The big guns are coming for virtual reality, and they know what they are doing. A hands-on demo with Sony’s Project Morpheus proved it really is a comfortable, stylish and mighty option among the growing number of VR headsets. I’m already hungry for more time on the platform.
Sony Worldwide Studios president Shu Yoshida revealed this second version of the Morpheus headset Tuesday, the first major update since Sony announced it at the 2014 Game Developers Conference. It now has a 5.7-inch screen with a 1920 x 1080 pixel RGB OLED display, latency that clocks in at less than 18 milliseconds, a 120 frames-per-second refresh rate and a 100-degree field of view.
That 100-degree view means I still had black at the edges of my vision, but the screen itself looked fantastic. I didn’t notice any latency (a disconnect between when I turned my head and the picture caught up). Everything felt smooth and responsive. There’s still a bit of the “screen door effect,” where you can see a grid laid over the entirety of your vision, but it was fine enough that I only noticed it when I looked for it.
Even the goggles themselves didn’t distract me. Project Morpheus is easily the comfiest VR headset I’ve ever worn. Its adjustable strap keeps the weight on your head instead of your nose, giving you the sensation that the headset is simply floating in front of your face. Finally, it’s easy to concentrate on just being in virtual reality.
That sense was compounded by the Move controllers I held in my hands, basically joysticks with large bulbs on their tops. They tracked my hands, but not fingers, seemingly exactly, and had well-placed triggers for shooting guns and initiating other actions.
The controllers were showcased perfectly in London Heist, an early standout among the content Sony is showcasing on the headset. You begin in an interrogation chair in a squalid, dark room, where a tattooed man in an undershirt brandishes a propane torch in an attempt to get you to spill.
Then you are transported back in time to the event he is so curious about. In an ornate room, you pull open the drawers and cabinet doors of a desk until you find a key, which unlocks a compartment containing a diamond. Alarm bells sound and guards begin firing. You pull a gun out of another drawer and shoot back until all the guards are dead.
It’s an excellent demo of the entire Morpheus system. The Move controllers captured my aim with the virtual gun perfectly. I could step toward the desk and lean down to look into different compartments. You don’t have to worry about moving in Morpheus — it just works.
But the demo that really grabbed my attention was Japan Studio’s Bedroom Robots. You find yourself in a vaguely cartoonish room where the top of a dresser is covered in robots running on treadmills, racing cars and even flying a little drone. Lean in close and the robots respond; when I checked in on a little guy floating on an inner tube in a pool, a shark suddenly popped up and dragged him underwater.
Virtual reality content tends to trend toward dark, moody scenes engineered to make you feel tense. The brightly colored Bedroom Robots was sheer joy, and it showed off just how crisp Project Morpheus’ screen can look. I felt as if I were inside Andy’s room in “Toy Story.”
The robots reappeared in another Japan Studio demo where the standard Playstation controller I held in my real hands appeared in virtual reality. I pushed buttons to turn on music, causing the robots to dance gleefully, and turn the lights off. When I pointed the virtual controller, now a flashlight, at the robots, they cowered from the light before going back to dancing.
“You being able to affect the world is important to us,” Sony R&D lead Richard Marks said in an interview. “We want lots of breadths of experiences.”
I’m glad Sony is thinking that way. In an updated demo of The Deep, I descended in a shark cage past sea turtles and luminescent jellyfish. Near the bottom of the ocean a shark began circling. It tore off the front of the cage and continued to circle, getting closer and closer in its attacks. I could walk to the edge of the cage, but do nothing to stop the shark. It might be a frightening, wow-inducing experience for a first-time virtual reality user, but I barely reacted. I wanted to interact.
Marks said Sony plans to make small changes to the Morpheus hardware and software before the big consumer release next year, but the bigger goal is awareness. Sony wants everyone to understand the appeal of virtual reality, and Marks thinks it is in a good place to do that thanks to existing Playstation users. He said Project Morpheus tackles a different group than the PC-based Oculus Rift and all the mobile options.
If Project Morpheus were available today, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it. The only thing missing is content. Sony has strong relationships with the studios behind plenty of blockbuster video games that could trickle into the virtual reality space by this time next year. The question is whether it can beat out (or find its niche alongside) Oculus, which has been courting every developer in the industry for years now, and fellow gaming big shot Valve.