“Sony’s PS4 VR Headset Is as Impressive as Valve’s” Says Developer—Can Sony Deliver VR That Gamers Deserve?

PS4 Oculus Rift concept by T3

PS4 Oculus Rift concept by T3

The existence of a virtual reality headset from Sony for their PS4 console has passed well beyond idle speculation over the past 12 months. We bring you new information from a PS4 developer.

Note: This article contains speculation based on information from sources which cannot be officially verified.

Sony, No Stranger to HMDs

The Sony Glasstron PLM-50

The Sony Glasstron PLM-50

Sony have been at the forefront of wearable entertainment technology since the the days of the Walkman and since have pioneered niche products such as the Glasstron and the HMZ line of personal movie viewers. One thing’s for sure, not only do Sony believe in the HMD as a concept, they’ve now amassed years of experience in both miniaturised displays, optics, and ergonomics as a result. If there’s one blue chip company out there that’s best placed to challenge Oculus VR in the immersive VR gaming space, it’s probably Sony.

We’ve been charting the building evidence for Sony’s plans to enter the virtual reality arena for months now. But things started to heat up in the run up to the Gamescom conference last year. Before I headed to the show to cover the event for Road to VR, we received a message from one of our anonymous tipsters saying simply this: “Keep an eye on Sony.” We heeded the advice and watched developments from Sony unfold at Gamescom like hawks but alas, nothing official, just a fresh set of rumours.

Come September, the big media outlets were all spouting the same speculation, this time however there was a level of confidence that doesn’t usually accompany such headlines. Chief among them was Games Industry’s forthright piece entitled “Inside PS4′s new VR headset” in which it stated that there was indeed a headset and that:

Sony HMZ-T3W

Sony HMZ-T3W

The headset (which is not tied to the company’s existing Wearable HDTV Personal 3D Viewer, pictured above) uses the PS4′s PlayStation Eye camera, like Move did, for head tracking. This, say people who have used it, makes the headset even more accurate than the Oculus Rift – though it does present some aesthetic challenges.

At present, the working prototype for the headset, which select developers currently have in house, looks much like Oculus’ better-known VR system – with ping pong balls attached. The design is not expected to be final.

It seemed to us that it wouldn’t be long until we finally had confirmation or perhaps even a reveal by Sony that this seemingly ‘all but confirmed’ headset did indeed exist and when we could expect it. But, things went quiet again, at least unit now.

“Sony’s PS4 VR Headset As Impressive As Valve’s”

Sony PS4 Camera

Sony PS4 Camera

We’ve now received word from someone claiming to not only have tried Sony’s secretive virtual reality hardware but is actively developing software to utilise the device. Our source describes the HMD as having an FOV comparable to that of the Oculus Rift DK1 but with a much higher resolution. Further, the prototype our source had extensive time with, used two glowing orbs mounted atop the headset. Using a camera, assumed at this point to be the standard PS4 stereo camera that launched alongside the console late last year, the system tracks the user’s head in 3D space using the orbs to pinpoint position. Currently we have no information as to how head orientation is tracked, but it would make sense for Sony to include a solution similar to the Oculus Rift headtracker (IMU).

Sony PS Move Controller

Perhaps more interestingly, though, is that our developer source claims also to have attended the recent Steam Dev Days event in Seattle and sampled Valve’s apparently impressive prototype VR headset. According to the source, the two HMDs compare very favourably. The general impression was that resolution was comparable between Sony’s and Valve’s unit (reported to use two 1080p panels) and that head tracking accuracy was very close.

Finally, the developer also tells us that Sony’s VR headset was supposed to be revealed already but that technical issues delayed the announcement. What those issues were, we do not know.

Wild Speculation

If we hadn’t already made it abundantly clear already, this information is unconfirmed and in no way delivered via official sources. It must all be treated as wild speculation until such time as Sony decides to reveal their plans to enter the virtual reality arena. However, the information does tally with details leaked to other sources and the technology, albeit based on scant details, seems at least technically plausible.

Sony’s Playstation Move was a technically excellent ‘natural input’ controller which suffered horribly from lack of developer support (both first and third party). The ‘Glowing orb’ technology first debuted with this device and a version has found its way into the Dual Shock 4 controller, shipping with every Playstation 4 console. Each active PS4 controller has a glowing strip that faces the player’s screen and camera (if owned), the strip can be used for some reasonably accurate tracking of the controller’s position. Such technology has already been used by the Project Holodeck team to provide tracking references for their prototype HMDs.

Sony’s Playstation Move was a technically excellent ‘natural input’ controller which suffered horribly from lack of developer support (both first and third party).

In all honestly, my concern isn’t the execution of the hardware; Sony has good track records in producing superlative industrial design wrapping innovative technology. My biggest concern is that Sony will use this new device purely as a differentiator in the now ‘current gen’ console race. The PS4 and Xbox One offer such similar experiences, most of which I consider evolutionary—the chance for either to make their system stand out to gamers at large is incredibly valuable.

Whether the PS4 can offer the kind of processing grunt requires to push high resolution, high fidelity, stereoscopic scenes around at frame rates exceeding 60FPS is another question, and perhaps the biggest obstacle to Sony in this venture. As of writing, the AMD based APU in the PS4 offers performance comparable to that of current mid-range PCs—although a single hardware platform affords benefits which inflate its potential—in PC terms the PS4 is already behind the curve in terms of performance. And despite an encouraging trend for games to target a 1080p resolution, frame rates are another matter. Killzone Shadow Fall (PS4, 2013) looks fantastic, but runs at a locked 30FPS, way below the minimum threshold of 60 FPS recommended by Oculus VR Inc for a comfortable VR experience. If PS4 developers are to offer high frame rate, high resolution visuals, it’s clear something’s got to give, and that’s fidelity. Will gamers accept titles sacrificing their cosmetic looks for more immersive delivery?

Sony’s Potential VR Legacy

Here’s the rub though, virtual reality cannot be treated as an add-on or a peripheral. It must be treated as a platform in its own right. Software needs to be conceived, designed, and built from the ground up for the realm of VR, and cannot be tacked onto a renowned franchise as an afterthought. In this respect, Sony’s attempt at VR may well prove damaging to Oculus’ attempt to ensure virtual reality reaches escape velocity. If a company, with as much market reach as Sony, fumbles an entry into VR, it could sour the taste of this revolutionary gaming experience for an entire generation of gamers. And if Sony launch the device before Oculus can come to market, the average Joe may well try this half-hearted, rushed implementation and be put off for another decade.

“…Sony’s attempt at VR may well prove damaging to Oculus’ attempt to ensure virtual reality reaches escape velocity”

This is of course a slightly pessimistic and overly-dramatic scenario, but one that has a very real possibility of coming to pass. Whilst the Games Industry article above does give some encouragement that Sony’s VR venture will not meet the same fate as the PS Move controller, it’s clear the PS4 is a traditional console first and potential platform for virtual reality a very distant second.

As I was writing this article, yet more evidence of the existence of a Sony PS4 VR headset emerged. John Smedley, President of SOE (Sony Online Entertainment), the first party studio behind the likes of the next generation MMO EverQuest Next, appeared to hint at the existence of such a device in a recent Reddit AMAA:

hearing good things about 2 competitors.. one of which actually comes from Sony. so I’m thinking this is real and we may have our Snowcrash after all.

Snow Crash referring to Neal Stephenson’s influential 1992 novel which explores the idea of a virtual reality metaverse.

With any luck John isn’t referring to the dismal HMZ-TQ3, demoed at this year’s CES and was received poorly by those VR enthusiasts that tried it, but to a real dedicated HMD for gamers.

We shall see. As we continue to state, possibly ad-nauseum at this point, 2014 will be a very interesting year for VR.

What do you think? Is there now enough speculation and rumour to convince you such an HMD exists? Could Sony do more harm than good by entering the VR arena? Or do you think Sony can bring an important device to the table and help virtual reality enter the public consciousness more quickly? Let us know in the comments below.

Finally, many thanks to our tipster. You know who you are.

Comments

  1. VRdreamer says

    Very interesting and comprehansive article. Enjoyed it very much.
    I’m convinced that Sony is working on a VR headset, which is not the HMZ-T3W. Not based on rumers but on logic, as it makes sence. Like you wrote, If there’s a company that’s best placed to challenge Oculus, it’s probably Sony. The thing is… I’m not sure how it’s going to work as the PS4 most probably is lacking in horse power.
    I think Oculus have also a big challenge regarding PC’s horse power with the new low persistence technology, aiming at 90 FPS. It will be a shame and a real blow to the VR niche, trying to become mainstream, if only super high end computer rigs will be able to run high end games. I really do hope we won’t need to go to an arcade to enjoy an amazing VR experience. :)

    By the way, here is a quite interesting discussion whether or not consoles are up for the task of delivering a compelling VR experience.
    http://www.reddit.com/r/virtualreality/comments/1wodhy/oculus_rift_and_the_inevitable_future_of_nextgen/

  2. Neuromute says

    After having finally received my Rift and had a week to try it out, on an old 6 years old pc with a duo core, I have no doubts Sony will be able to pull off VR on a PS4.
    On the PS4 they’ll be able to run games at a graphical fidelity similar to that of the wave of demos being made for the Rift since the devkit came out.
    This will act as a gateway VRdrug for newbies.
    Once console pea-gamers get a taste of VR on the PS4 they’ll crave more, which will lead them to the pc space (and possibly in Oculus pockets if Sony makes their HMD locked in on the PS4).

    Consoles definitely are not the future of VR and never will be.
    With something like VR it’ll always come back to the PC space.
    Developers and gamers alike have the ultimate freedom to do whatever they wish.
    Take my devkit experiences for example, watching an unlimited amount of video content of my wishing in VR Cinema (no way Sony would ever allow something like that on their system, in fear of piracy) and then I can switch right to an eroge by Illusion where I can walk around blushing anime girls (and in the future have sex with them, you can’t have sex on consoles)>

    My biggest and only real concern about Sony releasing an HMD is that they’ll enter the game before Oculus.
    If Sony are the first to enter the second wave of VR they’ll be seen as the pioneers, not Oculus.
    That would be awful since it is Oculus and their Rift which pioneered the second wave of VR, which created this new world we’re slowly entering.
    I just hope the mainstream pea…. people know who to thank for when this all kicks off!

  3. Andreas Aronsson says

    Times sure are exciting. CES was a disappointment, but perhaps we’ll see this other headset soon enough, E3?

    Not sure how this will affect Oculus, will a console with a plug ‘m play headset be easier to setup and use? Probably. It might become the go-to product for VR for the ordinary consumer while VR enthusiasts stick to the Rift and the PC.

    Then again, I almost forgot, Valve and their Steam boxes might be just the thing to counter Sonys move, if enough games get Linux support… so many variables! Brain going amok! This year will go past soooo sloooowwllllyyyy waiting for all these exciting product announcements…

  4. Rich Dussc says

    It’s weird to hear people claim the PS4 is not powerfull enough to give us VR images…

    It really depends on what you expect those images to be. Surely they won’t be able to produce ‘next-gen’ visuals in 1080p, 60+ fps x 2, but I’m sure they could send out ‘last-gen’ visuals with those specs.
    And not every virtual world have to be photo realistic, right? If I’m thinking about entering a virtual world then I think about a very stylised world (which don’t necessary need realistic shaders and a high polycount).

    As a PS4 owner I’m totally excited by these rumours (although I doubt they will show something at GDC, this seems more like E3 material to me). This could change the way we play and experience games forever! I’m not afraid that it will lack software support either; Sony has the studio’s for it (Media Molecule for instance!) and I’m sure there will be alot of indie developers waiting to get their hands on a prototype and make some crazy cool games for it.

    And to put another rumor out there: I have reason to believe Kojima is working on something VR related. He was invited by Sony somewhere last year and came back saying he saw “the future of gaming” or something among those lines. He also just started working on a brand new project. I think we might see a Fox engine powered demo from him at E3.

  5. drifter says

    Why not, that could do @1080p if the maps are moderately detailed. And with a lot of occlusion (like Batman AC and its horseshoe-shaped map).
    I know the PS4 looks like a medium PC, but what gain from the faster architecture ?

  6. Curtrock says

    1st point @Ben Lang : Yes, JOURNEY, in VR would be the pinnacle of my VR fantasies for the past 20 years.

    2nd point: I’m not worried about Sony creating a mediocre “headset”, thus turning people off of VR. The “real” VR movement has already achieved escape velocity, thanks to Oculus, Valve, Sixense, etc…

    3rd point: VR games & experiences are already quite far removed from what Sony & Microsoft promote, to sell their consoles and software. These 2 console TITANS would have to re-imagine and re-define their entire infrastructure and paradigm, to jump in and compete with Oculus. They may indeed jump on board the VR bandwagon, but not B4 Oculus/Valve have done all the heavy lifting, and proven the viability of mass-market adoption of VR. If/when this happens, I imagine they will release a product that is an aside to the PS4/Xbox, as it seems creatively/logistically impossible to just add an HMD to the consoles, for many, many, reasons. Their entire empire, and related infrastructure of THAT industry, is built around playing games while watching a television screen. Oculus has the freedom to explore and perfect this new VR paradigm. Sony & Microsoft, are encumbered by their massive investment in console gaming. Their ability to “pivot” towards VR, will be a wide turning radius, to say the least, IMHO.

  7. Quind says

    I think something’s missing in this article and in all the talks about hardware and consoles vs PCs: cloud gaming. True, it won’t become the standard just now, but it can’t be that far down the road, and would nicely solve a lot of our current concerns.

  8. Joe Nickence says

    I think Sony “might” have an advantage here. We need to remember that tech companies operate deeply mired in patents, thanks to the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft. If Sony has been smart, they have their own arsenal of patents to beat off the wolves with. They have been dabbling in VR for a LONG time. The tech simply had to catch up with them. 2014 will definitely be the year of VR.

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