This week, E3 brought together two rival virtual-reality platforms under one roof, in a toe-to-toe contest that will define the future of gaming — along with quite possibly every other form of human interaction as we now know it. Oculus VR (which Facebook bought in March for $2 billion) was present with its Oculus Rift headset, and showed off their wares within an enormous glass-walled salon that held 20 demo stations available for public use (average wait time: 60 minutes for a 5-minute peek).
Meanwhile, Sony had limited, appointment-only showings to select press and industry for a 15-minute look at their top-secret VR device Project Morpheus. Neither company has a consumer product yet — this is early days, people — although general interest is rising quickly. Oculus Rift does have first-mover advantage, but PlayStation is spoiling for a fight. Game on.
Controls: The demo station for the Oculus Rift had only games that needed the standard handheld controller and required basic armchair seating. But Sony's demo for Project Morpheus literally kept users on their toes, holding DualShock and PlayStation Move controllers for a very physical experience — or, in the case of speed-racing game Street Luge, having them fully outstretched on a beanbag with no controller at all, requiring only head nods for the game play. WINNER: Project Morpheus.
Games: Because the Oculus Rift is already on sale for any developer who wants a crack at VR design (or any gaming company that wants to adapt an existing console title for VR use), their demo station had more games and higher-quality graphics. Project Morpheus's games were really more like sandbox demos, with lower-quality graphics and evolving features — but, thanks to the array of controllers, were much more inventive. One game was available for both platforms: the VR-enhanced version of EVE: Valkyrie, which really made being in the cockpit of a spaceship a far more visceral experience than it is on, say, a PS4 with a big flat-screen TV. It also featured an intriguing innovation: The view is independent of the controller — so while gamers use the handheld unit for straight-ahead attacks, their headsets allow them to look around more freely and even lock in on other targets. WINNER: Oculus Rift, for quantity and quality; Project Morpheus, for originality.
Headset Visual Fidelity: VR technology uses an HD-quality stereoscopic OLED screen, so a peek into the mask before putting it on reveals two side-by-side boxy images that are slightly out of phase and sitting against a black background. Put on the goggles, and the images combine optically to create a 3D image that takes up most (but not all) of a wearer's field of vision. You can distinctly see the edge of the video image, which is bordered by a thin black strip (which is basically irrelevant once the incredibly immersive games begin). As for the image quality, both are pretty on par with each other, boasting crisp, clear interfaces. WINNER: Tie.
Industrial Design: The current iteration of the Oculus Rift is downright homely: a boxy pair of blackout goggles sealed with padding that allows for a hint of real-world light to leak through the peripheral bottom edge. (The company insists it wasn't built for aesthetic consideration, since it's still technically a tool for developers.) Project Morpheus, however, is fetchingly designed, with a light blue strip of light streaking across its front as well as an eye-catching mix of matte B&W plastic. And the goggle's inside seal is air tight, so there's no hint of the outside world on the viewer's periphery. WINNER: Project Morpheus.
Immersion: Now that VR developers have ironed out the visual lag-time kinks, both Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus have officially graduated to a post-motion-sickness phase. The headsets offer wrap-around sights and sounds that are downright exhilarating, whether you're fighting for your life in a galactic dogfight in EVE: Valkyrie, fending off a full-body shark attack in The Deep, or feeling your stomach drop after catching air on a hilly patch of pavement in Street Luge. WINNER: Tie.
Comfort: The fundamentals are the same — an elastic headband that holds a clunky hi-tech scuba mask in place, plus headphones wrapping over it. They're not uncomfortable, but any long-term use might be a drag. Unlike the Oculus Rift, though, Project Morpheus is more easily adjustable for people wearing eyeglasses, and has a more developed headset design to keep everything in place. WINNER: Project Morpheus.
Availability: The Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 is available now for $350, and the eventual consumer version will be sold at cost. (Thanks, Facebook!) Project Morpheus, on the other hand, has no price point yet and is definitely not going to be on shelves anytime in 2014, according to one company rep. How about in 2015? "Or whenever," he said with a shrug. WINNER: Oculus Rift.
ULTIMATE WINNER: Project Morpheus. But Oculus Rift can easily overtake it, should they invest in more inventive games and a cooler design.