Hands-on review: GDC 2014: Project Morpheus

Hands-on review: GDC 2014: Project Morpheus

In mythology Morpheus is the god of dreams and in science-fiction he’s the god of sweet leather trench coats, but at GDC 2014 Morpheus is Sony’s virtual reality headset.

Designed exclusively for the PlayStation 4 but still very much in beta mode, it could completely change console gaming, and give real merit to your loved ones’ claims that you’re ignoring them in favor of virtual worlds.

First, lets rattle of some specs: Project Morpheus is a 1080p head mounted display with a 90-degree field of vision. It straps around your head and the displays, technically one for each eye, hover a few inches in front of your face. Sony has revealed no price point nor has it given a release date, other than stating that it won’t be this year.

Sony Project Morpheus review

Contrast that to the Oculus Rift. Its current version is for sale at $350, but technically for developers only. It’s also 1080p, with a slightly larger 110-degree field of vision. It straps snuggly to your face, using cushioning like you’d find on a ski mask to stay comfy.

My Morpheus fitting took some doing, I was glad to have an expert from Sony there to fit me. Once it was locked and loaded to my skull, the VR adventure began.

VR Troopers

Sony’s first demo was The Deep, a rather ominous trip down under the sea in a shark proof diving cage. Supposedly shark proof, anyway – it wasn’t long before Murphy’s Law kicked in and Jaws emerged to chew through the chicken wire and into my face.

The demo felt less like a game and more like one of those theme park rides with a vibrating seat and accompanying 3D movie. It did reveal a killer strategy that Sony intends to deploy whenever it releases Morpheus into the waking world of consumers: using existing hardware like its DualShock 4.

Sony Project Morpheus review

I had a DualShock 4 in my hand, placed there lovingly by a Sony representative. Through the eyes of Morpheus it became a flare gun, which I could fire to scatter schools of harmless fish – Jaws, however, wasn’t so impressed.

Since DualShock 4 is motion enabled, I could move it to aim the gun in my character’s hand. The 1-to-1 sync of controller and virtual gun fell off after a bit, producing a nasty bent wrist effect, but being able to aim just by pointing was very satisfying, and simple enough for when you can’t actually see the controller.

I really liked that the demo had zero HUD, no life bars or ammo count floating at the top of my vision. Instead there was a recharge meter on the back of pistol, which I had to look at see when I could fire another useless dart of light. It’s an extremely simple idea that creates an immersive effect.

Slap, chop

Sony’s next demo was set in a castle’s courtyard. I was given a PlayStation Move – you know, that somewhat forgotten Wii Remote with the glowing rubber ball. These became my in-game hands and I could squeeze their triggers grip weapons and a targeting dummy.

The first part of the demo was devoted to beating up on a hapless targeting dummy, clad in armor, lucky for him. I could give him a few smacks with my hand, and also grab his arms and rip his limbs off. And you thought Game of Thrones was brutal.

Sony Project Morpheus review

Like the previous flare gun, keeping my e-hands in sync with my IRL hands didn’t always work. It was also difficulty to reach out and grab the dummy or the swords at my sides. The limits of my reach felt arbitrary, but I’ll chalk that up to the beta, maybe even alpha, nature of this technology.

What really pleased me was the way the PS4 could differentiate the speeds of my swings. I could stick my sword in the dummy’s armpit and lift it to make him raise his arm. If I swung up quickly, it would sever it. A light rap on the dummy’s head produced a clang, complimented by the haptic feedback of the Move; a fast swing took his head clean off.

We have Rift off

So is this an Oculus Rift competitor? Not really, and here’s why. The Rift’s fate on consoles is uncertain, and while Sony having its own headset will likely keep it from joining the PS4 party, more platforms mean more developers which means more games for consumers to play, and a better chance for both headsets to make it in prime time. The Oculus folks seem to agree that it’s more of a colleague than a competitor.

Early verdict

Project Morpheus is novel, incredibly immersive, and like the Rift, basically something out of a sci-fi fan’s dream. Sony also has an incredible leg up, given the PS4’s large and growing install base, and all its motion-friendly peripherals.

It also has its share of graphical issues: some jaggedly rendered objects, despite its full HD resolution, and a frame rate that occasionally stuttered as I looked around.

As far as consumers go, it’s in the same boat as the Oculus Rift: it needs a couple killer games and reasonable price point to get gamers sitting on their couches, gazing slack jawed into the digital abyss.