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PlayStation VR Review: Whoa-oh, We're Halfway There

Sony's take on virtual reality has resulted in an incredibly effective device, yet design concessions made for a mass-market price hold it back from achieving its true potential.

Review by Bob Mackey, .

The biggest problem with analyzing a piece of emerging technology can be found in the unfortunate fact that none of us can see into the future. After all, the Internet is littered with archived articles that hilariously (in hindsight) poo-poo the fabric of our 21st century lives: e-mail, the Internet, cell phones, and so on.

Regardless of how well I try to future-proof this article, though, there's no denying it'll eventually be laughed at as a quaint relic of the past. So, let's get this out of the way: As a device designed to trick your brain into think you're somewhere you're not, the PlayStation VR is an incredibly effective little peripheral. Despite how much I try to intellectualize the VR effect after fitting the visor onto my head, my lizard brain takes over, and my cynicism melts away. But even with the ability to slip into dozens of virtual worlds at my fingertips, I still can't shake the feeling PSVR's physical construction amounts to a clumsy first step—but a necessary one, to be sure.

The Footprint and Design

For such a futuristic piece of technology, PSVR is remarkably easy to get up and running, even if it requires quite a bit of setup. That said, if you prefer a more elegant entertainment center setup, PSVR may drive you a little nuts. Simply put, connecting it successfully adds quite a few wires to your existing network of too many wires. In fact, the necessary Processor Unit almost feels like the beating heart of PSVR with how many cables and wires end up running into and out of the thing. First, it has to be plugged into an included AC adapter, and attached to your PlayStation 4 via a USB cable (once again, included). Then, you need to send the video signal through the Unit by running one HDMI cable between it and the PS4, and another one between the Unit and the TV. Add in an additional wire from the headphones/earbuds you'll be plugging into the headset, and you're looking at one semi-clunky setup that belies the device's futuristic capabilities. (Oh, and if you don't have a PS4 camera yet—as I didn't—consider that one more wire added to your veritable spider web.)

The headset itself feels solidly built, though it does take a bit of fidgeting to fit it snugly onto your head: One button on the back allows you to pull out the headstrap, another on the portion that houses the viewscreen allows you to move it further or closer to the front of your face, and a dial on the headstrap provides some minute tightness adjustments. All in all, it takes a good 15-20 seconds to fully adjust the thing, less so if you're just briefly pulling it off of your eyes to sip some water or check your phone. There's no real way to have it rest comfortably on your forehead if you want to pull it up briefly to take a quick break, though that may only be a problem for those of us who are reviewing VR devices and have to occasionally pause to look over at a laptop and take notes. The headset also does a great job of blotting out the world around you, but since it's not an airtight seal, light will creep in from around the edges if you're playing in an especially bright room. It doesn't completely break the experience, but the immersion ends up being dampened a bit when you can easily peek into the real world that exists around you.

Say hello to your PS4's little friend.

Though the headset feels solid, it certainly isn't heavy. I've had to play PSVR in extended sessions for the sake of this review, and I never once walked away with a sore neck or shoulders (or face, for that matter). I wouldn't necessarily call it "comfortable," but the headset's relatively lightweight design does its best to help you forget that fairly large thing is strapped to your head. Even with its solid construction, I still have to wonder how it'll stand up after a year of use—but it definitely didn't show any signs of weakening after a weekend of overuse.

The Effect

I don't have a super-sciencey way to explain it, but PSVR works. Even after spending so much time with the device over the past four days, every time I think I'm going to be over it before strapping on that headset, I'm struck by the wow factor all over again. Granted, some specific types of VR experiences gradually lose their novelty value: Once I dug into the more interactive ones, the "sit around and stare at stuff" demos began to lose most of their appeal. Still, even browsing menus and playing non-VR games and apps in its "cinema mode"—which essentially makes it feel like you're sitting in your own private theater—feels incredibly cool. (In fact, to be as inappropriate as possible, the first game I played on my headset was Mega Man 2.)

Sometimes, though, the effect works a little too well—which speaks to the power of PSVR. Thankfully, I didn't get motion sickness, even if a game I played which featured a lot of long, high-powered jumps left me the tiniest bit queasy. Horror makes for the most convincing VR experience, which may be a tad unfortunate if you're jumpy over scary games (as I am). Even though I play and have played plenty of horror games, PSVR did an all-too effective job of muting the higher functions of my frontal lobe. I jumped into one of the intentionally scary demos on the included disc, and though I tried to rationalize things beforehand, my brain pulled a massive "NOPE!" as soon as the shit started hitting the fan. And that's not "NOPE!" in the "fun scarecam with laughs afterward" sense—it's "NOPE!" in the "I feel like I'm actually going to die and this isn't fun" sense. Your mileage may vary, though.

Though VR has its detractors, it really only takes a good five minutes to fully understand its potential. After just a short time with PSVR, the laughable degree of importance companies like Sony and Microsoft (especially Microsoft) placed behind motion controls seems even more laughable in retrospect. And this commentary isn't just apropos of nothing: PSVR reminds me a lot of the Nintendo Wii, but with much more potential and without the baggage attached. Of course, it's not quite as immediate as the Wii, what with all of the adjustments, calibrations, and playing within an extremely confined zone, but, for me, tinkering with Sony's VR device gave me a feeling of exhilaration I haven't felt since playing my first rounds of Wii Sports tennis nearly a decade ago. Obviously, the capabilities of VR aren't as limited as Nintendo's underpowered motion-control technology.

And, speaking of motion controls, it's heartening to know Sony finally found a worthwhile use for those Move controllers that've likely been sitting in your closet since 2011. (If you were unfortunate enough to have already purchased them.) Simply put, the best experiences I've had with PSVR involved games that allowed their use—it's oddly much more satisfying to see one of those wands floating around in the air than a normal old controller. And "allow" is the unfortunate word, here, since those Move controllers are considered an optional accessory for PSVR. Picking up two of them won't exactly break the bank, but part of me wishes Sony had made these controllers a necessary element of VR instead of one you'll only break out from time to time. While the standard controller works well, many of the games and demos that would seemingly work much better with Move support left me a little disappointed.

Sony's storage/charging unit is a must-have if you want to keep your VR setup in order. (Unfortunately, it's sold separately.)

The Side Effects

While I didn't experience any serious nausea or motion sickness, there's no denying VR can be a pretty fatiguing experience. Your own experience may vary, naturally, but there's a reason VR experiences tend to be short-form. My first day with PSVR had me sinking 3-4 hours into various games and demos, and I emerged from that a weary mess who felt like he'd spent the whole day swimming laps (but without the pain and muscle definition to show for it). Playing for such an extended time isn't recommended; even the games that try to be more than just a short burst of fun divide themselves up into neat little segments that only persist for 5 to 10 minutes. Developers are clearly playing it extremely safe until they realize what their audience can handle, which explains why so many of these early PSVR games and demos feature limited interactions or amount to Disneyland-style "dark rides."

Even if the PSVR's "wow" factor hasn't left my brain, it doesn't take very long to realize the device's limitations. Obviously, the first console-specific VR unit exists in part as a preview for what the future will hold, but I still can't help but think this sort of experience needs to be completely wireless for it to really take off. And while I agree it's an unrealistic demand for a $400 product made in 2016, some of my VR experiences were hampered a bit by the wire dangling from my headset, and the wire dangling from its wire. I'd either get tangled from moving my hands around—mostly when using my Move controllers—or have the headset shift unexpectedly after turning my head without realizing the cable had found its way behind my arm or under my leg. It's one of those cases where the tech is there, but the physical reality can only meet it halfway.

And, of course, there's the fact that VR remains an extremely solitary experience. Since I work from home, and get roughly 10 hours a day to myself, I'm a bit of an anomaly, but those of you with real jobs and even (gasp) families may feel a bit awkward when you're forced to shut your loved or tolerated ones out for the sake of a more immersive experience. PSVR could conceivably be a pass-around-and-play sorta thing, but the device requires such an intimate relationship with your face that jumping in immediately after someone just played may give you the same feeling as sitting down on a public toilet seat that's still warm. Also, shutting out the world around you does present some practical concerns: While reviewing the unit, my apartment needed some important repairs, and I had to tell our handyman to show up at a prescribed time (instead of whenever he was free) for fear he would come a-knockin' while I was trapped in VR world. (Of course, I didn't tell him the specifics about me reviewing what's essentially a toy while he did important, useful things with his skilled hands.)

A Worthy Diversion, But Still A Diversion

Admittedly, I entered my encounter with PSVR as a bit of a virtual reality skeptic, and emerged as a believer. In its current form, though, it's more of a "sometimes" gaming experience than an "all the time" gaming experience. Until the setup and physical presence of the unit isn't so cumbersome, VR won't be able to escape its existence as a worthwhile sideshow to traditional gaming's three-ring circus. Sony has made some big, important leaps with this powerful little VR device, but I honestly don't see the technology being more than just a fun diversion until it requires a much lesser degree of to-do.

Sony definitely deserves credit for their highly impressive and semi-affordable VR device, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this creation isn't quite ready for prime-time. PSVR should satisfy early adopters primed for a preview of the future, but anyone outside of this group may want to wait for the technology's inevitable improvements.

3.5 /5

PlayStation VR Review: Whoa-oh, We're Halfway There Bob Mackey Sony's take on virtual reality has resulted in an incredibly effective device, yet design concessions made for a mass-market price hold it back from achieving its true potential. 2016-10-13T16:00:00-04:00 3.5 5

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for Ralek #1 Ralek A year ago
    This really made me think of that 1st episode of Westworld from last weekend:

    //very minor spoiler risk

    "We sell complete immersion in a hundred interconnected narratives. A relentless fucking experience. [...] [They] keep making the things more lifelike. But does anyone truly want that? Do you want to think that your husband is really f*cking that beautiful girl or that you really just shot someone? This place works because the guests know the hosts aren't real."

    I couldn't help myself from instantly mentally jumping to VR, when I first heard this, as I think the question is a legitimate and revelant one. Do we need or even want "complete immersion" in our games? Do we even need or want to turn gaming into a "relentless fucking experience"?

    As coincidence has it, I just finished playing through Life is Strange today, and that game was as amazing as it was emotionally exhausting. I imagine a well-done VR version of such a game, could be even more amazing, but at the same time, I'm actually in a way worried that it then will have even more of an emotional and psychological impact, than it does now - up to the point, where I am no longersure that I'm really comfortable with it.

    I mean, not all games are as thoughtfully 'benign' as Life is Strange. We know people, we know games, we know entertainment: Sex and violence does sell, that is just a fact. We have NOT done our longterm scientific due-dilligence as far as the impact of "violent videogames" go, and that is only as far as 'traditional' games go, where we assume normal, healthy individuals can always clearly distinguish between reality and the game's virtual reality. We simply can't say for sure what kind of effects this has on us, if at all.

    Now, if there are indeed effects worth mentioning, than it stands to reason that VR might greatly amplify these effects, given the 'right' material being fed into the machine, and then fed to us ... which brings up all kinds of complicated yet relevant questions about the technology.

    I guess what I am saying is, that I am not entirely sure that 'gaming', meaning the industry at large, but also us consumers, are really ready to deal with these questions. I think gaming is still in many ways in its' infancy, and it's thus lacking responsibility and wisedom of sorts.Edited October 2016 by Ralek
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  • Avatar for sloth-machine #2 sloth-machine A year ago
    Interesting, you cleared up all the questions I had with PSVR, Bob. I was pumped for this with outrageous expectations but you grounded me, bringing me back to reality (uh...pun intended?).

    In the end in sounds like just a neat novelty. Gaming as a hobby has been trying to leave the confines of a TV and couch since the 70s...never succeeding (not including mobile and handhelds). It's human nature to always try to advance what has already been perfected, only to create a step back.
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  • Avatar for pdubb #3 pdubb A year ago
    They couldn't come out with this cool stuff when I was single with tons of disposable income and time. Instead I got Kinect and Move. Life sometimes isn't fair.
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  • Avatar for michaelmertes80 #4 michaelmertes80 A year ago
    Bob,

    Have you had time to experience the Oculus Rift at all? I was just curious if you had a preference to either the Sony VR or Oculus VR now that you've used Sony's first dip into VR.
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  • Avatar for sloth-machine #5 sloth-machine A year ago
    @pdubb better than being single with disposable income during the 32x/sega cd/3DO/CDi era.
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  • Avatar for Namevah #6 Namevah A year ago
    "That said, if you prefer a more elegant entertainment center setup, PSVR may drive you a little nuts."

    It's driving me a little nuts just thinking about adding the additional hardware and cords to my already chaotic entertainment center.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #7 bobservo A year ago
    @michaelmertes80 I've tinkered with the more popular VR devices (entirely at press events/trade shows), but I didn't have any nearby for direct comparison. Some reviews I've been reading, though, point out that if you have experience with some of the more advanced VR devices, PSVR's weaknesses really stand out.
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  • Avatar for MetManMas #8 MetManMas A year ago
    Yeah, I totally expected there to be limitations that people wouldn't notice on a showroom floor. I still consider the device a boon for walking sims and similar first person adventures since immersion's their M.O., but things like being wired down and the limitations of the human body will likely keep VR gaming limited primarily to short arcade-like experiences and tacked-on gimmick modes in otherwise non-VR games.

    Anyway, as is I think there's no way VR could possibly be a big hit right now. The Nintendo Wii was successful because it was affordable, social, accessible, and had a killer app with Wii Sports (Bowling). PS VR is a $400 add-on for a $300 console that also requires a $60 camera add-on to even work, it shuts off the person using it from the rest of the world, and there's no way that wearing a screen and headphones over your face could not cause headaches and delusions over time or poor fools accidentally smashing through their coffee tables.

    I mean c'mon, if the Wii had people busting their TVs or K.O.ing their dogs, just imagine the freak accidents VR will cause.
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  • Avatar for himuradrew #9 himuradrew A year ago
    I'm sort of interested in VR but I there are a few things that are sort of holding me back from getting one at launch:

    - I don't see myself sitting with the VR headset strapped to my face for an extended gaming period.

    - Since I have a wife and kids who constantly want my attention, I don't even have the chance to sit down for an immersive VR session. Even most my gaming is done using portables (Vita/3DS/Remote Play) so I can quickly quit and resume where I stopped.

    - I play a lot of JRPGs and from what I can tell, they don't really lend themselves well to VR.

    - Plus I do suffer from slight motion sickness.

    Maybe in the long run when my kids have grown up gaming on their own and using VR headsets I'll take the plunge eventually. But for now, I'm just content to play my games on the TV and my portablesEdited October 2016 by himuradrew
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  • Avatar for PenguinJim #10 PenguinJim A year ago
    "After all, the Internet is littered with archived articles that hilariously (in hindsight) poo-poo the fabric of our 21st century lives: e-mail, the Internet, cell phones, and so on."

    o_O

    I wonder what kind of specialist sites you've been looking at, Bob! For us non-coprophages who dismiss concepts, we prefer to pooh-pooh them.
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  • Avatar for docexe #11 docexe A year ago
    Based on this and another review, I can’t help it but think there are only two possible future prospects for the PSVR:

    - Either the PSVR falls in that elusive target of “cheap enough” and “good enough” for the masses, that it becomes the VR headset that finally takes off in the mainstream market (with the added caveat that its limitations, plus an abundance of insubstantial, faulty or poorly implemented VR experiences, eventually lead to some gamers treating VR like the plague, aka pretty much what happened with the Wii).

    - Or it ultimately fails to gain traction in the market due to its limitations and price, and ends joining the list of peripherals and hardware that were announced by Sony with intial fanfare, only for Sony to abandon and/or neglect them without much second thought.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #12 VotesForCows A year ago
    @bobservo Hey, your job is important and useful too - all of us out here have only a limited amount of disposable cash to spend on crap to brighten up our lives!
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #13 VotesForCows A year ago
    @Ralek Great comment.

    I've been thinking about this a lot recently too. As I'm getting older, I'm moving away from games with more realistic depictions of violence. I'm not really sure if that's because they're getting closer to reality, or because I'm just ageing out of it. Or both...

    But the sorts of violence we played as kids (Megaman, Castlevania, etc...) does seem a little more palatable, especially when I think about what to share with my own kid.
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  • Avatar for bobservo #14 bobservo A year ago
    @PenguinJim I meant that they pooped all over it.
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  • Avatar for BaconYes #15 BaconYes A year ago
    @Ralek On your point about "relentless fucking experiences" in realistic-virtual reality: I'm looking forward to games that take me to a place that aims to be as un-real as possible. Games like 'Rez Infinite' or 'Job Simulator' are able to give me immersion in a wholly digital/cartoon world that's far from real-reality and I think that's an extension of the "I-am-in-it-feeling" that really great 2-D games like 'Life is Strange' or 'Inside' accomplish.

    I do wonder about the differences you point out about 'benign' vs. 'Westworld-esque' software and the assumptions we make about our lizard brains.
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