Project Morpheus and the Virtual Reality dream

How Sony’s gaming-focused headset will lead the VR charge

Is it finally time for the Virtual Reality revolution to begin? We’ve heard that question a number of times before, and each time it’s been a false dawn – but the recent response to not one but two different pieces of VR tech suggests the answer this time might be yes. Sony’s Project Morpheus was announced at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference, just a week before Facebook’s buyout of Oculus was confirmed. Yet while the latter deal opens the Rift up to a potential audience of billions, that wasn’t necessarily bad news for Sony; indeed, its own headset is arguably in an even stronger position than it was immediately after its already promising debut.

For starters, Sony will push Morpheus as a game-focused VR machine. While the Facebook deal suggests Oculus stands a strong chance of reaching a mass-market audience – Mark Zuckerberg has claimed its primary focus will be games, but it’s clear it will also be targeting other media – that potentially opens the door for Sony to position Morpheus as an almost exclusively game-centric alternative. And besides, Sony’s existing audience is the perfect market for a new piece of tech like Morpheus: those early adopters who find innovative new technology irresistible are those who are going to get Morpheus off the ground.

Sony showed off a prototype VR headset as early as GDC 2012, with a Move controller used as a rudimentary form of head tracking.

Though Facebook’s billions may change this, in its current form, Project Morpheus appears to have the edge in terms of tech specs. Boasting a 1080p display and positional tracking with the PlayStation Camera, early tests suggest its display is crisper, with less noticeable lag than the Rift, and is altogether more immersive. Its 90-degree field of view may be slightly narrower than its rival, but that restriction is thought to be a deliberate trade-off on Sony’s part for overall superior image quality.

And let’s face it, Morpheus looks much cooler, too: smoother, and more streamlined, it looks like a piece of future hardware. Compare it to the Rift and you can instantly tell which of the two devices was made by a tech-minded startup and the other by an electronics company that has the knack of making hardware that looks as good as it performs. It also happens to be a little more comfortable to wear, which could come in particularly useful when using the device for longer periods.

Smoother and more streamlined, Morpheus really looks like a piece of future hardware.

Significantly, Sony’s Anton Mikhailov has said that the headset will be “an affordable, consumer-grade device”. Buying into Morpheus already means a substantial investment in PS4 – and a PlayStation Move controller or two – though the success of Sony’s latest console, which is currently some distance ahead of its rivals, makes it that much more of a viable proposition, potentially reaching a larger audience than it might originally have anticipated.

Sony’s biggest job now is to convince publishers and developers alike to make their games VR-compatible. It’s not likely to be a cheap or easy process, after all. Yet several indie studios have made encouraging noises about their interest in VR. The audience might not be large enough to tempt the moneymen yet, but for the people making games it’s an exciting idea. As with any new technology, there’s bound to be a rush of early interest as developers compete to create the killer-app, the one piece of software that not only best demonstrates the tech but helps sell VR as a concept to a wider audience.

The company already has an advantage over Oculus in the sense that it doesn’t only have to rely on third-parties. Already, several of the company’s internal studios are working on VR software. If PS4 owners have been slightly perturbed about the lack of new first-party releases this year, that’s partly down to the format-holder’s keenness to get its teams started on making compelling VR experiences.

The early success of Kinect was a reminder that innovative new hardware can be a big draw – and with more reliable tech, that novelty shouldn’t wear off so quickly.

And consider the role that small independent studios could play. Over the past few years, Sony has been actively welcoming indies to Vita and PS4. It’s a process that has not only broadened the software library of its current consoles, but that has made the PlayStation ecosystem an attractive place to be, encouraging brand loyalty. We’ve spoken to several indies recently, all of whom have praised Sony for being so easy to work with, with several suggesting their relationship has motivated them to make their next game compatible with PS4 – and, perhaps, with Morpheus. Sony has been supplying Morpheus kits to developers, too, inviting them to hop on the VR bandwagon at the earliest opportunity.

What’s more, the first Morpheus demos are extremely promising, and demonstrate an understanding that VR might be tiring used for long play sessions, and is better suited for short bursts of play. Its games appear to be comparatively light on mechanical depth, and high on sensation. Take, for example, the terrifying The Deep, in which you’re lowered into the ocean in a cage, as a Great White Shark swims by. Alert it by firing a flare and it will tear at the cage with its huge jaws.

Alongside that, there’s the exhilarating and intense Street Luge, which has you steering between cars by tilting your head, and the pretty much self-explanatory Jurassic Encounter. A game called The Castle meanwhile, features some of the best first-person sword combat you’ll have ever encountered, though you’ll need two Move controllers to play it.

The exhilarating and intense Street Luge has you steering between cars by tilting your head.

There will, of course, be Morpheus support for longer, more traditional games, but these short, bite-sized experiences will likely come at a reduced price, mitigating the expenditure on the headset itself; indeed, we’d be surprised if it didn’t come bundled with this kind of software. They might not offer the kind of depth that experienced gamers will be looking for, but those games will surely come. In the meantime, these immersive, sensory experiences will likely have huge word-of-mouth value.

There’s even potential for Morpheus to reach beyond games. Sony’s GDC announcement also revealed that the format holder had partnered with NASA, and it’s not hard to see where such a collaboration might go. Imagine going on a virtual mission to Mars, or taking a walk on the moon with authentic physics? Sony has already said that special NASA research projects could involve scientists working together.

So while the Rift might ostensibly hold the strongest hand, if Sony can get the price right and release Morpheus with enough compelling software that excites people into buying one – indeed, it could transform PS4 into a must-own for those who haven’t yet bought an eighth-generation console – it could yet find itself leading the Virtual Reality charge.