Virtual reality on PS4 and Xbox One – the real next-gen?

PS4 vs Xbox One

Mounting evidence suggests that Sony and Microsoft will each launch firstparty peripherals for PS4 and Xbox One with virtual reality capabilities.

Development sources have told us that PS4’s own “Oculus beater” will launch much sooner than Microsoft’s own wearable tech, of which little is known. It is expected, however, to be an internet-connected headset more akin to Google Glass.

The PlayStation VR headset is indeed real and was close to being announced earlier this year, as widely rumoured. The announcement was held back, say our sources, as Sony didn’t want to complicate its messaging before PS4’s launchdate. Devkits have not been sent out to studios just yet, but one contact said that he expected to hear more about it soon – most likely once we’re clear of the launch window. The project should not be confused with Sony’s existing HMZ range of 3D headsets – it is a PlayStation product, designed specifically for use with PlayStation 4, said one developer.

Our contacts knew nothing of Microsoft’s own forthcoming wearable tech – but reports across the media, most recently from The Wall Street Journal, describe a broader featureset and a direct competitor to Google Glass. Currently, the reports suggest that it is not explicitly linked with the Xbox division, and none of our contacts have heard anything from Microsoft on the matter, though the platform holder is apparently aware of Sony’s more fully developed VR proposition. The need for Microsoft’s Xbox One to compete with Sony’s PS4 on every viable battlefront suggests that Xbox One-compatible wearable tech is a matter of when, not if.

“We’ve put USB 3.0 ports on Xbox One for a reason, which is that we want high bandwidth communication with other accessory or companion devices,” Microsoft’s Phil Harrison told us recently. ”I’m not going to speculate but we definitely designed the platform to extend over time.”

From a business and console lifecycle perspective, both headsets might be considered next-gen’s own Kinect and Move – additive technology intended to provide a sales fillip further into a console’s lifecycle. Where Wii’s motion tech once dazzled new players and opened up new frontiers, prompting Microsoft and Sony to release their own interpretations of that concept, it appears that Oculus Rift and Google Glass have stepped into the role of pioneer this time around.

Unlike the current generation, however, Sony’s VR headset is expected to arrive much sooner. Perhaps the platform holder, in keeping with the narrative it has been careful to set out for itself this year, really has been listening to the world’s game developers; it’s not next-gen consoles capturing the imagination among creators – it’s Oculus Rift.

For $300 any studio can buy and dabble with an Oculus SDK, and the level of VC funding the company has attracted in the last year shows that investors are as convinced as many developers are. It is significant that Oculus isn’t interested in partnering with the console manufacturers – it is concentrating entirely on tying its fortunes to PC and mobile, more open and developer-friendly platforms.

In contrast, creating virtual reality games on PS4 and Xbox One appears to be a more troublesome prospect for developers. Proprietary tech for each console could be one stumbling block; the barriers and bureaucracy involved in releasing games on consoles another.

And already, developing high-end, next-gen console games that take full advantage of PS4 and Xbox One’s capabilities requires the kind of finance and scale relatively few studios can claim to have. Infamously, even Infinity Ward, proprietor of the world’s biggest, most lucrative shooter, has struggled to get the best from one next-gen console. And conceptually, latching VR capability onto a triple-A shooter might only be a compelling idea for those already worshipping at the altar of high-end console gaming.

Further down the scale, it’s already very difficult for more modest studios to make decent money from the PlayStation and Xbox storefronts, judging by anecdotal evidence. Many critically acclaimed releases haven’t made the money one might expect, and there are only a handful of studios that have made their fortunes on PSN and XBLA; kudos can’t pay the bills. Though Sony and Microsoft are doing their utmost to attract as many developers to PS4 and Xbox One as possible, it would be quite a turnaround for their respective download stores to suddenly become as financially viable as Steam, for example.

There are further obstacles to overcome before we see that futuristic vision of virtual reality games in every living room. Motion sickness is an ongoing problem with no easy solution, and VR will need its own Wii Sports – a neat, brilliant, broadly accessible encapsulation of what the tech can do – if it is to become something more significant than a tech-fetishist’s fantasy. Whoever gets there first with that killer app, be it an indie with a bright idea for Oculus or one of Sony and Microsoft’s internal studios, will surely reap fantastic rewards.

The wildcard here is Valve. Conceptually, Sony and Microsoft’s relatively closed platforms feel increasingly dated, so Valve’s Steam Machines might be a better fit for the budding VR game developer. In its existing 65 million active Steam users Valve has a willing, knowledgeable gamesplaying audience, and one not afraid to experiment. And Valve clearly believes in the idea of virtual reality games – when it added Oculus Rift support to Team Fortress 2, it became one of the first high profile developers to throw its weight behind the tech. Senior developers at Valve have given GDC talks on the subject of VR games and more recently, former Valve staffer Jeri Ellsworth’s castAR Kickstarter campaign emerged and with it, all of the knowledge gleaned from researching AR and VR tech at her former employer. One can imagine that if Valve itself doesn’t release its own VR/AR hardware, it’ll do its best to ensure the success of similar tech, like Oculus and castAR, on its platform.

So in PlayStation and Xbox we see the established videogame brands with powerful marketing and distribution networks – the ones truly able to bring VR games to the masses. And in Oculus Rift and Valve, we see agile, technology-first companies with open, developer-friendly platforms. One suspects that the best possible outcome for VR games would be a combination of those forces, rather than the competing, proprietary Sony and Microsoft hardware we now expect.

It is early days for virtual reality games, but they are almost certainly coming to PS4 and Xbox One. If Sony and Microsoft are to succeed in popularising the medium, they might need to outstrip Valve and Oculus’ efforts to do so.