Exclusive: How One Developer Turned a PS Vita into a Virtual Reality Headset
Posted by Sammy Barker
Thinking outside of the box
Beatshapers, the indie outfit behind recent PlayStation 4 streaming interaction title #killallzombies, is a PlayStation stalwart at this point. The small Ukrainian company has released 21 titles across various Sony systems to date, and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. We previously revealed the company’s inaugural Project Morpheus release, EdgeVR, as well as its PlayStation 4 racer Ready to Run. However, in the eight or so months since we last spoke, the firm has been busy experimenting – and a virtual reality headset made out of the PlayStation Vita is just one of its madcap ideas.
“This was definitely a year of virtual reality for us,” founder Alexey Menshikov enthuses as we catch up with the executive before he embarks on his Christmas break. “We got all of the VR headsets that we could get our hands on, and spent several months working on experiments with various gameplay styles, genres, camera perspectives, and player placement. Our tests went a bit beyond first-person camera, and more focused on third-person view and its respective genres.”
One demo that it’s produced internally is a racing game which employs a fixed camera, but the developer is hesitant to delve into too much detail. We change the subject to the most important order of business: Vita VR. To give some flavour, earlier in the year this editor received a cryptic email from Menshikov merely containing an image of Sony’s system, modified to include a face mask, goggles, and a wrap around head band. So, what on Earth was that all about?
“Well, that was a really fun semi-research project that we made during our VR experiments,” the beaming boss giggles as we pose the question. “Here is the story behind it: I was reading [ex-id Software and current Oculus Rift employee] John Carmack’s article about mobile VR performance optimisations, and pondered whether there are any devices that we can use that offer low-level access to the hardware. In that moment, my eyes rested upon the Vita nestled on my desk – and a light bulb went off. With duct tape, scissors, and a bit of black magic, we made a Vita VR headset.”
For the mask area, Beatshapers originally considered using Google Cardboard, but eventually happened upon a more flexible foam made solution from Stooksy, which has the same lenses as in the Oculus Rift. “We made a quick concept proof prototype with basic geometric graphics, but this had amazing results,” Menshikov continues. “Control wise, we have full access to the rear touchpad, d-pad, face buttons, and triggers. The analogue sticks are only partially exposed, but this could be fixed with a custom fit enclosure. Maybe we’ll use a 3D printer for that if we have enough time.”
According to the executive, the solution works so well because the Vita has a “great programmable pipeline”, as well as very precise gyroscopes for head tracking. “Unfortunately, the screen resolution is not that big, but it’s good enough – better than Oculus Rift Development Kit 1,” he says. “Theoretically, considering that PlayStation TV has DualShock 3 compatibility, it could be possible to pair a controller to the Vita, and use this as a viable VR headset.”
Of course, the company’s got its work cut out right now with Sony’s real VR peripheral, Project Morpheus. Before we allow Menshikov to enjoy his seasonal break, we have to ask about EdgeVR. This was billed as a Mass Effect-esque action RPG when we last spoke to the studio, but it sounds like it’s changed its approach of late. “We’ve focused on giving the player a new experience rather than an action game as planned initially, so the gameplay changed to reflect a new flow,” he explains.
He continues: “The game is about the journey of a man and a big robot, travelling on an unknown planet; both have their own skill sets, and these are useful in particular situations. Currently, we don’t have any weapon that the player controls, but nothing is final at this stage in development.” Menshikov is unable to show us the title in its early state, but he does provide us with some new artwork to peruse. In one of the images, we get a good look at the aforementioned characters, as well as some of the futuristic environments that they’ll be exploring. “We’re using awesome Bitsquid Tech with physics-based rendering,” he confidently concludes. “I’ll keep you updated when we’re ready to reveal the game.”
With rumours regarding Microsoft’s foray into the VR space, we suspect that 2015 is going to be a big year for the fledgling technology. And we get the impression speaking to Menshikov that its experiments this year have readied it for the all-new frontier that waits ahead. For now, we leave the executive to enjoy his Christmas in the real world – but we can’t help pondering whether future festivities could take place in a very different, programmed landscape…