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PlayStation VR Review: PS4's virtual reality triumph

Step into a new gaming era for PlayStation with PS VR, Sony's virtual reality headset and a new experience for PS4.

on 5 October 2016

Smack-dab in the middle of your most successful console generation would seem a strange time to debut a new, potentially earth-shattering technology. Whether by sales or public perception, PlayStation 4 seemingly can do no wrong, and Sony Interactive Entertainment is riding a wave of gamer goodwill not felt since the days of PlayStation 2. On this wave rides PlayStation VR, touted as “the future of PlayStation” and given all the gravity of a new console, without actually being a new console.

There are so many firsts with PlayStation VR. It’s one of the first consumer-facing virtual reality headsets, and the most cost-effective yet. It’s the first virtual reality headset built strictly for console gaming. It’s arguably the first time a console manufacturer has made a truly seismic hardware introduction in the middle of its own console lifecycle.

If that wasn’t enough, a great many people will experience their first moments in virtual reality with PS VR. We’ve talked before about the transformative nature of VR. The feeling of presence, of truly being in another place, can change your perspective on gaming itself with a window into its truest form. PS VR has the responsibility of introducing that form to potentially millions of gamers for the first time while, at the same time, needing the legs to last. Buying a PS VR is no small commitment, and the usual test of being a worthy consumer electronics purchase should apply.

By most of these measures, PlayStation VR is a runaway success. Like the PS4 itself, PS VR is a thoughtful, consumer-friendly device that exceeds expectations. It’s accurate, comfortable, and natural in the most important ways, and its powerful capabilities are clearly demonstrated by what matters most: games.

In essence, PlayStation VR does so much right that its few missteps are easy to dismiss as the growing pains of new technology. These concerns, including comfort, cable management, and tracking, don’t imply a lack of care or attention to detail. Rather, they are side effects of an exciting, largely untested way of playing games. In 2016, PlayStation VR is an outstanding achievement. Whether we’ll feel the same way in just a few years depends on how quickly VR innovation proceeds -- whether PS VR’s flaws are revealed to be intrinsic side effects or unforced errors.

PlayStation VR Setup

While PS VR is unlike any gaming equipment we’ve put together, the setup process is logical and well-explained. Assuming you know your HDMI from your USB, it’s a relatively simple matter to follow the included instructions to match together individual parts (that are also clearly labeled by number).

In essence, PS VR works by interpreting visual information processed by your PS4 and displaying it onto a small (5.7-inch) OLED panel inside the headset. In that sense, it occupies the role that your television normally would. A small “processor box” helps translate this information, while also passing a video signal back from the headset to your TV. All told, the processor box both supplies PS VR with the images that comprise your virtual reality while allowing others to see what you’re seeing as a flat image on your TV.

After setting up PS VR, your new gaming setup will thus include:

  • A PlayStation 4
  • A PlayStation Camera plugged into your PS4
  • An HDMI cable from your PS4 to the processor box
  • A USB cable from your PS4 to the processor box
  • An HDMI cable from the processor box to your TV
  • An AC adapter from the processor box to a power outlet
  • A “VR headset connection cable” from the processor box to your PS VR headset

This “connection cable” ends in a small square-shaped node of its own, which your PS VR headset’s own cable plugs into. The headset cable houses an inline remote and 3.5mm headphone jack while running about five feet. Either half or all of this length is used by sitting or standing, which leaves about nine feet granted by the “connection cable” as the usable distance from your TV stand.

Undeniably, adding PS VR to your existing living room or office setup will create clutter and a cable nest. If you opt to use PlayStation Move controllers with your VR gaming, that’s another one or two peripherals lying around. After some consideration, it’s not terribly difficult to organize this cluster to be visually appealing, but unless you plan on disconnecting it after every use, the connection cable will still be running across your floor, notable where pets and children are concerned.

After the connections have been made, merely powering on your VR headset with a button on the inline remote begins first-time setup. The onscreen prompts that follow are simple and graphically show you the proper way to put on the headset, the proper way to hold it while doing so, and so forth. I was more than satisfied with this instruction, and I felt I could handle the device confidently without subtly tarnishing it.

The first thing you see after completing these on-screen instructions is the PS4’s main menu in Cinematic Mode. The PS4’s UI is projected on what feels like a massive movie theater screen, so big it requires a slight head turn to see the corners. And it can go bigger--within Device Settings, you can bump the “Medium” size, which simulates a 163-inch screen, up to a whopping 223 inches with Large or down to a “Small” 117-inch screen.

When PS VR activates, the PS4 dynamically switches to Cinematic Mode, projecting an epic display in your headset while the lower-res “Social Screen” appears on the TV so others can see what you’re doing. Turning off PS VR is similarly easy--PS4 gamers are likely accustomed to using the PS Button’s Quick Menu to turn off devices like controllers, and PS VR is no different. Do note that merely turning it off won’t restore the TV’s display to its normal resolution--it’s also necessary to close any VR games or applications that might be running in the background.

Is PlayStation VR comfortable?

Coming in just under 1.5 pounds, the PS VR headset feels like an appropriately solid piece of tech. More importantly, the headband is built with cushioning and comfort to accommodate this weight. At the front of the strap is a curved, thickly padded cushion designed to brace against the top of your forehead. A similarly dense and firm cushion lines the strap at the back of your head. Pressing the release button on the backside of the strap causes the tensile headband to relax and allows you to pull the strap back, either for putting the headset on or removing it.

An adjustment dial on the back strap can be used to tighten even further, but the headband does a remarkable job of firmly grasping your head without the need to twist this dial. In fact, doing so too much could be hazardous. My playing partner and I discovered that what feels tight and firm at first can subtly but surely cut off circulation and lead to headaches. We found that merely letting the headset tighten itself upon releasing the button kept the headset comfortably steady, with only a couple dial turns necessary for movement heavy games.

After several extended sessions of over an hour, I never experienced any soreness from the headband itself. The pressure exerted is noticeable and can leave a “phantom pressure” after playing for an extended time, but it’s swiftly forgotten when the action starts. I can’t recall ever thinking about or noticing the headband during play.

For all the isolation and immersion, PS VR has an uncanny way of boosting your real-world senses, making you acutely aware of your body, its position, and the things touching it. This is because any such anomaly is at odds with the VR experience--fleeting distractions that are felt more strongly because they remind you where you actually are.

In this way, the headset’s cable and inline remote are periodic annoyances. The inline remote and cable have a habit of getting caught on things--shirt buttons, shirt collars--or trapped behind you. While sitting on an open-backed chair, I accidentally cranked the volume to max a couple times when the inline remote became trapped behind me. On a soft couch, the remote would occasionally fall between my back and the cushion, causing a light tug when I moved my head.

PlayStation VR review continues on Page 2.