PlayStation VR launches this week, and looks like it could well be the first proper "living room-friendly" virtual reality setup. If anything has a decent shot at demystifying virtual reality gaming and making it a little more "mainstream" this year, this is probably it. At the very least, the gargantuan marketing push that Sony is making is prompting people to at least consider trying something new that's maybe a little outside their comfort zone. The company claims to have already given more than a quarter million demos at Best Buys, GameStops and other stores in an effort to convey the fact that VR is really something you need to see and – more importantly – feel to fully comprehend its potential.
Sony initially appeared to be uncharacteristically late to the VR party – announcing its $399 device for PlayStation 4 this March, more than a year after the other high profile VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive for PC – but it has actually been working in secret on it for more than half a decade. Glixel spoke with Shawn Layden, the chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment's worldwide studios for some insight into how initial development of the headset had nothing to do with Sony management, how there's no plan to try and replace more traditional gaming setups, and how he's trying to avoid a lull in games after launch.
Here are the five most surprising revelations from our conversation.
Sony bosses never instructed anyone to develop a virtual reality headset – it all came about from engineers tinkering in a lab building it on the quiet.
"If you ask when it was 'first floated' as an idea – really, what is that?" asks Layden, when we quiz him on how the notion of VR was brought up as a new initiative at Sony. "Is that when they first started working on it? Or the first time they had the courage to tell management they were working on it? If you look back at the EyeToy cameras that we did back in the PS2 days or the Move controllers or the SingStar microphones – these things always start out as skunkworks projects where someone starts with just a germ of an idea. These kinds of things do not come from top-down management decisions."
PlayStation VR is the lovechild of PlayStation Move and EyeToy, and it took five and a half years to develop.
"The engineers were building prototypes using sticky tape to strap a Move controller to their heads to see if the camera could track it," Layden explains. "It was always just chewing gum and sticky tape stuff. It came about by these guys asking questions like 'what if I put this thing into that thing and then strap that to your head?' It takes you five and half years to go from those kinds of conversations into making a product out of it. When they finally came to management with it, it was pretty well baked."
Once Sony leadership was on board, PlayStation VR became a coordinated international effort. "We had teams right here in Silicon Valley working with the team in Tokyo on creating the platform," Layden explains before elaborating why we're seeing it finally come to market right now, alongside so many other virtual reality headsets. "A lot of it is because of the ability to put super high fidelity display tech into a small space. Those screens are really state of the art. Also our ability on the manufacturing and engineering side to create a headset that can deliver it all comfortably. We didn't want it to feel like you're wearing a football helmet or something super heavy on your head. Those elements have only come together right now. It's no coincidence that there are other players launching VR in 2016. It seems like this is the year of VR, and now we'll just see who has the gameplan to reach the most users worldwide."
PlayStation VR isn't being treated like a new console by Sony, and Layden claims there is no plan to try and replace the way we currently play games. At least not anytime soon.
"The consoles were on a trajectory that you could predict and understand," says Layden. "Every generation is faster, smarter, more powerful, more networked, more integrated. All that. But then VR comes in perpendicular to all that. Bam! It just comes crashing in. It's the same as the effect that the iPhone had when it came into the world of flip phones," he says, citing a frequently used example to illustrate the paradigm shift that virtual reality represents. "People back then were asking 'what's the point? Why do I want to make a phone call on an iPod?' And then they began to understand what that really meant. VR technology is at that nascent stage right now. It's really an incubation period, and we need to see what people will do with it."
On the subject of whether VR will replace traditional game experiences, Layden seems far more pragmatic than the majority of VR soothsayers, no doubt because Sony's real focus is still the core PlayStation 4. "I think we'll have games that you sit back on the sofa and play on the big screen for a long time yet. If it's you and me and FIFA – two guys on the sofa playing in front of the TV – that's not going away anytime soon, believe me. The really interesting part of VR is how it's going to create new ways that we experience storytelling and game design. I think it'll all live in peace and harmony: the big 10-foot experience and the super-immersive VR experience."
This is just PlayStation VR version 1.0. There will be others, and the team at Sony seems to understand where some of the frustrations lie with this early hardware.
"There are some wires, yes," says Layden when we grumble about the spaghetti-like mess of cords tumbling out from under our TV. "Remember when cellphones used to be the size of brick? They were analog and really heavy, but it didn't stop the march of time. This is VR 1.0 right now, and of course we have engineers looking at that and what can be done in future. As we've shown for 21 years of iterating on the PlayStation platform I think you'll see that same kind of energy from us to continue to improve the VR experience over time."
"When you look at the tech and experience of VR, it's all a completely new thing," he says. "For some of the games in VR you could honestly say 'I could just play that on my TV,' and in some cases that would be true, but it's still a very different experience. Just being able to look behind you in a game is something genuinely new and different. 3D audio really changes the experience that you can have inside an environment. Early on though, some of the games will seem kind of like a standard console living room experience – but you're just doing it in a really immersive fashion. Eventually there will be games that will only be fully realized in a virtual reality headset, and won't translate to the TV screen. When we start to see those kinds of game, then you'll know that we've broken the back of what VR can be."
There's a huge effort to ensure that there's not a game drought post-launch. Expect a steady flow of new titles.
"We have around 30 games at launch, and we'll have more than 50 by the end of the year," Layden says. "We can't tell third party publishers when they have to launch, but we'd like to get away from that awful sine wave curve of titles," he says waving his fingers up and down to describe the boom-crash release cycle we usually see after new hardware launches. "We'd like more of a continuum. It's important that in January we have Farpoint coming out, that supports the gun peripheral that we've shown. That's a whole other level of immersion for shooter games. We have more titles coming out from first party studios in the spring, and we're tracking stuff from third parties. We'll start to see some momentum building next year, and we'll see a lot more publishers start to put VR on their roadmap."
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