Sony has the most refined design of any virtual reality headset on the market, and it’s the one I would most likely recommend to VR rookies — even if it have a few serious problems.
PlayStation VR is a $500 virtual reality system from Sony Interactive Entertainment. It requires a $300 PlayStation 4, and it ships October 13. With this head-mounted display, Sony joins companies like Oculus and HTC in the high-end VR space — but the publisher actually undercuts those competitors in terms of price when you include the necessary PC required to power the $600 Oculus Rift and $800 Vive.
Sony has spent the last year hyping PSVR, and now the immersive digital experience is here. And while I still think the PC-based options give you a better experience and more ways to experiment and tinker, Sony has delivered a package that is simple, relatively easy to set up, and good enough.
What you’ll like
The PSVR is a far more impressive piece of consumer electronics than either the Rift or the Vive. It looks sleek and futuristic, with a white-and-black plastic shell and glowing blue lights that track movements. Where the Oculus and the Vive look like they were put together by engineers, the PSVR design looks like it comes from artists.
But I don’t mean to disparage engineers — especially anyone who worked on the PSVR. This headset’s design distributes its weight all around your head using a halo-like crown that wearers can adjust with the press of a button. Once that is in place, you can tighten it with a dial that produces a satisfying clicking sound as you turn past each notch. And then you can pull the display over your eyes using another button.
All of these actions are smooth and elegant, and they really make you feel like you’re putting on a piece of sci-fi military equipment. And that puts Rift and Vive to shame.
Sharp screen and top-shelf optics
The impressive engineering applies to the inside of the device as well. I’ve used the Rift and Vive headsets for months now, and while those machines have some clear advantages, PSVR’s display definitely keeps pace.
Something about the PSVR looks crisper and cleaner than the competition when you’re not moving your head a lot. It still has distortion on the outer edges of the screen, and you can see the pixels and some noise if you are looking for it. Edges also go jaggy when you begin swiveling your view, but objects and text pop with clarity — and that’s important in gaming.
The screen is so good when you aren’t doing a lot of motion that I am digging the PSVR’s virtual theater mode. This brings games and apps — really, the entire PS4 experience — into a giant simulated display that sits a few feet in front of you. I played multiple levels of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, and I watched an episode of Designated Survivor on Hulu. Games, television, and movies all come out looking as if they’re equivalent to a 720P monitor, and I was willing to lose a tiny bit of resolution to get the effect of playing through Infinity Ward’s classic Modern Warfare levels on a movie screen.
Now, the display doesn’t reproduce colors particularly well when it comes to non-VR content, but it’s close. And for first-gen VR tech, I’m blown away.
Fully tracked gamepad
Many PSVR games support Move controllers that track the motion of each of your hands. That’s great in many situations, but sometimes you are going to end up playing a game that uses the DualShock 4 controller — and the PS4 can track that as well.
The DS4 has a lightbar, and that means the camera can see where it is in 3D space. This enables games to re-create the controller in the simulation with you, so you can see it at all times. That’s extraordinarily helpful, and it also makes the world more immersive.
Sony knows that it has a chance to do something different with how it implements VR because it has a console that is also connected to a television that is probably in your family room. To take advantage of that, the publisher has the “social screen.” This mirrors all the action of what the person in VR is seeing on the TV. But it can also sometimes produce an asymmetrical VR experience where someone on the TV is doing one thing in the world while the player in VR is doing something else. That has a lot of potential for party games, but I also just appreciate that someone walking into the room can see what I’m doing so they don’t just assume I’m simulating something filthy.
What you won’t like
Tracking is imprecise
PSVR isn’t cutting-edge in all aspects. The underlying tech that powers the tracking is the generation-old Move concept that Sony built to compete with Nintendo’s Wii motion controllers. The company has upgraded the camera, but it does not compare favorable to what others in the space are doing.
The end result is that PSVR can sorta tell where you’re holding the Move wand, the DualShock 4 controller, or your head in 3D space, but it’s nowhere near the precision you get with Vive or Rift. HTC’s controllers, for example, are about as accurate as a standard PC mouse. That means the SteamVR-powered hardware can sense millimeter changes in position. PSVR isn’t anywhere close to that.
Instead, Sony’s tracking always feels off. In the VR world, the DualShock 4 often looks like it is sitting 6 inches or sometimes even a full foot away from where you’re holding it. It is also constantly jittering as the CPU and camera struggle to calculate its values in an X, Y, and Z matrix.
This breaks the illusion of VR so often that I don’t know if I even once felt presence in a PSVR game. It’s difficult for a game to sweep me away when I pick up a lighter and it starts floating off wildly into the distance.
Broken tracking will test your patience
PSVR doesn’t just struggle with accuracy; its tracking often falls apart if you’re not in ideal conditions.
When the camera loses track of the headset, games will always flip out. Even when the system hasn’t lost my position, I occasionally get a warning about moving out of the play area. I see that most often when I try to sit on the couch in front of my TV — that’s frustrating. And when the headset is working fine, you still have other points of failure like the DualShock 4 or Move. It is infuriating when you go to pick something up in a game and your digital hand stops moving suddenly because the camera inexplicably loses the position of your real-life hand.
But the tracking issues get worse.
In multiple games, I’ve experienced an awful sensation where the tracking is wrong. For example, when I lean forward, the in-game world should compensate by only leaning back and forth. Instead, many games will interpret my motion as also moving side-to-side. So I get this head-swimming sensation that I’m on some sort of sailboat on the high seas. This happened to me over and over in multiple games and with multiple camera placements.
I finally was able to minimize that horrible effect, but it required me to set my camera far below my television on a separate stand. And, even then, I still notice some unwanted lateral motion as I move my head around.
You have to confine yourself to its limitations
All of those tracking issues really highlight the worst thing about PlayStation VR: you need to adjust your furniture and everything in your life around its limited capabilities. That might sound similar to what you have to do with the HTC Vive, but it’s not the same thing at all.
The Vive is capable of doing something called “room-scale VR.” It requires you to set up two light-tower base stations in a space as large as 10 feet-by-10 feet. For most people, this means you’re going to need to move couches and tables to make space in order to take advantage of that feature.
With the PSVR, you are limited to a much smaller “play area.” This is a sweet zone that is about 5 feet from the camera. Once you get to about 10 feet away, the entire system breaks down. This, too, will likely require you to move chairs and tables so that you can get in front of the camera.
The difference between the two is that with the Vive, you’re moving furniture because of what’s possible. With PSVR, you’re moving furniture because what isn’t possible. And I’m willing to rearrange my family room to get the most from an amazing new technology, but I’m less enthusiastic about plopping a chair down in in the middle of my room to try to coax a decent experience out of a temperamental piece of equipment.
Move controllers feel terrible
Even when tracking the tracking is working and is good enough (and “good enough” might as well be the motto for PSVR), the Move controllers are garbage. I like that Sony has a way for me to bring my hands into VR, but you never quite hold the controller in the same way that you hold anything inside of the simulations. Manipulating items like a gun or phone never feels right. Sony made only one correct way to hold the Move, and that doesn’t translate well to mimicking manual dexterity.
The result is that when you do go to hold the Move out in front of you as if it were a gun, the wand feels awkward and uncomfortable.
It should have built-in earphones
I already talked up the design of the PSVR, but I am bummed out that Sony did not follow Oculus’s lead when it comes to audio. To get sound with the headset, you need to plug in earphones or buds into a port that sits on the cable between the device and the PS4. I’m getting tangled in this mess of cords all the time.
As beautiful as PSVR is, I would love it if Sony would’ve built headphones into the headset. That would streamline the entire experience.
PlayStation VR has some serious issues. Tracking is subpar, the screen doesn’t look as great in motion, and I even found the rubber flaps that block light leakage around your nose uncomfortable. But despite all of that, Sony has done what it needed to do with this product. It has made a high-end VR system that is good enough for most people while also coming in at a far more affordable price than the competition.
Now, I originally said in my impressions for the PSVR before finishing this review that it is is “probably the VR headset that most people should get.” And I think that is potentially still the case with some major caveats. If you already own a PlayStation 4, a PlayStation Camera, and Move controllers, then I think getting into a serviceable VR solution at $400 for the Core model is probably the right thing for you to do.
If you want the best that VR has to offer, however, Sony is not going to give that to you. In that case, you’re better off putting your money toward the Vive or Oculus Rift and its Touch controllers.
Sony provided GamesBeat with a sample PSVR for the purposes of this review. PSVR launches October 13.