Final Project Morpheus hardware will be affordable at launch and offer smaller developers the chance to “hit it really big” with the right software, says Sony’s Anton Mikhailov.
Speaking in the new issue of Edge magazine, published on April 10 in print, on iPad, Google Play and Zinio, the SCEA R&D engineer also confirmed that PS3 peripheral Move is effectively “a VR wand disguised as a motion controller”, designed for use in virtual reality before Sony was able to talk publicly about its consumer-grade headset.
Speaking firstly about the industry’s response to Sony’s VR headset, Mikhailov told us: “All the thirdparties we’ve demoed to have been really excited and it’s something that, when you talk to engineers, it’s all they want to do. When business people get involved, it’s a question of ‘what’s the return’, ‘what’s the installed base’, so on and so forth.”
So while investing in this untried, rather niche platform might seem like a shaky business proposition for larger thirdparties right now, indies looking to experiment with VR tech could stand to benefit. “Like Michael Abrash has said in his Valve talks, whoever makes the first huge app for VR is going to hit it really big,” says Mikhailov. “I think the excitement of being the pioneer in the field is going to draw a lot of people in. Maybe [fewer] of the bigger publishers, at least at first, but I think the indies will be excited. And we’ve been very indie-friendly at PlayStation lately. It’s not by accident.”
Indies and other thirdparties that do eventually release games for Morpheus will arrive on top of Sony’s own efforts, of course. All of its firstparty studios have devkits, says Mikhailov, and “There are definitely internal developments going on.”
This wouldn’t be a VR article without a few caveats, of course. Though Oculus’ newer Crystal Cove devkit seems to have drastically reduced motion sickness caused by the Rift, questions remains over VR’s suitability for the everyday consumer. There was none of that same woozy feeling when we tested Morpheus at GDC, but even without that, there are practical concerns – not just vanity, but of whether the overall experience might just be too intense for some people. “I’m not a futurologist, but I do know that humans have a funny way of acclimatising to technology,” argues Mikhailov. “So that makes it very hard to predict what’s going to stick and what’s not. I think it’s too early to tell.”
It’s also much too premature for Sony to even hint at a ballpark price or launchdate, though Mikhailov says the final consumer product will be within reach of most budgets. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t know that we could make this for an affordable price,” he says. “Obviously, there’s a wide range of what people consider affordable, but this is going to be a consumer-grade device. The reason we’re announcing this now is because before we couldn’t see a path to product and now we can see some way to accomplish a product that’s valuable for the console market.”
Project Morpheus’ unveiling at GDC came a long time after Oculus and Valve had shown off their VR tech, though the latter’s effort was always just a proof-of-concept. We ask Mikhailov what he thinks of his contemporaries in VR – or competitors, if you’d prefer – and if there has been any dialogue between them. “We think that they’re all doing fantastic work and we’re all in this space to basically bring VR to reality,” he says, diplomatically. “We’ve been promised VR for so long that it’s kind of overdue. I think we’re all on the same page and working towards the same goal. I don’t have any partnerships to announce at this time, [but] we’re all on very friendly terms.”
While GDC was the first official confirmation of its PlayStation-branded VR headset, Mikhailov notes that Sony hasn’t been particularly secretive about its intentions in the past – PlayStation reps have, on occasion, talked in interviews about virtual reality with reference to Sony’s ‘personal theatre’ headsets and some of its research has been hiding in plain sight for years. Within its GDC 2014 presentation Sony showed a forgotten video it released at GDC 2012, showing Sony Santa Monica PSN title Datura being played with one of Sony’s HMZ-T1 headsets and two PS Move controllers. With one Move controller in the player’s hand and another strapped to the VR unit to enable head tracking, it was a rough but broadly similar set up to the Morpheus demos at GDC. Indeed, Mikhailov confirms that Move was always going to be a VR controller, it was just a matter of when.
“Effectively Move is a VR wand in disguise as a motion controller,” he says. “So we specced it and built it to be a VR controller, even though VR wasn’t a commodity. As engineers, we just said it was the right thing to do. If you look online, a lot of universities use it as a VR device using move.me for PS3 – an application for scientists who use the Move tracking hardware. At the time, we didn’t have a consumer-grade project that we could work on, but it was definitely designed with that vision in mind.”
Morpheus’ unveiling began an eventful few weeks for virtual reality. As if Sony’s backing weren’t enough validation for the medium, Facebook’s swoop to acquire Oculus intensified the race to popularise VR further still. You can read more about Project Morpheus and VR’s resurgence in the new issue of Edge magazine, which is on sale April 10 in print, on iPad, Google Play and Zinio – just follow the links for more information.