Sony’s dazzling Project Morpheus demos show that virtual reality’s future is bigger than videogames

Project Morpheus

A Project Morpheus unit on show at Sony’s GDC stand.

I’m looking nervously around within Sony London’s Project Morpheus demo The Deep, dreading the inevitable shark attack. My heart is pounding and my palms are sweating. It’s genuinely troubling; the glistening, undulating surface above is fading from view as we descend ever deeper, and when I see broken bits of wood and other debris floating gently down from the vessel’s damaged hull, I know the shark has claimed its first victim. I’m next.

Before it appears, I’m afforded a little time to take in the view, though my surroundings are slowly turning from a light-dappled azure to a deeper, darker shade of blue-black. Shoals of fish startle when they dart before my eyes as I look around, admiring the undersea flora. When I am asked to look downwards and bend my knees, my in-game avatar obliges too – a trick made possible by Morpheus’ head tracking tech. Without thinking, I move my feet around expecting a similar effect, though of course my virtual body stays still; full-body tracking will surely come as this fledgling medium continues its rapid evolution.

Just as the heavy sense of anticipation threatens to overwhelm, the shark appears. It is oddly reassuring to see it glide about the ocean, the cheap shock I’d been fearing swapped for a strange kind of peace as I watch the animal swim about, smaller prey wisely dodging its path.

The DualShock 4 in my right hand is replicated in the demo through the tracking of its light bar; looking down at my virtual diver’s arm, I twist and turn the pad and press its R2 trigger to fire out a flare, attracting the attention of the shark. Oops.

It attacks the surrounding cage, easily ripping off my only protection to open its jaws and devour me whole; as the demo ends, I hand back the headset and controller shaking a little. It’s a dazzling demonstration of Project Morpheus’ ability to immerse you in a situation, and this is just an early prototype and a tech demo.

Sony’s hasn’t released any media assets for The Deep of The Castle, unfortunately. The above photo is the only official image of Project Morpheus, too.

A few details broke the spell a little. There’s noticeable motion blur with quicker head movements, black borders around the screen edges and the occasional need to adjust the position of the headset. When the PlayStation camera is capable of full-body motion tracking, that’ll help too – it’s still jarring to inhabit a virtual mannequin with just one functioning hand, though right now the simple act of moving your head around within a virtual world is powerful enough. One step at a time.

A Sony London representative explains that the studio started work on the demo in November 2013, when the team were first shown the device. A small, flat black processing unit beside each demo stand takes the signal out from the PS4 and splits it out onto TV screen and headset present, and some of the 3D audio processing happens there, he says.

The next demo, The Castle, is much more interactive and therefore more representative of the kind of VR games we could eventually see. Though it’s perhaps unlikely every household will have the required kit, I’m handed the headset and two Move controllers before being asked to look and move around within the virtual space, a stone stronghold’s courtyard with greenery and a set of targets in the middle distance. So absorbed am I in turning around to look behind me, I’m once again startled by turning back to face the front – a set of armour has popped up unexpectedly right in front of me. Prompted by the SCE R&D rep in charge of the demo, I take a step backwards, squeeze the lefthand Move trigger and strike the armour, punching its head clean off. Those of a gentler disposition might be pleased to learn you can reach out and hold its hand, too. It is satisfying in a way a well-timed button press can never pretend to be, the 3D audiovisual effects, headtracking and the accuracy of Move combining to lend your virtual movements a sense of weight and, well, reality.

Next, I reach down and grab one of the swords to my right, the Move controller tracking my hand movements immaculately. Squeezing the trigger to clasp the sword’s hilt, I take a step back and chop off an arm, the metal suit ragdolling about in response to my strikes and slices. While again there’s a little motion blur with quicker, larger head movements, the Move tracking is perfect and dual wielding swords to hack at the defenceless suit of armour is a grin-inducing thrill.

The dark room in which the Morpheus demos took place helped the PlayStation camera to pick up head movements – it’ll be interesting to see how it works in lighter conditions.

Later, crossbow in hand, I take aim at the targets hanging up among the trees in SCE’s virtual castle courtyard. Pinging arrows off into the distance, it’s only afterwards that I realise the sense of 3D isn’t quite so pronounced as it is on 3DS. Where that effect is often used in a showy, deliberate way, Project Morpheus’ 3D is much more subtle, the need for immersion requiring that extra dimension to be less overt and more naturalistic. The appearance of a fire-breathing dragon at the end of the demo is where SCE R&D step up the intensity of the effects a little. As the beast’s giant jaws open out and it bears down on me, we fade to black and the demo ends.

As before, the first few moments back in reality left me wide-eyed and more than a little dazzled. But after a few seconds of real-world recalibration it becomes clear: Alongside Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus has the potential to pioneer and popularise an important new medium.

Alongside Oculus Rift, Project
Morpheus has the potential to pioneer
and popularise an important new medium.

In showcasing both active and passive virtual reality demos, Sony is hinting at what might eventually be achieved with each type of experience. Through The Deep we can see the future of virtual storytelling and tourism, and it confirms beyond all doubt the inherent potency of VR horror. It’s incredible to think what Creative Assembly might achieve here with Alien: Isolation, not mention all of the other studios making games within the resurgent horror genre right now. And in The Castle, we can see just how visceral taking physical movements into virtual worlds can be, Move’s flawless tracking capabilities showcased to exhilarating effect.

Sony has put together a virtual reality headset prototype which is aesthetically slicker and more comfortable to use than Oculus, and importantly it has existing, familiar controllers able to track movements. Sony has promised to bring Morpheus to market at a reasonable price, though opinions will vary on what exactly ‘reasonable’ means – whatever its eventual price and release date, these first few encounters alone suggest that once this tech becomes available to the consumer, there won’t be any shortage of people happy to pay any price for a ticket to these vivid virtual worlds.

The term ‘revolutionary’ has been hijacked by public relations people and diluted with overuse, but like Oculus Rift before it, I’d happily describe Project Morpheus as such without fear of sounding disingenuous. The countless game developers i’ve talked to about the device this week also speak of VR’s incredible potential – those who have worked with Morpheus, Oculus or both speak in glowing terms of virtual reality’s future applications not just for entertainment but in a wider sense – as a simulator, educational tool, for training – even for therapy.

Virtual reality can change the way we think about not just videogames, but virtual interactions as a whole. Yes, these are prototypes and yes, these are early days for the medium, but in Project Morpheus and Oculus Rift, we’re seeing not just the rebirth of virtual reality, but the starting point for something much, much bigger than videogames.