Sony announces Project Morpheus VR headset (hands-on)

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/ Updated: March 20, 2014 11:01 AM PDT

Sony has unveiled its own virtual-reality PlayStation 4 headset, and for now it's called Project Morpheus.

In a gaming landscape where the Oculus Rift has inspired many to wonder what's next, Sony aims to capture a bit of that magic for itself with its own brand of immersive headwear. It's not the first Sony headset; in fact, the company has had nongaming models for years. This, however, is Sony's entry to VR gaming in the way that we've come to imagine since the Oculus Rift. And unlike the Oculus, Project Morpheus is PS4-only.

Project Morpheus, as it was unveiled at the Game Developers Conference panel in San Francisco tonight, is smaller than Sony's existing HMZ line of headsets. The design looks more like a final product than the still-in-prototype Oculus Rift, with glowing blue LEDs and a Tron-like vibe.

According to Richard Marks from Sony R&D, the plans for Project Morpheus reach beyond gaming, to promised partnerships with NASA and uses for immersive science. Similar far-reaching uses have been discussed for Oculus Rift, and in fact for most VR technologies.

Josh Miller/CNET

How do you control yourself while using Project Morpheus? Well, with the controllers that Sony already has: the PlayStation Eye, DualShock 4 controller, and Move.

The Project Morpheus dev kit Sony is currently using has a 1080p display and a "90-plus degree" field of view. It boasts position and rotation head tracking, three-meter working volume, 360 degrees of movement, and the ability to use DualShock 4 and Move controllers simultaneously. But, for now, Project Morpheus is hard-wired: wireless capability is something Sony's looking into, but don't expect any announcements anytime soon.

Josh Miller/CNET

Sony already has some developers onboard and working on experiences with Project Morpheus, including heavy hitters like Crytek and Epic. That's good news, and exactly what Sony will need to make its VR gaming technology succeed.

Hands-on
Sony is showing four Project Morpheus demos this week: Eve Valkyrie -- one of Oculus Rift's killer apps -- and the recent Square Enix game Thief, as well as two interactive tech demos, The Deep and Castle.

Josh Miller/CNET
So far I've I've had a chance to play both Castle and The Deep. The Deep is the more limiting of the two. You're a diver in a shark cage armed only with a flare gun. The game is controlled with a single DualShock 4 and by "controlled" I mean you pull the right trigger to launch the flare. You turn your head to see the environment, but since you're in a shark cage, you're not capable of much body movement.

The headset has four LED tracking lights on the front and uses the PlayStation 4's camera to track movement. There are two additional LEDs on the back for tracking you when you turn your head to look behind you.

Josh Miller/CNET

You could look down and see your character's legs and bending both knees caused your avatar to do so as well. At one point I sat in a real-life chair and my avatar looked to be squatting. I could even see my chest from this position. It felt quite immersive.

Graphically, the game looked decent, but I noticed plenty of aliasing on the bars of the cage. Once the shark made its appearance, however, things got a lot more interesting, and there were moments when I had to remind myself that this was only an approximation of real-life.

The Castle demo was much more fun, as there was a lot more I could actually do. The demo is controlled via dual Move controllers -- one in each hand -- and at the start, you're presented with a seemingly empty medieval suit of armor to abuse as you please.

Josh Miller/CNET

I chose to punch its arms and legs off and was particularly impressed by the system's ability to track how fast and therefore how hard I was punching the suit. My colleague, Nick Statt chose instead to grab the suit of armor using the Move controller's trigger -- and moving his 3D-space hand to the appropriate spot, cut off its other arm and then beat it into oblivion with its own arm. I had the impression he enjoyed this a bit too much.

Castle also allowed me to move around a lot more, but the Sony reps encouraged me to stay in the same general area or the system would have to be recalibrated. There was also a crossbow weapon sequence that appeared to track my aim pretty accurately, but a tracking bug caused the interface to freeze after every shot.

Josh Miller/CNET

When the giant dragon appeared at the end of the demo and proceeded to gobble me whole, I had to remind myself again that it actually wasn't standing right in front of me.

The actual Morpheus hardware itself is fairly light, and it was easy to figure out how to put it on. It also appeared to have a focal point that's improved over the Oculus Rift's. With the Rift, the goggles had to be smushed into my face as close as possible to deliver a clear image; however, images on Morpheus were in focus even with the goggles inches away.

Josh Miller/CNET
The Morpheus headset did start to put too much pressure on my nose after a couple of minutes and got things got pretty sweaty inside fairly quickly, something I didn't experience with the Rift. However, both headsets can be adjusted.

My time spent with Morpheus was fairly brief overall, and while I'm impressed with the technology on display, I'll still have to wait for much more immersive experiences to determine exactly how I feel about it and VR as a whole. Right now, with all the different pieces it requires and the lack of compelling software, VR in general still feels like a gimmicky novelty. However, it's one with great potential, to be sure.

Samba De Amigo anyone?! (I wish...) Josh Miller/CNET

There are still plenty of unanswered questions, such as price and release date, but maybe an even more important question is whether this offers enough of an increase in immersion and interactively over traditional gaming to be worth our interest. I think it does, but in playing around with what's available today, these things are years away from producing something I'd actually consider purchasing. Traditional gaming still works for me.

And despite the efforts of many game developers, motion-controlled gaming via Kinect and Move never really took off like Sony and Microsoft imagined. Can VR be different? Sony's latest attempt -- along with every other VR solution -- will have its work cut out for it to make the case to mainstream consumers.

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