I got a PSVR last week, and apparently, I have a lot I want to say about it.
First, you should know that I’ve been excited about the prospect of VR since I was a little kid. Total, holodeck-like immersion was the holy grail of my childhood imagination. When Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in ’95, I didn’t get excited at all because it was obvious to me that the tech just wasn’t there. But when I started seeing near-photorealistic graphics in the PS3 and PS4 eras, I started getting excited. And when the Oculus Rift was announced, I pretty much started bouncing in my seat and have yet to slow down.
The Rift proved to be far too expensive for me, so when I heard about the PSVR, I was thrilled. No, it wouldn’t be as high quality as the Rift. But would it work? There would be no holodeck, obviously, but would a sense of immersion—even an incomplete one, even a first-gen one—be realized? Even 20 years on, there is a lot of skepticism left over from the VB debacle (misplaced, IMO, but there all the same), so a mistake at this stage could be devastating. Immersion was key; without it, we could all end up waiting another 20 years.
And the PSVR, as a living room system that just barely ekes into the upper stratosphere of the “affordable” descriptor, was where it had to happen. It didn’t really matter how immersive the $2k VR systems were. The tech isn’t really proven for a broad consumer base until it’s also within financial reach.
So I preordered, and I waited. When the package arrived Thursday before last, I took the rest of the day off to try it out.
I’d heard a lot about how extensive the setup process was, but I’d mostly brushed it off. I shouldn’t have. It took almost an hour to set this beast up, and when I was done, the beautiful cord-free environment I had so carefully cultivated in my living room over the past 18 months was demolished. Cords sticking out the front and back of the PS4, hanging off the sides, jammed likewise into the new processor machine from every angle. That part sucked, but I didn’t care. I’d been waiting 30 years. It was time to dive in.
I’m gonna start with the negatives, because there are a lot of them.
Getting the headset situated just right on my head was both a) very difficult, and b) very important. If it wasn’t situated just so, the image was blurry, which made the games pretty much unplayable. The problem was that the back strap, intended to anchor the visor in place on your head, kept slipping slowly upward. It couldn’t grip my hair, and while I briefly considered shaving my head (did I mention I’m really excited for VR?), I ultimately decided it was a design flaw. Thankfully, it seems the process just has a learning curve: after several more attempts over the ensuing week, I realized that the trick is to make sure the forehead rest is snug and low on your head first, and then settle in the rear
strap. That helped make things more stable, but now the visor was closing off my nose. A lot of fiddling is necessary every time I use the thing to strike the right balance between having the visor stay on and being able to breathe while doing it.
Once I had the visor on nice and tight, I fired it up and was treated to my PS4 dashboard on a massive, private theater screen. It was really cool! . . . until the upper left portion of the view started blurring, then the upper right. The blur spread until it clouded most of my view, and I had to remove the visor to figure out what was going on. The culprit? Condensation, forming on my glasses. Like, not just fog, but honest-to-god water droplets. It was really bad. But the experience was enticing enough that I limped along through it, periodically removing the whole apparatus in order to clean off my glasses.
The good news is that, again, I’ve managed to mitigate and nearly resolve this issue over the ensuing week. The PSVR documentation advises you to make sure the front visor is tight against your eyes in order to block outside light—but that is exactly when the condensation starts. If I leave the visor just slightly extended, letting a sliver of light in along the bottom, the condensation becomes a non-issue. I guess my eyes need to breathe? Who knew?
Physical manipulation of the device aside, at least the VR part works without a hitch, right? Well . . . not exactly. The resolution is low enough that distant objects can sometimes be difficult to make out, and nearby textures are much simpler than what today’s gamer has grown accustomed to. The screen door effect is real and omnipresent. And the viewing angle is restricted to about 100 degrees, so your view feels like you’re wearing blinders that extend about an inch to either side of your peripheral vision. This is an absolute shame in games like Thumper where you rocket through a giant, expanding ring or explosion; instead of the absolute wow factor that experience should have as the ring expands through your peripheral vision and vanishes behind you, it all ends up being held at arms’ length.
Still, you can look around and view your surroundings, and that’s really cool—but the system also has major drifting issues. Over time (sometimes as short a time as 60 seconds), the viewport angle will drift to the left or right. In other words, in order to look straight ahead in the virtual world, you actually have to turn your head slightly to the side. Then further to the side. Then further. The first time I noticed the issue it had crept up on me, and my head was twisted nearly a full 90 degrees to the right. The system expects some drift, and advises you repeatedly to hold in the Options button to recenter the view when needed. This works great in the dashboard and certain games (Eve Valkyrie), but there are far too many games (all the VR Worlds titles, Thumper, a
scattering of the demos including Rez) where all it does is cause a slight skip in your virtual location—like, say, hopping you a centimeter to the left. The view itself is still completely off-center. The only fix is to either exit and restart the game entirely, or, if possible, exit to the main menu of the game, then turn off and restart VR mode (I did this routinely in Thumper, but not all games have this option). Thankfully, checkpoints have been plentiful in everything I’ve tried so far, so I’ve never lost progress due to this issue (well, I did in Thumper once, but that was because I used the wrong game exit option and didn’t fully absorb the warning message before quitting). But the fact remains that this should not be necessary, and having to do it interferes severely with the aforementioned sense of immersion.
Sadly, I have no fix for this issue yet. There are a number of theories on Reddit, including the idea that having too many lights in the room messes with the PS Camera’s ability to track the headset, that the PS Camera may be mispositioned, or that the distance from visor to camera must be exactly six feet. Some people have gone as far as returning their headset and reported that the new one didn’t have the problem, indicating a hardware issue (man, I hope not!)—others have said their replacement had the exact same problem. I’m hopeful that it’s a driver issue of some kind that can be patched, or failing that, that they can patch fixes to individual titles to make the manual re-centering fix work in those games.
So. With all these issues, can it possibly still be enjoyable? Is that holodeck promise still even visible from here?
The answer is a resounding yes.
This is first-gen tech, and it feels like first-gen tech, but despite all its problems, it has enticed me back again and again. The sensation of being in a haunted house in VR Playroom, shooting invisible ghosts with your ghostbusters-style lightning gun, is convincing and powerful. When it’s not forcing you to slowly crane your neck to the side, Thumper becomes an all-encompassing, zen-like meditation on the nature of speed, rhythm, and the cosmos. And the bite-size VR experiences in VR Worlds are universally awesome. Here is where you get to ride in a deep-sea diver cage to a sunken nuclear submarine, like a Universal Studios thrill ride in your living room. Here is where you get to crane your head upwards, throwing your gaze to a drifting asteroid overhead before engaging thrusters to land on it. Here is where you get to finally—finally—pick up virtual guns and load them with your own hands before shooting your way out of a botched heist.
For someone like me, a true believer who’s been waiting his whole life, these experiences are well worth the price tag—both in terms of dollars and the constant fiddling with the headset and the drifting viewport. Just being able to turn my head and look around makes the screen door effect and the poor resolution fade into irrelevance, but PSVR offers so much more. I can sit for ten minutes on VR Worlds’ title screen, knocking my controller into the spinning sphere in front of me to watch (and feel!) it spark, splash, or grind in response. This stuff is seriously cool, the kind of cool you want to experience again and again and show off to your friends.
The drifting, the fiddly headset, the limited viewing angle–these are first-gen problems. They’ll be corrected. What’s important is the core experience, and that, I’m thrilled to report, is everything I’d hoped it would be for affordable first-gen tech.
So no, this isn’t the holodeck.
But if you squint, you can see it from here.