There’s something slightly surreal about being taught how to express emotion. And yet, inside the social VR demo for the Sony PlayStation VR, it’s an important lesson.
Sony finally gave pricing and release window details at a March 15 event in San Francisco, and offered a variety of demos– one of which was a social experience where multiple people represented by avatars could interact in a cartoonish world
So, we learned how to smile, frown, make a fist, make an angry face, and give thumbs up and thumbs down as bulbous little avatars floating somewhere between South Park characters and Smurfs.
In the social demo, you could play piano, dance, grab and play with blocks, play catch, and even hit a ball back and forth. Those are great little activities for getting to know the PlayStation Move controllers–the wands with the glowing balls on the end. The controllers are easy enough to handle, with the standard assortment of triggers and buttons. I liked that navigating direction was as simple as pointing the controllers, without even having to mess with beams or other visual cues directing you from one space to the next. There was also a button that let you re-orient yourself, which is handy, because it’s easy to get twisted around, looking at a scene one way, with half of your lower body facing a different direction.
Though, when it came to playing a VR version of ping pong, the controllers just didn’t stack up to the precision of other controllers out there built specifically for VR, like the Vive or Oculus controllers. It’s hard to explain, but when something is slightly off, when your brain registers that you’re not, in fact, hitting a ball back and forth, it breaks immersion, and that’s one of the last, if not the last, thing you want.
As far as the headset itself, it has one band that wraps around the back of the head, with a quick release button in the back. There’s also a button under the display that allows for the adjustment of the distance between the mask and the user’s face. The trick with that quick release button, though, is that you’ve got to hold the headset by the visor portion. Regardless, it was fairly comfortable. Most large headmounted displays feel as though they’re pulling on your face, and the ability to adjust the mask apart from the head band lessened that.
Sony’s Andrew House, who delivered the announcement, said that the design of the HMD was largely the same, only lighter.
Another demo I tried was from Harmonix, makers of music-related video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. They showed off a music visualizer. The first demo puts the user on a beach. Various elements move and react to the music. It’s a fairly passive experience, though, if you look at a flower, shell, or items like that for a prolonged period of time, it cues further psychedelic-looking effects. The other part of the demo was a Tilt Brush-esque experience where, using the controllers, the user can draw and paint in 3D, and the lines, shapes, and patterns respond to the music–so for example, little teal globes pulsate to the rhythm of “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie. It’s a lot of fun, and certainly a different way to experience listening to music.
For most of the past two years, Oculus, HTC, and Sony’s offerings have been considered the top trio on the high end of virtual reality. The PSVR is good, but feels like a solid third place. And as it’s $399, compared to the $599 Rift and $799 Vive, cheap(ish) and more than good enough could be a decent route for Sony–and an easier argument to make for businesses looking to invest in VR, but don’t want to fork over $1,500 on a full rig.