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Sony Hits the Ground Running on the Long Road to VR

And breathe. Yesterday, Sony revealed a prototype virtual reality (VR) headset for the PlayStation 4, named Project Morpheus. Despite only being an introduction to the technology, the hour-long presentation at the 2014 Game Developers Conference (GDC) had more riding on it than members of the VR community would care to admit. One false move and the company could have ruined years of groundwork laid out by companies like Oculus VR, and the PlayStation makers are no strangers to miscalculated peripherals and lacklustre 3D technology.

Fortunately, Sony’s unveiling seems to have given the technology a leg up at this early stage.

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Just the right amount of information dripped through yesterday. Much like its PlayStation 4 reveal event in early 2013, Sony went into much greater detail than expected about the development of Project Morpheus, while holding back enough vital information to allow for rampant speculation in the build up to the inevitable E3 2014 blowout in June.

In truth, the company already had half the battle fought for it. Sony didn’t need to come out and convince the world that consumer virtual reality could finally be happening; Oculus VR has already done that. What it needed to do was turn developers and fans around to the idea that VR is a viable path for its mainstream console. That, and simply not embarrass itself in front of audiences already well-versed in the technology.

It is of course far too early to tell if the company will achieve those goals in the long term, but this presentation certainly set Project Morpheus on the right path.

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What the company had in spades was reassurance. This wasn’t a consumer-focussed show with plenty of PR spins to brush over the nitty gritty imperfections but a straight-faced announcement that embraced both the good and the bad of VR. For every promise of unparalleled immersion there was a warning of the hurdles that the company must overcome on the path to it. It openly admitted that it doesn’t have all the answers to VR’s problems and that some of its most realistic, impressive experiences wouldn’t necessarily fit the platform. It spoke honestly and in-depth about how VR changes development and may well end up excluding certain genres.

That’s not to say it didn’t spoil us just a little bit. The announcement of EVE: Valkyrie, previously thought to be exclusive to the Oculus Rift, heading was a welcome surprise, and spoke volumes about where Project Morpheus sits in relation to its rival. Throw in the intriguing first-party developed The Deep, and it’s a promising start for software support.

It also helped that the company managed to somewhat ironically piggyback off of the goodwill built up by Oculus VR over the past few years by simply acknowledging them. Instead of pretending like the Oculus Rift didn’t exist Sony publically recognised their newfound rival and celebrated its work. When Shuhei Yoshida, one of the most beloved figureheads in all of the videogame industry, tells you that he has ‘an enormous amount of respect’ for companies like Oculus, you can’t help but believe him. Pending Oculus VR’s reply at its own conference later today, we should be able to avoid a messy mudslinging contest between two promising products, which is the last thing this industry needs.

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This slow and steady approach, for me at least, instilled a strong sense of confidence in this project.  It would have been all too easy for Sony to wheel out a headset with demos of its Naughty Dog-developed blockbusters and confirm that its entire first-party catalogue would be shoehorning in VR from here on out. That approach might have even won the hearts and minds of a certain type of consumer much faster, but it would also be setting the technology up for a potential catastrophe.

Sony has just helped put consumer VR on the world stage. The Oculus Rift is a household name with enthusiasts and has garnered some attention outside of the dedicated fanbase but it can’t bring the device to the mainstream as quickly and efficiently as the PlayStation makers can. That puts an immense amount of pressure on Project Morpheus. All it takes is one misstep; a steep price point, a rushed release or, hey, a media scandal about a high-profile device making lots and lots of children throw up after an hour or ten of playtime, and everything that VR has been building to in the last few years could be undone. It’s not just Sony’s reputation on the line here; it’s the technology’s too.

But there’s a long way to go and a lot of information to share before we have to start worrying about any of that. Sony has hit the ground running with VR, avoiding exaggerated promises and replacing them with much needed reassurances. Thinking about the future, one can’t help but get excited for what VR could mean for PlayStation. VRFocus runs a weekly feature that picks a videogame franchise and imagines what VR could do for it and now we’re one step closer to all of that being a reality. Then you think about the company’s recent initiatives such as pushing indie titles, a side of the industry that has already embraced the Oculus Rift, and it’s clear that there’s an enormous amount of potential just waiting to be unleashed here.

Yesterday Sony started a new chapter in the story of virtual reality. Watching how that story unfolds in the next few months and years is going to be fascinating, and VRFocus will be here to bring you every detail as it happens.