​Sony's Project Morpheus shows that VR can work on a game console (E3 hands-on)

Commentary: We tried Sony's Project Morpheus at the E3 game show. Here's what's new with the PS4's virtual-reality peripheral.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR, gaming, metaverse technologies, wearable tech, tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
4 min read
Watch this: Here's exactly what it's like to play Project Morpheus

I rode a flying horse-bike. I fled from thugs in a getaway car. I played three-on-three robo-ball in an arena. I sat in a chair and was mildly terrified by demons.

It's been a while since I used Project Morpheus . But based on the games and demos Sony demonstrated at this year's E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles, it seems to be proving that virtual reality could really work on a home game console.

Sony's VR platform, first announced in March 2014, will arrive in 2016 and is designed exclusively for the PlayStation 4, not Windows gaming PCs, which is what the Oculus Rift and HTC/Valve's Vive require.

(See how all the big virtual reality and augmented reality platforms compare -- and see CNET's own exclusive VR tour of E3.)

The PlayStation 4 is a system with two years under its belt, with older graphics hardware that will inevitably struggle more with the challenge of driving the 3D effects and fast frame rate needed for VR. Yet, these game demos seemed to handle everything pretty well.

Project Morpheus at E3 2015
Josh Miller/CNET

The Morpheus helmet slid over my head like a baseball cap: the front visor didn't really fit tightly to my face, but rested slightly in front of it. I found that a little more annoying than the Oculus Rift's snugger fit, but I got used to it. My view seemed narrower than on Oculus and Vive VR hardware: it was like I was watching most games through a large circular porthole.

With Morpheus, controls are still handled using a PlayStation Move -- the PS3-era motion controller designed to compete with the Wii -- which does a surprisingly decent job as a VR input. In one game, The London Heist, I was riding in a getaway car escaping from people shooting in all directions. I could open the glove compartment, search through a bag and open the car door and peek outside by pressing the Move trigger buttons. It wasn't the actual move-my-fingers reality of the Oculus Touch, but it did the job so well that I started forgetting about the controller.

Playing the new Morpheus-compatible games

I tried a few new games: Heist, and also Super Hyper Cube, a spinning-block puzzle game that's nearly identical to Ketzal's Corridors on Nintendo 3DS. I could move around and see the block shapes in space as I spun them, to make sure I had the right fit. Simple, laser-drawn graphics did the job, but I could see that the Morpheus' screen resolution -- and graphics quality -- seemed a step down from what the Oculus offers. (That's largely true of all PC games versus their console equivalents, so it's not that big of a surprise.)

I got to ride a real bicycle in an experience called VirZoom, a VR exercise game that will come with sensors to attach to a stationary bike. I pedaled, but in VR I was riding a horse. You don't pedal a horse, so the metaphor felt strange: also, I felt like I was floating along, more than riding. But I raced against other horses, rode through mountains and even flew in the air once I collected wings; an experience that, even with lots of VR training, felt slightly terrifying. Landing and steering were weird: as I turned and leaned with my virtual horse, I got vertigo when my stationary bike didn't lean with me. The bike-to-horse translation was fascinating, but flawed.

Project Morpheus at E3 2015
Josh Miller/CNET

Capcom demonstrated a horror experience, Kitchen. I sat in a chair, but in VR I was bound in rope, watching someone crawl toward me. What I saw next I don't want to spoil, but I wanted to cover my face with my hands. I couldn't, because I was in virtual reality. I closed my eyes, and slightly pulled off one of the earphones. But Kitchen was a passive experience in every sense, and the higher-end graphics seemed to render on the Morpheus like a PS3 game, not a PS4 one.

My favorite was one that actually made multiplayer virtual-reality work: a game called Rigs. Sony set up multiple game stations where six helmeted players all played virtual-reality cyber-ball in an arena at once. The game put me in a mech-suit, blasting other opponents until I earned enough energy to jump through a hoop at the top of the arena, like a human ball. It's a fun game, like Halo meets basketball. But the controls were loose and slidey, and I felt an odd lag as I looked around and jumped across ramps at the same time. I felt waves of nausea. Also, my team won, and I scored two goals.

Sony shows off PS4, more at E3 press event (pictures)

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Where Morpheus stands

I tried these games with my colleague Jeff Bakalar, someone who's more of a VR cynic. He thought everything worked really well too, but hated how sweaty it felt to be in a helmet, and how much worse games looked in VR. These are problems. Also, Project Morpheus is a lot of gear. You need the PlayStation camera, two Move controllers and a Morpheus helmet. I usually have to be motivated just to plug in my Xbox Kinect.

While Morpheus seems fine now, lots of these demos were short experiences. What will the real games be like? We don't know. And I don't know how long I want to stay in VR. The Oculus, Vive and Morpheus haven't solved that question yet. I felt more comfortable playing with an Oculus Rift for extended sessions than I did with a Morpheus. The helmet was lighter and more comfortable. And if Morpheus VR games suffer a necessary decrease in screen resolution and graphics quality compared with playing PS4 on your TV, would you still use it in exchange for its cool sensation of 3D immersion?

2016 is a while away, and Sony's bound to have a lot more to show before then. At least, for now, Project Morpheus shows that VR can work on a game console. And if it works for PS4, there's no reason it couldn't work on an Xbox One, too.

Project Morpheus at E3 2015
Josh Miller/CNET