OPINION: Why PlayStation VR is virtual reality’s first real test

In his latest regular column, former Sony Studio London and indie virtual reality developer Dave Ranyard talks about the imminent launch of PlayStation VR.

So, this is it. Next week, Sony launches PlayStation VR.

This is the first real consumer test of VR. Yes, we have had Oculus and Vive but these have been relatively small compared to Sony’s launch. For the high-end sets we are still in early adopter and tech enthusiast territory. My guess is that they have sold less than 250,000 units combined and are likely to hit 500,000 by the end of the year at best.

And yes we have the likes of Gear VR and Cardboard. But these are both an additive experiences to mobile, although the Gear has done some significant numbers so we should not discount it too quickly.

PlayStation VR will give us our clearest picture yet as to demand and customer enthusiasm. Sony wants to shift significant numbers too, somewhere north of a million in the first year. It has a strong launch line-up and the price, even with a PS4, is under a grand. The strategy, a smart one, is to build a user base with a competitive price and then keep growing it. Start ahead and stay ahead. That same strategy got the PS4 to lead this generation so significantly.

So where’s the catch? Why aren’t I re-mortgaging the house to buy Sony shares? Console launches are tough, but they are a known quantity. The most complicated decisions for Sony last time were the policy on second hand games and the exclusion of the PlayStation Camera and, to be honest, Microsoft helped them out enormously. This time, there’s a lot more complexity under the hood.

My biggest issue is the PlayStation Move controller. My personal view of great VR is simple: eyes, ears, hands. At the moment, this is where the magic is, and what breaks VR out to a much wider audience. Yet Sony is still asking developers to make a DualShock 4 version of Move VR games…. really? For Job Simulator or London Heist? I have heard so many studios express concern about this, not to mention the accompanying (and in my opinion misleading) marketing line ‘enhanced by Move’. Though Move is a great VR input, it does need a revamp. First announced seven years ago it hasn’t been redesigned for ‘unsighted’ (i.e. in VR) use. The tiny buttons need to go, the Move button should be a clickable touch pad and a second trigger, like on Oculus Touch, would not go amiss.

There is also the camera cone. It’s easy for a player to move forward a little and put their hand outside the tracking cone that results in immersion-breaking tracking loss. Compared to the stereo tracking of Oculus and Room Scale of Vive, this is a subtle but significant difference.

Sony has yet again given too much choice to consumers about what to buy and what they need. There are bundles for those with Moves, those with a camera and for those without anything. It is like Apple releasing two SKUs of a phone, one with headphones and one without (maybe not such a good example right now). And do I need a PS4 Pro to run PSVR without framing out? Early adopters will get it, but more mainstream consumers will be confused as to which bundle they need or want. How do I know if I need Move controllers or not?

But even with all this secondary confusion, Sony will lead the early sales, partly due to price, but also due to compelling content which matches closely to their dedicated audience. I hope that this will kick-start home VR entertainment for real, although it will take a while to become really mainstream. Whatever the outcome, it’s a fascinating time for gaming, tech and of course VR.

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