​Almost in the Machine

PlayStation brings VR into the real world

Photo Courtesy of Sony Computer Entertainment Inc.

BY Joshua OstroffPublished Nov 14, 2016

I'm in the bat cave. Like really in the bat cave. It's wetter than I imagined down here below Wayne Manor, with a pair of waterfalls tumbling into an underground river. Bigger, too, I notice as a spiral of flying rodents rises up toward a ground level exit.
But the T-Rex is there, behind me over to the left. The giant penny, too. And the bat-computer is there waiting to help me crack some cases. It's hard to stop gaping as my brain tries to compute what my eyes think they are seeing. But the dark, neon-soaked and skyscraper-riddled streets of Gotham await, and Nightwing is in trouble.
Rocksteady's one-hour experiential postscript to their iconic Arkham trilogy is a virtually realized dream. It's the most realistic and mind-trickiest world developed for Sony's new PlayStation VR, but the tech is the real superhero here.
The term was coined back in 1987 by dreadlocked futurist Jaron Lanier a few years after William Gibson's novel Neuromancer and the Disney film Tron popularized the basic concept of climbing into cyberspace. The technology's possibilities captured filmmaker imaginations in movies ranging from the terrible Lawnmower Man and not-terrible Matrix to the comparatively accurate fin-de-millennium flick Strange Days.
Now, after decades of pop culture promises, virtual reality has finally arrived — and it is hard to overstate how impressive the tech is.
This is not movie theatre 3D, which is fine enough but really not that different from the red and blue cardboard glasses from the 1950s. With VR, your brain doesn't think a shark is coming out of the screen; it thinks you are inside the screen confronting the shark.
In the Ocean Descent level of Sony's VR Worlds — a fantastic tech demo game akin to Wii Sports — you scuba dive down to a shipwreck, past stingrays and jellyfish, through a coral tube and eventually get attacked by a great white. Even though some of the animation comes off cartoonish, it still feels like you are actually underwater.
There is definitely the same novelty factor at play as when the Wii got everyone virtual bowling with buddies. The infatuation with the Nintendo console's then-impressive motion-sensing tech eventually wore off, albeit after making the Wii a runaway sales success, but PSVR feels less like a neat toy than the future of entertainment.
While it lacks the Wii's party aspect, the PSVR's immersive solo experience is so much fucking cooler — and this is just the technology's tutorial level.
Still, the tech has a very large challenge to meet. It's a sleek, futuristic looking helmet that works with the PS4's pre-existing camera, DualShock controller and the Wiimote-inspired, motion-sensing Move controllers. But you can't really move. You're attached via cables and it's easy to go out of the camera view-restricted play area and/or bump into things.
Arkham VR, for instance, let's you look down at your utility belt, grab and throw a batarang, scan a dead body for clues or retrieve gear with your trusty grapnel gun. But you can't walk or fight. Part of that is because VR can induce nausea during movement, and part is because the tech just can't handle the character's trademark hand-to-hand combat. So you port around with a button push, which is functional and eliminates potential motion sickness, but takes you out of the moment.
Other games take other approaches to addressing this problem. Rez Infinite, an update of the rave-era music shooter, handles your movement on rails as if you were on an amusement park ride where all you do is aim. So does trippy, Tetris-inspired puzzler Super Hypercube and fantastic inside-a-screensaver rhythm game Thumper, while Until Dawn: Rush of Blood seats you in an actual roller coaster.
Meanwhile, VR World puts you inside a mech suit while you leap around asteroids, on a luge whooshing down city slopes, or in a post-heist car chase across London where your partner drives while you shoot rivals (and change the music on the car radio) with the Move controller triggers.
Now PSVR is not the first VR tech out this year. It was beaten to market by the Facebook-owned Oculus Rift and the Steam-driven HTC Vive, both of which require high-end computer hardware. There's also the entry-level Samsung Gear, a cordless, smartphone-based headset that's cheap and powered by Rift software, but lacks the Oculus's oomph and can't track your body.
By owning the space between those options with its relative affordability and processing power, the PSVR is the most commercially viable of the bunch. If VR is to go mainstream, this is ground zero.
There are no specs to assess or GPU card to buy, the kit is significantly cheaper than its premium rivals at $550, and the PS4 not only costs way less than a dedicated PC, it's also already owned by 40 million people. The souped-up PS4 Pro is said to offer an even better visual experience thanks to higher frame rates. Plus, it's built for the living room, targets early-adopting gamers and already has motion controls.
You just plug in the previously gratuitous PS camera, connect the small PSVR processor unit to your PS4 and the helmet, put it on and you're inside the game.
These are early days yet, and the technology is spectacular enough to get by largely on wow factor for some time. But Sony is not taking chances and is offering 30 launch games, ranging from the sci-fi snark of Job Simulator and whimsical adventure-puzzler Wayward Sky to the reimagined racer Driveclub VR and Atari reboot Battlezone to the space combat spectacle of EVE Valkyrie and Sony's sweet-natured minigame collection VR Playroom. Another 20 are due before year's end.
These games, to varying degrees of success, show off different aspects of the technology but they are not really games as we currently conceive them. They're predominantly short-form — which is fine because you really can't play VR for hours like you would a normal game due to eye strain — and developers are still trying to figure what works and what the audience wants. Metaphorically, we're still at the Atari stage of this technology, so it's only a matter of time before these problems are solved.
This won't displace traditional gaming but it is the logical evolution of the first-person and 3D game design advancements that transformed the medium in the '90s. And after years of incremental improvements, VR finally gives gaming a much-needed technological revolution.

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