Potential mixes with pragmatism as Sony reveals its virtual reality headset, Project Morpheus

Sony’s virtual reality headset prototype, Project Morpheus.

Sony revealed its virtual reality headset at GDC 2014 today, praising VR’s potential while also acknowledging the challenges facing the new medium as it strives to become a truly viable entertainment platform.

Sony’s president of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida provided the hyperbole to start with, but also a few laughs. “Thank you for coming to this cryptic Sony presentation,” he began, referencing the leaky build-up to the event. “You have no idea what we’re going to talk about.”  He began in earnest with some breathless talk of “pushing the boundaries of play” and taking videogames “one step further, from immersion to a sense of presence.”

“Many of us at PlayStation have dreamed about VR and the games we could create,” said Yoshida, before revealing that Sony’s R&D teams had been busily making those dreams reality as far back as 2010; Sony’s studio figurehead was shown using a low-res head mounted display with a Move duct-taped to it in the autumn of that year. “As soon as our developers got their hands on Move, they started experimenting with VR,” said Yoshida.

In March 2011, Sony’s Santa Monica studio had also used Sony’s HMZ personal 3D viewer with two Move sensors to play a hacked build of God Of War 3, turning it into a firstperson arena battle game. After footage of that internal demo was shown at the GDC address, with Yoshida starring as Kratos, it was a surprise to discover that the next Sony VR video was actually shown in public; Back in March 2012, Sony’s VR experiments were hiding in plain sight through a promotional video for PSN game Datura. Its trailer showed the game being played using Sony’s HMZ headset and two Move controllers, used for head and hand tracking. “It was not exactly the total immersion we wanted,” said Yoshida. “But it was enough to show us the potential for VR games.”

Sony’s president of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida got his first taste of VR on PlayStation back in 2010.

Official efforts to optimise a potential VR experience through PlayStation were made official not long after those first experiments in the autumn of 2010. A new multi-discipline group, formed from SCEI’s hardware team, SCEA’s R&D and Sony Worldwide Studios members came together to begin to work on a VR headset optimised for gaming, a similar process to that used to develop Vita and PS4, said Yoshida.

And with that, the name and headset were revealed. That moniker is taken from the Greek god of dreams – and, more pertinently, The Matrix – and Yoshida said that the hardware was the culmination of three years of R&D. He later also had the good grace to admit that the name had only come to them last week, provoking more laughs from the crowd.

Yoshida was careful to note that the Project Morpheus prototype was “by no means final,” and that Sony would continue to work on improving it, preferring to describe it as a “good representation of how VR will work on PlayStation” rather than anything resembling a final product. Working with existing DualShock 4, Move and PlayStation Eye tech, Project Morpheus intended to provide an “easy to use plug and play VR experience,” said Yoshida, who invited the developers present to work with PlayStation to create new VR games and, importantly, he referenced the two existing pioneers in the fledgling medium, Oculus and Valve.

“I have an enormous amount of respect for them and we were inspired and encouraged by the enthusiastic reactions by developers and journalists that tried their prototypes,” he said. “This shows how all of us as an industry can rally around a new medium like VR to push gaming forward.” It’s hard to imagine the team at Oculus being quite so generous, however. Sony’s VR play will dilute the impact of the Rift considerably. Morpheus is a challenger with far superior brand power and the might of Sony in its corner, though it might not be arriving quite so soon.

One of the slides used in today’s presentation, which extolled the virtues of VR.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – the arrival of Sony’s R&D duo Richard Marks and Anton Mikhailov gave the session a more pragmatic note. Equally aware of VR’s potential and its current technical limitations, Marks and Mikhailov laid out an honest vision of virtual reality’s future which made it clear that Morpheus, like the entire medium, is very much a work in progress.

A project with NASA, talk of virtual tourism, VR’s uses in “immersive science” and schools suggest that Sony has already thought about Project Morpheus’ wider implications, but those ideas are for another day. Mastery of sight, sound, tracking and controls, plus usability and good content are needed to turn VR from a faraway dream into a viable medium, said Marks, who was thankful that his team could lean on the audiovisual and wider tech expertise in other Sony divisions to try and achieve these goals.

Project Morpheus will need help outside Sony, too. “The reason we’re announcing this here at GDC is that we really need the entire development community [behind us] if we’re going to really achieve what we think is possible with VR,” said Marks, pledging to set in place tools and support to help developers create games for the device as it has previously with PS4 and Vita. It has help already, he continued, confirming that Sony is working with tech providers like Epic, Crytek, Havok, Unity and Autodesk to “make PlayStation the best place for VR – not only for people playing VR but for people developing for VR.”

“This is a great, great time,” Marks concluded. “It’s like the wild west – there are no rules right now, and there’s no killer genre you have to support – it’s a once-in-a-career situation. How often do you get to define a new medium? That’s what everyone starting now can do.”

“It’s like the wild west – there are no rules right now, and there’s no killer genre you have to support – it’s a once-in-a-career situation. How often do you get to define a new medium? That’s what everyone starting now can do.”

Anton Mikhailev’s portion of the talk delved deeper into the tech behind Morpheus, stating the importance of presence in VR. “A lot of the rules you’re used to in game design simply don’t apply,” he said. “In many cases presence trumps game design, so it’s much more important to have your game deliver a sense of presence than it is to conform to a genre of today.”

Playing a game from within a world, rather than as an observer of it, presents difficulties too. Developers will have to think harder about scale and proportion in their games, as stylised art and surroundings can look odd in VR, developers shouldn’t tinker too much with the players’ viewpoint either, as it’ll induce motion sickness. The disconnect between feeling your hands in reality but not seeing them in VR is also said to be a problem.

“There are a lot of challenges that we really don’t have the answers to,” said Mikhailev. “We have some ideas but it’d be really great to talk to you guys about the answers.”

He also stressed the impact of having a peripheral to mimic the player’s in-game actions. Driving games could be helped immeasurably with a steering wheel and pedals because they mirror what developers can show in-game, and with shooters and sports games, Move could act as a convincing surrogate for the player’s in-game weapon, racquet or bat, he said.

Mikhailev added that as immersive as it may be, VR needn’t be a solitary pursuit. Seeing another player’s movements in the same VR space is a remarkably powerful effect, he suggested, and he described an internal demo in which two VR headsets were used so that a duo could play musical instruments together. The Morpheus devkit has the ability to mirror the player’s view on the TV as well, allowing other people to watch along. Quickfire minigame-type experiences could encourage a pass-the-headset style of play, even, and VR might also inspire asymmetrical multiplayer games in which the VR user is pitched against ‘normal’ players using gamepads and the TV screen.

CCP’s Eve Valkyrie will be playable on the GDC show floor using Project Morpheus tomorrow.

Mikhailev confirmed a few other little details to round off the presentation. Morpheus’ display is 1080p and has a 90+ degree field of vision; there’s an audio jack on the unit and wireless headsets will be compatible; Sony will look to make the consumer version wireless, though the prototype is wired; Sony isn’t working with Oculus to unify the development environment, but it is open to doing so and finally, the amount of power required to enable VR means Vita and mobile compatibility are unlikely at this point.

Tomorrow, Sony will open its doors to GDC attendees to try it for themselves with an intriguing set of demos. Sony London’s The Deep takes players underwater, bringing them up close with sharks and other predators while The Castle places a Move controller in each of the player’s hands to simulate firing different weapons. CCP’s Eve Valkyrie and a special Thief demo, tweaked for use with Morpheus, will provide a glimpse of what external studios have been able to achieve with the technology thus far.

Perhaps it’s a little mischevous to mention at this point that shortly before Sony unveiled its ambitious new tech, its main rival Microsoft had held its own GDC event a few blocks away. It was for the impending launch of its self-publishing initiative, ID@Xbox, and in dashing from one to the other, we couldn’t help but compare the two; where Microsoft was readying a long overdue program that makes its platform more developer-friendly, Sony, having already achieved that, was busy dangling futuristic new technology in front of a developer audience that is already on side. Should we read all that much into this quirk of scheduling? Perhaps not, but in announcing Project Morpheus today Sony has continued to stay one step ahead of Microsoft.