even have a brand as yet.

Oculus Rift DK2

Above: The current iteration of Oculus Rift.

Image Credit: Oculus VR

GamesBeat: Moving forward, how will Sony end up positioning Project Morpheus? As you said, it offers a lot of similarities to Oculus. You’re going after some of the same games in the same market. How do you position it so that it stands out as more of a unique product?

Yoshida: I don’t think anyone knows as yet. In general, I think everyone agrees that the gaming market is really the first to catch on. Because PS4 is a console, it’s a very stable platform. Every single consumer has the exact same hardware. Millions of people are buying PS4s. We can introduce this to PS4 users as a very consumer-friendly proposition.

PS4 users are 99 percent gamers, right? It just makes sense, from the type of experience standpoint, and the already existing, very passionate user-base standpoint, to start positioning [Project Morpheus] as a new way to play games.

But at the same time, we’d like to explore different partnerships or collaborations with different industries. We already showed our work with NASA. There’s lots of interest inside and outside Sony from people who are creating 360-degree video. Those kinds of services already exist. Watching video that’s shot in 360 degrees or live video that’s being transmitted to other people to watch — that’ll be a really good fit.

That’s the kind of thing we’d like to explore, even if we don’t know what the business model might be at this point. As long as we have the resources to work with these companies, we’d like to try out some new ideas that look promising. When we see any of these becoming real consumer propositions, or if it looks like they will, we’ll have to come up with some good business models for them. But we already have, on PS4, many video services and applications in addition to games. We have a way to distribute or serve these services to consumers via PS4.

GamesBeat: Traditionally, when you launch a new platform, you want to get triple-A brands behind it: big-publisher or big-name games, some franchise hits, killer apps. But when we last talked, you seemed less concerned about getting those to help sell Project Morpheus. You seemed more excited about more creative independent projects.

Yoshida: Yeah, it’s totally different. There are two or three ways to explain that – some positive, some kind of negative.

In a positive sense, I don’t think the big brands and successful games transfer well to VR, unless you really spend time working on creating the VR experience. For the effort that takes, to create a great VR experience, it’s the same whether you start with a big brand or not.

It’s very nice to have some VR experiences around a brand like Call of Duty. We showed a demo related to God of War, and that may attract people’s attention. But unless the experience is comparable, people would rather move toward some new thing that really captures the potential of VR. That’s what I’m talking about when I say that I’m not worried about getting all those big brands. I am really worried about whether we’re going to get great experiences, wherever they can come from.

The other example to explain this is, when games on Facebook became a thing, there were some companies that tried to use existing [intellectual properties] there. Some companies really believed that was the way to dominate that market — or even the mobile gaming market. But the experiences that were created [specifically] for a particular medium were the ones that became the most successful – FarmVille or Clash of Clans or Puzzle & Dragons. None of these games used existing IP. And they’re even more similar to existing games than VR.

VR is way more different, in my mind. It’ll take lots of effort to create new experiences for VR. That has to be the number-one priority. If it has some existing IP, that’s great, but even if it doesn’t, people who are interested in VR will see what’s the best experience for this new medium. Those people will find new IP.

GamesBeat: How do people discover these new experiences? VR is more of an inaccessible platform.

Yoshida: Absolutely.

GamesBeat: It’s only meant for one person at a time. The person who’s wearing it is the only one who gets the full experience. How do you sell that to consumers without putting a headset on every one of them to try out?

Yoshida: That’s a huge challenge. For one, we have to try to take any opportunity to demonstrate our system and let new people try it out. That’s another area where we can help each other with Oculus. Anyone who has a good time using either Project Morpheus or Oculus will now understand and have high expectations for the future of VR. The number of people who try out either of these systems at this point is a plus for both of us.

The other thing is what we’re calling the “social screen” for Project Morpheus. The PS4 is connected to this small box called the processor unit, and that splits the output. One goes to the head-mount unit and the other looks like a conventional video game screen.

The PS4 is rendering these two distorted images that everyone’s familiar with when you see an Oculus demonstration on the PC. It’s like two circular displays [that, when combined, create the full-screen VR view]. That’s what the PS4 is rendering, and it’s sent to the head-mount unit. But this processor unit takes one image for every frame, and it’s undistorted. The processor unit has actual processor capability to compute a straight image and send it out to the TV.

GamesBeat: It flattens the image out.

Yoshida: Yeah, yeah. If you’re using Project Morpheus, other people around you can pretty clearly see what you’re watching, even though it’s not quite the same experience. That’s what you saw at GDC.

The London Studio guys suggested that they wanted a second screen that looked normal, so they could design a game such that the people wearing the headset can play with other people who are watching. It’s like a Wii U game. One person may be running away while all the others might be trying to catch Mario. It’s that asymmetrical gameplay.

For [Project Morpheus game] The Deep, we didn’t show this at GDC, but the demo is designed so that people watching can use a tablet and draw a line to instruct the sea turtle where to appear and swim around the cage. The shark is attracted and chases the turtle. People watching can influence the experience along with the people who are wearing the display by leading the shark and showing it where to appear. Something like that — that’s designed into the system very easily.

GamesBeat: Let’s say there are a few people in the living room. One person is using the headset and is immersed in the VR world. So would it be possible for the others to use a PlayStation 4 controller to interact with the screen and also play with the VR player?

Yoshida: Yeah. The game has to be designed so that the person wearing the headset isn’t looking around too much. They might be focused on looking forward, so that the people watching [from the outside] can see the game scene as well. The other people can use a controller to have an impact. It’ll be up to the game designers. But at this point, the prototype only allows the same image to be split like this.

GamesBeat: That second image always has to be what the VR player is looking at?

Yoshida: Yeah. If you want to create a Wii U-like experience, you’d need to use a second screen, like a smartphone or a tablet or a PS Vita.