Monday, June 27, 2016

Experiencing the Playstation VR (Updated!)



Among the three primary desktop-based VR systems, Playstation VR is the most affordable one and I got to try it out yesterday.  In this post, I'll discuss my first impressions vis-a-vis Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, and Google Cardboard.

Update: additional analysis re immersiveness (see highlighted portion at the end)

ABOUT THE PLAYSTATION VR

The Playstation VR is a peripheral for the Sony Playstation 4.  It is a full VR system that is capable of tracking not just your head movements, but also your movement in 3D space such as forward, backward, up, down, left or right (positional tracking), just like its primary competitors, the Oculus Rift (previewed here) and HTC Vive.

The PSVR is the most affordable of the three desktop-based VR systems.  The Oculus Rift is $599 and the HTC Vive is $799 while the PSVR is $399.  

More crucially, the PSVR has the lowest barrier to entry among them.  The Rift and Vive require a powerful PC that generally costs at least $1,000 or more. By contrast, the PSVR needs only the PS4 ($350 and up). Even Playstation Camera (~$60) and many games require two Playstation Move controllers (~$30 each), it is still much cheaper by a comfortable margin.  With over 36 million PS4 systems already sold, the PSVR has the largest pool of potential users who already have the required hardware.

The PSVR is also the simplest to setup.  You just need to attach the headset and the PS4 camera to the PS4.  Setting up the Rift or Vive is more involved.  Indeed, the Vive has an optional installation service that costs $250.

The Rift and Vive are already available (with a waiting period due to demand), while the PSVR will be released in October (available for pre-order at some retailers).

SPECIFICATIONS
Sony has been pretty open about the fact that the PSVR hardware is not as powerful as that of the Rift or Vive.  


Playstation VR Oculus Rift HTC Vive
Resolution per eye 960 x 1080 1200 x 1080 1200 x 1080
Framerate 120 fps, 90 fps 90 fps 90 fps
Field of view ~100 degrees ~93 degrees ~110 degrees
Latency 18ms 20ms 22ms
Tracking area Heptagon with
7.87 ft length
6.23 ft width
5 ft x 11 ft 15 ft x 15 ft
Headset weight
without cables
610 grams 470 grams 563 grams

The PSVR and Oculus Rift were designed to be a seated or standing experience, while the HTC Vive is designed for room-scale VR.

EXPERIENCE
I had been waiting to try the PSVR for a while.  Demos had been available since last week, but only at a few locations.  More locations were added this week, but the schedule for demos kept changing, and there were times when there was a scheduled demo but there was no actual demo, or there was an actual demo when there was none scheduled, which was incredibly frustrating.  Finally, after visiting two demo locations, I got to try the PSVR yesterday.



At this point, I've tried the Oculus Rift once at a 30-minute demo, and I've logged a few hours with the Samsung Gear VR (reviewed here).  I did preorder the PSVR and had read previews, both praising and panning the PSVR.  I was very curious to know how good or bad it really was.


The demo was seated (versus the Oculus Rift demo, which was standing) and was on a non-swiveling plastic chair.

As I sat down, the rep put the headset over my head.  The headset felt comfortable and well padded.  I did not get the impression that it was heavy.  In retrospect, I think the reason the weight didn't bother me was that the headset was well-balanced.

When I first wore the headset, the rep asked if the image was clear.  My eyes aren't perfect but I don't need glasses to drive.  I thought the image could be clearer.  The rep tried to adjust the headset for me, but it didn't get any clearer.  I figured it was probably just the limited resolution compared to the Samsung Gear VR with the S6 (which is after all 1440 x 1280 per eye).


As I looked around at the home menu, my impression was that it did not seem radically different from the Gear VR (while seated, and simply looking around).  But it did look very smooth with no judder.

I was given the choice of trying EVE: Valkyrie (a space shooter), Battle Zone (a tank game), or an ocean experience.  I was tempted to try EVE: Valkyrie because I enjoyed EVE: Gunjack on the Gear VR, but was concerned about nausea and the possible difficulty of controls based on my experience with the similarly-designed End Space on the Gear VR.  I opted for Battle Zone, a first-person view tank game in a Tron-like arena.

The game used the PS4 controller instead of the PS Move, so I didn't get to test lag or accuracy in the PS Move.

As the game started and the tank started moving forward, I looked around to test the positional tracking.  I moved sideways, stood up, crouched low, looking to see how accurate the tracking was. Yup it works very well. The tracking was very accurate, and was very smooth, with never a hiccup.  I cannot see any difference in the tracking accuracy of the PSVR versus the Rift.



One of my concerns was whether I would feel nausea.  As I drove the tank around, I felt no nausea. I felt comfortable enough that I started looking around while the tank was moving in another direction.  I did not feel any vertigo at all.  It's hard to say if this was due to any differences in the hardware compared to the Gear VR, such as the higher frame rate.  If I get the chance, I'll try EVE: Valkyrie next time.  I did feel some nausea with End Space (a space shooter on Gear VR) so it would be a better test.

The game was polished (didn't feel like just a tech demo) and fun.  The PSVR felt transparent and I simply played the game, trying to outmaneuver the opposing tanks, and was never bothered by the headset, cables, or controls.  It reminded me of the fun I had playing Splatoon (a third person shooter on the Wii U).  The one thing that could be better was that one of the lenses started fogging up.  But I was too busy having fun to want to stop to wipe it.  It's a game I would buy if I had the PSVR.

As the demo ended, I was left with these thoughts:

  • The PSVR is very good and works as advertised as a true VR system.  Although it has lower resolution, and has a smaller tracking area compared to the Vive and Rift, in actual gameplay those never bothered me.
  • On the other hand, for some reason I have yet to figure out, I did not get a very strong sense of presence, compared to my experience with the Rift.  It could be that I was just new to VR when I tried the Rift, so my senses were shocked then.  I have since gotten the Gear VR and logged a few hours on it.  The biggest impression I got was how similar it felt to the Gear VR as long as I was seated.  It was smoother, but again, it wasn't a world of difference.  I'm curious to see if I would get a stronger sense of presence if I had played standing (which would use the positional tracking more than if I were just seated), or maybe if I try the Rift again, perhaps I won't feel as immersed anymore.
  • Regardless of immersiveness or presence, the PSVR was fun.  Maybe it's because I'm used to playing on consoles instead of PCs, or maybe it's just the game genre, but I found Battle Zone much more fun than The Climb (a rock climbing game) for the Oculus Rift.
  • It made me appreciate the Samsung Gear VR (reviewed here) even more.  Despite being 'just' a mobile system and not having positional tracking, it feels closer to the PSVR and Rift than the Cardboard.  The graphics on some Gear VR games I've tried (e.g. Gunjack, End Space, Anshar Wars 2) are at least on par with Battle Zone.  If you are just a casual gamer, you may also want to look at the Gear VR, especially if you already have a compatible smartphone.
I'm glad I got to try the PSVR.  I'm definitely keeping my preorder and am looking forward to it.

UPDATE: I was really curious why the PSVR did not give me a strong sense of presence as did the Rift.  So I tried the Rift again.  The Rift was just as impressive at it had been the first time.  It felt scary to step over the ledge of the skyscraper.  The T-rex looked like it was really there (as did the alien).  So it wasn't due to the newbie effect.  Then I tried the Rift a third time, this time I asked the rep if I could sit down during the demo.  She said the demo is intended to be standing up but eventually she relented.  

What I noticed is that while sitting down, the effect of presence was dramatically reduced.  In fact, now that the home menu of the Gear VR looks like that of the Rift, I could do an almost direct comparison.  And indeed, while sitting down and simply moving my head but not my body, the Rift looked like the Gear VR as well!  I tried a couple more demo scenes to test this hypothesis, and it did in fact seem similar to the Gear VR, as long as I only moved my head.  I therefore believe that the difference in feeling of presence was due to the fact that the PSVR demo was seated.  If I had been standing, I would have benefited from the positional tracking, which I believe would have conveyed a stronger sense of presence.