The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive may surpass PlayStation VR in some key areas — they are more expensive, after all — but Sony’s first attempt at a virtual reality headset isn’t just more comfortable than the competition ... it’s in a completely different class.
Ed. Note: While we’ve spent literally dozens of hours with PlayStation VR since receiving it late last week, our full review of Sony’s latest isn’t quite ready. With our reviewer at Oculus Connect this week (with a PlayStation VR hooked up at his hotel), we’re going to keep working on our final review, while sharing some pieces of it with you sooner.
PlayStation VR is an entire platform consisting of multiple parts and, as a whole, looks like a finished, thoughtful product without giving off the sense that the head-mounted display is an expensive piece of technology that could be easily broken. It’s approachable, which is a great contrast to the super-serious stylings of other headsets. Sony did its homework. This is a comfortable headset that avoids many of the mistakes of its competitors.
The PlayStation VR display looks like nothing so much as a retro Daft Punk helmet. It’s a charmingly goofy-looking device. There’s a high contrast in materials between the white plastic, the black face, accents and cushions, and the blue lights that allow the PlayStation Camera to track the headset.
The making of PlayStation VR
When Richard Marks was in 10th grade, his father opened a video game store that was ahead of its time. It was the early ’80s; used game sales weren’t common, and the store — Video Exchange — ran on the gimmick that customers could trade in their games. The store didn’t last long. But for the young Marks, who held the title of chief demo officer, working there was like living in an arcade. Surrounded by open boxes, he played everything and recommended the best games to customers.
The black cushion where the hardware meets your forehead and the back of your head is made from a comfortable, textured plastic material. This material can easily be wiped down between users, a subtle but important luxury you may only appreciate after using a Rift or Vive drenched in someone else’s head sweat.
This seemingly simple forethought on the part of Sony’s engineers is part of what makes the PlayStation VR the most comfortable VR headset ever made. This is in part due to how customizable the headset’s fit is. A button on the back of the strap allows the top section of the headset to accommodate a variety of head sizes. You can also bring the screen closer to your eyes by depressing the button on the bottom of the front portion of the head-mounted display. A dial on the rear of the hardware can further tighten the fit if needed.
It took a few tries to learn which buttons you have to press and hold to adjust the headset’s fit, and to learn how Sony wants me to put the headset on and take it off. But the result is a headset that carries all its weight on the hard plastic strap, without sacrificing ease of adjustment. This is a large step up from the velcro on the Rift and the elastic on the Vive.
The PlayStation VR also fits around glasses much more comfortably than its contemporaries, and you can adjust the headset to fit someone’s head very quickly, which makes it easier to pass from person to person. Once you learn what you’re doing, you learn to slide the screen all the way out, depress the rear button, pull the headset over your head, and then bring the screen in via the bottom button under the front of the hardware. It’s a two-step process that feels easy rather than fiddly, and leads to a good fit every time.
If you slide the front of the hardware out all the way — and this is very important — it also gives you enough room to drink a soda while in VR.
In terms of children, my older kids had little trouble save my 7-year-old, who found it a bit large, although he was ultimately still able to play comfortably. Sony itself warns against letting children under the age of 12 use PlayStation VR, and I both supervise and limit the time my younger kids spend in VR.
The PlayStation VR is also, strangely enough, the heaviest of the non-portable VR headsets. Sony even pointed out that it added weights to the rear strap to balance the system. It’s all a matter of where the weight is distributed, and how the hardware touches your face. You adjust the strap’s size and then slide the screen toward your eyes, which is a system that allows the optics and screen to be supported by the circular strap, not your nose or forehead. Sony moved the weight of the hardware to the strap itself, which almost allows the front of the hardware to hang in front of your eyes. It’s an incredibly comfortable design.
The soft plastic mask found around the headset itself — what Sony calls "The Scope" — is easy on your skin, but there’s a slightly disappointing amount of light let in from your environment. This is one of the reasons the PlayStation VR is best played in a dark room, but more on that later.
That Sony — a consumer electronics giant with decades of experience making displays, lenses, cables, processors, controllers — figured out how to make a better mousetrap shouldn’t be a surprise. That the company figured out how to make that better mousetrap cheaper than the competition, and is uniquely capable of getting it into stores and into people’s homes, is more of a surprise. And if that were the entire race, Sony would have just left the competition in the dust ... but comfort and fit aren’t everything. Stay tuned for more of our PlayStation VR impressions this week.