PlayStation VR First Impressions
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As one of the first people to get their hands on a PlayStation VR, I thought I'd write down my impressions to help give others my feedback on this new technology.
Let me preface this by saying I'm a total PlayStation junkie - I've owned every PlayStation since the beginning. Some of my favourite games are Playstation games, like Chrono Cross and the Final Fantasy series. For me, the idea of playing games in 3D just opens up an immersive experience.
I kind of picture this being some kind of real-world Sword Art Online. Which, by the way, if you haven't seen that show, you should really get on that.
Unboxing The Beast
The first impression I had was when I was unpacking the box was that it was perfectly put together, and the box for the unit itself was nice enough that I could keep it for the (rare) occasions when I might want to travel with it.
The downside, however, is the number of cables involved. If you take a look at the image below, you can get an idea of how much hardware is actually involved.
The diagrams and instructions on how to put together the components of a PlayStation VR makes it fairly easy to get the whole thing set up, but it does feel a little clunky. Also, if you've got animals who love chewing on cords (cats, bunnies) you may need to beware!
How 3D Works
For those of you who are newbies to the concept of 3D, the basic nutshell of how 3D works is that you provide a different experience for each eye. When you go to a 3D movie, then you have glasses they give out that filter the image being projected onto the screen into the 2 inputs that your eyes should interpret.
By sending a different image to each eye, it gives your brain a closer experience to what you see in "real" life. When you're walking around looking at the world, you see things through 2 eyes that are set a little bit apart. Your eyes then focus in on a focal point, and when you change your focal point to look farther away or closer up then things at different focal points are blurry.
With games and movies that are in 3D, it's much more similar to real life in that you see a different experience for each eye. However it's still not 100% natural because in Virtual Reality, there's still a fixed focal point (you can't cross your eyes to change the focal point and bring it closer to you or farther away - that "zoom" effect). Also, in real life we look around by doing 2 things - moving our eyes only, or turning the whole head. In VR, it's not tracking your eyeballs themselves, it only tracks head motion - so you need to move your whole head around to change the direction you're "looking" in game. This is true of all VR experiences.
How VR Works
Virtual Reality goes a step further than 3D. In addition to presenting each eye with its own image, VR also lets you move around within a space. The images then react interactively with your movements.
The most obvious implication for this is, obviously, games - we are by definition always moving around within a game, getting something done.
But the other implication for VR is simply moving around within a movie. This is one of the more exciting possibilities for VR that has been way less hyped but for me was one of the most exciting aspects. You can actually film in the real world with a VR camera, or a 360 camera. You're probably already familiar with a 360 camera - that's the type of camera used in Google Maps when they go around taking the street view. But you can also use a 360 camera to shoot... just about anything. Ever went to a dome-style IMAX to watch an underwater scuba-diving adventure? Imagine scuba-diving in VR, being able to look around as the video plays and focus on the areas that really interest you. It's fascinating.
How the Playstation VR Works
To dig deeper into the hardware, it's helpful to understand how it all works. Since I couldn't find a good diagram for this online, I made one.
In a nutshell, your Playstation sends information to this little black box that I'm calling the Processing Unit via an HDMI cable. This processing unit can take any HDMI input - whether it's a 2D feed or 3D - and it then splits the signal into the 2 feeds you need to see for each eye.
The way that PlayStation VR understands your movement is actually quite "primitive" - it simply uses a camera that recognizes the colours on your VR headset and your controllers then it feeds that information back into the PlayStation. There are some VR headsets that use built-in gyroscopes instead - actual sensors that track your movement inside the headset itself. By using a camera instead, it actually gives a lot of flexibility because the possibilities for peripherals are pretty endless. By having designed the PlayStation controller from the beginning with this big blue band on it, you can use your vanilla PlayStation controller - no need to buy a new one.
The downside to this technology, however, is that there's a pretty restricted "play area" that you have to be sitting in. You've pretty much got to be 2 metres in front of the camera to make things work. My couch is closer to 3 metres away, and if I so much as shift from one side to the other PlayStation complains that I'm now out of the play area. I can't easily move my couch closer to my TV or mount the camera in a different place. I'm still trying to "figure" this one out.
First Impressions of PlayStation VR
Once I got everything set up, I was quite pleased by how easy it was to turn on and off the headset. Also, the headset itself is quite stylish and I feel cool in it. Not that it should be a must-be to be cool, but it certainly helps. The headset is also very comfortable, I was able to wear it on top of glasses and I could wear it for hours at a time. I also chose to put on my own headphones instead of using the earbuds, because the quality of my headphones is much higher.
When I first put the headset on and headed into VR, I had this wow moment where I was like, this is intense. I think the thing that was particularly intense for me was the sound and the music. It made the whole thing feel really immersive.
However the visuals took some getting used to. I had a lot of issues with things looking just a little blurry in an odd way - which I ended up learning how to fix. Also, I found the lack of anti-aliasing to be distracting. I had expected things to be low-res but the jagged edges on things resulted in a lot of artifacts when moving my head around.
Let's take a more deep-dive into the different types of experiences I played around with.
Playing 3D VR Games
Rez Infinite is a game that is just kind of an immersive experience where you're rushing through this environment shooting down these bosses that are created out of blocks. This was one of my favourites actually because the music was beating in time with the visuals in a very pleasing way, so I found myself kind of dancing in place. However the controls were relying on you moving your head to aim the gun to shoot, the movement of the head was not moving around within the environment, so it was a rather non-traditional use of the VR experience.
Here They Lie is a horror game that, I'll admit, I didn't get terribly far in. You are kind of wandering around, walking very slow through your environment. You can flick on and off your flashlight and as you move your head around you look around your environment. The movement felt a little strange since you have to keep clicking on the movement controllers to be able to change the direction that you're walking in - this is a common one, I found, Bound also uses this mechanic but a bit more gracefully.
However the thing that freaked me out about Here They Lie is that within about 30 seconds to a minute of trying out this game, I got killed, and the way I got killed was so frightening that I was like, nononononooooo. I did not want to die again. My heart actually flew out of my chest. So only the brave need play!
Bound is a beautiful game that lets you dance through this environment, doing some mild gymnastics. The majority of the game is dancing and running around from one place to another, with the premise of finding some help to fight this bad guy that's trying to destroy this world. In one word, you could call this game beautiful. In terms of experience, and gameplay, this may have been my favourite - but the story ended up falling flat for me. It ended up feeling repetitive rather quick.
Eve: Valkyrie is probably the "biggest" title that's out right now for release. I only had a chance to play the demo of this game, but from what I could tell the VR experience lends itself really well to this style. Eve: Valkyrie is a space game, based on the iconic Eve, but more limited in the sense that you're really just flying around in a spaceship shooting down enemies. Presumably if you play past the demo, you'll be able to customize your own spaceship and go a lot further with it. I definitely plan on buying this title, even though it wasn't the first on my list that I wanted to try.
The weird and kind of awesome thing about this game is that there is total separation between where you look and where you go. I can tilt my head around and look around in my environment, but my hands are still defining the direction of the craft. I did find the controls quite confusing, so that put me off at first and I decided to go off and play some "easy" games before coming back to this one.
Playing 2D Games on PlayStation VR
Since I'm in the middle of playing a couple of vanilla 2D games, I thought, let's try out actually just using the headset as a screen to play 2D games.
Basically what happens when you watch any 2D content on your VR headset, whether it's a movie or a game, or just navigating the PS menu, it projects the 2D content onto a frame in space. You can "reset" this screen if you choose to move around so that it snaps back to your viewframe.
Playing a 2D game was really difficult at first, mostly because I had real issues being able to read. I had problems with blurry vision, which I later learned how to fix by adjusting the settings for the distance between your eyes. In retrospect I'd recommend this be done first thing so you don't struggle like I did for so long! But because I'm playing Star Ocean, a Japanese game, I prefer to have the audio in Japanese and use subtitles. Also, there's lots and lots of text in lots of menus in this game. I have a feeling most 3D VR games are not going to be text-heavy but I found I struggled a lot with the text size.
Other than the text, though, I really enjoyed just how immersive it felt to have the stereo audio and the screen close to me. What I didn't like was the pixellation. Even with the text on menus, I found I had to turn my head to look at the text to read it right. So in the end I abandoned using the headset for this game and went back to my giant TV.
This game in particular plays a lot like a PS3 game - and the further back you go the more they relied on menus to pass on the relevant information.
I would like to try and play a game like Destiny instead, that is more immersive by nature and that is done from a first-person perspective. Destiny on VR would be crack.
Watching VR Movies
Before I kind of randomly discovered this on the demo disc, I never even knew that there was such a thing as VR movies. There's a free app you can download called Within, and you can watch several movies for free then you can buy others.
I watched a movie taken by an Indonesian fisherman where he was showing off some coral reefs and talking about land preservation and how he got involved with that. It's a very joyful and positive film, focusing on his relationship with his son. I loved being able to turn my head around and look at whatever part of the room was interesting to me while I was watching the movie.
For me, this is one of the least talked about but hugest implications of the VR experience. Watching films in 3D is crazy cool. I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing immersive music videos and short films. I am particularly looking forward to Japanese band L'arc-en-ciel's immersive 3D zombie music video. Because, yes. Japanese Zombies in 3D.
Bringing It All Together
To summarize my whole experience, I'd say overall it's a positive one. I love the hardware, even though getting it set up at first is a bit eek. I was mildly disappointed with the lack of anti-aliasing, though I hold out hopes that software patches in future may improve this. I liked some 3D titles, but I'm really holding out for some other titles that are coming like the dinosaur adventure Robinson: The Journey.
If you're eagerly awaiting the PlayStation VR, then I'd recommend you buy it, but otherwise it won't really be until end of 2016 or beginning of 2017 that we start to see the really exciting titles come out.
I am also really waiting to see a Fantasy title on this gear. So far, I've seen a lot of shooters on the way, lots of puzzle games. Tomb Raider has a VR mode - I'll give this one a shot to see how it works out. I personally can't wait to play a VR version of Final Fantasy or Sword Art Online. Or (hold my breath) another Chrono game!