Virtual reality got a big boost when Sony started to sell its PlayStation VR a few days ago. Sony’s headset is cheaper than similar devices from HTC and Oculus, and the company has tapped into a huge existing user base by making PlayStation VR compatible with its PlayStation 4 game console.
But there’s another reason that PlayStation VR could become the Wii of virtual reality (VR): It’s made for the living room, and has the potential to turn VR games and experiences into group activities.
How PlayStation VR stacks up to the competition
There have been plenty of reviews of the PlayStation VR, and most have focused on obvious differentiators: The headset is a lot more affordable than competing products, especially if you already own a PlayStation 4. Both HTC Vive and Oculus Rift cost $800 if you include handheld controllers, and both require a high-end gaming PC to boot. PlayStation VR on the other hand is just $399, and a combo pack including both the necessary PlayStation camera and the optional handheld controllers will set you back $500.
There are also some obvious differences with regards to the devices themselves. The PlayStation VR headset doesn’t use a headlamp-like elastic strap to stay on your head. Instead, it’s more like a really solid visor, with a padded plastic ring around your head to make sure the display doesn’t move anywhere. And with its camera for positional tracking, it’s a bit less accurate, and more susceptible to problems induced by sunlight or room lights.
Finally, there’s the game and apps line-up: PlayStation VR launched with 30 titles. Lots of those were games like “Batman: Arkham VR” and “EVE Valkyrie,” which is not a surprise, considering the target audience are people who own a game console. But there have also been a few great cinematic or experiential apps, including “Invasion!” and “Allumette.”
The one feature that really sets it apart
Some of these titles are PlayStation VR exclusives, while others are available on other platforms as well. However, they won’t quite work the same way as on other platforms, thanks to one feature that makes all the difference: PlayStation VR is designed as a headset for the living room.
The headset doesn’t simply plug into your PlayStation 4, but actually comes with its own adapter box that sits between the game console and your TV. This guarantees that anything you see in your headset also shows up on the TV — which actually makes for a surprisingly compelling experience.
When Samsung first released its Gear VR headset about a year ago, it set the tone for VR being a singular experience. The person wearing the headset has all the fun. Sitting next to someone using Gear VR can be amusing for a few minutes, but quickly gets boring.
Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are a little less exclusive. Both headsets are tethered to a PC, where bystanders can see on screen what a player is experiencing in VR. But standing around a computer screen still isn’t a great experience. It’s more like monitoring a game as if to make sure that nothing goes wrong. PlayStation VR bystanders on the other hand can comfortably sit on the couch, relax, and watch the action unfold on the best screen in the house.
Video game streaming websites like Twitch have long proved that watching video gamers can be just as entertaining as watching a sports game. PlayStation VR takes this idea even further by also extending it to cinematic VR.
When you watch an animated story like “Allumette” with PlayStation VR, you pick your own vantage point, move closer towards a character, peek around corners and pay attention to the things that matter to you. In a way, you are your own cameraman for a personalized cut of the video. Add an audience on your living room couch to this, and you become almost a director, presenting your own cut of a movie that changes every time someone watches it.
Less expensive, more social and fun
When Nintendo first introduced its Wii game console in 2006, it didn’t enamor audiences with the most powerful hardware, omitting for example HD video. However, the device was cheaper than its competitors, and arguably a lot more fun: By being first to popularize the motion controller, it introduced a new interaction model for games that was more fun to use, and also to watch.
In many ways, PlayStation VR follows in the Wii’s footsteps: The hardware is cheaper, the positional tracking technology possibly a bit less precise than that used by high-end headsets like the HTC Vive — but the experience is more social and fun, which could be key to winning over the masses.