PlayStation VR Review: The Best Way to Bring Virtual Reality Home
Sony’s long-awaited VR goggles make you look less like a total zero and more like an arcade hero—and the system fits in your family room
Sony has a simpler take on virtual reality: Plug a headset into the PlayStation 4 that 40 million families already own. WSJ's Geoffrey A. Fowler shows how it works. Photo: Nathan Olivarez-Giles/ The Wall Street Journal
It’s only October, and I’ve already discovered what your teenagers will beg for this Christmas: Sony PlayStation VR.
It’s the best way to bring virtual reality home right now. It’s also the funkiest: Strap on these light-up goggles and glow sticks, and you look like a character from “Tron.” Sold in a $500 kit, the neon gear’s real purpose is helping any old PlayStation 4 to track your head and hands—so you can literally be in the middle of a game. Look through the goggles, and you’re Batman reaching for a grappling hook that’s actually at your hip. Load a VR movie, and you’re playing director just by moving your head.
Sure, nobody’s going to confuse Sony’s virtual reality with actual reality. You’re still wearing goggles, and you’ve got a long cord slithering down your back. But it offers some of the most fun I’ve had with videogames since my first virtual tennis match with the Nintendo Wii. PlayStation VR’s ability to put you in the action is a significant upgrade from standard console games and from the 360-degree experiences you might have tried on a smartphone, like Google Cardboard and Samsung’s Gear VR.
This isn’t a story about better tech. Sony’s much-hyped rivals, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which must be connected to powerful PCs, offer more sophisticated virtual reality experiences. (Vive remains my favorite tech demo of the year—it can fill an entire room with a virtual whale!) But Sony has wisely traded technical capability for something VR needs much more right now: broader appeal. PlayStation VR moves it out of the realm of expensive geek tech, and into something that fits in an actual family room.
I’ve been sharing a test PlayStation VR with my colleague Nathan Olivarez-Giles for the past week. While VR has many potential uses, PlayStation VR really is just for entertainment. Titles available when the headset launches next week include 30 games plus seven mini-movies and other experiences. That’s fewer than the 100 titles that exist for Oculus Rift (although no doubt Sony will be drawing on all those years of game and big-budget movie experience).
Nathan and I both loved the movie and casual games that test your coordination and puzzle-solving skills. He got sucked into games like “Until Dawn: Rush of Blood,” where you shoot demonic clowns while riding on a roller coaster. You can read his gamer’s take on the starting lineup of titles here.
The full PlayStation VR kit ($500) includes a camera (the cylindrical device at left) and a video switch box (at right) that routes images to both the headset and the TV. The larger PlayStation 4 box, at left, is required but sold separately. PHOTO: EMILY PRAPUOLENIS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
PlayStation VR’s family-friendly appeal begins with the fact that it works with any PS4. There are already 40 million PS4s in homes around the globe, and a new one sets you back as little as $300. In addition to the full $500 kit, there is a pared-down $400 PSVR setup for people who already own the camera and Move sticks.
Unwrap a few new pieces of PSVR hardware, swap around a few plugs on your existing PS4, and you’re set up in under 15 minutes. (With the Rift and Vive, I regretted not getting an engineering degree. You need to connect them to a high-end PC, with special graphics cards and drivers.)
The hardest part was figuring out where to put the camera that tracks you and your gear. Sony suggests hanging it off the top of the TV, but it can’t be too high or too low--and if it’s pointing straight out a window, it could become confused by the sunlight.
PlayStation VR works in the space between your TV and your BarcaLounger. Technically, it allows you to roam around a virtual space up to 6 feet wide by 10 feet deep—but most of the games Sony made available for us to try were designed to be used while seated or standing pretty still. When you go outside of the PSVR’s range, a box pops up with a warning to back up.
Two Move motion controllers are included along with the camera in Sony’s $500 PlayStation VR kit; the controllers are also sold separately. PHOTO: EMILY PRAPUOLENIS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
That pared-down space is both curse and blessing. The out-of-bounds warnings are annoying, leaving game developers less to work with when creating immersive worlds. That likely means no living room-wide doubles tennis matches.
Yet we saw plenty of creativity in the games we tested. One of my favorites, a $20 title called “Thumper,” makes you feel like you’re a beetle sliding through an alien highway—or is it a blood vessel? Here the VR serves to make a traditional game-style more intense rather than becoming a new way to operate the game.
You can use PSVR without remodeling your house—or designating a spotter to ensure you don’t chip a tooth on the coffee table. And that may be PlayStation VR’s greatest feature: Instead of requiring you to fire up a Windows PC then creep around furniture, it’s just sitting there, ready for a rainy day escape or fun with friends.
Sony made some practical choices so its VR goggles are less annoying to wear. While the Sony headset weighs about as much as the Oculus headset, it felt less heavy because of how it rests on your head. Flaps along the edges allow for air flow and block ambient light, though some people may still see some. I wore it for 45-minute stretches without steaming up the lenses or having my face feel hot. A warning message says PlayStation VR isn’t recommended for children 12 and under—the lenses are too far apart for very young heads. Sony advises everyone to take a 15-minute break every hour.
The PlayStation VR headset comes with earbuds to provide stereo sound. You can supply your own if you prefer, or just listen to the sound from your TV or audio system. PHOTO: EMILY PRAPUOLENIS/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Inside the headgear, you’ve got about a 100-degree field of view, which is just narrow enough that it’s hard to forget you’re wearing goggles. But Sony’s lenses and displays—which contain three “subpixels” for each of its more than 2 million pixels—do a better job than competitors at erasing the feeling that you’re looking through a screen door. The displays also use a very fast refresh rate—up to 120 Hz—so looking at them while moving around left me feeling less queasy than Oculus Rift.
Audio helps PlayStation VR move you. It can deliver audio (either to the included headphones or to your own favorite pair) that is specific to where you are in the virtual world. In the free 20-minute movie “Allumette,” an animated O. Henry-style story you watch from the clouds, at one point I heard some muffled sniffles that made me move around to find a hidden character. “Allumette” was the first VR experience that made me tear up.
As with standard PlayStation 4 titles, VR developers are all free to invent their own rules for interacting with games. That can be confusing, because there are infinitely more choices in VR, where you can interact with virtual worlds and in 3-D, with both a standard DualShock controller and Move magic wands. For example, how do you move around Batman’s cave in the $20 “Batman: Arkham VR”? (Turns out, like Batman, you have to pull a grappling hook out of your belt and shoot it where you want to go.) Thankfully, many titles show you a virtual representation of the controllers when you are inside the goggles, so you don’t have to memorize the location of all the buttons.
There is just one more problem with the actual reality of VR: It’s just awful being a bystander while some goggle-wearing geek gropes at digital dimensions you can’t see. But Sony has some ideas on how to make things more collaborative—without two headsets. PlayStation VR comes with a “social screen” option, which lets friends (and annoying little brothers) watch what’s happening inside the VR goggles on the nearby TV.
Sharing the PlayStation VR with me over lunch, Nathan jeered when he saw my virtual Batman appear on the TV—and fail to incapacitate the Penguin’s henchmen in time. We passed the headset back and forth with ease. Unlike competitors’ headset designs, PlayStation’s doesn’t involve adjustable Velcro straps for different head sizes. The PSVR headset pulls apart with tension, instantly fitting different-sized heads and noses; a knob in back tightens the whole thing.
The free 20-minute virtual-reality story ‘Allumette’ is an O.Henry-like tale that brought our PSVR reviewers to tears. PHOTO: PENROSE STUDIOS
They weren’t available to test, but Sony has also promised games that will have an interactive element for people in the room who aren’t wearing goggles. One, called “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes,” traps the person wearing the headset in a virtual room with a bomb they must defuse. Everyone else on the couch shouts instructions, which they get by deciphering what they see on the TV screen.
Until VR rigs actually work like teleporters, any system that wants to earn a spot in my home has to fit in there. Later this week, Facebook’s Oculus is expected to unveil improvements to the Rift system that could broaden its appeal. But Sony has decades more experience making tech for living rooms. If Oculus Rift is the 2016 product you hope your neighbor buys, PlayStation VR is the first virtual reality rig you’re likely to keep using.