Matthew Jarvis considers whether Sony’s virtual reality headset for the PS4 can compete against long-time games industry darling the Oculus Rift…
Possibly the biggest news to arise out of GDC 2014 so far is the announcement of a Sony virtual reality headset for the PS4, dubbed Project Morpheus.
The headset is perhaps the first big competitor to bump gloves against the current VR flagbearer, the Oculus Rift, and with the backing of one of the biggest electronics manufacturers in the world, could be set to unseat relative newcomer Oculus VR.
But will it?
The Oculus Rift has been in the eye of the tech sector for a few years now, and has been praised by everyone from legendary programmer and creator of Doom John Carmack, who left his previous job to work at the VR firm, to the cast of TV series Game of Thrones, who had a chance to experience their fictional world virtualised inside the Rift.
The progression of the Rift from Kickstarter success to the industry influence it has today has been accompanied by a number of similar and companion virtual reality devices, with the Rift setting the bar of comparison for many observers.
This has both helped and hampered the Rift – the slew of so-so products following in the headset’s wake have largely highlighted the Rift’s strong design and innovations, but with so much now resting on its shoulders, the consumer version of the Rift will face an even more intense barrage of commentary and comparisons when it is finally released later this year.
Observers are already comparing Sony’s Morpheus to the Rift, despite the fact that the final design and specifications of both are still in flux.
Sony’s headset is said to be focusing on a greater level of “presence” than the Rift, incorporating a number of Sony’s visual and audio technologies to further immerse players into virtual worlds.
Sony already has some history with the virtual reality market, having flirted with the sector in the form of its HMZ range of head mounted displays, which provide a virtual screen to users without the control and tracking of a full VR experience.
The main boon for Sony as it stacks up against the Rift will be the existing install base of gamers on the rapidly selling PS4 platform, despite the Rift’s possibly larger library of PC-based software and games.
Richard Marks, senior director of research and development at Sony Computer Entertainment America, has already said that a primary focus for the Morpheus is a ‘plug and play’ ease of setup, meaning very little effort should be required for players to start dipping their toes in the virtual reality pool.
The Oculus Rift, while popular among tech-heads and developers, has largely remained inaccessible in its current form for everyday consumers, often requiring some knowledge of command lines and below-the-surface workings of users’ PCs to get going.
The consumer version of the Rift may very well be easy to use as Sony says the Morpheus will be. But for now, consumers that may have been turned away for the ‘developer-only’ label of the Rift might have had their interest piqued by the friendly approach of Sony’s rival headset.
Despite this, the success of either device may come down to something as simple as price.
The PS4’s success over the Xbox One – which many might attribute to the £50 price jump needed to purchase the latter – has proved the importance of price (as was the case when the Xbox 360 initially bested the premium-priced PS3 back in 2007).
But will Sony continue to show its price-savvy nature when it comes to the Morpheus?
Its existing head mounted displays circle around the £800 to £1,000 price mark, and with undoubtedly a higher level of technology contained in Morpheus, the headset could struggle to justify itself to consumers’ wallets if it launches with a similar cost. But for a gaming accessory to cost more than the console itself is unlikely.
Meanwhile, Oculus VR has often stated its intention to launch the Rift for as little as possible – with discussions of providing the hardware for free (supported by paid advertising or developer subsidies) also making the rounds.
Overall, it remains to be seen which headset will become the crowned VR device for gamers and enthusiasts.
It may even be that both succeed, rallying the crowd on their respective platforms, while platform-agnostics choose to pledge their allegiance based on their specific needs.
Regardless, the increasing heat in the virtual reality sector should guarantee that both companies continue to push their technological developments to the limit – and their prices as low as possible. In the end, the real winner is the consumer.