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gdc 2015

Sony Morpheus Impressions: VR Inches Closer To The Living Room

by Matt Bertz on Mar 03, 2015 at 05:40 PM

This afternoon after Sony announced its Morpheus headset will launch in the first half of 2016, the publisher gave journalists an opportunity to find out for themselves just how far the platform has progressed since its debut a year ago. The demo stations gave us a chance to check out the near-final industrial design and four Sony-designed user experiences that demonstrate the directions developers could take the technology. Here are our impressions of each.

The Headset

Most of the virtual reality prototypes we've seen so far are cumbersome goggles that weigh most heavily on the front of your face. This latest iteration of the Morpheus design takes steps to make it more user friendly. The single band design makes it easier to take off and put on than other models. A button on the back of the band allows you to tighten or loosen the headset as needed, and Sony made the smart decision to give users a way to move the screen away from their eyes with another button on the right side of the goggles. This ostensibly allows users to don the headset but then regain their bearings in the real world to grab a drink, get situated with a controller, or talk to someone without having to take off the entire device. It's also the best looking device we've seen so far, but that's not to say Sony has mastered the wearable experience.

The lack of an integtrated audio experience means you still have to put on headphones over the headset, and more importantly, the cords needed to deliver the data to the PS4 are hard to ignore in experiences where you are moving. The slightest brush against your shoulder immediately take you out of the present experience in the virtual world.

The Deep

One of the first Morpheus demos reappeared at the GDC event with better graphics and a few new sections of the experience. The demo starts with me postitioned in a diving cage near the surface of the water. Sea turtles and schools of fish swim past the cage, giving me a chance to admire the attention to detail the designers put into each. The demo then transitions deeper into the ocean, where manta rays circle my position, and once more to depths where the sun is replaced with darkness and glowing jellyfish illuminate the landscape. The ride eventually halts in a rocky ocean bottom where I spot a fearsome great white shark.

This magnificent beast doesn't take kindly to my cage, ripping the oxygen tank off and bashing his face against the cage in front of me. These violent actions cause me to take a step back during the standing demo. The shark continues to circle the cage, rocking it back and forth. After violently ripping the front of the cage apart, leaving me exposed, it seems like I'm destined to end my life like an overzealous nature show host. I'm ultimately saved by a rock that dislodges from above and crushes the shark right before it has a chance to turn me into chum. Even though I knew I was in a virtual reality demo, my pulse was racing during the encounter.

Bedroom Robots

While The Deep explored fears and phobias, this Sony Japan demo takes a more lighthearted approach to VR. Bedroom Robots starts with the player facing a large dollhouse that serves as home to several tiny robots going about their daily business. The robots on the first floor are playing arcade games. One the second floor one is staring blankly at a television screen with a still shot of Shuhei Yoshida, while another sleeps in a bed up the stairs. In another room a group of robots is getting their cardio work in on exercise equipment. Outside the house other robots are playing at the playground, working on cars, flying a drone that circles overhead, and throwing frisbees across my viewing area. Leaning in toward any of these areas causes an event to trigger. For instance, as I move toward the exercise area, one of the robots flies off the treadmill and into the closet behind him. The robot working on the car pulls out from underneath his project to wave at me, and when I approach the flying saucer on the roof, an alien exits the ship and jumps onto the half-pipe. These events sound insignificant as I write about them, but when you are in virtual reality they seem much more tangible and engaging.

Magic Controller

Another Sony Japan demo turns the DualShock 4 controller into a tranformational device. Magic Controller begins with a DS4 rendered in front of your face. As you move the analog sticks and move the controller around you can see it happen in the virtual world as well. Touching the touchpad causes the on-screen version to open, with a tiny robot rising from within the controller. He motions me to bring him toward the table in the middle of this sci-fi looking room, so I extend my arms. From here he leaps to the table, as does a parade of more robots behind him. Once they are in position facing me I can tap the a face button to play some music. Doing so causes a disc to emerge from the controler and land into a tray that extends from where the lightbar is located. Once the song is playing the robots start dancing and the lights dim. Another button lets me shine a bright beam of light on the robots, which causes them to wince. Not much may happen in this demo, but these simple actions show how VR can be used to bring a familair device to life in an interesting way.

The Heist

The most conventional gaming experiences on display this evening was the Heist, a SCEE London developed crime world experience that starts with the player tied to a chair in a subterranean basement underneath the London tube. A bald, tattood, musclebound man is sitting directly in front of me toying with a blowtorch. Glancing around the room, I quickly realized it's just me and him - no one is here to save me. The man takes a drag off his cigarette and blows it directly in my face. With the VR headset, I see the smoke waft toward me. A train barrels through the tunnel above us, causing dust to rush off the old floorboards above us and descend down upon me. The particle affects of both of these moments are impressive, making the moment seem more real than a similar experience would be in a cutscene. He then flicks the cigarette toward me, causing me to duck slightly. The menacing man stands up and lights the blowtorch, the flame coming uncomfortably close to my crotch. Before he has a chance to brand his impression of me onto my skin, he receives a phonecall. After exchanging some words he tells me to stand up and hands the phone over. Here a glove icon appears on the screen and I reach out with the Move wand, pushing the trigger to answer my lifeline.

From here the demo transitions to a flashback. Positioned behind the desk of a posh room, I start opening the drawers by using the Move controllers positioned in both hands, pushing the trigger and pulling back to reveal their contents. I first find a gun and several clips of ammunition, taking them out and placing them all on the desk in front of me using the same mechanics. I also find a key, which I use on another drawer to reveal a diamond the size of an avocado. The second I grab it an alarm goes off and well dressed enemies start pouring into the room from the door ahead of me, the side doors, and the balcony above. I physically crouch to hide behind the virtual desk and start picking off enemies, reaching out to grab new clips as necessary and loading them into the gun. I switch the gun to my offhand by placing it on the desk and picking it back up again, lining up a few more shots before the demo ends with a "to be continuted message." 

Final Thoughts

These four demos simply scratch the surface of virtual reality applications, which also have the potential to expand into cinematic experiences, sports, and education in meaningful ways. The promise of the gaming applications is already evident, and I'm excited to see the new ways creatives leverage the technology, but as I play more VR games I wonder if the living room is the best place for it to take a foothold. Games like The Heist require you to be able to move freely in a wide space to crouch, which, like the Kinect, demands that players have a certain kind of living room setup to get the most from the device. Having the cords brush against your back as you move is also slight but jarring interruption to the feeling of being present in the virtual world. These hurdles may eventually be overcome, but given the limitations I wonder if VR is better suited as a destination experience at a building designed with the technology in mind. Regardless of where it's best suited I'm excited to see where it goes.