Let’s Get Technical
Looking at the prices of the current Big Three VR headsets, you’d correctly assume that Sony’s — which has the most appealing price tag for consumers on a budget — is the lowest-end when it comes to technical specs. While that may be off-putting for some, I’d caution those who feel it may be a dealbreaker; though the lower resolution and such might take a bit of getting used to, the entry-level price has the potential to lead to some real killer apps in the future if the device meets with success (something I’d argue it’s better-positioned to do than the Oculus or HTC headsets).
So, what exactly is this thing and how does it work, anyway? Well, I’ll go into more detail on exactly how the whole system goes together in the next section, but for the purpose of simplicity here, it essentially works the following way: your PS4 connects to a box called the PSVR Processor Unit, which connects to the actual headset you put on. It’s not the most elegant-looking set, with a number of cables that are sure to be a nightmare for some people, but I was able to get it down to an appealing minimum by hiding most of the Processor Unit’s wiring in my entertainment center and simply detaching the headset from the unit when not using it (safely hiding it away in a drawer, where nobody can trip over its dangling extensions).
As for the actual hardware itself, the headset is about as simple as you could hope such a thing to be, with minimal fuss required to put it on. With one button that stretches the strap to fit various head sizes (meaning even my massive noggin can fit comfortably inside), and another to bring the actual display closer to your eyes, it’s easy to get settled in once the rest of the setup has been completed. I particularly like the cushion that rests up against your forehead while you play, and the included cloth that can be used to wipe it down after a particularly sweaty session (no judgments here).
I am a bit disappointed by the audio portion of the headset, though. While there’s a microphone built into the headset, getting the game sound into your ears requires a pair of wired headphones — meaning no wireless Turtle Beach or Astro for you. There is an included pair of earbuds, but they’re pretty crummy (why on earth is the wire attached to one bud so much shorter than the other?). I’d suggest finding a decent pair that supports 3D audio if you don’t already have one handy.
Those lights on the PSVR headset aren’t just there to look cool and futuristic, by the way: they’re actually how the platform picks up motion. Essentially, the PlayStation Camera uses the lights to track the headset and (optionally) Move controllers, translating that into motion in the games you play. It’s a bit of a primitive system, especially since it doesn’t have nearly the range you’d get from another headset, but it works well enough.
Other players have experienced odd exceptions where they’ve found themselves floating above their bodies — almost certainly due to the camera not detecting the headset’s light properly — but I’ve been lucky enough not to run into such issues during my time with the hardware (so far, anyway).
As far as the raw numbers go, the PSVR uses just one 1920 x 1080 display, which (when seen with both eyes) results in a final resolution of 960 x 1080, with images showing in stereoscopic 3D. The resolution is noticeably less than most players will be used to on their HD home consoles, and comparatively less than the 1080 x 1200 visuals put out by PSVR’s competitors, but the bright and crisp OLED screen is still capable of generating some pretty beautiful images.
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Somebody Set Us Up The PlayStation VR
I think the most intimidating aspect of PlayStation VR, at least for the average consumer, will be setting up the system. While I haven’t had the pleasure of setting up either the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, many other game journalists have said this device sits somewhere in between the two in terms of complexity (with Oculus’s option being the easiest of the three, and HTC’s being the most difficult thanks to its full room scale sensors).
Still… I have a hard time most people are going to think it’s easy when they open the box and see just how many things are included. Even some of Sony’s own diagrams are comically overstuffed (with the above picture being my personal favorite example). The truth is, though, that just a bit of careful attention to either the included instructions or Sony’s excellent video tutorial series is enough to get the unit ready for play without much trouble.
To sum it up, though, the basic gist is this: the Processor Unit is connected via HDMI to your TV, by HDMI and USB to the PS4, and by HDMI and AUX to the headset (with an extension cable used to expand the length of those HDMI and AUX connections so you can actually get some range out of the unit). The extension cable has an inline remote with power, volume and mic control buttons, and you can plug headphones with any standard 3.5mm connector into them.
All of this might seem awfully cumbersome, and I can remember seeing people disappointed on social media about the Processor Unit being required — but in the end, having everything wired in together makes PSVR’s most intriguing and distinctive feature possible: Social Screen. As the name suggests, this takes virtual reality from a solo experience to a social one, showing a 2D image of the headset view on the TV.
From asynchronous multiplayer experiences to just sharing what you’re seeing with others, this is easily my favorite thing about PSVR when compared to its competitors. Rather than having to describe what I was seeing with my husband, he was able to follow along with my first moments in Thumper and Wayward Sky with me, making for an extremely fun time together (even if we weren’t able to see each other). I can’t wait to have friends and family over to have similar experiences.
The Processor Unit and wiring also make it possible to use the PS4’s Share features easily with PSVR games — something that’s a pleasure compared with the apparent nightmare of capturing screenshots and footage on the Rift and Vive. When it comes to making VR viable for the mainstream, sharing the joy and wonder of the experience with others is going to be a critical piece, and Social Screen and the PS4 Share feature are the most intuitive, user-friendly options out there.