I can see for miles and miles and miles…
While plenty of news came out of GDC this year, the topic on everyone’s mind was virtual reality. With both Oculus and Sony making VR-headset announcements within a 12-hour span, the race is on to see which one can first transport players to another world. Luckily, I was able to wrap both peripherals around my head this week, and I’m ready to decide who has the early lead.
The Oculus DevKit 2 showed off the Epic-developed “Couch Knights.” To start out, you plant your butt in a chair in both real life and the virtual world (such a stretch of my imagination). You then control a medieval-garbed, toddler-sized avatar and hop around a virtual living room, trying to kill a similar-looking puppet controlled by a second player.
Sony gave us a pair of demos. The first was Sony London’s “The Deep,” an underwater-diving simulator with minimal controls that goes horribly wrong when a great white shark mistakes your cage for dinner. The second, “The Castle,” sees players use the PS Move to wield medieval swords and a crossbow against some targets and practice dummies…and then eventually being swallowed whole by a dragon.
While I’ve seen some really impressive demos from Oculus in the past, I was a little shocked that they didn’t bring out some bigger guns to show off the new specs for DevKit 2. Sony, meanwhile, tried their best with their demos to highlight everything we’d need to know about their headset and give us a range of experiences.
As with most of their demos in the past, Oculus continued to use a wired Xbox 360 controller with the DevKit 2. Sony, on the other hand, used a PS4 controller for “The Deep” and a PS Move for “The Castle.”
“The Deep” and “The Castle” had significant syncing issues with their respective controllers that resulted in some haphazard playtime, which Sony blamed on Bluetooth interference around the Moscone Center. When the controls worked, it felt great. When they didn’t—about half the time—it left me frustrated and eager to take the headset off as quickly as possible. My least-favorite instance? The crossbow arrows in “The Castle” would sail off into the sky at cartoonishly ridiculous angles, even when I was aiming straight down the sights. It seems that Sony has too many moving parts right now with all those light sensors, so until they work out the bugs, Oculus wins by default with the old reliable wired controller, which worked perfectly.
Round 3Graphics/Image Quality
Both DevKit 2 and Morpheus display in 1080p and have a 90-to-100-degree vision range (depending on whether you wear glasses or not). High framerate and low latency are critical in getting the best picture across, and Sony and Oculus’ numbers mirror each other there as well.
On paper, the headsets should be producing similar visuals. Due to Sony’s years of experience with displays, however, everything on Morpheus was just a little clearer and crisper—and it was noticeable enough to edge out the DevKit 2.
This is a big one. Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida spent several minutes preaching about the importance of immersion during Tuesday’s Project Morpheus reveal, and it’s been one of Oculus’ defining pillars from the start.
A bit of a cop-out, I know. Each had issues that put them on the same level to me, even if they were different problems. Oculus’ older demos, and its new one, “Couch Knights,” never made me feel like I was in a different world. I always felt like I was just playing another game. DevKit 2 produced an extremely realistic illusion, however, and the headset fully pick up all my motions thanks to its new camera and sensors as I turned my head to peek behind a couch or end table.
Sony made me forget about being in a game—but only for a little while. Holding the PS4 controller with both hands helped “The Deep” pick up my full range of body motions. Due to the nature of the experience, however, I was holding the controller with two hands and moving around, but the game would only move one hand, instantly bringing me back to the real world.
“The Castle”, meanwhile, ran into problems with space. The demo made it so I had to step backward or forward a lot for the sensors to pick me up (before they completely lost sync). I stepped too far back once, though, and ran right into a wall (nothing like bruising your back to break the immersion). So, one demo started immersive but then lost it due to its controls and limitations, and the other never really tried. It’s a tie right now for negative reasons, but I’m fairly confident than with more time, both can nail this element properly.
Oculus has added a plastic layer over its main components to protect your hands from the sensors, and it only has one cable before it splits into HDMI and USB plugs. The same cloth and adjustable straps from previous models remain when adjusting it to your head. Project Morpheus features a rubber seal that cushions the headset against your orbital bones, and it also has an adjustable front piece and straps as you place it over your head.
While I liked the way Sony’s rubber cushion felt against my face, and the adjustable visor was great for getting my sight lines right where I needed them to be, it also feels much heavier than the Oculus and has so many cables coming from it that you’ll be hard pressed not to trip over the rat’s nest sprouting from your head. The DevKit 2 is lighter and easier to put on as long as you remember to put your eyes in the lenses first and then pull the straps over year head, like a pair of swimming goggles. And you won’t be worried about tripping over a bunch of wires, either.
Round 6Side Effects
Reports of nausea after using the DevKit 1 were somewhat common among first-time users, but with the lack of motion blur in DevKit 2 thanks to HD graphics, higher resolution, and lower latency, Oculus hopes to lessen or even eliminate this effect. Sony had warnings plastered all over their demo booth explaining that their headset could induce similar nausea-like symptoms to those seen in DevKit 1.
This was a much easier tie to call, since neither headset left me with any feelings of nausea, dizziness, or anything else we’d been warned about. I was one of the people first affected by DevKit 1, and after my longest VR session yet with DevKit 2, I can report both no motion blur and no feelings of sickness. Sony’s headset also left me feeling completely fine.
I know. In a world where we’re constantly looking for definitives, a tie is a hard pill to swallow. The fact of the matter is, though, that after trying both headsets, I see them being in a virtual dead heat. If Shuhei Yoshida is to be believed, Sony’s been working on something like this just as long as Oculus, but they’ve just waited longer to show it, so it makes some sense that the two are so close in many ways. You could argue that Oculus is ahead, because even after they’ve poached talent from studios like id and Valve, they still don’t have nearly as many resources as Sony. On the other hand, Sony hasn’t had the community feedback like Oculus to help with their iterations.
If what I’ve found at GDC 2014 holds true and continues throughout the development of these devices, the decision will have to come down to much simpler things: retail price, accessibility, uses besides games, and whether you’re a PC person or a PS4 one. So, as much as I hate to say it, we still need to take a “wait and see” approach to this VR thing.