Most of the time it feels like jumping the gun if you decide to preview hardware, but in the case of virtual reality, exceptions have to be made. It’s been the holy grail of science fiction geeks since the 80s thanks to William Gibson’s seminal Neuromancer trilogy, and people have been trying to make his concept of cyberspace a reality in the decades since. Oculus Rift dipped their toe into the VR pool first, but Sony is not far behind with “Project Morpheus,” a codename with allusions to the Greek god of dreams. Sony first trotted out their prototype VR headset earlier this year at the Game Developer’s Conference, and it had another coming out party at this year’s E3. So what does it feel like to strap one of the pioneers in retail VR experiences?
Designed For People, Not Geeks
Like Oculus Rift’s VR unit, the Project Morpheus headset is still a prototype and in no way is guaranteed to release to the public in its current form. Having said that, the actual physical design of the Morpheus headset is already in surprisingly good, comfortable shape. It’s probably Sony’s own legacy of designing consumer electronics for the last few decades that have benefited Morpheus, as the ergonomic engineering is very impressive. The Rift unit still uses simple bands to attach to the user’s head, creating a noticeable, heavy weight on the front of the user’s head that encourages gravity to drag the entire headset down. Sony’s solution to this was to create an entire rigid but adjustable headband that distributes the weight of the Morpheus unit evenly on the user’s head, negating the sensation of front loaded heaviness.
As with Rift, the Morpheus headset has also been designed for all users in mind, including those that need to wear glasses. However, at the E3 demonstration, users were herded into booths where experienced assistants put on the headsets, so it’s unclear exactly how easy or difficult the gear is to wear in normal home circumstances with no one to help. It’s also obvious that for people wearing glasses, just slapping the headset on and tightening it up is not going to work as well. While others were able to get up and running in 30 seconds or less, I—wearing glasses—often found that it would take a bit longer to hit the sweet spot not feeling abnormal pressure on any one part of my face, while still keeping things in focus. For example, the very first time I tried the Morpheus headset, there was minor, persistent pressure on the left bridge of my nose. My second time using the headset, there was no physical discomfort at all, but the image was slightly blurrier. People need to keep in mind that for those that wear glasses, a few extra minutes will probably be required to make sure that a VR headset is a good fit. Once it’s on, however, head movement is both natural and easy.
The Latency Issue
Project Morpheus and Oculus Rift both have a problem that regular videogames rarely deal with; nausea. While some gamers have experienced nausea when playing FPS games for extended periods of time, that nausea is much more pronounced with a VR headset. It’s a complicated mix of conflicting sensory input, as the eye tells the brain one thing about movement, while the inner ear reports another thing, and any delay in image transmission to the display with actual physical movement merely worsens this. Both Sony and Oculus have spent a lot of time tackling this problem, and it looks like both of them have overcome the biggest hurdle, latency. My time with the Morpheus headset allowed me to move my head and look around myself, and the movement felt natural. Not perfect, mind, you, but functional enough that there was no queasiness or inner ear conflict. Past attempts at VR had a head movement followed by the same movement on the actual VR unit a millisecond later or more. Morpheus, however, kept feedback between actual head movement and displayed movement on the headset synchronized to acceptable levels.
This latency factor is particularly important for gaming needs, as those milliseconds can make the difference between a win and a loss, in addition to issues of nausea. Morpheus has been built with a first focus on games, and it was obvious in the demos Sony had on display. The previous GDC demos were available at E3, including the Shark, medieval dummy and Eve: Valkyrie space fighter simulation with multiplayer enabled. However, there were also new demos, such as “street luge,” which tasked players with racing down a highway on a luge, dodging traffic, as well as a Jurassic Park-style demo that let players feed leaves to herbivorous dinosaurs.
In all of these instances, movement felt natural, doubtless because of the combination of different controllers and the PS4 camera all being used as part of a “combined arms” interface, rather than trying to get headset to handle all the functionality by itself. There are still very important questions about how design games for VR, and, more importantly, how long a VR session is considered safe before nausea or eye issues become a factor. However, Project Morpheus is already showing a lot of promise in its innovative, ergonomic design. We still need to see how pricing—and more importantly, games—will factor into this technology, but virtual reality is of the few truly new and interesting frontiers in gaming. Hopefully, the combined might of Sony with Morpheus and Facebook with Oculus will make it work this time.