Inside Sony's big bet that PlayStation VR can be both mainstream and magical

GDC 2016: We chat social, sales and accessories with PlayStation's R&D chief
Inside Sony's big PlayStation VR bet

It's only been two years since Sony first unveiled Project Morpheus, a futuristic headset that, like a spaceship, will transport you to worlds far, far away. In these few years, a lot has happened. It announced that Project Morpheus has morphed into PlayStation VR, and the company has attracted more than 230 developers to create 50 or so VR titles for release by the end of the year.

The headset itself isn't released until October but, with a very reasonable $399 price, for everyone but PC gamers, PlayStation VR - not Oculus Rift - could become the first virtual reality that really gets into mainstream consciousness.

"There are so many different things that PlayStation VR can be used for, but one thing we know as a company, and a lot of other people know this too, is that VR is really good for games," said Dr. Richard Marks, senior researcher and head of PlayStation Magic Lab at Sony Computer Entertainment. "And so that is what we're all about, and that's why we're leading our charge for VR with games."

From hacks to 20% of PlayStation devs

But before Sony announced Project Morpheus to the world, the company had been tinkering with virtual reality for nearly a decade. When Sony launched the PlayStation Move in 2010, enthusiastic engineers and developers began attaching the controllers to their heads and placed small displays in front of their eyes to create a crude VR system. And this phenomenon was happening in various parts of the company.

"The PlayStation Move gave them this simple tracking system," said Marks. "They started building VR from that. Once they started comparing notes with what everyone else was doing, they realized how much possibility there was and how much excitement in the company around VR."

Read this: Our in-depth guide to the Sony PlayStation VR

After some successful grassroots experimentation, Sony executives formalized its foray into the virtual world in 2011. Over the years, it's estimated that 20% of PlayStation employees have worked on Sony's VR efforts.

Sony has been exploring virtual reality for the better part of a decade, spokeswoman Farm Saechou added, but the tech giant had to wait for the technology to mature before it could commercialize the project.

Some of these technologies, as Andrew House, Sony Computer Entertainment's president and CEO, said in his price and release date presentation, include a display with a fast 120 frames per second refresh rate and extremely low latency. "To make that, we really had to leverage a lot of the manufacturing capabilities that Sony has," Marks said. "That's why we're able to do such a high quality system at such a good price."

Unlike competing games-centered VR headsets, like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, both of which are more expensive and require even costlier high-end gaming PCs to work, Sony took a more conservative approach with the PlayStation VR.

The combined full HD resolution of the VR screen isn't nearly as high resolution as the Oculus, but PlayStation VR is far more accessible; anyone who has one of the 36 million PlayStation 4 consoles that are already in homes today, needs only to splash out $399 for the accessory. At that price, Sony could sell more PlayStation VR headsets between October and December than Oculus and HTC manage all year.

VR virgins don't know what they're missing

Despite the virtues of VR that Sony and its PlayStation business are extolling, the PlayStation VR still feels a little bit like a concept product. It comes with the excitement of a newborn baby, but one whose parents are still guarded. Neither Marks nor anyone else at Sony would disclose what the projected reach for PlayStation VR will be.

"It's really hard to predict how many , and the challenge is that a lot of people haven't tried it, so they don't know what the experience is like," Marks said. "I can understand a lot of people having a lot of skepticism since they haven't tried it. It's a lot different than having a little mini TV by your head. It's actually a window into this new world that's a lot different than that."

One of the challenges for Sony, its partners and its rivals in the VR space is to market this experience, especially to those who have never experienced virtual reality before. Even Marks, one of the public faces of the project, feels that he isn't able to succinctly describe the experience of being magically teleported from reality to virtual worlds.

In fact, comparing a television with an expanded screen wouldn't even be close to VR, Marks said of the experience, noting that VR requires a lot of physics to work.

"There is the persistence of an image with television," he said. "If you have a TV set, it shows the image the whole time, and when you move your head, it doesn't behave the right way because it has the same image there for 1/60 of a second. What you need to do is to really lower the display persistence, then it's not just an image you're seeing. It starts to feel like it's real stuff around you, and your brain starts to believe that it's real."

That experience in VR, according to the senior researcher and well, everyone else who has tried it, is magical.

Warning: Please Remain Seated

Another obstacle that the PlayStation VR will face against more compact packages, like Samsung's Gear VR, is that the Sony model still relies on a cord connecting the headset to the PlayStation 4. Because you're so immersed into the virtual world with a screen in front of your face, controllers in hand and headphones wrapped around your ears, this could pose problems like game players tripping over the cord.

"Our recommendation to game developers is for seated VR experiences," Marks explained. "It is a very new technology, and seated is a good way to get started. Some of the videos where you see other people wandering around is not something we're encouraging with our systems. Our system is on a tether, so the idea of wandering around is not the best idea."

Games like the soccer challenge Headmaster require players to stand, and virtual films like Penrose Studios' Allumette ask viewers to walk around and explore the animated short while experiencing the storytelling. In these instances, tripping, or at least fumbling with the cord, is a real challenge that I experienced in my short demos with both third-party content projects for PlayStation VR.

"It is truly transformational when you experience something you care about and you're in this world and you feel like you're transported into an action movie or flying a spaceship," said Marks.

This feeling really does beg the player to move around, interact with and explore the virtual world, and Sony and its partners will need to figure out a way to overcome the tethering issue in the future.

Stepping Outside of the VR Bubble

When we think of VR in this early stage, we think of a player immersed in their own bubble, which is exactly the technology needed for this magical teleportation into a virtual world. But that doesn't have to be the case, and Sony is working on making VR a more social, engaging experience that you can share and play with friends. There are two ways that Marks and his team are approaching social.

First, with remote game play, which we're also seeing Oculus experiment with - you can experience VR with together with players across the world. "You can actually look over and feel like they're right there next to you in this other place," Marks said.

The second way to share in the gaming experience is to play with other players in the same room. If you're hosting a game night on the couch in your living room, you can have a multiplayer setup. Even though only a single PlayStation VR can be connected to a PlayStation 4, asymmetric game play allows other players to play on the TV with game controllers alongside a player wearing the VR headset.

"In the living room, we have the unique situation where we have the PlayStation connected to this nice social screen of the home, and we have the ability to have VR send something to that screen and send something separately to the headset," Marks explained.

"So you can have the people there with you participating in different ways. When you're in VR, they can see what you're seeing, if you like them to, so they can know why you're reacting the way you are. But then, you can also change so that they can see what they're doing with controllers on the television set. There are a lot of creative ideas that people have come up with to do that. We do think that it's important that it's not an isolating experience."

Big Screen v VR Screen

Virtual reality opens up the possibility to create highly individualized experiences. If you're peering into a VR film, like Allumette, you can be exploring different surroundings, while the story is unfolding, depending on what interests you.

Eugene Chung, the founder of Penrose Studios, said that VR directors will need to learn new ways to cut a project and to always direct the viewer's attention back to the storyline, and that VR films must be built from the ground up. Porting existing flicks, like Sony's Spiderman franchise, to VR wouldn't work.

Creators and producers have also discovered that some things that they thought wouldn't work in VR will actually work surprisingly well. This sentiment was echoed by James Steininger, co-creator of Xing, and Cy Wise, who worked on Job Simulator. But, for instance, devs are now forming clear rules to help with the process. VR games require that elements within the game not be placed too close to the user's face, and the preferred scaling is 1:1 to create a realistic experience.

Garreth Hughes, the lead designer at Sony-owned Guerrilla Cambridge studio, explained that in fast paced games, breaks should be designed to allow users to slow down before the action picks up again. In Rigs, a futuristic e-sports game where robots battle each other in an arena, Hughes' team designed half-times in the game to break up the action.

A future of wearable accessories?

VR also opens the doors for personalized gaming. Imagine that along with the headset, you're connected to even more wearable sensors, such as heart rate monitors, to collect additional data. In this sense, the game can amp up the thrill if it detects you're not getting enough adrenaline out of the experience.

"Always our goal as a company is to push these boundaries on gaming and what's possible, and we use new technologies to do that all the time," Marks said of his team's examination of how wearables and other technologies can create even better virtual experiences. "As a research group, we're always looking at ways to move things forward."

For now, however, Marks said that he is very happy with the PlayStation VR system, which includes the headset, DualShock controllers and the Move controllers to give you virtual hands and a tactile experience inside the environment.

"What happens with VR is that we crossed this bar where they can provide high quality presence now," Marks said. "Once you can do that, what matters is the content. So if you have something compelling to do, all of the high-end systems now have crossed the bar where you're convinced you're doing it."

There are also concerns that the heightened sense of reality that VR produces could be addicting. We've heard extreme stories of gamers suffering from heart attacks because they haven't taken a gaming break in days and their bodies shut down, but Martin Echenique, a manager of online engineering at SCE Worldwide Studios, told me that the danger is no worse than with traditional gaming.

Magic for the mainstream

The PlayStation VR is arriving later than the other high end rivals but it will still probably be the first mainstream VR headset. CCS Insight predicts that of 15 million VR headsets sold in 2016, only 2 million of those will be powered by a console or PC. We'd say that's a low overall estimate and that Sony will take a big chunk of high end headset sales this Christmas.

So what happens when the virtual becomes more real than reality?

"That's one of my favorite things," Marks said of virtual reality's potential for entertainment. "You can go into VR and you can have these superhero powers and feel like you're in these new places - places that I always wished I could visit - and you can go there. That's the beauty of VR, that it's always magical."

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