PlayStation VR: What you need to know

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Sony's PlayStation 4 console is designed to display games on big flatscreen TVs. But come next summer, you'll be able to add a virtual reality headset and explore game worlds in a full 360 degrees. It's called PlayStation VR.

While we don't yet know how much a headset will cost, we're liking what we've seen: so far, PlayStation VR is shaping up to be the simplest, most comfortable way to experience high-end virtual reality games.

We got our latest glimpse at PlayStation VR at Sony's PlayStation Experience event on December 5 in San Francisco. Here's what we know from our hands-on.

The headset

  • 5.7-inch 1080p OLED display
  • 100-degree field of view
  • 120Hz refresh rate

Like the Oculus​ Rift and HTC Vi​ve, the other two high-profile virtual reality systems you should expect to see on shelves in 2016, the PlayStation VR is a tethered headset that uses special curved lenses to magnify and stretch a 5.7-inch screen across your field of vision.

Like those other headsets, it also uses a host of sensors to tell which way your head is pointing at all times. That way, no matter where you look (even if you turn around and look behind you), you see the portion of a virtual world that you'd expect to see if you were actually there, looking at it with your own eyes.

The PlayStation VR headset.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Even though PlayStation VR is pretty similar to the Oculus Rift, it's by no means the same. For one thing, it's a shiny white headset with glowing blue LEDs and a Tron-like vibe.

For another, the PlayStation VR is exclusive to Sony's PlayStation 4, whereas the Rift needs to connect to a Windows desktop gaming PC to power the games inside. Early estimates suggest that the minimum system requirements for a Rift-ready PC could easily cost at least $800 in the US, while a PlayStation 4 console now retails for $350.

The Rift and Vive benefit from the extra horsepower of a gaming PC, however. I'd say the virtual worlds we've seen in the latest Oculus and Vive have generally looked a little crisper and more life-like than the ones in Sony's latest prototypes, though PlayStation VR has also improved since the first time we saw it.

Sony has far more experience building consumer electronics (including earlier headsets) than its competitors, and it shows in the PlayStation VR's comfortable design. The well-padded headset easily and securely cinches up to your head, just by turning a clicky, bike-helmet like dial on the back of the device.

The front section, the part that goes over your eyes, can slide towards your face or away from it with the press of a button. That means it can easily accommodate people who wear glasses, or allow you to briefly peek at the real world around you without fully removing the headset from your skull.

Adjusting the headset to fit.

Nate Ralph/CNET

By comparison, the latest version of the Oculus Rift feels a little lighter on your head -- and includes built-in headphones -- but its three velcro-covered straps are a little trickier to adjust right now.

The PlayStation VR plugs into your PS4 with a breakout box that includes an HDMI splitter, so you can hook up the headset and a TV at the same time. That way, friends and family can see a portion of what you're seeing, and play certain kinds of games together. One new demo in Sony's The Playroom had me play as a ghostbuster, but I couldn't see the ghosts -- my buddies had to call them out.

The controllers

  • DualShock 4 gamepad for many games
  • PlayStation Move wand controllers to simulate hands
  • PlayStation Camera to track everything

How do you control yourself while using PlayStation VR? So far, Sony's been showing the headset off with some controllers you might already be familiar with: the PlayStation Camera, DualShock 4 gamepad and the wand-like PlayStation Move motion controllers that were designed for the last-generation PlayStation 3 console nearly five years ago.

The camera can track the bright blue LEDs on the headset and the ones in the gamepad as well as the PlayStation Move wands simultaneously: we've seen up to one headset and two controllers at a time.

A pair of PlayStation Move controllers in use.

Nate Ralph/CNET

The wands mean you can not only turn your head in a virtual world, but also have a pair of basic hands to pick up and drop virtual objects, fire virtual guns or manipulate all kinds of virtual tools. Problem is, at least in the demos we've tried, the PlayStation Move controllers haven't been particularly great at that job.

While the HTC Vive's prototype motion controllers are responsive enough to let you literally juggle virtual pots and pans (no kidding) and the Oculus Rift's upcoming Oculus Touch controllers feel pretty fantastic, too, I've frequently failed to pick up virtual items with the Move.

It's worth noting that last we'd heard, Sony hadn't decided whether the Move would be the final controller for PlayStation VR, though. Sony may be working on a different controller. And the Oculus Touch won't be available when the Oculus Rift ships, either: instead, Sony's competitor will ship with an Xbox 360 gamepad.

The games

  • EVE: Valkyrie
  • Job Simulator
  • More to come

The PlayStation VR doesn't convert existing PS4 games to virtual reality. It's a new platform that requires games of its own. And while Sony's mostly been showing off tech demos (not games), there do seem to be a decent number of games on the way as of December 2015.

Perhaps the highest-profile VR announcement at PlayStation Experience was Ace Combat 7, the latest entry in Namco Bandai's long-running series of action flight sims. That's a major game developer committing to a game that'll be exclusive to PlayStation VR.

Ubisoft, another major developer, will be contributing a title called Eagle Flight where you soar like a bird over Paris. Announcements for a new VR-exclusive adventure based on the cult classic Psychonauts and a VR remake of the hit rhythm shooter Rez also got cheers from the audience when announced at the PlayStation Experience keynote in San Francisco.

In my experience though, there are already two VR games pretty far along in development that you won't want to miss: Eve: Valkyrie and Job Simulator. I'd go so far as to say they could be killer apps for virtual reality -- reasons you might run out and buy a VR headset to begin with.

Eve: Valkyrie is an incredibly immersive space dogfighting game, one that puts you in the cockpit of a fast-moving fighter and does it damnedest to convince you that you're actually there. Your armed-to-the-teeth space capsule is filled with holographic user interfaces and physical controls that float right in front of your eyes, looking pretty darn realistic if you ask me.

You can turn your head, look up, down and even over your shoulder to keep a bead on your foes as they whiz past. Wheel your ship about to engage them, and you can lock onto enemy craft with guided missiles as long as you keep your gaze fixed for long enough. Perhaps the most impressive touch is how your in-game body mirrors your actual body, even leaning when you lean in the real world. (You use a gamepad to steer your ship, not your head.)

Job Simulator feels like the polar opposite of Eve: Valkyrie, with no fast-paced dogfighting among the stars. Instead, you're an office drone in the year 2050, tasked with performing jobs that even robots find too menial to bother with (or so I presume). Mostly, though, the game is about messing with as much stuff as possible using the PlayStation Move controls.

You can grab just about anything in the office, throw it anywhere you like, and just enjoy the zaniness of using your real hands in a virtual world. There's a red Swingline stapler that shoots staples clear across the room, a working computer that plays an Angry Birds clone -- if you plug in the power and find the right disc -- and a dunking bird that'll drink from your coffee mug, just to give an idea of some of the things you can do.

Job Simulator and Eve: Valkyrie are just two of the many experiences I've tried in Sony's PlayStation VR headset, but they're definitely my favorites so far.

Would I buy a PlayStation VR to get those two games? It's really hard to say without knowing how much Sony's VR headset will cost. But thankfully, these two games don't necessarily require Sony's headset: Job Simulator is also coming to the HTC Vive, and Eve: Valkyrie will appear on the Oculus Rift, both of which are due early next year. Sony will only say it plans to ship the PlayStation VR in the first half of 2016, so Sony's headset may arrive after the others.

The next time we try the PlayStation VR, or get word from Sony about how much it costs, we'll update this story.

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