The word “incredible” gets thrown around a lot, but virtual reality actually earns that praise: you literally won’t believe how well it works until you see it for yourself. The software side of things has been slow to catch up to the potential of VR headsets, but the technology itself is mindblowing because of the way it lets us interact with virtual worlds like we’re actually there – something that’d only been dreamed of until the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive came out earlier this year. It’s fantastic that Sony’s PlayStation VR headset will allow many more people to have these groundbreaking experiences by lowering the financial barrier to entry, with only a few compromises.
Though the PlayStation VR Launch Bundle is advertised at only $399.99, that price is misleading because it’s mostly useless without the $59.99 PlayStation Camera, which is sold separately. Additionally, many of the launch games either require or make use of one or two motion-tracked PlayStation Move controllers, which must also be purchased separately for between $20 and $30 each. Bundles (like the one on which this review is based) are available with the full set for $499.99, which is still a major price advantage. The HTC Vive, which includes its two Lighthouse sensors and motion controllers, costs $799.99; the Oculus Rift is $599.99 and comes with one sensor and an Xbox One controller (and its wireless dongle), but Oculus will soon release its Touch controllers for an as-yet-unannounced price that is speculated to be in the range of $200. So, combined with the fact that it hooks up to a $299.99 PlayStation 4 instead of a gaming PC that would cost you $700 or more, the PlayStation VR is by far the cheapest option for good-quality VR with motion control.
Cheaper almost always comes with a “you get what you pay for” caveat, and the PlayStation VR is no exception. But the impact of those differences is less than I’d expected when it comes to what happens when you put the headset on. One of the most important parts of a VR headset is the screen, and having used the higher-resolution Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (which both use two screens for a combined resolution of 2160×1200), I’m impressed at the quality of the PlayStation VR’s 1920×1080 image, which is split down the middle to display a different point of view for each eye. While the resolution is noticeably lower, the “screen door effect,” caused by the faint lines that separate the pixels on a display when you view it up close, is minimal. In-game text is very readable (though it must be larger than on other headsets to be legible). There’s also little or none of the visible radial lens pattern or streaking light effects I observed on the other two headsets.
No matter which headset you choose you’ll see virtual worlds through what looks like SCUBA goggles. The field of view on the PlayStation VR is slightly lower than its competitors (meaning the goggles look thicker) but in the same ballpark; the differences between the three are minor enough that unless you’re directly comparing one after another you’re unlikely to notice.
One of the big questions going in was whether the PlayStation 4 had enough horsepower to run games at the 90-frames-per-second rate that VR demands in order to minimize nausea. So far it has kept up admirably, with no significant frame rate dips in any of the games I’ve tried. That’s in both high-detail games like Batman: Arkham VR or EVE Valkyrie and low-detail ones like Tumble VR or Job Simulator. Again, it will never look as good as a Rift or a Vive on a gaming PC, which are capable of producing sharper and more detailed images, but the PlayStation VR does the job adequately. And with several people in the IGN office playing games on it over the past week, none has reported any unusual problems with nausea.
The other crucial part of a VR setup like this one is the motion tracking, and here is where I felt the pinch most. Relative to the Vive and its two sensors placed in opposite corners of your play area, the PlayStation VR’s reliance on its single camera is a significant weakness. It does work reasonably well thanks to the depth-sensing capabilities of its two lenses, but its field of view is narrow enough that I frequently bumped up against its limits with the Move controllers. With the recommended six feet of distance between me and the camera, I find I have to frequently adjust the angle to cover me when switching between a standing experience like Batman: Arkham VR and a sitting one like SuperHyperCube.
And even in the best-case scenario, it can’t cover your whole body and the floor around you, so if you see something shiny on or near the ground you can’t reach down to pick it up. All the games I’ve played thus far (such as Job Simulator, Tumble VR, and Batman) have accounted for this by simply warping items back to the playable height if you drop them, but it’s jarring to have your hand stop two feet from your target. You can tell someone they’re not supposed to do that until you’re blue in the face, but considering the whole point of VR is to fool people’s brains into thinking what they’re seeing is real, they will still make that mistake from time to time.