Sony was in a jubilant mood at the Game Developers Conference once again last night. The platform holder is starting to really enjoy the industry focused convention, having spent the previous show flaunting its newfound indie focus. This year’s event was always going to be all about virtual reality, though, and Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida couldn’t resist cracking a joke about the trail of leaks that led to last night’s Project Morpheus unveiling. “Thank you for coming to this cryptic Sony presentation,” he jokingly prefaced the presentation. “You have no idea what we’re going to talk about.”
In truth, the PlayStation 4 powered virtual reality headset turned out to be exactly what we were expecting. As the rumours had suggested, it shares the same technology as the PlayStation Move – a combination of illuminated surfaces and various internal accelerometers – in order to provide sub-millimetre motion tracking when used in conjunction with the PlayStation Camera. It’s a difficult technology to communicate with text, but just like the Oculus Rift, the pledge is to provide “presence” within digital worlds. Indeed, by adapting the display tethered to your face as you physically crane your neck, developers will be able to simulate the sense of being somewhere else.
This is not an easy thing to pull off, and that’s part of the reason that it opted to announce the device in front of a crowd of developers; despite being in production for over three years, the platform holder still hasn’t found solutions to all of the problems that it faces. “There are a lot of challenges that we really don’t have the answers to,” software engineer Anton Mikhailov told the packed out crowd. “We have some ideas, but it’d be really great to talk to you guys about the answers.” This sentiment was mirrored by EyeToy creator Dr. Richard Marks. “We need the development community [behind us] if we’re going to achieve what we think is possible,” he said.
However, for all of the beaming and bluster that was part of the panel, the overlooked elephant in the sweaty seminar hall centred on price. With the peripheral itself still in a prototype phase, it’s understandable that the company didn’t touch on cost during its core presentation, but the concluding question and answer session did bring up one tidbit on the kind of financial investment that will be required to adopt the new format. “One of the great things about being [in] consumer electronics is that it’s affordable,” assured a defiant Shuhei Yoshida. Looking at the sheer number of components involved, though, we’re not sure how it possibly can be.
Much like the PlayStation Move before it, there are a lot of parts that make up the Japanese giant’s vision. In addition to a PlayStation 4 console and PlayStation Camera – not an insignificant purchase on their own – you’ll also need one of the head-mounted displays and at least one illuminated wand to get the full experience. It’s the kind of clunky assembly that will see “helpful” infographics added to game boxes, with tick charts demonstrating which bits of gear you’ll need to get started. The firm cited ease-of-use as one of the key attributes needed to make virtual reality mainstream, and while we’ve no doubt that it’ll deliver on the plug-and-play part, we worry about all of the different bits.
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Still, in all likelihood, by the time that this becomes a commercial product, the company will have concocted some kind of Starter Kit to get people going. Much like its motion controller, we imagine that you’ll be able to pick up all of the parts in one big box. Alas, considering all of the technology crammed into this, we can’t see it selling for less than $199.99. After all, the PlayStation Camera alone currently retails for $59.99 – throw in a controller and a chunky piece of machinery with a 1080p display, and that cost is certain to rise. The manufacturer may have been eager to distance itself from the word ‘accessory’, but that’s essentially what this is.
And the last generation taught us that it can be hard to justify add-ons in the market place. Sony sold over 15 million PlayStation Move controllers, but you could count the number of dedicated titles on one hand. There was a period where the peripheral had some success as an added extra, but it’s going to be harder for developers to toss in virtual reality support – that’s something that needs to be built from the ground up. Even the more successful Kinect struggled to accrue software on the Xbox 360, prompting Microsoft to bundle the optical extra alongside the Xbox One to ensure that developers have an entire install base to target.
There are pure practical problems, too. One of the title’s being demoed on the device is named Castle, and sounds like a re-working of Zindagi Games’ sword fighting minigame from Sports Champions. Pairing the headset with two PlayStation Move controllers, the technology taster will see you competing with a sword and shield inside a medieval Mont Saint-Michel. It sounds exciting, but given all of the moving parts, how will developers be able to rely on users owning a headset, camera, and multiple motion wands? The concept sounds brilliant, but it doesn’t appear to be feasible.
As a result, the manufacturer has just as many commercial hurdles to hop over as it does technological ones. It would argue that last night’s demonstration was all about the vision, and it would be accurate – but it’s difficult to get overly excited at the prospect of a product that sounds like such a difficult sell. Perhaps the peripheral will launch alongside enough truly breathtaking software to justify its cost – we’re told that CCP Games’ space sim EVE: Valkyrie is extraordinary – and thus our concerns will be rendered moot. The platform holder will need to use all of its charm to get major publishers to jump on board, though.
And yet, for all of the potential setbacks, Sony deserves credit for once again taking the industry by the scruff of its neck. Oculus Rift may have spearheaded the push into a different dimension, but the Japanese giant has the brand awareness and marketing clout to make it a real mainstream reality. Moreover, it appears to be strides ahead of its competitors in the console space yet again; while Shuhei Yoshida was teasing the future in one corner of San Francisco’s monstrous Moscone Centre, its closest competitor Microsoft was showing the fruits of its long overdue [email protected] indie initiative. Call it coincidental scheduling if you will, but the gap is certainly growing between the two.
Do you agree that price could be the biggest barrier to Project Morpheus’ success? Are you excited by the potential of virtual reality, or are you tired of gaming gimmicks? Enter our world in the comments section below.
How much would you pay to play games with Project Morpheus? (76 votes)
Less than $99.99
Between $100.00 and $149.99
Between $150.00 and $199.99
More than $200.00
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