PlayStation VR is its own worst enemy.
Sony’s new-fangled head-mounted display and the bits and pieces that make it run feel like a forced collision between the past and the present.
The headset is definitively a product of the Now: it’s sleek, it’s space-age, and it’s lightweight in your hands and on your head, but not in a cheap or flimsy way.
The peripherals that the headset relies on, however, are firmly rooted in the Before. The PlayStation Camera — which tracks your physical movements — got a refresh with the PlayStation 4’s launch, but it wasn’t built for VR… and it shows.
The Move controllers that serve as your virtual “hands” have the same problem. They’re the just the old PlayStation 3 controllers that launched in 2010, repackaged and sold for VR. They don’t play nice with PS4 in a variety of ways, and aren’t even recognized as controllers.
Sure, the head-mounted display is a pretty piece of technology. It also accommodates glasses-wearers better than any of the other available headsets, which is no small thing.
Put it on and the inner elastic straps form a snug, reasonably comfortable fit around your dome. The sliding eyepiece — which pulls away from your face with the press of a button — is a lovely touch, making it easy to step out of VR and peer back into the real world. In 20-minute-or-less bursts, PSVR puts on a good show.
In short: it makes a killer first impression.
Stick around for longer sessions, and the faults start to manifest. The HMD’s tension-based straps dig in uncomfortably. The rubberized forehead padding, while easy to clean, doesn’t breathe well and is a magnet for sweat.
Really, PSVR is like any other VR headset in 2016. It’s comfortable enough at first, with some unique perks that help it to stand out against the competition, but it doesn’t hold up very well over long play sessions.
That’s okay; you’re not meant to binge on VR the way you do with Netflix or Destiny. But the time you do spend on the inside should at least be pleasant. Unfortunately, PSVR’s two key peripherals disrupt that.
The camera is inconsistent, and too reliant on ideal lighting and positioning. Where the two chief competitors are relatively plug and play with regards to their sensors, with PSVR you’ve got to recalibrate before and even during (when you switch games) virtually every session.
Even when properly calibrated, the camera isn’t reliable. At one point during a Batman: Arkham VR session, I stood motionless and stared into a virtual mirror while my virtual arms twitched and bent back on themselves as the camera struggled to locate the Move controllers I was holding.
During another session, at a different time of day — important to note, since too much natural light can influence the camera — I was playing Destiny inside PSVR on a virtual 2D screen. The game itself ran well enough, but the virtual screen kept shaking and shifting as I turned my head. It was the camera, struggling to locate the HMD.
That sort of inconsistency shatters the sense of immersion — what VR nerds call “presence” — which is so vital in a virtual space. You are constantly being shaken out of the illusion and, worse, those disruptions pave the way to eye strain and nausea.
Personally, I’ve exited every PSVR play session that ran longer than 20 minutes with a buzzing headache and noticeable pressure pushing in at the corners of my eyes.
Then there’s the Move controller, with its non-standard button layout and absent menu navigation controls. It’s possible to browse menus and even the PS4 dashboard using the wand, but it took an individual game’s pop-up tutorial — rather than a system-level tooltip — to make that clear.
It’s not clear if the camera or the controller is at fault, but calibrating Move feels more like art than science. You have to hold the wand up in front of your camera, aligning it with an outline that the camera displays on your TV.
In my experience, that process worked instantly roughly half the time. At all other times I spent multiple minutes fiddling in mid-air to find the just-right positioning that would allow the Move to calibrate.
The final, most frustrating twist with the Move: your PlayStation 4 doesn’t even recognize it as a controller. If you’re in a Move-friendly game like PlayStation VR Worlds and your DualShock 4 idles long enough to power down, you’ll be kicked to a pause screen without warning until you turn the DualShock 4 back on.
To be fair, this is the sort of issue that Sony could fix with a PS4 firmware update. But because of the Move’s issues with menu navigation, you’ll still want to have a DualShock 4 handy.
Move support feels like it was shoehorned into servicing PSVR, probably to help Sony clean out its lingering stock of the forgotten six-year-old peripheral. It doesn’t even compare to inputs like the Vive’s wands or the Rift’s as-yet-unreleased Touch. They are literally the product of a different tech generation.
The PlayStation 4 itself might be an issue as well, since some PSVR launch games — particularly BattleZone — suffer from noticeable frame rate issues (another common source of VR discomfort). It’s a lesser issue, potentially even a fixable one with the more powerful PS4 Pro launching imminently.
That extra horsepower might help frame rates, but it’s not going to fix fundamentally not-made-for-VR peripherals like Move or the PS Camera. The issues with those not only limit PSVR’s potential; they make it a hard product to recommend as even a cheap VR alternative to Rift/Vive. Gear VR and its “cardboard” competitors provide more reliably smooth experiences.
To be clear: some of these issues are subjective and dependent on where you live and play. I happen to live in an apartment with a lot of natural light, and that’s not as conducive to PSVR performance as a more dimly lit space.
Just don’t underestimate the size of that issue. There’s no base-level performance expectation with PSVR the way there is with competing headsets. The various bits and pieces that work in concert with Sony’s admittedly great HMD are too finicky.
On one hand, it’s early days for VR and not everything is going to work exactly as it should out of the gate. But PSVR sacrifices too much, delivering an inconsistent and too-often physically discomforting experience.
It’s not a strong showcase for this new technology, and — given PlayStation’s ubiquity — may stunt VR’s growth more than it helps.