Sony PlayStation VR review: You know what? Sony did it. The PSVR is actually pretty great
It looks like 2016 is living up to its billing as the "year of virtual reality," with products at the high end (HTC Vive and Oculus Rift) and in the mobile arena (Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, Google Daydream) offering VR options across the spectrum.
Now a new contender appears, with an established brand and a gigantic install base. The PlayStation VR, available October 13, represents the most accessible path to VR if only because every one of the roughly 45 million PlayStation 4 owners already has half the required hardware.
It's also the only "full" VR system -- that is, one with spatial and motion tracking -- that'll get you up and running from scratch for under $700, £630 or AU$1,050. By itself, if you already have a PS4, it's $399, £349 or AU$550. The combined cost (PC plus headset) for Oculus and Vive currently sits north of $1,200.
To be sure, this is an expensive toy and certainly not for everyone. In fact, Sony says it's not designed for kids 12 years and under. But considering its price and the fact that you may already have half the hardware sitting in your living room, the PSVR presents a very compelling proposition.
Combine that with PlayStation's well-established distribution platform, close relationship to the developers crafting these VR experiences and quality control, and the PSVR is a more worry-free answer to the potentially confusing world of PC-based VR.
Updated November 21, 2016 to include impressions of PSVR with the PlayStation 4 Pro.
Setting up either of the two existing PC-connected VR rigs isn't pretty. The same goes with the PSVR. It's not an overly complicated process, but the interconnected wired web that results isn't necessarily something you can tuck away out of sight.
You'll need an extra outlet to power the PSVR's processor unit and you'll also need to devote one of the PS4's two USB slots so that it can talk to the console. The unit is about the size of three CD jewel cases stacked on top of each other -- this of course needs a place to live as well.
The whole thing took me about 10 minutes to connect my first time. When it's all done and dusted, what you're left with feels inelegant and messy, but part of VR is being tethered to a long wire. That's just where the tech is right now. Compared to the Rift and Vive, the PSVR is no better or worse in that department.
Buying the standard $399 PSVR kit assumes you already own a PlayStation Camera and two Move controllers. You absolutely need the camera to use the PSVR and two Move controllers are all but required. If you don't possess these items you'll need to purchase them separately. But don't do that. For $499, Sony sells a bundle that includes everything you need -- save for a PS4 -- and packs-in the mini-game collection VR Worlds as a bonus. It's a good deal if you're missing some of the prerequisites.
Update, August 2017: Sony now includes the PlayStation Camera in the box, and the launch bundle can be had for $450. Effectively, it's a $50 price cut across the board.
With everything connected and the headset on, I was surprised that booting up the PS4 didn't force me to start any kind of in-depth setup. A few quick adjustments and I was mostly ready to go. When you press the headset's inline power button, the console switches into VR mode which shifts the menu screen to the headset and mirrors a lower res version of what you're seeing onto the TV.
Intuitive icons explain that you can recenter the home screen if you need to at any time (which is probably something I do at least twice a session). Instead of a general initial setup, most software will activate a number of calibration check marks so that you get the best optimal performance for that specific experience. Long story short, at the very least you'll probably be doing some kind of minimal adjustment to your VR play area each time you play. The more I played, the more I learned which games needed more finessing than others.
In the manual, Sony says you need approximately a 10 by 6 foot area (about 3 by 2 meters) needed for play, but I was able to get it working fine in a space only about 7 by 4 foot (about 2 by 1.5 meters). The PSVR seems relaxed about how much space you need, and even a few square feet of floor space could end up working for a handful of games.
Included with our review kit was a PowerA $50 stand -- think mannequin head -- to hold and organize all of the PSVR accessories. It's actually something worth checking out because there's not a really good place to store all of these items when you're not using them. The stand also charges two Move controllers and a DualShock4 PlayStation controller simultaneously. It has a spot to hang the headset too, but it tends to droop down too much.
Lastly, if you're at all concerned about HDR compatibility, the PSVR's processing unit will not pass an HDR signal through. You'll need to use a direct HDMI connection for HDR to work whether you're using a PS4 or PS4 Pro.
What is experiencing PSVR really like?
The question I get asked most about PSVR is, "Does it work?" Make no mistake: I let out an audible gasp the first time I tried Batman Arkham VR. It felt similar to the first time I demoed the HTC Vive Portal: Aperture Robot Repair demo. That feeling of shocking immersion is certainly ever-present. The PSVR lets you escape the world you currently occupy and warp into a fully 3D artificial existence. It works.
But, it can also make you dizzy. If the camera isn't tracking you well, the artificial floor can start to drift while playing. That's a weird feeling! It feels like you're drunk and can't hold yourself up.
Judging from my limited time with Oculus Rift but hours with the HTC Vive, I found the overall experience to be in the same ballpark as the other "full VR" hardware out there. I say this as it relates to the VR immersion -- not necessarily the visual fidelity. The Rift and Vive offer slightly higher screen resolutions and variable performance depending on PC specs. The PSVR, on the other hand, is locked into the same performance across the board because it's powered by a PS4.
Solid headset, controllers are just OK
The best part of the PSVR is its headset. Out of all the VR headsets I've worn I think this is the most comfortable, but certainly not the lightest. The headset has a slightly plasticky feel to it, but I wouldn't call it cheap. It seems to be able to adjust to most head sizes (note: I have what some call an enormous head and it fits fine) and I like its retractable band adjuster and sliding viewfinder. That said, I can't wear it -- or any other VR headset -- for more than 30 to 45 minutes tops, without getting the overwhelming sense that I need to take a break.
It's easy to muck up the lenses in the headset. Whether it was my eyelashes or just accidental smudges from adjusting it for comfort, I found myself cleaning the two lenses a lot. There's an included shammy for doing just that.
And then there's the sweating. Am I a person who sweats a lot normally? Yes. But everyone I've let try this thing ends up with a nice moist patch above their eyebrows. That's just the way it is. Is it a deal breaker? Not at all. Just don't spend an hour with the PSVR immediately before you need to look somewhat presentable.
I do like that the headset has inline buttons to control volume. This is also where you plug in the included earbuds (you can also use your own). It's easy to tangle yourself up in the wires from the buds too, which can be frustrating if you accidentally rip them out.
The controllers and room tracking, as they're currently set up, leave a little to be desired. More often than not, something needs adjusting. The camera seems to have a difficult time tracking movement of the Move wands when you've turned around 180 degrees because the lenses physically can't see them. It feels like the system tries to guestimate where they might be located when out of sight, but we're not entirely sure what's going on in these situations.
Spatial tracking and awareness varies by the game you play, but titles like Super HyperCube and Job Simulator do an impressive job interpreting walking and body movements. The problem is that going from game to game varies. Some software does a much better job than others in tracking you and applying that to the VR world. It's occasionally difficult to know how much space you have to move around so that you don't wander outside the camera's view.
Some titles have you stand and others want you to sit, and then there are others that don't really express a preference. A lot of VR right now is trial and error on the user's end, so expect some finagling regardless of how much space you have to devote to a play area.
I also found myself having to swap controllers a lot, which can definitely kill the mood. If you're playing a game with the Move controllers but then need to back out to the PS4 menu to make adjustments, you'll have to fish around for the DualShock4 that's hiding somewhere in your general vicinity. You can use Move controllers to navigate, but they aren't as reliable. It feels awkward, to say the least.
I often felt like I needed a handler -- someone there to spot me and hand me the right controller or grab me so I don't walk into the coffee table. That's kind of the way all full VR is right now, but because the PSVR is shoehorned into an existing platform, there's a sense that this wasn't specifically built from the ground up.
Nevertheless, it's kind of amazing how Sony has essentially retrofitted its PS4 console to work with VR and the collection of peripherals already available for the system. Was it part of the plan all along?
Some games (or experiences) are head and shoulders above the rest, and that disparity is likely to continue as we navigate this mostly uncharted territory.
But overall it's clear that plenty of polish has been added to the group of PSVR launch titles. There's a real sense of production value in nearly everything offered. At the same time, some of these games feel limited in scope, length and substance as opposed to what you get for a standard full-price PS4 game. To reflect that, most PSVR games fall in the $20 to $40 price range, with only a few going up to $60.
In my week of playing with the PSVR, this proportion felt right. I didn't want to be wearing the headset for hours on end, though there are games that let you do so if you wish (though I can't recommend that).
While we didn't have full access to it before review time, Rez Infinite is one of my favorites. I also really enjoyed my time with Job Simulator, Batman Arkham VR and Battlezone, and the London Heist portion of VR Worlds is also a lot of fun too. Each PSVR kit also comes with a disc filled with a handful of demos to give you a broader idea of what's available for the platform.
The future looks promising too. Sony has worked with third-party developers and its own in-house teams to ensure support for PSVR in the months to come. The company has said that 50 VR experiences will be available by the end of 2016 and has boasted that 230 developers are making games. Resident Evil 7 will be fully playable in VR and a sizeable number of standard PS4 games will have VR features or add-ons too.
Now that PS4 Pro is available, we're happy to report that the more powerful console can improve the quality and performance of the PSVR games that support it. Don't expect these improvements to be total game-changers, but titles like Rez Infinite, Battlezone, Thumper and others certainly benefit from the added horsepower. Expect PS4 Pro-supported VR titles to add higher resolutions (capped at 1080p), better framerates, improved textures and clearer text.
There's a strong sense of stability with the PSVR and the established PlayStation platform. The entire thing could wind up failing, but at least out of the gate there's a solid amount of reliable software to experiment with, a mostly straightforward marketplace and a reasonably user-friendly setup process. For those who want the most uncomplicated full VR experience, the PSVR is the logical choice.
It's also worth mentioning that the PSVR's doesn't only need to be focused on games. It'd be shocking if the platform didn't enter other application areas that VR is currently exploring -- be it real estate, tourism, education or other forms of entertainment.
The case for PlayStation VR
I really like using the PSVR, but I don't know if I'm still in the honeymoon phase. It really depends if more compelling software continues to churn out. As much I enjoy jacking into that false reality, I still find it more relaxing and enjoyable to play a standard video game. It's not that I get motion sick, dizzy or anything like that -- it's that VR is a bombardment of the senses, a lot for your body and mind to deal with. We'll probably get to the point where full VR is just a pair of lightweight eyeglasses, but until that happens I find it best enjoyed in small doses.
Is the PlayStation VR as "powerful" as the PC-based Oculus Rift or HTC Vive? Well, no. The PSVR's single-camera design can't track motion as accurately as the Vive, and the helmet's display resolution is a tad lower than the Rift and Vive, with a slightly smaller viewing angle too (100 vs. 110 degrees). And while the early batch of PSVR games have high frame rates and look shockingly good, you'll note far-off details in vast asteroid belts or how at the bottom of an ocean trench it can become muddy.
But: So what? The PSVR is also far more affordable, has no installation issues or driver problems, and is generally more comfy to wear.
Do you need a PSVR? Of course not. But it definitely elevates the standard PS4 experience to a whole new level. There is absolutely something remarkable about trying it for the first time. While it's the cheapest full VR around, it doesn't change the fact that it's still an expensive luxury. Sony has done a commendable job at ensuring a promising future for the platform, but there's no absolute guarantee this will remain endlessly supported.
If you've had it in your head that going all-in on PSVR will cost roughly $800, using a PS4 Pro with PSVR will bring the grand total up to $900. Depending on how much of an impact it has on the PSVR, it might be worth waiting for the Pro version if you don't already own a PS4.
Then there's the competition. I've laid out what that looks like at the top of this review, but Microsoft's hand has also yet to be shown. The company remains mostly silent about its VR or AR ambitions, though rumors continue to swirl that Oculus Rift will eventually work with Microsoft's own souped-up console, hitting next year, Project Scorpio. Of course, Microsoft could also be working on its own proprietary hardware, but we don't expect to know for sure until some time in 2017.
But that's far off in 2017. If you want game console virtual reality right now, the PlayStation VR is your only choice. And it's a pretty great one.
CNET's Scott Stein and Sean Hollister contributed to this review.