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Hands-On: Sony’s Project Morpheus VR headset prototype

Posted on March 20, 2014 AT 12:24pm

Project Morpheus, Sony’s VR headset prototype, has done the unthinkable. I’m not talking about offering a potentially serious competitor to the Oculus Rift—though it’s certainly done that. I don’t mean proving that home VR can someday work on consoles—though it’s probably checked that box as well. No, Project Morpheus has finally made me understand the appeal of the Move controller.

Before we get to that shocking revelation, let’s talk about the headset itself. The tech specs announced during the conference certainly sound impressive enough, but a bunch of great numbers are all for nothing if the unit doesn’t feel right in practice. There’s how comfortably it sits on your head, the quality of the image, the lag when you turn your head, and a whole host of other finicky things that make VR less a game of facts and figures and more a matter of feel.

The good news is that nearly all of those things work spectacularly on Morpheus. The image quality, both when stationary and in motion, is superior to every Oculus experience I’ve had thus far—though I’m admittedly a few iterations behind, having last tried the first HD upgrade. Still, I have to imagine it’s at least in the same ballpark as the newest version, something my fellow editor Ray Carsillo will be able to confirm or deny when he posts his head-to-head comparison later this week.

The form factor also feels light-years more user-friendly than the Rift. Because it wasn’t squeezing its way onto the front of my face but instead resting on top of my head, it was much more comfortable and stable, even while the straps were noticeably looser. In fact, my rapid head movements managed to knock the headphones off a couple of times—they weren’t a particularly tight fit—but the headset stayed rock solid.

It was also much easier to situate into perfect focus—I’m told because of a special double-lens setup Sony developed. While I usually have to fiddle with the Rift for a good few second to find the sweet spot, Project Morpheus was much more generous. That also meant that when I whipped my head around to check out my surroundings, I never worried that I’d jar the headset out of focus—again, even with a strap that felt comfortably loose.

The weight distribution felt better as well. I’ve heard some people say that Morpheus is heavier, but I never got the strange feeling that my head was being pulled forward the way I have with the Rift. I only had a chance to play through two brief demos, but it didn’t take long to get to that immersive place where it doesn’t seem like I’m wearing anything at all.

The first of the demos was definitely the better showcase of the tech. The Castle, as it was called, put me in a medieval courtyard with a dummy suit of armor in front of me and a few swords on the ground by my side. I held a Move controller in each hand, and by reaching my virtual gauntlet out and pressing the trigger, I could pick up a sword and give that dummy a good thwacking. Once I’d sufficiently shamed him, a crossbow appeared in my right hand and some targets popped up downfield.

It wasn’t the most complex of setups, but it was full of the magical little moments that make VR such an exciting development. Simply reaching out with the Move controller and picking something up by squeezing the trigger was a crazy thing to wrap my brain around. What might seem like a stupid gimmick when you’re standing in front of a 2D TV quickly becomes intuitive once you’re actually in the world and your movements are mapped in real time. When I realized, to my delight, that I could actually pick up two swords, one in each hand, I’m fairly certain my mental age regressed about 10 solid years. It’s a miracle I didn’t start making lightsaber noises in the booth.

Even the crossbow gave me a neat “eureka” moment. At first, I struggled to use the sight, since years of first-person-shooter training had taught my brain that aiming meant raising it up in the center of the screen and looking over the top with both eyes. Then I realized I had to actually lift the sight to one eye and close the other to properly see everything in focus. It might sound obvious to anyone with real-world common sense, but it’s so rare to see that kind of logic applied in a virtual world. So rarely do you have to have that kind of full-body awareness. It wasn’t revolutionary, no, but it was uncanny to experience firsthand.

The second demo, The Deep, was much less interesting for me in many ways. That’s partly because it was less interactive—all you really did was watch events unfold around you and fire off a pointless flare gun—but it’s also because I was using the DualShock 4, which felt much less intuitive. This is the first time in my life I’ve actually been in a situation where I would’ve preferred motion controls. Like The Castle, this demo was able to track my arm movements and map them onto my character, only this time using the controller’s light bar.

The problem with that, of course, is that you hold a controller with two hands. I could look down and see my virtual body—still a bit of a mindf*** every time it happens—and the game could even pick up when I was crouching and animate that in real time. But when I noticed that my virtual right arm was holding the flare gun while my virtual left arm was dangling at the side—and both my real arms were out in front of me—the disconnect was quite noticeable.

It’s obviously a bit of an issue with this specific demo’s implementation and not the hardware itself, but it’s something Sony is going to need to be conscious of as they move Morpheus from prototype to actual hardware supported by games. I have no issue with using a controller with VR, especially with how well it worked in my time with EVE Valkyrie, but once you start throwing body tracking into the mix, it gets a bit cloudy and, for me, confusing.

Minor quibbles aside, there’s no question that Sony’s Project Morpheus tech is undeniably promising. The hardware itself works well and feels great, and it’s clear that the company’s network of studios and established foundation in motion controls could enable them to hit the ground running and deliver VR experiences that go deeper than a pair of goggles. Whether they’ll be able to actually follow through and deliver a similarly capable piece of hardware at an affordable cost is a question we likely won’t know the answer to for at least a year or two. But as a proof-of-concept, Morpheus absolutely accomplished its two major goals: It made me excited to see where games are headed next, and it convinced me that Sony will be an instrumental part of that future.

Josh Harmon, Associate Editor
Josh Harmon picked up a controller when he was 3 years old—and he hasn't looked back since. This has made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from behind. He joined EGM as an intern following a brief-but-storied career on a number of small gaming blogs across the Internet. Follow him on Twitter @jorshy. Meet the rest of the crew.

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