Virtual reality is set to be the next big thing in gaming. In fact in some ways it might just be gaming's biggest change since switching from 2D to 3D in the 90s.
It's surprising, then, that until recently VR was limited to expensive gaming PCs, and had no presence on games consoles, which currently have a much larger audience thanks in part to their cheaper upfront cost.
Enter Sony's PlayStation VR, which brings a very capable virtual reality experience to the PS4.
It has its problems – the most notable of which is the fact that you'll need to buy a PlayStation Camera if you don't already own one, and then shell out for PlayStation Move Controllers on top of that to get the full experience – but by and large PlayStation VR proves that not only is console VR viable, but it's actually enjoyable, too.
Over a week's time I tried close to a dozen games on the console, from Rocksteady's impressive (but short) Batman: Arkham VR to the laugh-out-loud funny Job Simulator to the tear-jerking Wayward Sky and even a horror game – Until Dawn: Rush of Blood.
Some of these titles were more fun than others, obviously, but all of them made the same point: PlayStation VR doesn't suck.
Before we go on talking about PlayStation VR's finer points (and foibles), let's get the basics out of the way.
The system is sold in two varieties: the basic PlayStation VR package that only includes the PS VR system, headphones and all cabling required for $399 / €399 /£349 / AUD$549, and a PlayStation VR Launch Bundle which includes the PS VR system, PlayStation Camera, two PlayStation Move Motion Controllers, and a copy of PlayStation VR Worlds for $499 (about £390/AU$655). Another interesting pack-in is the PlayStation VR demo disc that comes with both packages and has a dozen-or-so titles ready for you to check out.
If you don't already own the PlayStation Camera or Move Motion Controllers, the Launch Day bundle is the better bet here – especially considering that you'll get one of the best games on the platform, PlayStation VR Worlds, for free.
Besides the PlayStation VR unit itself and the PlayStation Camera, all you'll need is a PS4 (either the recently released Slim version or the three-year-old original), a PS4 DualShock 4 controller and a 6-foot by 10-foot play space that's well lit, but not too bright.
Setting up the unit can be done in a matter of minutes and the provided instructions offer a clear visual guide to get you up and running.
How does PlayStation VR work?
Like other virtual reality headsets on the market, PlayStation VR has the arduous task of completely immersing you in a video game by producing two images simultaneously and then sending them to a headset a few feet away. But unlike the competition who require expensive graphics cards to get the job done, PS VR can do it using only the PlayStation 4's built-in GPU.
It achieves this by using the PlayStation Camera to track nine different points of light on the headset and the lights on either the Move controllers or on the DualShock 4, depending on which game you're playing.
It's surprisingly accurate given the fact that it's only using a single camera to track what's happening ... but it's not foolproof by any stretch of the imagination. We'll cover performance in detail in a minute, but be prepared for the camera to lose track of the controllers. A lot.
But the real bummer here is that because Sony only uses one camera instead of two, it's harder for PlayStation VR to track you if you get up and walk around than it is for a system like the HTC Vive which can offer true room-scale VR. That said, it still can support you if you decide to get up and wander around, but don't expect to take more than a few steps in any direction without a warning from the system that you're straying too far away.
To that end, most PlayStation VR games can recommend that you stay in one of two positions, either sitting down or standing up and stationary. If you're prone to motion sickness, sitting down might be a bit more comfortable, however, certain games are definitely better played on your feet.
Depending on where and how you angle your camera, switching between the two might not be so easy, so it's best to find an angle that covers the majority of the room in case you want to switch from one to the other without having to get up, move the camera and recalibrate.
But let's back up. Up until now, I've thrown the words "VR" and "virtual reality" around a lot and haven't provided much explanation for them.
VR has existed in one form or another for decades, but the modern version of the technology is more immersive and less nausea-inducing than it's ever been. In more or less words, virtual reality is just that – a virtual world that gives you the experience of being somewhere else in a different time, at a different place, sometimes as far as an alien world, all without ever leaving your home.
And yes, it's just as cool as it sounds.
If you want to be specific about it, PlayStation VR can handle 1080p games on its 920 x RGB x 1080 OLED display at either 90Hz (meaning that the image refreshes itself 90 times per second) or at 120Hz depending on the VR game or application.
And for those concerned about latency, Sony says that PlayStation VR's response rate is locked in at around 18ms – which is about 0.002 seconds faster than the highest acceptable latency before you would notice the lag in VR.
Those numbers are great, but they're matched by both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. The one advantage Sony has that neither Oculus nor HTC can claim is that it's actually a world-class game publisher. While the other two have been trying to create connections with developers over the past few years, Sony already has them.
To that end, Sony is promising 50 new titles on the platform before the end of the year, some of which will be made by Sony's extremely competent first-party studios. (The first of them, PlayStation VR Worlds, is absolutely incredible – you'll go from being put in a shark cage to holding up a bank and end by careening downhill on your back, dodging cars while going faster than the bobsled team in Cool Runnings.)
PlayStation VR on PS4 Pro
There's also another piece of hardware to consider when looking at buying a PlayStation VR, and that's Sony's brand-new, ultra-powered PS4 Pro.
With additional processing power, the PS4 Pro is capable of creating an even more immersive virtual reality experience for the games that support it – there's around 30-or-so titles at the moment, with about 15 more coming before the end of the year.
The improvement PS4 Pro promises can take many forms – from more detailed textures to better draw distances, and even a small reduction in graininess. The advantages differ from game-to-game, and PS4 Pro is currently setup to only support games where the developer has enabled "Pro Mode", a hardware boosting technology that tells the PS4 to use extra processing power.
While writing the PS4 Pro review, we got the chance to try the upgraded hardware with the PlayStation VR and the results were noticeable, if a bit underwhelming.
There's definitely a distinct difference between PS4 and PS4 Pro versions of VR games, however, it's probably not one that can be spotted by the unwitting non-techie – it's something that you can only spot if you're paying close attention to how certain textures look in-game or how objects look in the distance. Lag felt less prevalent on the Pro system though, in all fairness, it wasn't something we felt was a major problem while using the standard issue console.
Whether the minor improvements are worth paying extra for the more powerful hardware is ultimately a decision we'll leave up to you, it's our opinion that you can get by with a standard PS4 just fine.
To read about PlayStation VR's games, performance and design in more detail, head on over to the next page.