Can Sony's Project Morpheus finally bring virtual reality to home console gaming?

Sony's virtual reality headset for the PlayStation 4 looks amazing, but it's hoping to succeed where many others have tried and failed. For Project Morpheus, it may be a long, hard road to success.

Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

Virtual reality is the holy grail of gaming. The ultimate in digital immersion -- at least, that is, until we can all get our own "Star Trek: TNG"-style holodeck. Complete visual entry into a computer-generated world was the stuff of fantasy in the '80s and a near reality in the '90s before being quickly being written off and mostly forgotten by the end of the century.

Now, thanks largely to the Oculus Rift, virtual reality is back in the public eye. Sony desperately wants to get in on that excitement, unveiling a concept device called Project Morpheus at the Game Developers Conference. It's the full-on VR experience for your PlayStation 4, but there's a problem: console accessories always fail.

You could fill a room (and indeed, I very nearly have) with misguided and poorly received add-ons from Nintendo alone. The Zapper, the Power Glove, the little R.O.B. robot, the giant Super Scope bazooka, the 64DD, the VRU...you get the picture. Microsoft's Kinect has been the rare success, not only selling millions but boosting sales of the Xbox 360 in the process. Sony is clearly hoping to do the same with Morpheus, but it won't be easy.

We've been here before

Sega VR
Sega

Fully immersive virtual reality has been the dream of video gamers since the beginning of gaming. It was the technology that would take decades to catch up to the ideal. Finally, in the early '90s, it looked like everything was coming together. Clever hackers crafted clunky home-brew systems and coded flat-shaded virtual worlds while "The Lawnmower Man" titillated audiences in theaters. At the peak of this hysteria came Sega VR, an accessory for the 16-bit Genesis that would finally bring virtual reality to the home.

Except that it didn't. After years of teasing, it was finally shown at the 1993 Summer CES to a crowd of eager attendees. Then, Sega VR disappeared. Sega blamed concerns about gamers getting too immersed in the experience and hurting themselves. In reality, the technology still wasn't good enough to deliver an enjoyable, nausea-free experience at the kind of cost required for a kid-oriented device. It would never be seen again, and within a few years most attempts at PC-based VR systems similarly faded from view.

The end of consumer VR? Yes -- for a generation, anyway. It was Oculus Rift, a very compelling project crafted of ski goggles, hot glue, and good ol' ingenuity, that finally made it OK for gamers to be excited about virtual reality again. Sony's Project Morpheus is very much attempting to cash in on that excitement.

With the availability of thin, light, high-resolution displays, access to oodles and oodles of raw graphics processing power, and a target audience that is older and wealthier than your average Genesis owner was in 1993, Project Morpheus is in a much better place than Sega VR ever could have hoped to be. Still, it must overcome the same basic hurdle that all console accessories face: people don't buy video game accessories.

The console accessory Catch-22

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Gamers don't buy expensive accessories because they usually only work with one or two games. Game developers don't write games that rely on expensive accessories because so few gamers have made the investment. This is the dilemma that has sunk many a compelling, innovative add-on over the years. If Sony isn't careful, the status quo will sink Project Morpheus, too.

While there have been limited successes over the years, Microsoft's Kinect is far and away the biggest. Originally called Project Natal, it launched late in the life of the Xbox 360, to give an aging console new legs. While it never really delivered any truly revolutionary gameplay experiences, it did capture the imagination of gamers, selling 8 million units in its first two months and causing Xbox sales to surge.

That was an impressive feat for a $150 device, showing that gamers are willing to pay a significant amount of money (just $50 less than the Xbox 360 itself at the time) for an accessory if it promises to deliver a revolutionary gameplay experience. You can be sure that Sony's marketing will be talking up an entirely new era of gaming when Project Morpheus is ready to come to market. And they'll have to really sell it, because a price anywhere near $150 seems very unlikely.

Cost

Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony currently sells a high-definition head-mounted display, the HMZ. It's futuristic and cool, and the kind of aspirational product that Sony loves to make and that we love to admire. It lacks head tracking and so is certainly not a virtual reality device, but it has an even bigger problem: it costs a thousand bucks.

This is a device intended to provide the ultimate, introverted, home-theater experience, and so is targeted at a very different market than Project Morpheus will ultimately attempt to penetrate. Still, Sony's going to have to find a way to pack even more technology into a similar headset and offer it at a significantly reduced cost.

Sony could take the route of subsidizing Morpheus, selling the thing for less than the manufacturing cost and hoping increased game sales cover the difference. Most consoles are priced in this way -- and it usually works out just fine in the end -- but accessories almost never are. Indeed, accessories are usually priced with very high profit margins to make up for the loss incurred on the console itself. Sony will absolutely want to make a profit here.

How cheap can Sony make the headset? Well, we have to look again at Oculus Rift. The latest version of that headset, Dev Kit 2, will cost just $350. That's an incredible bargain among head-mounted displays. Even if Sony can do better and sell this for $300, that's a substantial amount of money, more than a PlayStation Vita, and by the time Morpheus actually launches, quite possibly more than the PS4 itself.

Microsoft's response

Microsoft

If there's one sad reality that truly stands out for me regarding Project Morpheus, it's that Sony is effectively asking us to buy a proprietary display for our PlayStation 4. You'll probably be able to stream other content to the thing, maybe watch Blu-rays and downloaded films, but only through the PS4. It sure as heck won't work with the Xbox One. I have a hard time not likening this to buying an HDTV or set of speakers that only works with one source.

At some point in the future, gaming systems may indeed be built right in to virtual reality headsets like these, but for now it's a shame to make such a huge investment into a proprietary solution. A shame, that is, when the relatively open Oculus Rift is making such waves.

What's Microsoft to do? Well, it has three options. First, it could sit on the sidelines and hope that Morpheus is no more successful than PlayStation Home. That's the safe but short-sighted approach. Assuming the buzz around Morpheus continues, Microsoft will need to respond. Second, it could develop its own custom virtual reality headset and then spend a couple-hundred million dollars in marketing to tell the world how it's totally better than Sony's. That's the more expensive, and sadly, more likely approach.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

There's a third option: add support for the Oculus Rift to the Xbox One. This would make the process infinitely easier. And, since many developers are already tinkering with the things, it'd surely mean a much broader level of support (read: a lot more games) than Microsoft could get out of the gate with a new, proprietary solution.

Unfortunately for us, Microsoft wants to make money, and without a wholesale acquisition of Oculus VR, there'd be no direct revenue gained from increased sales of the Rift. More importantly, this would be Microsoft tying the competitive state of its console to an independent party. Given the rather casual approach Oculus VR has taken to determining a release date for a consumer version of the Rift, that's a solid reason for concern.

Patience advised

Virtual reality demo
Video screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

It's fun to think of the possibilities of Project Morpheus -- what the gaggle of talented indie developers who code for the PS4 could do with access to VR, how amazing the next Killzone would be, how nauseous you would get playing Gran Turismo 7, and whether this could finally make Home a happening place. But, do try to temper that enthusiasm somewhat, as it's clear we're still a long way away from this becoming a reality.

Sony has said that Project Morpheus won't be ready this year, and don't be surprised if it misses the next as well. As many Rift developers have learned, making VR games look and feel right is not an easy task. And Sony is going to have to work quite hard to get the cost down, which will also take time. Finally, remember that the PS3 soldiered on for seven years before being demoted. Sony will want the PS4 to last at least that long, and Project Morpheus might just be the perfect cure for a console mid-life crisis.

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About the author

Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to videogame development. Currently he pursues interesting stories and interesting conversations in the technology and automotive spaces.

 

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