On October the 13th I went to work as normal, but in the back of my mind I new something exciting was happening in the gaming world. At around 11am, whilst sipping a coffee, I thought about seeing how the world was reacting to the ‘event’, and found myself ferociously scanning the internet trying to find if it was at all possible for me to take part.
Of course, I’m talking about the Sony PlayStation VR package. I should first highlight my experience of VR – I remember game shows in the early 90s that tried to be cool by having teams competing in virtual worlds. They wore big bright yellow and green head sets and took part in “virtual” battles. I’m hesitant to allow this to be called virtual reality, I’m sure there is some mathematics that show reality can’t be represented in fewer than 60 flat shaded triangles. Since then VR has been the next big thing that never quite arrived, with one slightly naff implementation after another. Travel through time 20 years and I dabbled with Google’s cardboard. A nice toy, but you really can’t escape the feeling you have a phone sellotaped to your face. Reminded me of making stuff out of cereal boxes and toilet roll tubes when I’d live with my grandmother in the summer holidays.
Now I’ve watched the coverage of VR over the last two years, and read the extremely polarizing comments to be found online. Sure there is a degree of fanboy-ism and there are those that simply need numbers to be bigger in order to validate the world around them. But I’ve maintained that since Sony announced its Project Morpheus, that they would be the winners. Despite wherever you sit on the gaming spectrum, Sony have been developing things that humans USE for decades. They have a strong history in it too. And I mean USE, as in genuinely interact with the tangible. I don’t believe this is the case with HTC, or Facebook. So if any company was going to provide me with equipment to bolt to my face and distort my brain’s perception of my surroundings, I’d trust Sony to at least do it in a comfortable way.
Back to the coffee. I had no intention of buying a day one VR system. It was going to cost me £380 (well, cost the bank £380), and I had recently purchased a rather spiffing 55″ TV. So I checked Amazon. None available. Tesco. None Available. Fill in the gaps… Argos. Available! Damn! This thing was in demand! Was there going to be a shortage? “Next in stock 14th November” “Next in stock 10th December”. Of course some websites were more than happy to take my money for one, with the promise of delivery tomorrow! In return for my soul and every number ever used to represent any facet of my existence. Yeah, no thanks. So I clicked through to Argos, where I happily added the PSVR to my cart. Now I have a few argos’s’s’s near where I live. Collecting from the store meant I’d get it sooner. It hadn’t dawned on my yet that little over half an hour ago, I had not even contemplated getting one of these things. I had VR fever! I had to own one! Now I’m assuming you don’t know me, but please have some blind faith when I tell you that this behavior is not like me at all. I’ve never purchased anything day one. I don’t care about technology fads. The prospect of not taking part in the rush was terrible. I phoned Mrs Javidx9 and asked for her thoughts – “I don’t mind if it’s something YOU’LL enjoy, but don’t (click)” – excellent, she’s onboard. Right Argos check out, its just you and me – what, wait…, you’re now out of stock! What utter sadness. I felt both guilty and silly that I was actually upset by a very first world problem – I was not going to own a virtual reality headset on the day it came out.
Back to work then. Decided I’d try the Argos anyway on my way home, and the PC World and Currys on the same industrial estate. I felt pathetic, desperately wandering about in the miserable grayness of a rainy closing industrial unit. As I walked back to the car, I saw a Smyth’s Toy Shop. Well it’s worth a go I though – I didn’t even know if they sold games or not. It looked like Lego and bright pink tat from the outside. They had three VR units on the shelf.
Review Starts Here
Opening the box, you are presented with… another box, full of boxes. Admittedly the box alone must cost £20. Its a sturdy thing with a ribbon to stop it opening too much, a white, thick, seamless holder of technology. There’s a bunch of wires, and an instruction manual, and thankfully a demo disc. It didn’t take very long to get installed. Frustratingly, it requires a separate power supply, and the HDMI splitter box does not seem to play nicely with my soundbar (YSP-2500), meaning I have to power everything up in a very precise sequence to see a picture on the TV (hopefully ironed out in a firmware upgrade? Sony? Are you listening?). The headset itself feels premium, and is very comfortable to wear. I affix the camera to the top of the TV, and strap Mrs Javidx9 into the headset and headphones and switch it on.
HER:”ooooh, it’s very dark” – ME:”it’s loading” – HER:”what will I see? will it be @~^%^£$!!! I don’t like it! Oh. My. God. It’s stuff around me. Blurgh I just looked down. Don’t look down. I’m not looking down again.” – ME:”well look up then, it’s just the menu screen” – “Blurgh I just looked up. I don’t like looking up…” The simple truth is, it just worked. She put it on her head, sat in front of the camera, and she was off in her own virtual reality.
It was my turn. Now I’m a seasoned developer. I’ve an academic background in perception and computer graphics. I was going to analyse this with the most technological thoroughness I could muster. Two hours later I removed the headset, and found myself facing the opposite corner of my living room. It was staggering. I recalled the first time I played a non-wireframe 3D game. I had been completely engrossed. Forget the numbers of the hardware involved. I had been transported across cities in the clouds, driven a Ferrari, piloted space craft, been to the bottom of the ocean, and watched a small girl play with matches on a boat. How or why it worked was not important to me, it just did, and it worked really really well. The experience had completely surpassed my expectations.
I was blown away by an “experience” called “Allumette“. It’s like a movie, it has no controls, you can’t interact with it, but you can lean and look around the scenes. I was in that world. I have no memory of thinking I’m wearing a headset. Just memories of astonishment and satisfaction. Working my way through the demo disc the feeling of technological achievement never subsided – though some of the titles are duds – Driveclub VR and Battlezone where a tad disappointing as they forgot to bring the fun, but everything felt solid, responsive and immersive. Scouring the PlayStation store I discovered VR Playroom. I’d seen the PS3 version of this with little robots running around, and I thought what the hell, she’ll like it. Those robots are now my friends. The playroom is a collection of mini-games designed to encourage localised semi-social interactivity. Screw all that, they have one mini-game which I can only describe as a VR Mario. You guide a little robot on a map collecting coins and swatting enemies. Par for the course. But I am also on that map, and I need to look around in order to find the hidden coins, pathways and other bonuses. It works very well, and I hope this leads the PSVR out of the world of tech demos into full blown games.
I’m under no illusion that this is a first generation mass virtual reality product, and yes it runs on slightly out dated hardware, and sometimes it even jumps around a little, but the whole package is just so remarkably well done, that you don’t care. For the first time in years I was playing the games rather than assessing them.
Should you get one? Yes.