Project Morpheus: The Story So Far

Every E3 seems to have an overarching theme, be it the rise of new consoles, the arrival of new ways to play, or the way in which the announcements and reveals made reflect the current state of the videogame industry. With this year’s edition of the biggest show in videogames now just weeks away, it certainly feels as if it’s virtual reality’s (VR’s) turn to be the hot topic. This is, after all, the last E3 before true consumer head-mounted displays (HMDs) are released, with the Oculus Rift, Project Morpheus, HTC Vive and Gear VR all launching before next year’s show rolls around.

These are likely the last days of VR being an enthusiast topic; something that the brilliant-but-small group of passionate developers and players have raved about these past few years. The conversation is going to start spilling over to gamers that haven’t been following the technology thus far. Make no mistake about it; Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) is going to push as hard as possible to make sure everyone knows Project Morpheus is coming. Oculus VR will no doubt be using the full might of its owner, Facebook, to get the Oculus Rift into as many hands as possible. Valve will be taking advantage of its current status as the first to release to try and attract as many customers as possible.

With that in mind, VRFocus presents a brief history of the revival of VR, taking a look at each head-mounted display. Last week we detailed the origins of the Oculus Rift and today we take a look back at the second major consumer VR HMD to be announced, Project Morpheus for PlayStation 4.

PlayStation Move

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It would be easy to look at the form factor, features and reveal timing of Project Morpheus and cry copycat. The device, announced by Sony Computer Entertainment’s (SCE’s) Shuhei Yoshida at the 2014 Game Developers Conference (GDC), was strikingly similar to the Oculus Rift’s Crystal Cove prototype, which had been revealed earlier in the year. It’s surprising, then to learn that SCE’s work with Project Morpheus dates back to even before Palmer Luckey sat down in his parent’s garage to start work on the device that would be credited with VR’s revival.

The origins of PlayStation’s foray in VR can actually be traced back to the release of the PlayStation Move, SCE’s motion controller for the PlayStation 3, in late 2010. Though the device appears similar in concept to Nintendo’s Wii Remote, Move actually utilises a light presented as a glowing orb at the top end of the device that was accurately tracked by the PlayStation Eye camera. Along with motion sensing, this allowed for precise positional tracking that enabled experiences to effectively simulate holding objects such as weapons in their hands. But while many saw this as an opportunity to advance motion-controlled gaming, some within SCE itself saw the beginnings of true VR finally taking shape.

Project Morpheus Begins

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Yoshida describes the company’s first experiments with VR as ‘homework‘. Members of the company’s R&D teams saw PlayStation Move’s accurate, responsive tracking as a potential solution for head-tracking on an HMD for VR. Move controllers were literally taped to pre-existing HMDs, including SCE’s own HMZ personal viewers, to create crude VR kits that worked on PlayStation 3. These experiments carried through into 2011, when Yoshida himself was able to try a rough excerpt of God of War III that put players in the shoes of iconic protagonist, Kratos.

These experiments actually went public in 2012 when Datura, a surreal first-person adventure title for the PlayStation 3 that fully utilised PlayStation Move, was shown running on this makeshift kit. The PlayStation Eye was capable of tracking multiple Move controllers for multiplayer, which had here been stretched to using one Move for head-tracking and one for hand-tracking in this instance. At the time this appeared to simply be promotion for the videogame; few would have guessed this was an early indication that Project Morpheus was coming. SCE America also developed its own kit at this time, using three of the PlayStation Move’s lights for more accurate head-tracking.

By now, a more official VR project was underway. SCE created a global team consisting of SCE International Hardware Group, SCE America R&D and members of Worldwide Studios such as London Studio. The latter is a team that has had plenty of experience working on PlayStation’s efforts with augmented reality (AR) using various cameras for various consoles as well as other peripherals such as the Singstar microphones. Plans started to come together, no doubt spurred on by the success of the Oculus Rift’s Kickstarter campaign, raising over $2,000,000 USD in late 2012.

PlayStation 4

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The PlayStation 4 was revealed in early 2013 and released in a wide range of territories by the end of the year. It was clear from the beginning that motion control and AR would continue to play a part in the latest console, as the kit was introduced alongside a brand new, more advanced PlayStation Camera that would be sold separately. PlayStation Move also made an appearance at the console’s reveal, with none other than LittleBigPlanet developer Media Molecule revealing experiments with the controller in which players could make puppets dance to music.

Perhaps the most unusual reveal for the PlayStation 4, though hardly surprising thanks to pre-reveal leaks, was a light bar on the console’s standard gamepad, the Dualshock 4. This allows for the same position tracking on the normal controller that could be found in PlayStation Move. AR videogames such as The Playroom allowed players to use the controller in entirely new ways, aiming it at on-screen robots to suck them up and even turning into a virtual paddle for a Pong-like title. Again, few would guess that the real reason for this addition was to make way for Project Morpheus.

With a late 2013 launch behind them, customers were just beginning to enjoy the new features and added power of the PlayStation 4 in early 2014. A new peripheral for the console was the last thing on anyone’s mind at the time, but rumours of a possible PlayStation 4 VR HMD started making the rounds in February, just three months after the console’s initial release. These rumours were backed up by the approaching Game Developers Conference (GDC), which was running from 17th – 21st March. SCE had a mysterious session booked for the second day of the show, titled ‘Driving the Future of Innovation at Sony Computer Entertainment’, which presented itself as a good a place as any to reveal such a device.

The First Prototype

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Sure enough, Yoshida himself introduced a prototype VR HMD, codenamed Project Morpheus, to the world on 18th March 2014. SCE hosted an hour-long presentation in which it detailed the origins of the project, its specifications, and even gave a glimpse at some of the videogames that would be coming to it. In fact the event was far more in-depth than many had expected as SCE even had working versions of the device that would be on display at booths on the GDC show floor the following day. The first of these kits sat next to Yoshida and the event’s other speakers, Richard Marks and Anton Mikhailov from the R&D teams.

The light bar on the Dualshock 4 was no longer a mystery; the first iteration of Project Morpheus was layered with numerous bright spots that were followed by the PlayStation Camera for full positional tracking. In fact, SCE itself would later confess that Project Morpheus was very much the reason that the Dualshock 4 had these bars. Elsewhere, the device boasted a 1080p LCD display, which was the same resolution as the OLED panel found in the Oculus Rift’s second development kit (DK2), which was revealed the day after. That said, the LCD display didn’t enjoy the same advantages to latency and refresh rate that OLED afforded.

SCE was also bringing some more unique features to bring to VR, such as the ability to produce a single image on a user’s TV screen showing what they were looking at for others to see. It also mentioned that Project Morpheus would be ‘affordable’, though the prototype on display was by no means what would be put on sale.

This prototype would also be the first development kit to be sent out to studios looking to work with Project Morpheus. In fact, several teams were already using it. The aforementioned SCE London Studio revealed two experiences, the first being an underwater thriller known as The Deep in which players used a Dualshock 4 to aim a flare gun as they experienced a little too close of an encounter with a shark, while the other was a medieval tech demo known as The Castle. CCP Games’ EVE: Valkyrie, which was becoming something of the poster boy for VR videogaming, was confirmed as the first true Project Morpheus title while Square Enix also provided a brief VR adaption of its then-recently released Thief.

Project Morpheus’ reveal contributed to a historic week for VR, though SCE was by no means ready to start talking about a consumer release of the device. In fact, the company’s Adam Boyes was quick to point out that the device would not be releasing in 2014. The year that followed would be a largely quiet one for the HMD, though it wouldn’t be without its surprises.

The Rest of 2014

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Following Project Morpheus’ announcement a handful of developers came forward to confirm either that they were working with the device or had every intention of doing so. Krillbite Studios’ unique first-person horror experience, Among the Sleep, was confirmed to be coming to PlayStation 4 and team noted that it was ‘one of the first’ to be working with Project Morpheus. Slightly Mad Studios, the UK team behind Project Cars, also stated that it would develop VR support for the PlayStation 4 version of its title. Both of these were indie developers that were already adding Oculus Rift support into the PC versions of their respective titles.

That trend started to set in, as just about anyone developing a full title for Oculus VR’s device stated that it would also be interested in working on Sony’s. The latter has been making a huge push to make the PlayStation 4 accessible for all developers with concepts such as self-publishing, meaning that indie teams can get their titles onto the console. Yoshida himself noted that these smaller teams would be key to the future of VR, as they weren’t restricted by the wills of large publishers that might not want to take the risk on developing for an unproven technology.

SCE itself wasn’t finished talking about Project Morpheus in 2014. The company took the device to E3 2014 and even made mention of it at its annual press conference, confirming two brand new tech demos for the experience. One was Street Luge, another piece from SCE London Studio which allowed players to lie down as they raced a luge downhill, avoiding traffic. The other was Jurassic Encounter, a demo from Until Dawn developer Supermassive Games. Other teams also confirmed that they were working with Project Morpheus, including Bossa Studios and its popular Surgeon Simulator series.

One of the other big VR concepts that PlayStation pushed at E3 was its work with ‘social screens’. This involved letting a second player take part in the Project Morpheus user’s experience. The Deep, for example, boasted a companion app in which players could control a small craft.  All said, however, E3 was a quiet time for the HMD.

The same went for what was left of the year’s big events. Confusion did spark from Gamescom in August, however, as SCE Europe’s Jim Ryan stated that Project Morpheus was still very much an experiment, and not guaranteed for a consumer launch. It was worrying news for fans of the device, although and not a position that SCE would change for the rest of the year, despite other appearances at the likes of the PlayStation Experience, where the company revealed that Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes was coming to the device.

Eagle-eyed VR fans will know that there was more Project Morpheus news in 2014 than SCE let on. A number of devs announced that their VR compatible PC titles were being ported to PlayStation 4, but didn’t have much to say on the Project Morpheus side. It’s likely that, when it comes to revealing more on the device later this year, some of these will finally confirm their support.

Overall, Project Morpheus in 2014 very much resembled other early peripheral announcements from SCE. PlayStation Move, for example, was revealed at E3 2009 as an early prototype and then disappeared until GDC 2010, where it received its full name and first compatible videogames, with an even bigger blowout taking place the following E3. Project Morpheus currently seems to be following the same pattern.

The Second Prototype

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The first few months of 2015 were just as quiet for Project Morpheus. Many expected an update to be provided at GDC in March and, sure enough, SCE promised as much in the weeks leading up to the event. This time the company listed an event outside of GDC itself on 3rd March 2015. Rumours began to swirl about just what SCE might show at the event, ranging from the final version of the device, details on its release and perhaps even some brand new videogames to support it.

In truth, SCE met each of these rumours halfway. A new prototype was revealed, said to be close to the final consumer edition. A wide release window was given, revealing that the kit wouldn’t be launching in 2015. Finally, a handful of new tech demos were revealed, some of which certainly seemed as if they could lay the foundations of a full title.

The new prototype boasted some key improvements over the original. In terms of design, the new Project Morpheus didn’t wildly differ from the original, though did feature another tracking light, this time located in the dead centre of the device. The big additions revolved around the screen. While resolution remained at 1080p, SCE had finally switched out the LCD display for an OLED one, bringing in many of the advantages seen in the Oculus Rift’s second development kit. Easily the most impressive feature, however, was the 120Hz refresh rate, which was higher than anything seen on the kit’s rivals.

Of course, the PlayStation 4 is yet to produce a consumer videogame that runs at 120fps. Even 60fps is proving to be a struggle for some developers at this early stage in the consoles lifecycle. Project Morpheus, however, doesn’t require developers to actually create 120fps experiences, as it can reproject titles at this framerate. Just how successful this concept will be remains to be seen.

Elsewhere, it was revealed that the kit’s screen can be adjusted to give users a quick view of the real world without having to take the HMD off. In terms of new demos, SCE London Studio had yet another piece to show off in London Heist, an in-depth experience in which players used PlayStation Move to fire and aim a gun and Project Morpheus’ positional tracking to duck behind cover. The Playroom was also iterated on with The Toybox, in which the cutesy robots of the original could be seen living out their lives. Also debuted was Magic Controller and  a new version of The Deep.

Probably the most significant news from the GDC event, however, was a release window. SCE confirmed that Project Morpheus would be hitting in the first half of 2016, pitting it behind the holiday 2015 release of the HTC Vive and around the same time as the Q1 2016 launch of the Oculus Rift. There wasn’t any mention of potential pricing or launch titles. With that, the company ended its presentation with the promise of more to come at E3 in June.

The next major update on Project Morpheus will likely come during SCE’s E3 press conference at 18:00 PDT on 15th June 2015. Expectations are high for a blowout with more information on a release and the first full videogames. It’s just a few weeks away now until we know that much more about PlayStation’s big VR bet.

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