We may have no idea how the next presidential election will shake out, but at least one hotly contested battle this year seems to have an early favorite: Sony came out of this year's Game Developers Conference with a clear advantage over other would-be contenders in the gaming VR wars of 2016.
PlayStation VR may not have the power and fidelity of competitors like Rift and Vive, but Sony has taken a page from the classic Nintendo playbook this time around. PSVR is just barely powerful enough to do the trick, and in scraping by on mere technical acceptability rather than true excellence, it clocks in at about half the price of the competition. $400 on top of a $400 console/camera combo isn't cheap, but it does bring the total price of the PlayStation 4/VR/camera setup to the $800-$900 range — the price of some competing VR rigs alone, before you factor in the $1500+ computers they'll require to run. PSVR is Game Boy to Oculus' Lynx: Less impressive, but in its humility more in line with the average game fanatic's budget.
PSVR also had the upper hand in terms of actual software at GDC. We've seen some interesting ideas for other platforms, including a Star Wars experience that left our own Kat Bailey deeply impressed, but PSVR emerged from GDS this year as holding the clear advantage in terms of playable, original, consumer-level game software, not merely theoretical virtual experiences or adaptations of existing games.
This makes sense, of course. Unlike HTC and Oculus, Sony's virtual reality solution focuses strictly on games rather than more general purposes. As such, PSVR desperately needs to support itself with a compelling argument, and better games for a better price makes a pretty convincing case. Especially here in the early days of VR, when so few people have experience with superior VR solutions. PSVR's low resolution may not impress those who have lived for a while inside a Vive, but for someone whose first consumer VR experience will be on PlayStation 4, it'll do just fine.
All of this hints at Sony once again coming up roses in the current-generation console war. The company already has a two-to-one install base lead over Microsoft (Nintendo's Wii U, which has reportedly just bowed out of the race, doesn't even appear on radar); now we have Sony poised to become the only console first-party with its own in-house VR solution. All of this sounds fantastic for Sony and its fans — but any victory celebrations in the wake of GDC have been muted by the rumor that broke over the weekend of plans for an upgraded point-revision release for the PlayStation 4, similar in nature to Nintendo's habit of dumping an enhanced version of its handheld consoles onto the market midway through their life cycle. The prospect of buying a new, partially upgraded handheld system sits poorly enough with most gamers; applying that practice to a console that's twice the price of a portable surely won't go over any better.
The counter-argument here is that smartphone makers like Apple and Samsung expect you to upgrade every year or two, and Sony simply wants in on that action by taking a similar approach with its console hardware. (Assuming this rumor is founded in truth, of course; based on a few conversations I had at GDC, that certainly seems to be the case.) Yet the same rules that work in favor of PSVR offering much lower resolution and power than Rift at a much lower cost would seem to work against the idea of selling fans a slightly improved version of hardware three years into a console's lifetime: PlayStation 4 is strictly a gaming device. In fact, that was Sony's entire pitch for the console, the theme that gave it an early leg up on Xbox One. Mobile phones are daily, multi-purpose accessories, unlike game consoles, and their essential nature makes periodic upgrades feel less frivolous. Consoles are the very definition of frivolous. Historically, console revisions have repackaged the same hardware into a more compact and affordable package, usually stripping out features, and certainly never cramming more in.
Most talk about this supposed PlayStation 4 revision has centered around the prospect of 4K resolution support to allow Sony to take advantage of the burgeoning 4K television market — a tactic similar to the one Sony had such great success with through PlayStation 2's DVD support (and, to a lesser degree, PS3's Blu-ray capabilities). No doubt there's plenty of truth to this, as 4K resolution support would make the "PlayStation 4.5" the only console capable of going toe-to-toe with gaming PCs... but more likely than trying to offer a better television-based experience, I suspect, is the prospect of PS4.5 existing to better support PlayStation VR.
PSVR's weaknesses may work to its advantage in the early going by keeping prices low and making an easier target for game development, but in the longer term I can't imagine Sony (a company that traditionally prides itself on providing a luxury experience) remaining content with its place as the bottom-end VR provider. Unfortunately, the stock PS4 simply doesn't have the power to drive Rift-level VR visuals. That's been a criticism and uncertainty hovering over PSVR since its early days as Morpheus. A console capable of pumping out 4K real-time graphics, however, would also be capable of rendering a high-end VR experience.
A PlayStation 4.5 — let's call it PlayStation 4 Plus — would immediately benefit PSVR by allowing it to render nicer graphics at a higher frame-rate, greatly enhancing the smoothness and immersive quality of Sony's virtual reality. It would not, however, improve on PSVR's greatest fundamental weakness and point of criticism: Its low screen resolution. Compared to Rift, PSVR's resolution feels a lot like looking at older mobile phone screens, before pixel-dense "retina" screens became standard. Silkier frame rates and more complex object models made possible by beefier hardware would be nice, but you'll still be looking at it all through a low-resolution mesh with visible (and obvious) pixels. There's only so much you can do on the backend to shore up a front-end deficiency.
Rather, if Sony does have a PlayStation 4 Plus waiting in the wings, a PlayStation VR Plus seems likely to follow soon after. Many people have pointed to the Apple iPhone model as the inspiration behind the purported PS4 upgrade, and it would stand to reason that Sony's VR offering would follow suit. The most likely scenario that I can envision would be for the (relatively) low-priced PSVR that we've seen so much of lately to launch this fall. That would be followed up in a year with some sort of "PSVR Plus" offering denser screen resolution, probably at a higher price. The less powerful 2016 model could be repositioned as a starter version, possibly with a price break, giving Sony an entry-level model that beats the competition on price and a high-end version that stands toe-to-toe with the competition in every respect... including both power and pricing.
As to what this means for anyone who jumped on a PSVR bundle preorder when they went up for sale today... well, again, the Apple model seems relevant. Anyone who's ever bought a first-generation Apple product knows the drill. The original iPhone lacked 3G radio technology; the original iPad had so little onboard RAM it couldn't load many websites; the first-generation Apple Watch suffers from dreadful battery life. There's always a better version waiting in the wings, and so it seems this could be the case going forward with consoles as well. If the PlayStation 4 Plus comes to pass, early PSVR adopters will likely find themselves balancing the cool factor of being among the first to own a VR gaming system with the dread certainty of swift obsolescence and the need to double-dip sooner than later.
Of course, this all amounts to mere speculation at the moment. All we have to go on are some rumors — from reliable sources, but rumors nevertheless — that Sony has a new hardware revision up its sleeves, and some logical extrapolations from there. We probably won't know if "PlayStation 4.5" is real until Sony's E3 2016 press conference has come and gone... and an upgraded PSVR unit? If it even happens, Sony almost certainly won't make a peep until it's worked its way through the holiday season. Still, this potential shift in the console market to more closely resemble the mobile industry may be worth keeping in mind as you save up for October's PSVR launch.