It’s been 20 years since Sony unveiled its very first virtual reality headset, the snappily-named PUD-J5A. It wasn’t heralded with a great deal of fanfare; you could only buy it in Japan, via the internet, and Sony’s reluctance to promote it made it less of a product launch and more of a well-kept secret.
Within months, it was consigned to a scrapheap of devices that promised an incredible VR experience but come up short. Over the past two decades, that scrapheap has grown ever larger and VR remains well outside the mainstream.
But on Tuesday, Sony unveiled the specifications for a new system, the PlayStation VR2, which could – with a fair wind in its sails – help VR technology win the hearts and minds of the general public.
First, the disclaimers. We don’t know what it’s going to look like, how much it will cost or when it’ll be released, although it’ll probably be the back end of 2022. We do know that it’ll be an add-on to the PlayStation 5 (which, let’s remember, is a console that continues to be beset with supply and shipping problems).
Yet, even if the VR2 remains somewhat elusive, its technology promises a great deal. The resolution of its display (2000 x 2040 pixels) outstrips competitors such as the Oculus Quest 2 and the HTC Vive Cosmos. Its “inside-out” tracking system can sense your position in a room without you having to set up an external camera to observe where you’re standing. And there are two additional killer features that are a world first in mass-produced VR headsets: haptic feedback and internal eye-tracking.
The former will, according to Sony, bring players closer to the gameplay experience. “You can feel a character’s elevated pulse during tense moments, the rush of objects passing close to the character’s head, or the thrust of a vehicle as the character speeds forward.” The latter can sense where you’re looking, allowing players to “interact more intuitively in new and lifelike ways, allowing for a heightened emotional response and enhanced expression that provide a new level of realism”, according to Sony.
But crucially, eye-tracking also enables something called “foveated rendering”. Sony only mentions this in passing, but it’s considered to be a big deal: it means that the part of the screen you’re directly looking at can be shown at peak resolution, while the rest of the display can be allowed to downgrade slightly. That means faster, more responsive gaming that places much less strain on the computer processor. That could lead to a massive increase in the quality of the VR experience.
The big question: even if we set aside the availability of the actual product, will these kind of innovations be enough to persuade more of us to give VR a try?
Our historic reluctance can be boiled down to three things, the first of those being cost. We generally aren’t keen to splash out money on a product that hasn’t demonstrated significant advantages, and with conventional 2D gaming being in such rude health, VR has tended to prompt something of a collective shrug.
Then there’s usability; you can’t just plug-in and go with VR, and the laborious set-up process means that only those truly committed to the cause will be bothered to go through with it.
Lastly, there’s the undeniable biological factor, which has been much studied in recent years: essentially, a significant percentage of people using VR systems experience some kind of motion sickness after a period of use.
As the technology improves and costs fall, however, interest looks set to grow. Some people may still dismiss VR as a “problem looking for a solution”, but that’s not borne out by the figures. More than five million of the original PlayStation VR headsets have already been sold, and it’s rumoured that the Oculus Quest 2 is selling three times as fast.
One of the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic is that we’ve sought out escapism closer to home. The information unveiled by Sony this week indicates that VR may be getting ever closer to providing us with that escapism.
Scroll through the photo gallery below to see a timeline of PlayStation devices: