SAN FRANCISCO -- Sony trotted out a new prototype of its virtual-reality headset, code-named Project Morpheus, bringing it a step closer to final release, which the company says won't happen until 2016.
The new device, unveiled at the Game Developers Conference here Tuesday, looks similar to the initial prototype, but Sony says it includes technical improvements that will give consumers a better experience.
"This looks like last year's model, but under the hood we've put a lot of improvements," said Shuhei Yoshida, the president of the company's Worldwide Studios for Sony Computer Entertainment. Yoshida added that this version of Morpheus "is close to the final consumer product."
Some of the enhancements include a new 5.7-inch display that is twice as fast as its predecessor, and responds to movement in half the time. The result is what Yoshida says is a device that produces virtual-reality experiences that are not easy to differentiate from the real world.
Virtual reality is now a highlight at the year's biggest tech and game gatherings -- and it's practically , typically thought of as a meeting place for developers to talk design and technique. Sony unveiled Morpheus at last year's GDC, making it the first virtual-reality device from one of the industry's largest game makers.
Sony's new concept now contains a revamped design, including the ability to push Morpheus off to the right side of your face to peer into the real world, rather than taking the entire headset off.
The device, Sony said, will be made available to customers in the first half of next year, though the company didn't say how much it will cost.
VR no longer a niche
Before Sony unveiled Morpheus, VR looked like a niche, dominated by promising startups but still a sideshow to the $77 billion game industry, which focuses on titles largely played on televisions and computer monitors. With Sony's device, virtual reality became a star of the show.
Shortly after,. That acquisition signaled to tech companies everywhere that VR wasn't going to lose its sheen after sucking up millions of dollars in investment, as it did in the early '90s before fading back into science fiction.
"Because Facebook is behind it, I think people will keep plugging away until they get it right," said Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities.
A whirlwind of activity has followed since the Facebook-Oculus deal. Mobile giant Samsung has introduced $250 VR goggles that cradle its Galaxy smartphones, and Google has parlayed a strange cardboard DIY headset project into VR partnerships with LG and toymaker Mattel. Even Microsoft has some skin in the game, albeit with a so-called augmented-reality headset, the HoloLens, which was unveiled in January and which can overlay 3D images onto everyday scenes.
Even Mobile World Congress, where the world's largest smartphone makers show off devices in Barcelona at this time every year, is a growing showcase for new VR. Valve, the software maker known for the Half-Life game series and the Steam online store, teamed up with HTC to create the Vive VR headset, which was . Valve is expected to reveal more details about its SteamVR platform for virtual-reality games Wednesday in San Francisco.
While new hardware is rolling out at an ever faster clip, the applications for VR, too, are beginning to expand. Beyond games, virtual worlds are finding their place in film, sports, education and even health care. "It's naive to think this will be games only," Pachter added.
Camera maker Jaunt, for instance, records 360-degree scenes using a tetrahedral, omnidirectional microphone. The result is a sometimes terrifyingly realistic experience, as was the case with "Black Mass," a short film from "Paranormal Activity 5" director Greg Plotkin thatearlier this week . Oculus, too, is getting involved in film with Story Studio, its dedicated in-house production studio that brought its in January.
What Morpheus feels like now
When it comes to VR's biggest roadblocks to making it to the mainstream, two issues are front and center -- comfort and software.
Sony has come a long way in addressing how Morpheus is worn and what it feels like. Besides the new prototype's slideable display, the device also reorients the headset's strap to hug the sides of your head, rather than awkwardly running a piece of Velcro down the middle of your scalp. The result, from my hands-on experience Tuesday, was easily the most comfortable VR experience to date, with Oculus' Crescent Bay prototype a close second.
In terms of the VR image quality and feelings of motion, Morpheus feels the closest to being able to sustain a longer-term gaming experience thanks to its upgraded innards, though it's far from perfect. I played The Heist, a short demo produced by Sony's London studio, that positioned me at the mercy of a thuggish character preparing to torture information out of me. When my captor moved in close to my face and shouted, I was simultaneously amused by how real it seemed and startled by the tinge of fear I felt.
What followed was a flashback sequence with a pulse-pounding gunfight, the first I've experienced in virtual reality and a veritable hair-raiser capable of converting the biggest of VR skeptics. (I died spectacularly, with gunshots coming from an unknown location until splotches of red filled the screen.) Beyond the look and feel of The Heist, the demo is also where Sony's real competitive advantage shined through: the PlayStation Move controllers.
Unlike Oculus, Sony has its own motion-control remotes, which resemble glowing microphones, that introduce sharp and reliable hand motions to the VR gameplay. I was able to rifle through drawers, pick up a firearm with one hand, load it with ammo with the other and begin fending off armed guards through tactical crouching and peeking out from cover.
The hand motion-control element of Morpheus is bound to be a strong selling point for Morpheus, despite its restriction to the PlayStation platform. While Oculus has long invited other companies and developers to use its hardware and develop their own applications, Sony is restricting Morpheus to its console, giving it more control over its VR platform but putting more responsibility in the company's hands to ensure there are games to play when Morpheus arrives.
And Sony has yet to announce any official titles.
"Nobody buys a piece of gaming hardware because they think it looks cool," said Lewis Ward, an analyst at research firm IDC. "Until there's a great experience to go along with it, the hardware simply opens the door." For Ward, the cost, release date or comfort aspects of consumer VR are secondary to what gets us pulling out our wallets in the first place. "That's the chicken-or-the-egg problem."
Not until the Electronic Entertainment Expo, the game industry's biggest conference taking place in Los Angeles in June, will we likely see any big-name developers come forward with VR exclusives.