After its fast ascension powered by a healthy run on Kickstarter, the Rift is currently synonymous with virtual reality (VR) gaming, even though the system isn't publicly available (though that may change soon now that the company has announced its second developer kit). By all accounts, virtual reality is set to revolutionize immersive virtual experiences in a way that the faltering promise of 3D gaming could never quite deliver.
With the PlayStation 4 setting the pace for next-gen consoles, Sony’s newly-announced Project Morpheus could do the same thing for commercial VR. Microsoft ships every Xbox One ships with a Kinect (these days, little more than a glorified Siri for your living room), but Sony might just have the jump on the next big thing.
Learning From Last Gen
Interestingly, Sony's actually been tinkering around with a VR headset since as early as 2011, when it unveiled a buzzy but not very functional dual-OLED prototype at CES. An iteration of that “personal 3D viewer,” the HMZ-T1, actually went on sale abroad (and apparently you can still buy it on Amazon for a meager $758.88!)
Four years ago, interactive peripherals like Microsoft's Kinect and Sony’s own PlayStation Move began paving the way for VR, acclimating gamers to immersive oddities like motion-tracking and gesture controls. But back then, Microsoft’s 3D sensor was a smash hit while the Playstation Move floundered. The disparity in that department is now clearer than ever: The Kinect is bundled with every new Xbox One and Sony has since admitted the PlayStation Move was a mistake.
For all its quirks, the Kinect spearheaded motion-based gameplay, effortlessly stealing the wind from Nintendo's sails and making Sony's awkward glowing bauble look downright foolish. But it's Opposite Day for this latest generation of console gaming. Now the Xbox One wants to be the casual-friendly living room entertainment option (at a $100 premium, no less), while the PS4 is, in some ways, a return to Sony's roots of wooing core gamers with an open set of policies and indie-friendly platform, leaving unwanted peripherals out of the box.
Project Morpheus Vs. The Oculus Rift
Console wars aside, could a proprietary VR peripheral compete against the Oculus Rift's grassrootsy success? The answer is "most definitely"—especially if the games are there.
The two VR headsets face opposite challenges. Oculus built a hardware wonder with the Rift, but now the nascent, still-not-commercially-available platform needs software that makes it shine. Oculus admits that convincing AAA title makers to gamble on an entirely new, mind-bending medium has been a challenge.
In Sony's corner, the corporate behemoth has no trouble drumming up quality titles—after all, it’s owned as many as 16 game development studios tasked with crafting in-house PlayStation hits like "Uncharted" and "LittleBigPlanet." According to Sony, the Project Morpheus prototype "will serve as the first development kit for PS4 developers that are as enthusiastic about this new medium as we are.” If the prototype pans out, game devs working on VR would naturally be attracted to the PS4’s well-established platform and marketplace.
Oculus is an awesome company with a lot of indie momentum—its massive footprint at SXSW this year was a testament to that. But if Sony can nail the hardware, create VR software that transcends proof-of-concept status, and provide developers with an indie-friendly storefront, Project Morpheus could really change the game for Microsoft, Oculus and its own PS4 all at once.
Riding The VR Wave
Right now, gamers are excited about virtual reality—and with good reason. From the moment you try the Oculus Rift that first time, you can feel the almost alarmingly immersive potential of virtual reality. The VR experience being pioneered by Oculus generates its own buzz—it’s the exact opposite of the way the 3D TV market worked, with major companies telling us how excited we should be ad nauseum without ever managing to make a dent in the market.
Project Morpheus, if timed right and executed just so, could define the way we play games in the coming decade. Sony missed the mark on Kinect-style motion based gameplay, finding its efforts steamrolled by Microsoft's cheap, eminently hackable 3D motion camera. But now, the stakes are much higher. If the Kinect (and to a lesser extent, the Wii) had a universal whoa factor, with virtual reality, that “whoa” becomes a full-on holy shit, this is the future and it’s insane reaction.
For VR gaming, Oculus really kicked the door open, but Project Morpheus might very well waltz right on through.
All images courtesy of Sony and Oculus.