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The more I play games in Virtual Reality, the more I want to play games in Virtual Reality – and the more I wish the breadth of games and experiences available was just a little bigger. PlayStation VR is still a few months out here in South Africa, but it’s the first commercially available non-mobile headset coming to local store shelves.

If you want good VR at home, it’s your only really viable solution. Thankfully, it’s also very probably the best one. I played with the HTC Vive for a few weeks, and while it is no doubt impressive and technically superior, the PlayStation VR has quickly become my favourite VR platform. While the Vive still feels like it’s a prototype, the PlayStation VR feels like a genuine, marketable product.

What’s in the Box?

As with all of the tethered VR headsets the PSVR comes with a nest of cables. Here’s a handy list of everything that’s stuffed in to the surprisingly diminutive box:

  • PlayStation VR headset
  • Processor unit
  • Stereo earbuds
  • HDMI cable
  • USB cable
  • AC adaptor and power cord
  • PS VR headset connection adaptor

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Set up is surprisingly quick and easy. The breakout processor box has four ports on the rear of it, needing you to plug in an HDMI in from your PlayStation 4 console, an HDMI out to your TV or Home Theatre, a USB cable and power, supplied by a dual voltage power supply. That means you could import on from the US or bits of Asia without having to worry about the thing exploding.

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The USB cable from the rear of the PSVR needs to plug in to a USB port on the PS4. If you’re sporting one of the older models of the console, that means it needs to plug in to the front, stealing one of the system’s pair of USB ports. Thankfully, the PlayStation 4 Pro has a rear USB port, so those of you with excessive expendable income will have a much neater setup.

The front of the breakout box has two ports, in to which you’ll plug the headset itself. Every cable is tagged and numbered, so getting everything installed is a breeze, especially if you bother to look at the quick instruction guide. I didn’t, but it was a quick and painless anyway.

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One thing that isn’t included in the box is the very necessary PlayStation 4 camera, so add that to the cost of everything when you’re doing the affordability maths in your head. While optional, it’s also recommended that you pick up a pair of PlayStation wands for games that use them. With the camera plugged in, everything’s ready to go.

Along the cable for the headset, you’ll find a handy in-line remote that lets you power the headset, change volume and mute the microphone that’s nestled in the headset. It also houses a 3.5mm headset port that you’ll plug the adequate, included stereo headset in to. You could opt to just listen to audio coming from your TV, but you’ll definitely want to use the port on the headset. The processing box doesn’t do much in the way of visual processing or real heavy lifting, but it does do some very clever spatial 3D audio that genuinely ups the immersion.

Putting the headset on reveals what a quality product Sony’s put out here. Unlike the Vive, which had me fussing with Velcro straps, the PlayStation VR has a balanced and importantly comfortable plastic headband that’s technically heavier than the Vive’s headset, but doesn’t feel that way because of how the weight is evenly distributed.

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Adjusting the headset is a doddle, thanks to a little ratchet on the rear that tightens up with every turn, and a button on the underside of the headset that lets you adjust the scope of the headset, pulling it closer to, or away from your face with ease. Because of its design, it’s also accommodating to those wearing spectacles. The rubber along the inside is welcome too, as wiping down sweat between users is a much nicer and more sanitary affair than the one you’ll got on the Vive with its cloth inlay.

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The lenses inside the unit employ a different technology to the Vive – and in some ways they’re better. It uses a pair of RGB OLED screens instead of the pentile matrix, Fresnel screens in the Vive and Rift. What that means is that even though the PSVR’s single, split screen has a lower overall resolution than the other sets, everything is a little clearer overall. Each PSVR lens outputs an effective 960 x 1080, which is a little lower than the 1080 x 1200 on the Rift and Vive, but it looks nicer. There’s none of that “god ray” or light bloom. It’s a crisper, clearer and more comfortable image to spend hours staring at. While there’s still a perceptible screen door effect, it’s less intrusive than it is on the Vive in my opinion. There’s also a trade-off in the way of a slightly lower field of view – but it’s a minor one. The screen latency is also really low, and everything runs at either 90hz or 120hz – so it’s largely all smooth, even on a regular PS4.

But what’s it like to actually use?

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It’s less instantly impressive than the Vive – which has a lovely set up program involving robots and stuffed balloons. Here, there’s none of that, so most of the set-up is done through boring menus. In the VR menu, you can recalibrate the headset, change the interpupillary distance and set the brightness.

Once everything is on and working, you’re presented with the regular PlayStation 4 interface, just projected in front of you, like a virtual cinema screen hanging in the void. Run a VR game or one of those experiences, and everything shifts towards being 3D. And not like the sort of 3D you get from wearing those horrible glasses in the cinema, but a real, feels-like-you’re-there sort of 3D. It’s impressive, immersive and something I’m still unable to get over the magic of.

It’s a magic that’s sometimes broken thanks to the PSVR inherently relying on old technology. The PlayStation VR uses the camera in conjunction with lights and gyro sensors to track your position. Because of that, it has a few odd tracking issues that can present themselves when there’s too much light or too many reflective surfaces in your play area. As a consequence of its inherent technological limitation, the PlayStation wands aren’t nearly as sensitive or accurate as the amazing controllers the Vive ships with. You’ll often find them jittering in game, which can be a jarring. The best solution I’ve found is to make sure that you play in as dark a room as possible.

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And because it doesn’t use a pair of IR cameras like the Vive, PlayStation V is unable to offer room-scale VR. The headset does have a pair of lights that the back of it, so it’ll track you if you turn around, but the camera will then lose sight of the wands or the DualShock 4 controller. That means you’ll hardly have any games that have you walking around in your play space, with most of everything you’ll play being a seated or standing experience.

And thankfully, those experiences are largely great. Just this weekend I got my first online kill in Eve: Valkyrie. A seated experience, it’s a full game set within the EVE universe that has you dogfighting in space. Think Wing Commander or X-Wing – but in VR, feeling like you’re really there. Arkham: VR is probably the closest you’ll get to actually being the caped crusader. Looking down and grabbing batarangs from your utility belt is immensely empowering. There are sections of that game where you’re staring at yourself in the mirror, but the person looking back at you, mirroring your actions is Batman. We’ll review all of the VR games we’ve played soon enough, but already there’s enough available to shame most launch libraries.

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Of course, one of the biggest draws for VR is how terrifying horror games can be – and they also help highlight one of my favourite things about VR: how incredibly immersive it can be. As you may likely know, Capcom has a Resident Evil 7 teaser for VR called Kitchen. It’s just a few minutes long, but it’s genuinely frightening. Naturally, because I am a complete and utter bastard I made my wife play it, without giving her any warning of what was happening.

Watching her screaming, trying to kick away the foul creature in front of her that wasn’t actually there not only made me laugh for a full five minutes – it made me acutely aware of how immersive VR can be. Especially for people who aren’t “core” gamers who try to look for the systems in everything. It happened again when she played a simple cage diving experience. The “game” doesn’t let you interact with anything, but there my wife was, trying to grab glowing jellyfish out of the air with her hands. It happened with my kids, and it happened with everyone else who’s been trying VR in my living room.

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One of the problems with VR is motion sickness, and the inherent discord between brain and body when your brain says you’re moving, but your body says you’re not. That can leave you wanting to empty your stomach. Thankfully, it doesn’t take too long to become acclimatised or get your “VR legs” as they’re called. Some games though, still make me want to reach for a bucket, especially ones with fast or “floaty” motion. Or worse, both. I’m looking at you, Driveclub VR.

The PlayStation VR differentiated itself a little from its competition through something Sony’s calling the “social screen.” The processing box is able to tale the output meant for the headset and pipe it to your TV, letting others see what you see. You can even broadcast that gameplay, sharing it as you would normal PS4 gameplay. Given the processing power required to run VR at smooth framerates, that’s impressive. There are even games that show different imagery to the stuff on the headset, allowing for potential for asynchronous multiplayer.

Another feature of the PSVR is its cinematic mode. You’re able to use the PSVR as a giant virtual screen, but do you really want to? No. You’ll definitely notice the lower resolution and aliasing when trying to watch something like Netflix or playing games. It’s better than nothing though, so I’ve used it when the TV’s been occupied.

Is it worth getting though?

As much as PlayStation VR is the cheapest option when it comes to living room VR, that doesn’t mean it’s cheap. In addition to the console itself, the PSVR will cost R6499 when it launches here for its base version. That means you’ll still need to buy the camera and some games, because the package doesn’t come with any. You’ll get a demo disc with 8 slices of games on them as a bit of a VR primer. I really do wish the whole thing came bundled with PlayStation VR Worlds, a collection of 5 games that serve as excellent tech demos for the sort of experiences you’ll find. How much value you’ll get out of that is up to you, and up to game and app publishers.

Last Updated: January 31, 2017

PlayStation VR
Summary
PlayStation VR is excellent hardware that’s exceptionally engineered and built – and if you absolutely need to jump in to the world of Virtual Reality this isn’t just the most affordable solution – it’s also the best, most rounded one.
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Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

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