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Make or break: How PlayStation VR can make virtual reality more than just a gaming gimmick

I’m in two-minds about VR, and I’m not sold on PlayStation VR. As far as affordability and accessibility go, Sony’s VR headset is undoubtedly the way to go if you’re looking to invest in the technology, but I have concerns about the long-term viability of the hardware beyond being just another gaming gimmick. That said, I’m confident that Sony can lead the way and really establish the technology as an exciting new way to play for years to come.

My primary concerns focus around two things: the sensory responsiveness, which differs person to person, and the quality of the games that we’re getting. The software element is an important aspect of Sony’s VR philosophy. It’s not the only area I think Sony really needs to focus and improve upon to expand PlayStation VR’s appeal and longevity.

Force developers to hit a higher fps benchmark

Sony currently requires developers to hit a 60fps benchmark. If a game ever dips below that benchmark, Sony says it won’t verify the game for PlayStation VR. The problem, however, is that other VR headsets on the market set a 90fps benchmark. That demands a modest PC hardware boost. What we see out of the VR community on PC is a general consensus that 60fps is okay, but mostly not good enough. The primary issue, however, is with the refresh rate of the screen, which is 90Hz. This leads to an undesirable viewing experience for some people. GearVR runs at a smooth 60fps, but higher-quality headwear like Vive and Oculus demand 90fps for optimal experience. Reports out of E3 suggested Resident Evil 7 was disorientating for some, an experience I have had myself with a number of PlayStation VR titles. Compare to software running at 90fps, and it’s a significant leap in latency and sensory orientation.

The strange thing is that while Sony is setting a 60fps benchmark, they’re pushing for 120fps through reprojection and low latency at around 18ms. Reprojection creates an addition frame between two frames, meaning 60 frames becomes 120 frames. Yet the loud feedback out of E3 2016 was that RE7 struggled to hit a 60fps benchmark. Capcom even had to respond to concerns about the game.

“The title is still in development and is still being optimized across all aspects, including for VR. The development team’s priority with VR is ensuring that players’ comfort and ability to enjoy the game to its full potential is realized.”

You know that feedback has been bad when a publisher has to release a statement months before their game is released. For the sake of PlayStation VR — and the technology more broadly — Sony absolutely has to start setting higher benchmarks for developers. If reprojection works as intended, with the process running at the very end just before the frame is to be displayed, then setting a high benchmark shouldn’t ask too much more of the hardware itself.

What I fear is, as Oculus VR’s Palmer Luckey said a few years back, that the technology itself is what kills it off.

“When [VR] arrives, it has to be good. Really bad VR is the only thing that can kill off VR.” – Palmer Luckey

While Resident Evil 7 is still cooking in the oven, it’s telling that only a few months out from release one of the headset’s killer apps is making people throw up.


Ditch Move completely, or replace it with something better

Sony’s reignited infatuation with Move has me worried. These six-year-old controllers are about as responsive as a third-party Wii game, which makes the focus around them as ideal companions for PlayStation VR increasingly worrying. The problem isn’t even that motion-control is outdated and uncool. It’s that the Move controllers themselves are terrible for tracking and precision. PlayStation VR isn’t aiming for the same market as HTC Vive, which is firmly aimed at the high-end PC audience. However, motion controls are ultimately what set the two headsets apart. Where the Vive’s controllers function superbly and rarely if ever need recalibration, Sony’s Move controller have long been considered cheap Wiimote knock-offs that lack the precision that VR gaming demands.

MORE: Make or break: How PlayStation VR can make virtual reality more than just a gaming gimmick

There is a new camera for the PS4 to track movement, but the Move technology, which really underpins the whole thing, is six years old. I’ve played a handful of PlayStation VR games, and Move simply doesn’t compare to the experience a standard DualShock 4 controller can offer. I’m astonished that Sony is even bothering showing off PlayStation VR with Move. They desperately need to update that technology and create a specific controller that matches what we get with Vive and Oculus. Sony is really playing with fire in treating Move as something even remotely close to a respectable gaming device, and I’m worried that the calibration and precision issues could spell the end of VR generally in the same way Wii shovelware and Move mutated motion control into an obnoxious, frustrating gimmick.

The new Aim Controller, a gun-shaped accessory that will work with recently-revealed shooter Farpoint, is a step in the right direction, but its design limits its functionality and use with other games, so it’s any wonder if we’ll get better Move tech. As great as the Aim Controller is at this stage, it all seems too familiar, like we’re back at the Move launch and teased with what seems like exciting motion tech, but is really just the same old imprecise gaming experience from six years ago.

Some games dictate precision in a way Move simply can’t offer. Sony needs to address this sooner rather than later.

Tidy up the messages around price and requirements

One of the most appealing things of PlayStation VR is the price. At $549.95 in Australia, when compared next to what the HTC Vive and Oculus are going for — anywhere between $800 and $2,500 — PlayStation VR is a bargain. The problem, however, is what you actually need to get the full experience. The headset alone is $549.95, but you also need a PS4 Camera. Some Move controllers would do you good as well based on how hard Sony is showing the headset off with them, so now you’re looking at around an extra $100. If you don’t own a PS4, you’re closing in on around $900 for the full PlayStation VR experience.

Then there is the Aim Controller. Farpoint can use both the DS4 and Aim Controller, but at the moment it’s the only game that we know of that uses the controller. Sony hasn’t said what else uses it, yet it’s selling it alongside a title that works just as well with the standard PS4 controller.

Now I know what you’re thinking: if people want to buy it for one game then that’s their decision. Although that’s not the issue for me. It’s about establishing a trusting audience that is expecting more than just a gaming gimmick. The message to me so far has been mixed and cryptic, like as if Sony doesn’t want us to know that PlayStation VR is just all toned down experiences and motion control. It absolutely needs to be more than that, and if it’s not, then Sony needs to be a little more honest as a means to lower consumer expectations. I feel that a lot of people are going to go into VR and PlayStation VR with this expectation of full gaming experiences, when the reality is anything but. This leads into my next point…


Be honest about the experiences on offer

What we’ve heard about games like Resident Evil 7, Batman Arkham and Fallout 4 VR makes it seem like these are full VR experience. Sony and its developers have been very cheeky in marketing these titles, purposefully avoiding words like “demo” and “experience” as a means to justify what’s in each game. The reality is that Batman Arkham is not Batman: Arkham Knight in VR. It’s just a first-person Batman VR experience. Most other games that we’ve seen and heard of for PlayStation VR are just that: scaled-back games that offer either teases of the industry’s AAA blockbuster titles, or simplistic shooters and first-person horror titles that work as temporary showcases of the hardware’s sensory offerings.

You really can’t help but think back to the launches of Move and Kinect. Both were tech created to fill a demand for motion-controls. Move failed to establish much of a foothold among an established PlayStation audience, while Microsoft ruined Kinect by forcing it down the throats of the committed Xbox contingency. Both companies misinterpreted the longevity of the technology, treating them as more than just gaming gimmicks aimed at a “non-gaming” crowd that Nintendo leveraged to sell the Wii. I really hope that Sony isn’t doing the same with PlayStation VR. If the experience is meant to be a casual, quick introduction to what VR is capable of, then set those expectations. The way it’s being sold at the moment and the reality of the experience paints it as a gimmick. The worrying thing is that unlike motion control, VR is a technology that has interest from both the mainstream and “hardcore” crowd, and it’s hardware like PlayStation VR that can see the tone for the tech going forward.

Here’s hoping Sony plays its cards right and turns PlayStation VR into a must-have gaming beast.

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