Sony’s VR tech will be revealed at GDC – and it represents virtual reality gaming’s greatest hope

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A new VR headset for PS4 is expected to be announced next week, according to developer sources.

Sony will reveal its Oculus Rift-beating VR headset at GDC next week, according to developers familiar with the tech.

A prototype is already in some thirdparty developers’ hands, who have told us that Sony’s VR headset is far superior to Oculus Rift’s first incarnation, though that is expected to even out a little with the arrival of Rift’s new, more advanced Crystal Cove devkit. They also said that there’s little software to speak of currently, but they expect to see something from one of Sony’s firstparty studios at GDC, even if it is just a tech demo.

There’s also no pressure on developers from platform holder Sony to adopt the tech; indeed, the studios we spoke to were excited by the technology, but questioned its viability as a platform. The cost of VR game development and its niche appeal means that many developers will wait and see how the Sony-authored experiences fare before committing to VR game development in earnest.

Sony will reveal all at its ‘Driving the future of innovation’ session at GDC on Tuesday, March 18. The event’s description on the GDC site is deliberately brief, but it is significant that it’ll be hosted by senior SCEA research and development executives Richard Marks and Anton Mikhailov. Both men helped develop PlayStation Eye and Move; feeling out the possibilities of virtual reality on consoles appears to be a logical progression for the pair within Sony’s R&D departments. The presence of Sony’s President of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida lends the showcase extra kudos, too, and its significance is being stressed privately to Sony’s development partners, who are being told that it’s not a session that they’d want to miss. When contacted about all of the above information, a Sony spokesperson told us: “We do not comment on rumour and speculation.”

Sony has showcased head mounted displays like this at CES over the past few years, but the incoming VR headset is the real deal – it has been put together by PlayStation R&D and will be branded as such.

Nonetheless, barring a last-minute change of plan – which has happened in the past, as the headset was almost revealed late last year – Sony will announce its entrance into virtual reality gaming next week, and it’s a game changer for the medium. Oculus Rift is well-funded and its technology is dazzling, and if you can stomach using VR, we’re already seeing thrilling games emerge. Frontier’s Elite: Dangerous and CCP’s Eve Valkyrie are among the more spectacular examples, but the medium has its problems, too.

There’s the obvious issue of motion sickness, the lack of a standardised controller and VR gaming’s potential complexity, not to mention cost. If it is to become anything more than an expensive hobbyist niche, it’ll need the backing of a major platform holder to popularise the medium by simplifying the proposition and opening it out to the average player. Sony has all of this in its grasp, potentially – it has millions of players already locked into its ecosystem, and the preexisting marketing and distribution presence to take VR mainstream. Right now, VR on PS4 represents virtual reality’s best chance of becoming a viable future platform for interactive entertainment.

Speaking at a press event for its forthcoming Oculus Rift game Eve Valkyrie, CCP’s Chris Smith tells us: “We are passionate about the potential of this new wave of VR tech, so the more people who have the possibility to experience it the better as far as we are concerned. So yes, we would definitely welcome VR headsets for console players – it can only help bring the experience to the mass market.”

Smith says four things need to happen to make VR mainstream. Virtual reality must deliver genuinely new and worthwhile game experiences, killer launch games, an acceptable price and a good promotional campaign. Though we believe Sony is in a better position to deliver all of this right now, Smith is confident that Oculus Rift can do the same. “As far as I can see Oculus and VR as a whole is on the right track,” he tells us. “The first barrier is getting the Oculus on everyone’s head to show them why it’s a viable platform. The subject of ‘if’ or ‘will’ Oculus be a platform is not even a question worth asking after you have experienced it. If there is perhaps one barrier, it’s how long I can game with VR. Right now an hour is fine, but can I game for 10 hours? Perhaps having to take a small break isn’t so bad.”

Frontier’s Elite: Dangerous and CCP’s Eve Valkyrie are among the best examples of forthcoming Rift games – thirdparty games on Sony’s VR tech is believed to be nonexistent right now, though firstparty studios can fill that gap.

Longer stretches of play are leaving players dazed for hours afterwards at this point. Indie studio Streum On Studio is developing SpaceHulk: Deathwing for Oculus Rift, and it too says VR must overcome this problem. “Oculus seems to be working hard on that,” says studio associate Longuepee Christophe. “The new HD version seems to have started to decrease this effect a bit.”

On the controller front, fellow Oculus Rift game Loading Human from Italian indie Untold Games is currently using Razer’s Wii Nunchuk-like Hydra controllers to replicate the player’s hands in the game. Its designer and art director Flavio Parenti suffers from motion sickness himself, but continues to work on the project, such is his enthusiasm for VR. “It’s a new medium so rules can be set and have to be discovered,” he tells us. “But the nausea has to go away. The real war is going to be on the controller side. We already almost have a standard view in VR, but how do you control something in VR? I’ve been playing tech demos for almost a year now and I can assure you the only way to play is with motion control, not with a gamepad. I think we need something that’s in between the two.”

SpaceHulk: Deathwing developer Streum On Studio says that it is using a gamepad to control its VR game, too, and it’s the same with CCP’s Eve Valkyrie, though its lead designer Chris Smith sees potential in all kinds of inputs. “Flight sticks, controllers and body tracking hardware all bring new opportunities to player control in VR as well as new design challenges,” he says. “Right now we are using a standard console controller and it’s working great.”

More complex, non-traditional controllers always excite and inspire game designers, but ultimately the simplest solution will surely win out. And it already exists; Dualshock 4’s light bar in concert with PlayStation Eye could offer both traditional and motion-based inputs for VR games, if executed well.

With Microsoft’s own spin on wearable tech still some way off, Sony already has everything it needs to steal Oculus’ thunder at GDC. It has the audience, the branding and the support of game developers across the industry – if its tech is accessibly priced and can overcome the problem of motion sickness, Sony’s VR headset could be the device to truly kickstart virtual reality gaming.