Last month marked a watershed for virtual reality. While Facebook's acquisition of Oculus for $2 billion represented a major endorsement of a technology from a company outside of the traditional gaming space, it also saw Sony provide a closer look at Project Morpheus, its own virtual reality headgear tied to the PlayStation 4.
Morpheus has an excellent opportunity to create the most impressive gaming experience to come out of the PlayStation group in its history and is certainly one of the most impressive products to come out of Sony broadly in recent memory. The designers sought to achieve what they call "presence," the illusion that you are actually in another world. The horsepower of the PlayStation 4 is key to this effect although even its mighty hardware has VR limitations. For example, there's been little discussion of supporting two or more simultaneously connected "Morphei."
But Morpheus as a gateway to a new generation of gaming experience represents the next phase in the PlayStation group's own metamorphosis. The PlayStation 3 was saddled with many priorities that were strategic imperatives from its parent company, including support for 1080p "full HD" at launch, 3D, and most notoriously at launch, Blu-ray. The last was in its earliest days when the PS3 came on the scene. Its inclusion in the PS3 helped win the war for the disc format against HD-DVD, which was later supported as a doomed external device by the Xbox 360. But using the PS3 as a pawn in that format war had a literal cost. The PlayStation 3's launch price at $599 made it a nonstarter for many gamers who flocked to the cheaper Xbox 360 and especially the budget-friendly original Wii.
The tables have turned in this generation with Nintendo and Microsoft bundling their own peripherals that have driven up the cost of their consoles. The Wii U GamePad embodied Nintendo's bet on multi-screen gaming, a bet that has thus far proven a shaky one with a questionable experience. And Microsoft included the latest generation of its much-improved Kinect. It expands the predecessor's province from casual gaming to more comprehensive television control, but it has had limited appeal to more hardcore gamers.
The PS4, in contrast, has arrived at a sweet spot for more serious console gamers. And while Morpheus, like the Oculus Rift, may well have applications beyond games, it's clear that the PlayStation team will find the best short-term payoff in using Morpheus for that purpose. The group is staying true to its focused slogan for this generation of the console, which is "the best place to play," Sony's strategy is showing signs of early resonance, outselling the Xbox One by a couple of million units already.
However, not all is rosy in the glasses of Sony's new world. The company hasn't released any details of Morpheus' price. And even when it does, that may not represent the final consumer expense as Morpheus requires the PlayStation 4 Camera and Move for tracking. That's going to add at least $125 to whatever price Sony sets for its next-generation headset. Requiring the purchase of these extras is the tradeoff for holding off on console bundling, but at least it's helping to create a larger installed base into which Morpheus can sell.