Hands-on: Sony Project Morpheus preview
When you say virtual reality to people, they usually say one of two things: if they are old enough, they talk of fond memories of watching The Lawnmower Man, otherwise they mention Oculus Rift, the plucky startup recently bought by Facebook for a cool $2bn.
Sony is hoping to change that with Morpheus, a virtual reality headset that plugs into the Sony PS4 and promises to immerse you into whatever world you choose.
Announced at the Games Developer Conference in March, the prototype VR headset has now made it to the UK and into the hands of Pocket-lint.
Sony are currently demoing three "experiences" to show off the capabilities of the new device. We say experiences rather than games, because for the most part, that's exactly what they are at the moment.
The idea is to showcase what the hardware can do and give us reasons to get excited and from what we've experienced it is very encouraging.
The Project Morpheus VR headset plonks on your head like the cross between a ski mask and a bike helmet. Hanging from your forehead by a large soft cushion and then tightening into place with a head grip, getting into the contraption isn't the easiest of procedures, but once on it felt comfortable.
The headset features two 1080p screens that merge into one the moment you put it on, and the field of view is good, but it would be good to be bigger - bigger is always better isn't it?
Sony then allows you to put on a set of headphones, which can make for a lot of wires tangled up around your neck.
To monitor movement Sony uses the Sony PlayStation Eye camera, and controls are either by moving your head, or via a standard Sony controller. As we found out you are also able to use the Move controllers, however this will be down to the individual support per game rather than a prerequisite.
In terms of design, the Morpheus certainly looks the part: it's very futuristic. It's a big-looking thing that has plenty of glowing lights giving anyone that wears it instant Daft Punk / Orbital status.
Our adventure into the world of virtual reality started with a demo called The Deep. It's a serene diving sim that sees you start in a shark cage on the surface under a boat before slowly descending into the ocean below.
Fish swim around as you look out of the cage before the inevitable happens and a great white shark comes for you. While that's all good fun, that's not the point here, it's about showing you what works and what doesn't. In the case of being in the cage you get that immediate sense of wanting to look around you, and that you can do. The experience allows you a complete 360 spin within the world, in this case the ocean, surrounding you, with the protective cage acting like a warm cuddle. But that cage also highlights the biggest problem with VR: you can't move.
While the developers, Sony-owned London Studios, have allowed you to replicate movement with a gun in your hand and the ability to bend and see your legs bend, the moment you try and pick your feet up you are left disorientated. It's amazing how quickly you come to believe that the computer graphic body is your own. But it shows just some of the problems that games developers will have to overcome to make virtual reality a success.
Still, as a demo it works a treat, the graphics are akin to what you would get on a PS4 (it is running on a PS4), and the technicalities of the hardware tracking movement and motion are virtually seamless, especially considering this is only a prototype rather than the final thing.
The second game we demoed is EVE Valkyrie by CCP. The game is already making a name for itself as the champion of VR and has benefited from being one of the key demo titles for the Oculus Rift headset press tour. It's not surprising, it's a fantastic experience and one that lends itself to the VR experience very well as you are in a spaceship able to move your head, but with no real need to worry about moving the rest of your body.
In the Morpheus demo, CCP has moved from the Unity engine to the Unreal engine and that means new ships, new weapons, and new graphics.
While all that will move to enhance the overall experience and make it much easier for the company to develop for the experience, it is very much akin to what we've experienced with the Oculus Rift headset. There is virtually no latency and the experience is so immersive that at one point having done a barrel roll shooting down an enemy fighter while looking at another fighter to get missile lock, we felt a bit dizzy.
Talking to the developers it is clear that Valkyrie is the most advanced of the demos and the one that we will see as a finished game come launch day. We don't know when that is yet, however it's clear that CCP has an idea and says it will be ready. Regardless, it is so on the ball with what's going on and being the defacto VR game, the lead designer for the game told us that it had already road mapped around three years of features it wants to add.
Ultimately Valkyrie is a great experience and the one that will spearhead a dozen flight/space sims for the platform. If you like flying games, this tells us that VR is going to be for you, 100 per cent.
The final demo we played was called Morpheus Castle. It shows how, combined with the PlayStation Move controllers, you can start to allow a lot more interaction with the world around you rather than just standing there staring gormlessly into the virtual void.
Here you take on the role of a solider in medieval times in a castle training ground and can use the Move controllers to punch your way out of trouble, in this case against an armoured dummy.
Pressing the trigger on the Move controller turned our open hand into a fist and this combined with the headset giving you a 360 degree view (when you turn around), created a far more immersive experience than trying to recreate the experience by just watching it on TV.
After we had punched the living daylights out of the dummy, we were given swords and again the controls are very natural. Hacking and slashing - as long as you don't need to move your legs - will be amazing. After the swords came the crossbow, and our stupidity of trying to close one eye to aim. This is an immersive world, remember, and you'll find yourself losing track of that divide between the virtual and the reality.
The demo finishes with a stone dragon waking up from behind you flying high into the air and then landing in front of you to eat you.
It's in this spilt moment you realise the full power and potential of VR. You don't see the dragon until you hear it hovering above. There's no fake pan, no cutscene as the dragon wakes up as you are normally presented with, just the dragon in your face and the realisation that you should have been paying more attention.
If the Sony Morpheus demo has shown us anything, it is that gaming in the future is going to be about staying alert, because we can tell you now, there is the potential to miss a lot of it, just like in real life.
That has huge potential for games designers and gamers as we all learn what works and what doesn't in this new in-person world. It's clear that Sony are keen to push this format, and by the sheer level of demos (albeit only three) you can see that it has the potential to move a lot quicker than the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift.
What's also interesting is that Sony acknowledges that this has to be a social experience to work, for it to be successful in a world where we like to share experiences rather than be on a sofa ignoring the outside world.
That's why, Sony says, all of the demos we've seen output a more traditional looking experience to the TV so others can watch. In the case of The Deep, those voyeurs can interact via a tablet also connected to the console.
While mobile gaming continues to focus on the casual gamer, Sony, with Project Morpheus, plans to let console gamers immerse themselves even more into the worlds that they play in, and for many gamers that day can't come soon enough.