I’m Bruce Wayne, standing in front of a grand piano. I reach my hand out, press a few keys, and suddenly the floor starts to move. I descend onto a platform, look all around me and begin to feel claustrophobic before the space opens up into the Bat Cave, an enormous (and gorgeous) underground structure. And so I get set up: I put on the gloves and add tools to my utility belt. I put on the cowl by reaching out, grabbing it, and placing my hand up against my face. I look in the mirror. Batman looks back.
I’m a gangster, riding shotgun during a high-speed chase. In one hand I have an uzi and I point it out the side window, aiming in the general direction of a baddie on a motorcycle. With my other hand, I reach out to the dashboard—no longer in my field of view—and grab another ammo clip. When my current one runs out, it drops out the bottom of the gun, and I slam my hands together, reloading instantly and doing it over again.
I’m a Human, doing some odd task required of me by some unseen or inhuman supervisor. Maybe I’m heading explosive soccer balls into a stack of boxes branded by “Nuclear Power” energy drinks; maybe I’m putting cheese and blended apple onto a piece of bread in a horrorshow approximation of “pizza.”
In all these moments, I am sitting (or standing) in my New York City apartment, but in the moment I nearly forget. I’m wearing a black and silver headset covered with bright blue lights: PlayStation VR.
PlayStation VR (née Project Morpheus) is the latest in a long line of pricey peripherals that game companies have released in an attempt to extend the life of their existing hardware: Microsoft’s Kinect, Sony’s PlayStation Move, Nintendo’s Wii Balance Board, etc., etc. But where those devices’ lack of support led to a whole lot of buyer’s remorse, there’s good reason to believe PlayStation VR will be different. Aside from the fairly robust launch lineup and future commitments from developers large and small, PSVR is going to succeed just by virtue of what it is. This is virtual reality for the masses, the thing all of us have been dreaming about for decades.
2016 is the year of virtual reality, having seen the final release of the Oculus Rift, purchased by Facebook in 2013 for $2 billion, as well as some stiff competition from the HTC Vive, backed by famed PC developer/publisher Valve. Samsung’s Gear VR headset is now in its third iteration, and the market is flooded with cheap Google Cardboard-type boxes that you can put your phone in and use to watch 360-degree videos. Those phone devices are really a whole different type of product, though. They’re cheap and rather limiting. You can use them to look around, but you cannot move around.
On the other hand the PlayStation VR, like the Rift and Vive, tracks you and your movements, especially when paired with a pair of PlayStation Move controllers (which have finally proved their worth). This is the real deal, and it’s affordable too…kind of. For $400, you can get a headset. A $500 bundle, meanwhile, includes the headset, a PlayStation camera, and two Move controllers, as well a pack of five small games that will not be the next Wii Sports but instead serve as a decent introduction to your new toy.
(You’re going to want the bundle.)
Sure, if you don’t have a PlayStation 4, you’ll need to add $300 on top of that price—or $400 if you wait for the upcoming upgrade that is the PlayStation 4 Pro. But when the HTC Vive costs $800 and the Oculus Rift is $600 without the $200 Touch Controllers that track your hands in virtual space, you’re getting the Playstation VR package and the system that runs it for the price of its competition. (A computer that will actually run VR games in a satisfactory way costs at least as much as the headsets themselves.)
It’s fairly easy to set everything up, all things considered. The unit comes in a pretty box with a simple set-up guide and cables marked with big numbers, so you know exactly how everything goes together. Once it’s set up and you’ve got the PlayStation Camera pointed at you, it’s time to put on the headset itself. The first couple of minutes require a bit of fiddling to find the right fit. The headset works both with and without glasses, though it’s easier and more comfortable without. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it; by the fourth time I put on my headset, I could get it in the right spot within 15 seconds.
The headset has changed a lot since I first used it at a Sony event back in 2014. Even then, I knew it was something special, and I’ve been excited ever since. What has just hit shelves is vastly superior and by far the most pleasant VR headset I’ve ever worn. For a big, technological contraption that you put on your head, it’s actually fairly comfortable. On multiple occasions, I wore it for over an hour straight. Aside from some red markings where it pressed against my face, there weren’t any real adverse effects.
After all of this is done, you get into the games. And that’s when everything changes. Let’s be totally clear: Everything. Changes. I vividly remember every time I’ve used a proper VR headset because the experience has always blown me away in some way or another. This time was no different. Whether I was shredding documents in Job Simulator, peering down at the goings-on of a miniature village in Allumette, or destroying wireframe ships in Rez Infinite, I felt a sense of connection to the experience that I have never really felt before. It’s hard to overstate just how bizarre it is to be sitting in your bedroom and then feel as though you have actually been transported to another world. Developers refer to this feeling as “presence.” It’s magical.
It doesn’t necessarily feel like the things around you are real. In Headmaster, I didn’t feel like I was actually in a cramped cell, for instance, but I also didn’t feel like I was in my own room either. VR creates this third zone: Not your reality, not the game’s reality. It is, I guess, the true virtual reality. And we’ve reached a point where it’s effective enough to trick your brain. When the descent into the Bat Cave began, I freaked out as the floor seemed to rise up all around me. I logically understood that I was actually in an open space, but my gut certainly didn’t.
Batman: Arkham VR is a great-looking game and probably the best PSVR launch title, but it’s also an excellent example of how developers try to work around system limitations. VR requires a whole new level of technical prowess and in order to make a game look as good as Arkham VR does, things have to be simplified. The game’s scope is limited and there’s no real in-game movement. That is, this is not a “proper” Arkham franchise game in VR. And though games running on the PlayStation 4 Pro will look better, they’re still no match for the multi-thousand-dollar gaming PCs you can use to run an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. This is what we mean when we call the PSVR “mass market” virtual reality. That said, when you’re in the games, the way they look matters far less than you might think. It’s really about the experience itself.
There are three different ways you can interact with PSVR games: With the headset only, with a standard DualShock 4, or with a Move Controller (or two). This variety is important because it means developers aren’t locked into any one type of experience. Some games are objectively better with a standard controller than they are with the Move, and vice versa. One example is the aforementioned Headmaster, a Portal-esque game wherein you do nothing but hit soccer balls with your head. Playing Headmaster doesn’t require a controller, DualShock or Move—it works perfectly well with just the PSVR headset. In order to select a new level or check the menu, you just turn your head in one direction or another. It’s easy to understand, which is why I thought it the perfect way to introduce my friends to VR.
Even though I’m still impressed by what virtual reality is capable of, the experience is no longer truly new for me, so I wanted to get some outside opinions. I asked a couple of friends who had never used VR (one an avid video game player, the other not) to try it out. They each tried a few different games, and though not everything clicked, once something did, it was true love. One friend, while playing Job Simulator, realized she could just throw all of the game’s objects around her virtual workspace. Her face lit up and she started grabbing and chucking virtual things everywhere using the Move controller. As she did it, she drifted to the left before hitting her hand against the wall: “Oh my god, I forgot there was a wall there!”
The other, while playing Headmaster, became even more invested. In one level, a featureless painting of a “goalie” on a large wooden plank stands in front of the player. Misjudging the angle, my friend slammed the ball straight into the goalie, knocking it backwards. Immediately, she apologized. Then she paused. “Wait, why did I just say sorry to that piece of wood?”
Of course, it’s not even that—she was apologizing to a bunch of polygons and textures. But in that moment, she was on that soccer field. And when she swung her head forward, she had actually hit that soccer ball straight into that piece of wood with a human shape on it. That is presence. That is what makes virtual reality so special and so significant. There is truly nothing else like it.
Sony is gambling big with PlayStation VR, pouring tons of money into the product itself as well as its accompanying games. Making it a peripheral is risky, but the potential benefit of attaching it to a console already in tens of millions of homes is enormous. If you have a PS4, you know you can use PlayStation VR. It’ll just work. And for that reason alone, it is the best headset you can buy right now. Mass market VR is finally here, and it’s incredible.