Sony PlayStation VR play space: Testing the limits
The PlayStation knows what you’re looking at in the virtual world by using the camera to monitor the positioning of the headset’s blue lights in the real world. This obviously means that you need to be in a position that the camera can reliably see you. The official guidelines say that you need to be at least 2ft from the camera and no more than 9.6ft away, and that you’ve got about 1.9m of width to play with.
If that width doesn’t sound like much, it doesn’t feel it in practice either, especially when using the optional Move controllers to represent your hands in a game such as Batman: Arkham VR or The London Heist portion of VR Worlds (more on both of those below). In these it’s a bit too easy to stretch beyond the camera’s vision and find something's out of your reach. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but when it does it shatters the illusion created by an otherwise all-consuming virtual world.
Talking of Arkham VR, this is one of just a couple of games so far that encourage a standing rather than sitting position. Standing up after having calibrated the camera for a seated position proves that the height of what the camera can see is also limited, in that your head will be outside the play area and you’ll have to manually tilt the camera. That's a bit of a faff when you’ve also got a VR headset and a number of controllers to contend with.
You can’t help but think that Sony would have been wise to invest in more advanced camera tech that could see more of your room. Say what you will about how demanding the setup of the HTC Vive is - once it’s done your entire room is turned into a play space that you can move around in. And while Oculus’ sensor has similar limitations to those of the PlayStation Camera, that’s because it’s currently intended for desk-based play without a motion controller. When Oculus gets its motion controller, it’s also getting a second sensor to vastly increase the play space.
It’s also worth pointing out that it doesn’t take too much other light in your room to create problems for the PS Camera. Direct sunlight, big windows and bright lamps all need to be avoided if you want the smoothest VR experience possible. Again, it feels as though a camera that’s less sensitive to these other light sources would have been a wise move.
Sony PlayStation VR Cinematic Mode: playing games and watching Netflix on a 163in virtual projector
While the setup can be quite fussy in some settings, at its simplest it’s a case of aiming the Camera at the sofa, closing a couple of curtains and dimming the lights. At which point you just need to put the PS VR on and press the power button on its inline controller.
What you’ll be initially greeted with isn’t actually virtual reality, but a huge, flat version of the PlayStation’s home menu floating in front of you. It’s as if you’re playing your PS4 on a 163in projector in an otherwise entirely pitch black room. It’s immediately pretty awesome.
This is called Cinematic Mode, and it enables you to do everything that you can when you’re using your PS4 through a TV. Navigate menus, play your non-VR games and even watch videos via Blu-ray, Netflix, etc.
As mentioned above, the Processor Unit is still sending a feed of whatever you’re watching to your TV, but that doesn’t mean someone has to watch it; you can quite happily play PS4 now while someone else watches Strictly Come Dancing in the same room.
That’s a really cool bonus, isn’t it? You’ve just gained an extra new screen as well as a virtual reality headset. It is worth pointing out, though, that resolution is compromised when you’re in Cinematic Mode, and your movies, games and menus look a lot less sharp and more jaggy when you play them through the headset rather than a TV.
It’s also worth pointing out that some games just don’t seem suited to this kind of setup. I found Destiny to be a bit too intense when played at the Cinematic Mode’s default size, whereas the small mode (which reduces the virtual projector screen to 117in) makes the resolution deficiency even more pronounced and makes the game way too ugly. And yes, there is a large option, too, but at 226in I think it’s really too big for regular use, breathtaking though it can be.
I also need to point out here that I had a problem with the first PS VR that Sony supplied. For some reason this initial sample seemed unable to set the horizon correctly, which meant that the screen produced by Cinematic Mode was wonky - twisted clockwise a few degrees. Fortunately, my replacement sample doesn’t have the same issue, so we’re going to put it down to an unlucky fault. If you get one and feel that it’s ‘off’, get in touch with Sony.
Sony PlayStation VR games: getting real with virtual reality
Cinematic Mode is cool and all that, but you bought the PS VR for proper virtual reality games, so it won’t be long before you’ve fired one up. Chances are it’ll be the demo disc that comes with the headset, and this gives you a tantalising taste of what VR is capable of.
For those who’ve never tried VR, nothing can really prepare you for the feeling of being transported into your games. It’s incredible how quickly you go from thinking “I’m playing a game about flying a spaceship” to “I’m actually sitting in a spaceship, looking around the cockpit, watching ships weaving around me deep in outer space”.
In fact, you don’t really think about it at all. You’re just there, falling for the illusion hook, line and sinker.
Since having PS VR at home I’ve teamed up with fellow journalists to pilot tanks in the Tron-like Battlezone, I’ve been attacked by a shark and played my part in a gun-heavy diamond robbery in VR Worlds, I’ve operated armed, mechanised suits in future-sports/FPS title RIGS, and I’ve driven a McLaren P1 at breakneck speed along snowy, mountainous roads in Canada. The immersion at times is so complete that you entirely forget you’re playing a game and are simply swallowed up by the whole experience.
What’s incredible, given the relative limitations of the hardware, is how smooth and fast everything runs. It’s vital in VR that there’s no judder or lag, not simply because it’s annoying but because it can also make you vomit all over your carpet. The PS VR screen can refresh at up to 120Hz, smoothing out even those games that usually run at 60fps, and I do not recall a single time that the gaming experience was anything less than entirely fluid.
To achieve that sort of performance some sacrifices have had to be made, and these are perhaps best illustrated by DriveClub VR.
It’s very stripped back compared to the original version, most obviously in the lack of different weather effects and the shrinking of the grid from 12 cars to 8. Resolution has taken a big hit, too, and there are times that the jagginess and lack of detail can force you out of the moment. Some cars have digital speedos that are too blurry to read, and it can be hard to identify the make and model of an opponent’s car if it’s more than a few metres in front, such is the blockiness. Scenery, meanwhile, is beautifully dramatic and immersive when taken as a whole, but also appears flat and poorly resolved when looked at at all closely.
All that said, there are also plenty of times when you won’t care about - or notice - any of that, because you’ll be too busy revelling in the exceptionally natural way the car feels and the frenetic, bumper-to-bumper racing.