One problem facing the companies that make virtual-reality technology, such as Facebook-owned Oculus VR, is a lack of true “presence.” When you strap on VR goggles and drop into a digital environment, you can’t see or interact with your real-life hands.
At this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony Computer Entertainment, the tech giant’s video game division, showed off its solution. The latest version of its Morpheus VR headset works in coordination with PlayStation Move controllers to allow the wearer to use his or her hands.
Sony has been experimenting with virtual reality technology for years, long before Oculus founder Palmer Luckey put together his first Rift prototype. Sony used its PlayStation Eye and PlayStation 3 console to test head-tracking technology in the mid-2000s and later built prototype head-mounted displays, known as HMDs. One of the reasons why Sony has been able to commit to an early 2016 release date for its consumer VR product is because of its extensive research and development in the field.
But key to the company’s VR bid is achieving adoption among its existing customers—those that own PlayStation gaming consoles. Instead of competing with that revenue stream, Sony would rather bring virtual reality technology to customers by creating an experience that marries the two.
“We don’t believe that VR is necessarily going to replace the conventional games that people have been playing and developers have been making for over 25 years,” says Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios. “VR will give developers another way to entertain people. You’ll see even more variety of gaming experience by having the VR option.”
Its demonstrations at GDC were a preview of that strategy. Two games—London Heist, about a diamond robbery gone bad, and The Deep, which pits you mano-a-mano against a shark with only a cage for protection—showed off experiences that prompted the VR wearer to stand up, sit down, and lean. Sony says it has worked with partners as diverse as NASA and automakers to explore different virtual-reality gameplay experiences.
Sony is also betting that a plug-and-play approach will help spur adoption of its VR bundle among console owners. “When you buy a Morpheus kit and connect it to your PS4, it just works without needing to set up any drivers or download anything,” says Richard Marks, senior director of research and development at Sony Computer Entertainment. “We want people to have a very easy gameplay experience. Since everybody’s PS4 is exactly the same, it’s easier for developers to make sure that the games and experiences they create are great for all consumers.”
There is still much work to be done as Sony heads toward a global consumer launch for Morpheus. The company continues to refine its VR headset—the latest version carries a 5.7-inch OLED display—and it is collaborating with game developers to invent new experiences with the technology. “VR is such a new medium that developers have to learn how to design around the new paradigm to create great experiences,” Yoshida says. “That requires a lot of learning and communication with developers.”
And consumers. A key factor in selling virtual reality? Unless you physically try it, it’s a technology that’s hard to wrap your head around.
“Getting millions of people to understand how amazing VR experiences are is a big challenge,” Yoshida says. “We start with events like GDC where we let people try it, get excited about it, and tell their friends.”