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Sony's Project Morpheus makes big bet on body tracking

Thanks to PlayStation Move, the newly minted virtual reality titan is pushing the boundaries of body tracking, but with a proprietary catch putting it at odds with Oculus.

En garde! Sony's Project Morpheus headset, teamed with two PlayStation Move controllers, gets ready for a sword-fighting demo called The Castle. Josh Miller/CNET

There's one pivotal difference right now between the two most promising, best developed virtual reality headset prototypes, forming a simultaneously technical and philosophical barrier.

Oculus VR, while exclusively focused on smooth tracking and optics, has made an open-source darling out of its Oculus Rift headset, turning a radical crowdfunding idea into the face of an emerging industry. Its openness has spawned a movement with a wide breadth of third-party spinoffs, from the Virtuix Omni to countless motion-tracking suits and handsets. Its final, relatively affordable development kit -- announced Wednesday at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco ahead of its official release -- will continue to accelerate the growth of that community.

Josh Miller/CNET

Sony's Project Morpheus, in the works since 2010 and unveiled at GDC on Tuesday, has crafted an equally amazing and immersive experience. Not only is it just as comfortable -- in some respects more so for a glasses wearer I noticed -- but it's also a smooth experience almost on par with Oculus' Dev Kit 2, which has had a more thoroughly field-tested development approach this past year.

More importantly, however, Sony has baked in from the get-go a promise to make virtual reality (VR) a full-body affair, using PlayStation Move controllers in conjunction with the PlayStation Camera to get you moving around the room and swinging your arms like a madman. The results, still as early and limited as prototype demos can get, are both breathtaking and hilariously fun.

The catch: Morpheus looks locked to the PlayStation platform, with no foreseeable exit from that proprietary strategy.

That difference -- a locked-down approach compared with an open-source one -- creates an interesting dynamic for the VR industry as it moves forward. Is a unified platform like Sony's the best way to bring this wild promise of the future to fruition with all the bells and whistles of motion tracking intact? Or is opening it up while buckling down and honing the focus -- as Oculus is doing with its headset -- a smarter decision, with the caveat that you're putting your trust in others to build out accessories and their feature sets?

Those questions form the crux of how consumer VR comes to market. Sony seems intent on gambling that we'll not only want to strap on a goofy face-computer, but we'll also want to stand up in our living room and get physical. That may not be the best move to make when it comes to selling your everyday gamer on the potentially nausea-inducing, commercially untested notion of sitting for hours on end in a different reality. Maybe an Oculus Rift that just works with a controller, sitting down, will be more persuasive at first than a headset, dual motion-tracking controller, and camera bundle.

While it's incredibly early, with consumer models of Morpheus and Oculus unlikely to come for some time, one thing is certain: body tracking is an inevitable extension of VR. Sony is upfront in that respect, showing us exactly why we'll finally want to consider combining what have been up until now miserably peripheral accessories into unique gaming experiences.

Bringing VR gear to a sword fight
Take, for example, one of the more impressive Morpheus demos here at GDC. The Castle, a medieval-themed sword demo, showed the full capabilities of combining Morpheus with two Move controllers.

Not only do you get the precision of a Wii Motion Plus, giving you accurate wrist tracking that die-hard Zelda fans can respect, but your entire body is tracked based off the location of your head and hands. It sounds gimmicky, but is remarkably responsive on the level of Kinect play that, when combined with VR, momentarily convinces you you're experiencing something truly groundbreaking instead of the combination of existing technologies in an unprecedented package.

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In one instance, I stepped to the left in physical space and picked up a sword out of the ground with my right hand, doing so by pulling the trigger of the Move controller as I reached down. Stepping forward, I used my left hand to grab hold of a straw dummy's left arm and proceeded to chop it off with the sword hand, requiring a significant and worry-inducing amount of force in my swing. There I was left with a disembodied arm that I could now swing back and forth and even use to smack around the dummy.

All this, of course, was directed by the subtle nudging of the Morpheus demo assistant. After all, not much in VR is intuitive when you don't know where the precision is cranked up. Therein lies a strange sensation: Sony's body tracking is spectacular, but it's also limited by what our brains think we can and cannot do in a virtual space where tracking is precise for some parts of the body -- the hands and head -- and wonky and downright weird for everything else, namely your location in physical space.

Often during The Castle, I was disoriented by using my body as a function of my in-game location as I would swing my arm and be told repeatedly that I was too far away. And the demo assistant had to make sure to remove my backpack from behind me lest I take a tumble through the lightly constructed booth wall.

It introduces a necessary reality-check. VR is likely not to develop on a clean, straight-forward track, no matter how friendly Sony and Oculus play with others. You'll have different games, designed for different levels of immersion, motion control, and body orientation, along with ported games designed to take advantage of only certain functionalities and accessories.

It's going to be a chaotic space that, while great for the acceleration of the tech, will prove to be a nightmare for anyone hoping to design cohesive, multiplatform experiences for VR. Eve Valkyrie is a great example of a game that's trying and has universal-enough mechanics to pull it off, but it won't be easy for titles outside a seated, first-person shooter.

That leaves users in the precarious position of not knowing exactly what we'll need to buy or even want to have when all of this begins rolling out, and puts pressure on both the hardware and software sides of VR to figure out how far we're willing to take this at first. So while Sony is pushing aggressive technology under the PlayStation helm, Oculus' simple "sit-down and enjoy the future" approach -- with open source add-ons left up to you -- may be an easier pill to swallow.