Today at the ‘PlayStation VR: Development and Innovations’ session, Sony Senior Staff Engineer Chris Norden took to the stage to give a technical overview of the company’s VR headset. During the talk he sought to clear up misreported information regarding the PlayStation VR breakout box.

On stage, Norden clarified the functionality of the breakout box as part of his presentation:

What does it do?

  • Object-based 3D audio processing
  • Displays social screen
    • Mirroring mode
    • Separate mode
  • Displays PS4 system software interface in “cinematic mode”

What is it not?

  • Extra GPU power
  • Extra CPU power
  • Playstation 4 “expansion unit” or “upgrade”
  • Accessible by the developer in any way

Norden was adamant about getting the point across because he says it’s been consistently misreported by some gaming and tech press that the box is assisting the PlayStation 4 with VR rendering.

“The PS4 is perfectly capable of 120Hz output all by itself,” he said, and noted that Sony had clarified this point on several occasions, though to seemingly no avail.

The confusion may have arisen from the technical name given to the box by Sony: the PU (Processing Unit).

See Also: PlayStation VR Priced at $399 with October Release Date

Norden went on to explain that for PlayStation VR, that 120Hz rendering happens on the PS4, including the distortions necessary to prepare the image for display on the headset. The PU is responsible for sending that VR-ready view through to the headset while actually siphoning off a copy and un-distorting it so that it can be sent to the user’s TV as the ‘social screen’ which is a mirrored view of what’s going on inside the headset but one that’s formatted to fit the TV.

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The PU also makes it possible to use the social screen in ‘Separate’ mode, which displays an entirely different video and audio feed compared to what the view going to PSVR. This opens the door to asynchronous game design which is the foundation of Sony’s Playroom VR which is a VR party game consisting of several mini-game experiences that either pit non-VR players against the VR users or allows them to play cooperatively together.


Based on Norden’s explanation, it sounds as if Sony didn’t opt to mirror the VR view onto the display, they could have removed the PU entirely, and simply sent the VR-ready view directly to the headset.

Since they did want the social screen, thus making the box necessary, they also decided to drop PlayStation VR’s custom 3D positional audio processing onto the box. This does technically offload some processing that the PS4 would otherwise have to do. Another representative explained to me that the audio offloading decision was more of a “since it’s there anyway” choice, rather than a performance necessity to allow the PS4 to handle VR rendering.



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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • George Vieira IV

    So PSVR has headphones built in or attached?

  • T

    ughhh psvr is looking worse and worse. I was getting hyped for it after the 400 price point but this basically confirms that they will be pushing out low quality software

    • OhYeah!

      lol, what are you talking about. 120hz is great and it never mentioned anywhere about skimping on software?

      • Id

        He’s a paid microsoft shill.

    • Having used it along with Vive, Crescent Bay, DK2, and GearVR; I can assure you that there is NO skimping going on with PSVR. The experience is as immersive and entertaining as anything else I’ve done to date. My only disappointment is that is PS-only.

    • Full_Name

      The experience is fine and it runs smoothly. It will have some limitations vs pc games in terms of number of polygons it can render in a scene, size of textures and some effects (better looking shadows, water, smoke etc). It’s quite possible the average user won’t notice that much though.

      • Radek

        I think they will notice , most probably on the PC there will not be just VR games made for minimum configuration but also for more advanced PCs (same as with normal games you can adjust details resolution etc). With Power of PS4 being maybe not even minimum of Oculus min. req. With games being better and for higher demanding PCs PS4 will have to stay at low details. This can be disappointment for some people since the P.U box were expected to have some signal processors to help with VR demands on GPU power to handle better details which didn’t happened – reason for lower price then expected. Still with millions of PS4 this can be VR gaming mainstream no matter what, but best VR experience will be the PC.

        • Sven Viking

          (Just mentioning that while it’s true people expected various things regarding the processing box, it’s also true that Sony has explained what it actually does several times over the past months and been ignored.)

        • T

          Ive used a DK1 and 2 owned by someone else so i have minimum experience. Obviously i had TREMEMDOUS fun with both and psvr promises a better experience than both. I stated it will be lower quality software because it will be.

          The high refresh rate cant be achieved with very hard to run software so alternate artstyles are gonna end up being the most well regarded graphics. If you didnt notice with the exception of a couple games (honestly i wish i had more to back this up) alternate artstyles tend not to sell well.

          I want to experience all the models before i judge but it seems like

          Keep this in mind for those who are championing psvr.

          It is the cheapest and most easy to market. It will move the most units and targets the broadest audience. It will dictate the majority of discussion and determine the public view of VR. If its shitty big money wont invest in software.

    • Voice of Reason

      That’s a rather ugly thing to say about game developers, you may think very little of them but I can assure they are a bunch of intelligent, hard working individuals.

      Also reiterating what has already been known for so long, namely what the breakout box does, does not in any way ‘basically confirm’ that developers ‘will be pushing out low quality software., what a ridiculous thing to say.

  • Simon Wood

    I love that geekiness of analyzing this box.. :-)
    If it does 60Hz-120Hz ‘reframing’ does it also alter the positional location of the video image for the headset as well. It _must_ be locational aware if it is rendering 3D audio.
    It’ll also be interesting to understand how the separate social feed is communicated from PS4 to box. Is this a separate ‘stream’ within the HDMI connection?

    • Voice of Reason

      The breakout box does not do any ‘reframing’ as you put it, it’s a known quantity at this point, it does exactly as this article says, plus one more thing that has no bearing on the consumer, it packages up all the sensor data from the headset at intervals and sends them to the PS4 for developers to make use of as required.

      The separate social feed is sent via the USB connection between the PS4 and the breakout box. The mirrored feed is an un-warping of the right eyes rendered image performed on the breakout box itself.

  • Bog Nakamura

    I just hope the cable is long enought for the future developement of the vr scene, at least for this generation. Anyone else pre-ordering no mans sky like me?

  • Charles

    “technical name given to the box by Sony: the PU ”
    P.U.? That’s a terrible name.

  • Ivan Johnson

    Mannnn so much money out of my pocket. Oculus and psvr. Possibly the vive too. Gotta do more research on that one though. Yea the psvr picture quality won’t be like the others but it can hold their own. It will at least look better than the Samsung Gear Vr by a long shot.

  • JoeD

    Ok so the PS4 has a hard time hitting 60 fps at 1080p on most high end games. So now I’m to believe that stepping into VR with the likes of Robinson the Journey (will the dinosaurs be square blocks?) that the PS4 is going to manage 120 fps at 1080p for VR all on its lonesome on a graphics processor equivalent to the GTC 660 Ti? Granted, I get that VR games are going to have to dial down complexity of the games but this sounds highly dubious.

    • justerthought

      Of course VR games will dial back the complexity. You are generating the game twice, once for each eye, plus you have to do it all at a higher frame rate to avoid nausea.

      But the VR experience will be the thing people are concentrating on, not the texture quality or the object density. The VR presence will be the thing that will wow us as we move around the world. We won’t be walking up to a wall and inspecting the texture quality at close range like we do with current games in an attempt to get a sense of realistic immersion.

      VR is the real deal. Immersive by its nature.

      You’re placing way too much importance on Robinson the Journey. We know very little about that game. In order to get that amount of density and quality into VR, they may have had to severely gimp the game with a very linear restrictive path to make it fit VR. Don’t expect an open world Robinson the Journey.

      A good fit for the VR open world genre is No Man’s Sky where you have scaled back object density and simple textures. That game in VR would be awesome, giving you a real sense of presence. Without VR that game looks graphically flat, so I will delay buying No Man’s Sky until I see a VR version.

      We will have to wait for PS5 before we see true photorealistic VR. By that time, the initial novelty will have worn off and we will be looking at the texture quality and object density for eye candy rewards.

      Game graphics are an incremental process spanning generations. I’ve been a gamer right from the start in the 1970’s with very simple graphics, so it’s silly to throw your dummy out of the pram just because you cannot have it all right now.

    • Voice of Reason

      90 and 120 hertz refresh modes are supported. Developers must target one of the following: Rendering at 120fps then re-projecting to 120hz, rendering at 90fps then re-projecting to 90hz, or rendering at 60fps then re-projecting to 120hz.

      This obviously gives developers the ability to choose a rendering mode that will better meet their visual needs.

      Here is an example of the visuals you can expect from launch day software:

    • shadus

      I think they will have to cover for it in art style. for example Wind waker HD on the wii u looks gorgeous even though its incredible simple graphics. You substitute high def textures for simple colorful ones that catch the eye and the load on the gpu drops a ton.