In the world of high end consumer Virtual Reality, there are currently three major players, and each is seeking something very different from VR.
For Oculus, the goal is the culmination of a well-publicised journey from start-up to acquisition from the biggest social media company on Earth, and the hope for clearer waters after a rocky recent history.
For HTC, relative unknowns outside of China and the smartphone market, the goal is moving beyond struggling in the smartphone market, building awareness and being the technical leader of VR. Their partner in this, Valve, themselves have had aspirations for many years to create an open VR platform.
For Sony however, the Playstation VR is the culmination of over two decades of ambition, technical challenges and preparation before a measure of success was attained.
Sony, a combination of the words “Sonny” and “Solus” was formed in 1946 in Tokyo by Masaru Ibuka, although they would not change their name to Sony until 1958.
Much of their history has been spent in various electronics markets, and its high quality and low cost TR-63 transistor radio led to Sony being one of the main Japanese companies to break out and dominate western markets, eventually with the Walkman line dominating the portable music market for the better part of two decades.
Much of their history has little to do with what would ultimately become Playstation VR. In fact, to understand the history of this we need to understand the origins of only two products: The Sony Visortron and the much more famous Sony Playstation.
Sony have a history in miniaturisation and portable screens, having made the first transistor radio in Japan, as well as major innovations in cassette players (the Walkman), televisions (the Watchman) and the first portable CD player (the Discman). They also innovated with the 3.5’’ floppy disc format that became standard, as well as working with Phillips on the Red Book CD standard, which was t. These were all about portability and about miniaturisation.
It stood to reason then that Sony would attempt to join the miniaturisation race with something VR related, with the Visortron being designed as a set of video glasses that were the first step towards VR for the company. They didn’t really get very far.
It wasn’t entirely serviceable as a VR device; it was not designed with stereoscopy in mind (although with two screens that wasn’t out of the question) nor was there any head tracking. Instead, it was meant to be a miniaturised way to view a big screen television.
According to an issue of Popular Science circa 1993, the effect was like “watching a 33-inch TV from four feet away”. At the time it was one of the highest resolution tiny displays around, and was initially intended as a device to allow the simulation of a large display on the move.
For example, one of the Visortron’s main clients was Japan Airlines to allow for better in-flight entertainment for long haul flights, in a similar fashion to the short lived Sega Mega Jet. The price of high quality LCDs at the time basically would have stopped anyone else from being able to afford it however.
The other big piece of technology that ultimately became integral to Sony’s Virtual Reality ambitions, as well as a good deal of its survivability later on was the other half of Sony’s VR device, the Playstation brand.
Oddly enough, the story of the Playstation starts in 1988. This was right at the time CD-ROMs were poised to be the next technological leap in computers, allowing for high quality (for the time) audio, video and larger storage capacity for game code.
Whilst computer manufacturer NEC would be the first company to make a CD-ROM add on for a video game console, the adoption of CD-ROM as a standard format for computers and computer games was an agonisingly slow process.
It arguably took as long as 1993 before games such as first person adventure games Myst (which has a spiritual VR follow-up released recently in Obduction) and The 7th Guest convinced a large number of computer users to buy CD-ROM drives and for developers to get behind the platform.
Regardless, Nintendo and Sony, having already worked out a deal allowing Sony to create the sound chip for Nintendo’s the upcoming Super Nintendo console, would engage in an even more ambitious deal to create a CD-ROM add on for the Super Nintendo, as well as a combined unit produced by Sony which could play both SNES games and CD games.
After a lot of acrimony, backstabbing and Nintendo announcing a second CD system to be made by Sony’s biggest rival Phillips, the deal fell through. Nintendo went on to develop a successor to the SNES that also used cartridges, the deal fell through and Sony was left to remove Nintendo’s work from whatever they had done.
The resulting Sony Playstation in 1994 changed gaming forever, selling over 100 million units and having games made for it for 11 years. It also reshaped Sony itself, going from a consumer electronics firm with an interest in computer games to the market leader, a position that would become vital as several of their core consumer electronics businesses started to falter and also allowed Sony to spend a lot of money funding a virtual reality dream.
The first step on this dream was taking the Visortron HMD technology and going further with it, which in 1996 led to the release of the Sony PLM-50, better known as the Glasstron. Claiming to be a 52” screen in front of your face, it was the logical next step from the Visortron.
Unlike the Visortron however, there was actual scope for VR applications, albeit incredibly limited ones. The Virtual Reality market was as good as dead by this point, with Virtuality, VictorMaxx and Virtual I-O all closing their doors that year.
Sony did pull out all the stops, advertising it as having virtual reality functions, and adding an absolutely glorious if ridiculous design that made the entire series look like props from a Sci-Fi film, with reflective deep blues and all matter of sweeping ridiculous curves.
One thing that does need to be made clear is that depending on how rigidly you define virtual reality, these are not VR HMDs. They lack head tracking, some of the series lack stereoscopic 3D and the intention is not really about immersion, but more convenience. The Glasstron aimed to put a giant screen right up to your face and be the best seat in the cinema. It did that, although not without some eye strain.
As a VR system, it wasn’t especially innovative and lacked features that are considered standard issue for VR Goggles today, but it was compatible with PC robot simulation game Mechwarrior 2. Playing Mechwarrior 2 with the Glasstron installed allowed for a cockpit view that was fairly immersive at the time, although the Glasstron was one of a few PC HMDs at the time that were supported by Mechwarrior 2, and unlike the Forte VFX1 or the VictorMaxx CyberMaxx, had neither head tracking nor stereoscopic 3D. It was good but it wasn’t the complete package.
The Glasstron never really sold brilliantly, being a fairly expensive way to watch TV and play games with a screen in front of your eyes, and as such the brand only lasted five years, with about as many versions of the technology.
While not a major commercial success, it was a sign of things to come, and Sony wouldn’t take long before trying again.
The PUD-J5A is both a bizarre and beautiful VR creation, and probably the rarest oddity of all of Sony’s VR endeavours. Released in 2002 in online stores and exclusive to Japan, the PUD-J5A (no catchy titles this time) was a rather tentative, if fairly serious attempt to bring VR to the PS2.
Your 59,800 Yen (Around $530/£410) got you two 180,000 pixel displays, with a horizontal field of view of roughly 25 degrees, as well as head tracking support and stereoscopic technology. Much like the Glasstron the system could be used with pretty much any game as a set of video glasses, however as well as this there were six games that fully supported the device and its head tracking capabilities.
These included four flight simulators; two were the Energy Airforce series, as well as Air Force Delta: Blue Wing Knights and Sidewinder V. The other two games were a rollercoaster builder and simulator Simple 2000 Vol.33: The Jet Coaster, released in the west as Rollercoaster World (With no PUD-J5A support), and of all things, a railway simulator, The Keihin Kyuukou: Train Simulator Real.
Along with these, there were also a number of early 360 videos, which could also be seen in limited form by linking three PS2s together, using a 2D 360 video format known as FOURTHVIEW. This includes among other things, a concert disk featuring Japanese Pop artist Ayumi Hamasaki.
Given the impressive library of six whole games, two thirds of which were flight simulators, it’s safe to say the PUD-J5A was not a hit. Given the online-only distribution of the HMD in 2002, one gets the impression it was only ever intended to be a curiosity. Little is known about its development, so it seems to be a strange device played around with in R&D before the budget got so high they had to at least try and sell it.
On the plus side, it would work very well as a curiosity piece if Sony went on to release a VR headset that did end up catching on 14 years later, but how likely would that be?
The EyeToy, a Mixed Reality Revolution
After the PUD-J5A disappeared rather quickly, Sony were a lot quieter about their VR ambitions, although it still clearly showed in the products they tried to make.
The first was the Playstation Eyetoy and later Playstation Eye, two digital camera add ons for the Playstation 2 and 3 respectively. They were designed to allow for very primitive motion sensing and later augmented reality.
The Eyetoy, was essentially a webcam in terms of technology, and not even the first for a console. The Game Boy Camera, released in 1998 and the DreamEye in 2000 both predated it. The key difference however was Richard Marks, who came up with a rather innovative way around the problems of mixed reality. In the past, when there was a premium on what you could do with regards to mixed and virtual reality, which required expensive hardware to correct.
The Playstation 2 was really rather powerful for the time, and so what Marks proposed was the reverse; through software and a cheap webcam, motion controls and mixed reality could be done. And with that the iToy project was born in 2000. A presentation to Nathan Harrison, then CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe and a name change and the Eyetoy was ready to be developed for.
Marks was partnered with Ron Festejo of SCE Camden Studio (formerly Psygnosis’ Camden studio and would itself soon be merged into a number of other studios to form SCE London Studio) and set to work creating experiences that worked with the Eyetoy technology. This came to fruition in the form of EyeToy Play, which released with the system on July 4 2003 in Europe. America received the accessory in October and Japan in February of the next year.
The mixed reality gameplay was unique at the time but this was a very quick and dirty way of doing motion control and mixed reality. Unlike later attempts at camera-based motion control such as the Leap Motion and Microsoft’s Kinect, the only thing the Eyetoy recognised was pixel movement, so you could cheat at almost any game by covering the lens.
Played as intended however, the EyeToy’s library of games are full of simplistic party game fun, especially the EyeToy Play series and the very similar Sega SuperStars, so long as you are playing with people who don’t cheat and cause massive arguments. There was even an innovative AR take on the classic game Lemmings, where a player would use their body to help the eponymous green haired creatures cross various hazards by moving your arms around.
The system was an instant success, primarily because it was a cheap, novel way to play games. It barely cost more than a standard Playstation 2 game at the time, came packed in with a free party game that showed off the capabilities of the system and benefitted from the huge success of the console. In Europe the console sold over 2 million units before the year was out.
The Playstation Eye, a Mixed Result
Sony naturally tried to catch lightning in a bottle again with the launch of the Playstation 3. A far more powerful and capable webcam, with video editing software bundled in, the Playstation Eye was launched in October 2007. It was packed in with The Eye of Judgement, a collectable card game produced by Magic the Gathering developers Wizards of the Coast. The Eye of Judgement itself was an interesting game, which used the Eye to provide augmented reality features by reading the actual cards and placement on a provided play mat. It was a novel design and initially had some success although the drop off of the game was alarmingly quick.
Sony could not replicate the success of the Playstation 2 with the more expensive, more complicated and initially less capable Playstation 3, which reflected not only in smaller sales figures for the console but the Playstation Eye as well. By the time it was released, Nintendo had their own massively successful motion sensing console out, the Wii. The system was cheaper, the games more fun and appeared to be more sensitive than the Eye compatible fare, which relied on the EyeToy’s trick of pixel detection rather than infrared motion tracking.
Sony would not rest on its laurels however, and the reason for the somewhat anaemic run of the Playstation Eye was it would be superceded by a different type of motion control, whose own birth was linked very closely to the EyeToy, although it would take nearly ten years to arrive
Playstation Move and the Pieces Move into Place
The Playstation Move, a pair of motion sensitive wands suspiciously similar in look and effect as Nintendo’s Wii Remotes, were released in 2010. Given the sheer length of time in testing and development however, it would be wrong to immediately dismiss the controllers as a cash grab or a rip off, and indeed these controllers would become central to Sony’s Virtual Reality ambitions.
Initially, when early work was being done on the EyeToy in 1999, the development team led by Richard Marks had experimented with 3D tracking. This would be done via the astonishingly simple method of tracking a coloured lit orb’s size, as opposed to the infraread sensors used by the Wii and the Kinect. The system Sony had essentially worked like a light gun but in reverse. It was so simple to be borderline genius.
Ultimately though, a controller was dropped for the EyeToy, with the focus being on a hands-free experience, which given the limitations of the EyeToy was probably for the best. In 2008 however, with the Wii setting sales records and changing the industry with its use of inertial sensors and infrared sensing, Sony revisited the sphere idea, combining it with a higher quality camera in the Playstation Eye and inertia sensors. The final result went through a number of names and designs before finally being released as Playstation Move in the middle of September 2010.
It received a lot of praise from an audience weary of five years of awkward Wii motion sensing and was generally considered the best of the three motion sensing devices fighting for attention on consoles. The Wii Motion Plus was considered too sensitive and Microsoft’s motion tracking Kinect had a number of teething issues when it hit shelves in November 2010. This unfortunately was not backed by terribly good sales figures, with the Move ultimately selling 15 million units by 2012, considered by Sony UK to have not lived up to their expectations.
While the technology was sound there were a number of problems, with many critics agreeing that while the Move’s technology was excellent, there were no games that really took advantage of the motion tracking, and the system lacked a killer app the way Wii Sports was for Nintendo, or the novelty and potential that Kinect had promised but ultimately failed to live up to. There were some interesting games like magician simulator Sorcery or the enhanced port of satirical slash-em-up No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise, but otherwise the rest of the line-up was tacked on motion control to action games, dance party games and fitness trainers like the atrocious Get Fit With Mel B.
One other curiosity of this period was Sony’s Wonderbook, an augmented reality add-on, which worked with the Playstation Move and Playstation Eye to form in game functions, much like the in-development (at time of writing) Vivepaper. The biggest use of this was 2012’s Book of Spells, a Harry Potter licensed game that while very interesting and authentic to the source material, was also incredibly short. A sequel, Book of Potions, was released the following year. Both turned the Wonderbook into a spellbook, which recognised what page the book was on and like the Eye of Judgement caused various magical effects to appear, along with waving the Move like a wand. It was a fun augmented reality curiosity, although nothing more than that.
Sony themselves de-emphasised the Move and it looked to be a relic of a great motion control war, abandoned while Microsoft tried to further emphasis the Kinect. This was of course, until Sony’s VR ambitions returned.
At some point in 2011, a team led by R&D engineer Anton Mikhailov began work on a head mounted display known as Project Morpheus, named after Laurence Fishburne’s mentor character from cyberpunk film The Matrix. According to the president of Sony’s worldwide studios, Shuhei Yoshida, the project had existed as grassroots work among their engineers and programmers, coming into sharp relief with the release of Playstation Move, which apparently was designed with the future application of being a VR controller in mind despite at that point Sony having no head mounted display in development (at least not one that was suited to VR).
After three years of surprisingly quiet development, and no major announcements to counter the momentum of Oculus, Project Morpheus was announced on March 18, 2014, as a VR Headset designed to work with the Playstation 4. The reception was somewhat thunderous excitement. Yoshida pushed the device heavily as something that will shape the future of games and a cornerstone of the Playstation brand. Much of the set up would be the same as Playstation Move; a camera (this time the Playstation Camera for PS4) would track LEDS which changed colours to allow for as distinctive a colour relative to the room around that would track not only the Move controllers but also 9 LEDS on the headset itself, allowing again for a more simplistic in concept but still fairly accurate motion-sensitive experience, this time to compete with Oculus’ Constellation LED tracking and the Lighthouse sweeping sensors of the HTC Vive.
There are compromises, mostly involving range; as your body needs to constantly be within range of the Playstation Camera, the range of the play area is really rather narrow, which can be an issue when playing games designed to be played stood up or heaven forbid, in room scale. The LED spheres tend to be fairly good at being picked up by the PS Camera however the game needs to be played in a fairly dim room, as a certain level of light can stop the PS camera tracking the orbs quite as well. This is less of a problem for PSVR’s contemporaries, both of which use IR tracking. There is some difficulty in ensuring the PS Camera, usually set up to capture the player sitting down, actually tracks a person’s entire body movement, which usually requires quite a bit of space, the same issue as Microsoft’s Kinect.
The other, more serious compromise for power users is that a Playstation 4, even a Pro version of the console is simply not as capable at VR as the competing Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Sony did provide a number of workarounds to ensure its mandated 60FPS minimum was not broken for Playstation VR, which included an Asynchronous 120hz mode that essentially turned meant each of your eyes was seeing half the amount of frames, which did seem to help, and could run native 60, 75, 90 and 120hz settings, although to date only one game has managed to run natively at 120hz (Korix, a strange Darwinia style virtual reality RTS game).
Some games needed heavier compromises than others. Driveclub VR, for example, took a massive graphical downgrade when rendered in VR mode, taking a game that sacrificed frame rate in order to look gorgeous and making it a bit blocky and blurry by comparison in order to maintain a solid 60FPS frame rate. It’s nothing that can’t be gotten used to but it can take you out of the experience, particularly when you look down at a blurry dashboard. By contrast, other attempts like Gran Turismo Sport have been experimenting with different compromises, such as reducing the amount of other drivers or background scenery.
Right now Playstation VR is the only example of a console VR system, and the gambit seems to have paid off. Over a million headsets have been sold in less than a year, leaving its closest competitors the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift far behind. Currently one in sixty PS4 owners have theadd on, which is pretty good going for an accessory the same cost of the system.
What does this mean for VR? Well like the success of the Gear VR and the untold numbers of Cardboard headsets out there, the two big things holding back the floodgates for VR is cost and ease of use. Sony’s had two decades to get the latter right, and by virtue of only requiring the most popular console currently available Sony have managed to keep the total cost down for people who do want to dip their toes into VR.
The only problem with this approach is that virtual reality is progressing very quickly, and there is the worry that by linking the headset to games consoles that don’t have the power or upgradability of PCs that they could risk falling further and further behind, depending on when the next generation of VR headsets begins to roll out. Sony have said that the Playstation VR is a system that is not necessarily linked to the PS4, which means there is the possibility if it takes off that it could move on to other Sony consoles, or even rumours that it will be made computer with PCs.
That said, Sony have had faith in VR, in the virtual screen and in head mounted displays since Playstation was still only a twinkle in Ken Kutaragi’s eye, and their trials, tribulations and eventual success is a mirror to the history of VR itself.