Hands-on with Sony’s PlayStation VR: The virtual reality dark horse


It’s official, 2016 is the year of virtual reality. But you probably can’t afford it.

Systems like Oculus Rift (from Facebook) and HTC Vive (from HTC and Valve) are too pricey for many of us. That’s because in addition to the Rift and Vive’s already hefty price tags — they sell for $600 and $800 respectively — they also require you to have a high-end PC, which will cost you at minimum another $1,000.

But there’s a dark horse in the virtual reality wars: Sony’s PlayStation VR. Formally announced back in March, the PSVR is both less expensive than its rivals — bundles run $500 — and doesn’t require a hardcore PC to operate; instead, it runs off your standard PlayStation 4.

(The standard PSVR pack will cost $400, but it won’t include the Camera or Move controllers. To get those you’ll have to get the special pre-order bundle for $500 — or else you could presumably purchase everything separately.)

I spent some time with the PSVR during a recent press event in New York, and believe that, while the system could be the first VR headset for the masses, it still has a few drawbacks.

The hardware

I’ve been lucky enough to try out all three of the major virtual reality headsets, and while none of them are exactly uncomfortable, Sony’s is the least noticeable when you’re wearing it. It doesn’t feel heavy; after a bit, you almost forget it’s there.

The PSVR is also the easiest headset to put on. A button on the back lets you stretch out the headset’s band to quickly fit it around your noggin. It’s a much better system than the velcro-style straps used by the Rift and Vive.

A second button on the front of the PSVR lets you move the actual display portion of the headset closer to or farther from your face. This is by far my favorite feature of the headset, because it enables people who wear glasses (like me) to adjust the PSVR so it doesn’t mash your lenses against your face.

To track your head movements (and so adjust your perspective inside its virtual worlds), Sony’s PlayStation Camera follows nine large blue lights on the PSVR’s front, back, and sides. To sense your motions, the camera also tracks a large, light-up ball on top of the PlayStation Move controller and the light on the front of the standard PlayStation 4 controller.

The experience

Having used HTC’s Vive room-scale virtual reality system, Sony’s PSVR felt a bit restrictive at first. You can certainly move around a bit when playing standing games, and the Camera will still track the headset, but move too far, and it’ll stop tracking.

One of the onerous — though ultimately helpful — features of the Vive is that it has twotracking stations, which you position on opposite sides of your room. If, in turning around in a game, your body blocks the sensor in front of you, the one behind you will still have you covered.

That’s not the case with the PSVR. While playing Waltz of the Wizard, I turned away from the camera and the system had trouble picking up my controller. Facebook’s Oculus Rift, which also uses a sensor to track its headset and soon-to-be-released motion controllers, will presumably have to deal with the same issue.

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