Sony PlayStation VR review: Broken promise

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New Atlas reviews Sony PlayStation VR, a promising and affordable VR setup brought down by godawful motion-control-tracking(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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On paper, Sony's PlayStation VR is the virtual reality system to buy. Its specs don't soar to the stratospheres of the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, but neither does its price. And with well over 40 million PS4s already in the wild, that's a population the size of Spain that already owns half the setup. It sounds like the virtual reality product we've been waiting for – if only Sony had delivered a stable experience that captures the magic that made us care about VR in the first place.

When I spent four hours with PlayStation VR at GDC this March, I walked away extremely disappointed with the system's PS Move motion controllers. After using the Rift's Oculus Touch and the Vive's controls, Sony's dildo-shaped Move remotes were not only ergonomically challenged; their tracking was inexcusably inaccurate.

The seven months since gave me time to re-open my mind and give Sony some benefit of the doubt. The hardware may be the same, but perhaps some software tweaks could have improved the tracking accuracy. I even considered the possibility that having so many PSVR setups in the same demo room had somehow thrown things out of whack. I wanted to believe this would have a happy ending, as PSVR had the potential to not only save people money, but to help usher in mass-consumer virtual reality. Surely a company as reputable as Sony wouldn't deliver the dud I experienced at GDC.

I was wrong.

Bringing PSVR home, I've experienced the exact same major tracking problems. Look down at your virtual hands in any game that uses the Move remotes and you'll see them shaking, pulsating, and drifting forwards and backwards as if you're hopped up on amphetamines. I peek out from under the headset: The camera is set up perfectly and my real hands, along with the remotes, are perfectly still. I don't need to get tested for Parkinson's, the tracking is just that bad.

The first counter-argument I expect to hear: "You've used the expensive Vive and Rift. The many people who haven't won't notice or care about PSVR's problems." Well, the high quality of Vive and Rift tracking is contributing to my thought process. And maybe VR virgins will get so caught up in the novelty that they'll forgive the flaws. But trust me, that will eventually wear off.

I'm also not only comparing PSVR's poor controller-tracking to these other VR setups. First and foremost, I'm comparing it to reality.

In real life, if you look at your hands or pick something up to swing around, you have a clear idea what the physics of that should look and feel like. By the time we're little kids, our brains know exactly what to expect from physical movement: One false note sticks out like a sore thumb.

For VR to be effective, it needs to respect the mind's ability to separate natural from unnatural. And "natural" certainly doesn't involve my hands chopping, juddering and pulsating, jumping straight from one point to another, and sometimes flying two feet in front of me and back again. The entire world probably shouldn't give the occasional shimmy either.

Don't get me wrong: The PS Move games are functional. Developers only require broad strokes in their games, so you can move your hand in the vaguely general direction to successfully pick something up, or aim the gun close enough to hit its target.

But what's the point of using virtual reality in the first place? I'd say it's the magic of feeling like you're someplace else. Even in today's VR, which is more like being inside a video game than anything a sane person would confuse with reality, that illusion requires the appearance of a consistently stable virtual world. The slightest technical glitch breaks this illusion: like an actor who breaks character to laugh at his own punchline or a magician with a dove's beak poking out the breast of his tuxedo.

For these deceptions to have any meaningful impact, the man behind the curtain – in VR's case, the technology – needs to be 100 percent concealed. With PS Move, it isn't concealed at all.

Ultimately Sony chose cutting cost corners – recycling cheap old hardware left over from the Nintendo Wii era – over respecting that core illusion. For anyone who's remotely discerning about this ground-level foundation of VR's magic, PSVR's fatal flaw takes an otherwise promising system and turns it into something we can't, under any circumstances, recommend buying today.

That's too bad, because in just about every other way, PlayStation VR would have hit the perfect consumer-friendly middle ground. The visuals aren't nearly Vive/Rift level, but are still impressive. Its field of view is noticeably smaller than the PC headsets' as well, but it's perfectly acceptable for this price range. And though the headset itself is strange- and clunky-looking, it's comfortable to wear and adjustable enough to accommodate all different head sizes. There's also plenty of room for glasses underneath.

The most positive thing is that there are some good games at launch – as you'd expect from any PlayStation product. Or at least they would be good on another system.

Rez Infinite (above) is a late '70s acid trip of a game, blending rhythm, music and kaleidoscopic visuals into one of the most meditative experiences in VR. And since it uses Sony's gamepad instead of Move, it's left unscathed by the terrible tracking.

The hilarious Job Simulator is a favorite ported over from the Vive and Rift, unfortunately brought down by Sony's piss-poor tracking.

Batman: Arkham VR lets geeks live out one of their wildest wet dreams, stepping inside the Dark Knight's cape and cowl. If only his hands didn't spend the whole time tremoring like he'd just smoked some Bat-Crack.

What this adds up to is a product that hits many of the right notes, but seems to have lacked cohesive oversight from someone willing to prioritize rock-solid customer experience over merely ticking boxes on paper. It's as if Sony decided that its inherent advantages (console-based, cheaper) would cancel out any and all customer discernment.

Ultimately PlayStation VR with PS Move is a joyless experience. When virtual reality is at its best, I'm a little kid in a candy store. But when I use these godawful motion controls, I turn into a grumpy old geezer wondering how much longer I need to spend inside this case study in tech obfuscating nature and human instinct.

If there's any hope, it's that Sony finally admits how poor this tracking is, acts swiftly and releases a completely revamped motion control and camera system. If that day ever comes, PSVR could finally claim the affordable/consumer-friendly VR throne many of us once thought it inevitably would.

You could technically buy it just to play gamepad-only games right now, and it would do a good job with that. I don't recommend that though: At some point you're naturally going to want to get up off the couch and put your hands and full body into it. That road leads to disappointment.

Do yourself a favor and don't buy this slap-in-the-face to the "magic" of virtual reality. If you're hungry for VR and can afford it, the far superior HTC Vive and Oculus Rift offer today's purest experiences by a wide margin. Failing that, wait a year or two and you'll likely see something much better in this price range.

The oh-so-promising but embarrassingly broken Sony PlayStation VR is available now. In addition to the required PS4, it costs $399 for the headset alone and $499 for a bundle that also includes the two PS Move controllers and PlayStation 4 Camera that, uh, "tracks" them.

Product page: Sony

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