PlayStation VR Review: PS4’s virtual reality triumph

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.

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Even when standing, the cables can present a challenge. Between the inline remote and the connecting node, there is just enough weight to create a light tension in the headset cable. As a result, any momentary bumps are easily felt. If I pivot or turn in such a way that the connecting node bumps the floor, or a chair, or my leg, or whatever peripheral is sitting on the ground, I feel it with a slight jostling of the headset and a momentary disruption in my experience. It speaks volumes of the immersion PS VR can grant that it all feels very real until these small disruptions cause a slight shake of the display, or tug on your body in a surprising direction. There are ways to mitigate–I found success making sure the connecting node was sitting on the couch next to me, or resting it on something off the ground while I was standing. Nevertheless, these issues feel preventable. A longer headset cord could mean the weighty connecting node sits firmly on the ground, while a shirt clip could have reduced at least some of the remote’s snagging.

Ease of Use

After several days with PS VR, the surest sign of its accessibility is how it’s beginning to blend into my normal gaming routine. Admittedly, VR doesn’t yet feel like a device for gaming newcomers. There’s a certain degree of aptitude required for using applications or accessing device settings when something doesn’t feel right, and most of PS VR’s launch titles rely on some knowledge of traditional DualShock or PS Move controls. But for anyone who knows their Move trigger from their R1 button, using PS VR is extremely straightforward. At any time during other gaming activities, I can merely grab the headset from an end table, pop in the earphones, turn on the headset with the inline remote, and adjust it over my head. I’m getting faster and faster, thanks to experience with the headband and knowing how it should sit on my head to maximize picture clarity. Within seconds of wanting to, I’m sitting in Cinematic Mode.

Indeed, Cinematic Mode is a fine place to start. Whether it’s Uncharted 4 or the TV channels of PlayStation Vue, any traditional PS4 application can be consumed in Cinematic Mode. It’s a great chance to fiddle with the headset to find your picture quality “sweet spot”. If you don’t like the neutral point of your view–if you find yourself having to look downward or to the side more than you’d like–simply hold the Options button on the DualShock 4 for a few seconds to reset the position of the display. Other adjustments, like screen size or camera calibration, can be triggered from the Quick Menu (assuming you’re holding a DualShock 4).

Adjusting to your inability to see anything outside of PS VR’s rubber light shields is an early challenge. During my first few sessions, I forgot to keep my DualShock 4 and Move controllers in consistent places. Like finding the headset’s sweet spot, these are growing pains of a new technology and simply require time. Now, if a game asks me to use the Move controllers, I know to set my DualShock 4 in the same, easy-to-reach place every time. If I know ahead of time that I want to stream or record gameplay, I might rest the controller in my lap until that moment comes.

Outward from the body, your next consideration is space. Like with cable management, your current gaming setup might be affected by PS VR’s unique needs. Generally, titles that require you to stand–games in which your avatar is standing, or that require a lot of arm movement–ask that you be standing roughly 8 feet from the PlayStation Camera. This was the case with both Batman: Arkham VR and Job Simulator. In the small office where I typically play, this was hard to accomplish, so I ultimately moved my setup to a more open basement. In more passive titles–think Battlezone and Harmonix Music VR–smaller areas where you sit closer to the camera are fine.

The valid play area captured by the PlayStation Camera is generous. Technically speaking, it’s recommended you create an open play space extending outward from the camera by 10 feet, but the camera can’t accurately track every movement within that space, and games can impose their own restrictions. Though the camera might be able to see your headset’s tracking lights and the controller or Move wand, you could still violate the game’s valid play space and get a visual warning for straying too far. Thankfully, this rarely intrudes on normal gameplay. In standing games, it’s not unusual to stray a bit from your center point over time, which can trigger a surprising alert–nothing scary, just the usual orange triangle-type warning. But in general, simply following the game’s directions and not going out of your way to “break” the experience will result in few, if any, warnings.

Another way to think of VR’s accessibility is to consider what’s intuitive and natural. If the very idea of VR is to simulate our presence in another place, then the telltale signs of being there–perfectly mapped vision, hands that move the way you expect them to–are paramount in making newcomers feel comfortable. In this regard, my time with PS VR has been a mixed bag. There are some inherent limits to the technology that can break your immersion. Accuracy of tracking diminishes slightly as you move away from a game’s suggested center point. Furthermore, any game that maps your hands and arms to the Move wands will have brief troubles if you need to turn and your body suddenly blocks the camera’s view of the wands.

Sony clearly intends for gamers to occasionally turn around; there are tracking lights on the back of the headset for this exact reason. But unlike PS VR, the camera and Move wands weren’t built with this application in mind. The result is a trio of peripherals that occasionally aren’t on the same page. But when firing in concert–when your body and actions are perfectly mirrored in the game–they make for truly incredible experiences.

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The PS VR Experience

The virtual spaces created by PS VR are convincing and powerful enough to render most quibbles moot. Not every launch title is a hit, of course. Whether by graphical fidelity or visual cues that sell the illusion of a different world, some experiences are better executed than others. Some experiences are totally skippable, and others will make users feel the magic and presence of VR instantly. It’s the latter that matter, because they’re a clear sign that Sony nailed the technology. PS VR’s technical specs (a 5.7-inch OLED panel, displaying at 1920 x RGB x 1080 resolution and either 90hz or 120hz) only mean as much as the experiences they power, and it’s already clear that the headset’s horsepower is enabling developers to make unforgettable moments.

3D audio is crucial to those moments. The processor box ensures that directional audio is supplied to whatever pair of earphones you choose to use. The included pair, which uses rubber in-ear buds, is serviceable and effectively eliminates exterior sounds with surprisingly broad bass. Any pair with a 3.5mm jack will do, though your mileage will vary with traditional, overhead phones. While a PS VR instructional video invited me to stretch them over the headset, my Audio-Technica ATH-M40x felt stretched to an uncomfortable degree. Pairs with less rigidity or a wider profile should be fine, but I wouldn’t plan on definitely using PS VR with custom headphones.

So many little things come together to sell the feeling of presence in VR. When I turn to the left to watch a fellow racer coming up on my flank, I appropriately hear the roar of my opponents to the right, in front of me. When I feel so inclined to examine the inner workings of my tank, twisting and leaning as I peer under the seat or at controls, those things simply happen. Mere thoughts and whims can be actualized. A thousand tiny confirmations that you’re truly in that space happen every minute, blending indescribably to transport you to another world.

The resulting feelings, as well as the side effects, are unlike anything I’ve ever felt in gaming. The time distortion from being in VR makes coming out, into the real world, very strange. After an extended session that began at 9 p.m., I came out in confusion and thought, ‘I have no idea what time it is. It could be 10 p.m. It could be 1 a.m. I have no clue.’ Re-acclimating to the things around you–furniture, decor, the lights and objects you recognize–makes the VR gameplay prior feel like a dream. The illusion is powerful enough to create dissonance, as your brain briefly struggles to reconcile how you could move between two vastly different places so quickly.

The simulation isn’t perfect, of course. You can still feel the couch or chair beneath–clearly not a part of the world you occupy–and you don’t feel the inertia or breeze you might expect to when moving in certain ways. In general, the size of these gaps–the intensity of the dissonant moments–are the biggest contributor to VR sickness and other side effects. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, which seats you in a minecart, is in sync with your real-world position (sitting in a chair), but I felt a slight nausea when taking steep dives at high speeds. In Battlezone, which seats you in the cockpit of an agile tank, a feeling of nausea only builds when I attempt maneuvers that would create real-world whiplash, like quickly strafing from left to right. When a particular illusion is so convincing, we expect to feel certain forces and motions. When we don’t, there is dissonance, and tolerance for that dissonance will vary from person to person while strengthening over time.

The time you spend immersed can also play a role. In general, my body was more receptive and able to handle intense experiences at the start of play, but dissonant moments build up over time. Beyond that, just a few long VR sessions can wear you out. I expect we’ll all grow quite used to this and not be affected as much, but after just a dozen VR hours spread throughout a weekend, I woke up on Monday positively exhausted, despite no changes to my sleep schedule.

Surprisingly, eye strain was never a concern. Despite point-blank illumination from a screen, your focal point is extended outward to feel natural, as if the things you’re seeing are truly several feet or even miles away from you.

PlayStation VR review verdict

PlayStation VR is transformative, exciting, and revelatory. In the PlayStation ecosystem, it’s unlike anything else we’ve experienced. Mercifully accessible and relatively free of needless hassle, it feels like a gamer-first device. Like the PS4 before it, PS VR is thoughtfully designed to put game-playing front and center. Whether you’re consuming blockbuster games or Netflix in Cinematic Mode, leaping between asteroids in a walking tank, cowering behind Thomas and Martha Wayne as their killer emerges from the shadows, or jumping back-and-forth to all of these things, the PlayStation VR experience is seamless, empowering, and powerful.

There are quibbles, and there will be growing pains. Occasionally, when the illusion falters due to momentary tracking issues, the technology’s limits can be felt. Within the context of the peripherals Sony is using in concert to make this whole thing work, these are easily excused. Other concerns, like real-world distractions from the headset cable and inline remote, feel like unforced errors. The potential revealed by just a few hours with PS VR points to a very exciting future, but I wonder if developers will have to make concessions as their ambition starts to demand more usable play space and even more precise tracking.

PlayStation VR is great, and about as gentle an introduction to sophisticated VR as one could expect, but time will tell if true greatness awaits. At launch, the latest member of the PlayStation family can generate unforgettable experiences, and the headset’s few flaws don’t compromise that fact. More than merely a glimpse at the future of gaming, PlayStation VR is powerful and evocative in its own right. It’s a fully featured, well-considered device worthy of both the PlayStation name and being an ambassador for VR. For anyone who counts video games among their passions, it comes highly recommended.



The Final Word

PlayStation VR has a few teething problems, but they are quickly overcome by its power to convincingly place you in virtual realities while being highly accessible and consumer-friendly.