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  (Source: Universal Pictures)
VR has come a ways since Nintendo's infamous 1995 ruby red flop, but has it come far enough?

"As you no doubt have guessed, I am Morpheus."
 
I. Sony Takes the Blue Pill
 
Lawrence Fishburne greeted a somewhat bewildered Neo (Keanu Reeves) with those words in the The Wachowski Brothers' blockbuster, The Matrix.
 
And those were the words that came to mind as one of the world's largest gaming companies, Japan's Sony Corp. (TYO:6758), announced its own vision of virtual reality at GDC 2014 -- the 2014 (annual) Game Developers Conference.
 
The peripheral project is perhaps appropriately named Morpheus, a name that to some will bring to mind one of the most popular fictional depictions of virtual reality, and to others will draw looks of blank bafflement.
 
A wearable screen, Morpheus is Sony's answer to the much-ballyhooed Oculus Rift.

Oculus VR
A GDC 2014 attendee shows how your look wearing one of the new wave of VR wearables (Oculus Rift). [Image Source: GDC/Flickr]

What is Project Morpheus?  What will it promise gamers?  The answers are slowly emerging.

II. The Fourth Generation

For Sony, making a VR gaming handset was more iterative than revolutionary.  The company has been dabbling in the head-mounted display business for the last few years, and even teased at Project Morpheus's control scheme a few months back.

One of these hints was dropped at Sony's Jan. 7 keynote at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014) in Las Vegas, Nev.  At the press event Sony CEO President and CEO Kazuo Hirai chatted with Emmy-winning television producer Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad fame about Sony's head-mounted displays.



Mr. Kazuo prompted Mr. Gilligan, "So you, obviously, keep an eye out on developing technologies..."
 
Mr. Gilligan fires back, "Absolutely.  And I’m looking forward to this headset device."
 
Mr. Kazuo responds, "The head-mount display."
 
At the time the device -- billed as the ocular equivalent of a 750-inch wide TV screen -- appeared aimed at the television market.
 
Mike Fasulo, Sony Electronics President, had a day before given more in-depth details on the HMZ-T3W.



In his press conference speech he comments:

But what if you want your entertainment to be available wherever you go?  Don't worry we've got you covered.

For players who truly want to get into the game our head-mounted display 3D-viewer provides the most immersive movie and gaming experience possible, and our latest version, recently announced, is fully portable.  

The new design lets you have a theater-like movie or gaming experience just about anywhere with a virtual 750-inch screen.  Perfect for small spaces where a large screen TV just isn't feasible, the head-mounted display is a theater on your head.

And now our new prototype head-tracker technology senses your head movement.  So when you're watching your wide-angle ActionCam footage you can take in different parts of the scene with just a turn of your head, just as if you were there
.

The comment hints at the reality that Sony didn't just dig into virtual reality this year.  Its ambitions began in 2012 with the release of the HMZ-T1, a head-mounted display that retailed for around $800 USD.  
 
Only sold in small quantities in Japan and Europe, that model was described by CNET UK reviewer as "fun" with "surprising amounts of depth" and "some of the best 3D effects I've ever seen".  Of course the same reviewer also commented that the wearable OLED TV became "quite uncomfortable with extended use" -- not exactly a shock, given the fact that you're strapping a bulky display onto your face.
HMZ-T1
The Sony HMZ-T1

Last year's follow-up, the HMZ-T2, managed to fix that (literal) headache.  T3 reviewer praises that the device is "surprisingly comfortable to wear".  Unfortunately that unit had its fair share of problems as well. First and foremost, an incredible £999 price tag, and questionable construction that -- according to the T3 reviewer -- was "less than stable adding to the overall feeling that perhaps you're still using a prototype."

Sony HMZ T2
The Sony HMZ-T2

A third generation model -- the HMZ-T3 -- arrived last fall in Japan.  It added support for surround sound 7.1 audio and cut the weight down even further.  Build quality was improved.  The model was priced at a more reasonable ¥79,800 (~$780 USD) in Japan, but the unit was wired.

Sony HMZ-T3
The Sony HMZ-T3 [Image Source: Amazon/Sony]

The wireless variant of that third generation display -- the HMZ-T3W -- was the one Sony teased us with at CES 2014.  Finally released in the U.S., the fourth-generation display was priced at $999 USD.  The device earned generally positive reviews on Amazon.com, Inc.'s (AMZN) storefront with one reviewer calling it "almost perfect", but another suggesting it was "a mere shadow of what the future will bring."
 
III. From Left 4 Dead Goggles to Oculus Rift
 
Up against Sony's displays is the Oculus Rift.  
 
Oculus VR was born out of the work of Palmer Luckey, an aficionado of head-mounted displays (HMDs).  Trained in design at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (USC-ICT), Mr. Palmer had been working on gaming-geared HMD ideas, which he posted to online forums.  Fortuitously, John Carmack, founder of id Software, discovered his work.
 
Mr. Palmer now had one of the most iconic game designers (and most skilled developers) of all time in his corner.  Mr. Carmack took the young developer under his wing and helped him manufacture a prototype.
 
At the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) Mr. Palmer's startup, Oculus VR, showed the Oculus Rift.  Literally held together by duct tape, the prototype nonetheless drew some attention, largely given Mr. Carmack's involvement.

John Carmack and Oculus Rift
John Carmack shows off an early version of Oculus Rift, held together by duct tape.
[Image Source: Eurogamer]

The key to Mr. Palmer and Mr. Carmack's prototype was an intuitive advance over past HMDs -- inertial controls to allow the tilt of your head to control your virtual view.  After E3 Mr. Palmer's new company Oculus VR, would focus its attention on funding, with dramatic delivery.
Oculus VR

Buzz around the startup and its eye-catching wearable really started to pick up after a Kickstarter crowdsourcing effort in Aug. 2012, which followed a June 2012 demo at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).  Over 8,000 gamers and developers ponied up $275-300 USD to get their hands on a development kit/prototype of the device.  The Kickstarter snagged $2.4M USD.  Even with the E3 demo many wondered feared the device would slip into the realm of vaporware.
 
But Oculus VR had put in the hard work to turn its vision of virtual reality into reality.  And it had powerful allies.
 
IV. DevKit Cometh
 
In early 2012, even as it was preparing its first generation DevKit, Oculus VR's cofounders went to work wooing legends of the gaming industry to give its fledgling product a long-term assist.
 
Valve Corp. had been working on gaming goggles of its own in early 2012.  The legendary game development house -- maker of the best-selling Half LifeCounterStrikePortalTeam Fortress, and Left 4 Dead franchises -- spared no expense on the project.  It reportedly paid millions to develop a lab for circuit design Jeri Ellsworth and former id Software veteran Michael Abrash to frolic in.

Valve Left 4 Dead Goggles
Valve's 2012 gaming goggles [Image Source: The New York Times]

But Valve had ultimately decided not to move forward (yet) with commercial development.  While the company typically let its small legion of carefully picked employees come and go at their own accord, in Feb. 2013 it raised eyebrows officially firing Jeri Ellsworth.  Michael Abrash was spared, but refocused on the Steam Box.

Eventually some of Valve's technology would find its way to Oculus VR, but first the company had to launch its first limited release hardware.



Oculus Rift gen. 1
Oculus Rift, as seen at E3 2012

 
In late 2012 Oculus VR opened the floodgates to developers who missed out on the Kickstarter via a limited $300 USD per unit sale.  It quickly sold out.
 
In early Oculus VR finally got tooling for its prototypes finished at a factory and mass production in the thousands of units began.  The first-generation DevKit started shipping in March 2013.
 
The finished unit packed a 7-inch 1280×800 pixel screen, with optics that provided 640x800 pixels per eye.  The device's controls were driven by 3-axis gyros, accelerometers, and magnetometers feeding data to the input processor at 1000 Hertz.

Oculus VR DevKit
The finished Oculus Rift first-generation DevKit

Weight ballooned several grams from the 2012 prototype, reaching 378 grams (0.8 lb).  Clearly there were some issues to iron out.  Oculus VR would soon announce that it did not anticipate on launching the project commercially until late 2014 or early 2015.

IV. DevKit 2 Drops

But Oculus VR, as always had a knack for making moves that kept hype levels high.  In Aug. 2013 it officially hired John Carmack as its Chief Technology Officer.
While Mr. Carmack had, of course, been deeply involved on the project since its earliest days, many were unaware of his backing of Oculus VR.  And the fact that he was willing to call Oculus VR his chief priority lent substantially credibility to the vision of his new employer.
 
At CES 2014, Mr. Carmack and the rest of the Oculus VR crew showed off a prototype dubbed "Crystal Cove".  With Crystal Cove, we return to Valve's VR project, which gave Oculus VR a crucial boost.  Oculus VR product VP and AutoDesk, Inc. (ADSK) veteran Nate Mitchell recalls in a recent interview with Polygon:

We were investigating low persistence, in a different sense, on LCDS, and Valve had succeeded in getting low persistence going in OLED.  As soon as you saw it, you were like oh god, this changes everything. They were a big help in the regard

Not to be outdone by Sony, Oculus VR took that prototype into pre-production form announcing yesterday its "DevKit2" model.  
Oculus DevKit 2
Just like that a landmark on the VR timeline had become a watershed moment.



There's plenty to like about the DevKit 2 -- particularly the 1920x1080 low-persistence OLED panel and optics that pipe 900x1080 pixels per eye.  And there's a new near infrared sensor to offer additional tracking.  The overall look is also quite attractive.
 
But again, we spot some cautionary signs.  The price of the DevKit 2 has risen to $350 USD -- roughly a 16.7 percent increase.  Weight has further ballooned to 440 g (0.97 lb) -- roughly a 15.7 percent increase.  Mr. Mitchell muses:

We slipped a little bit in the opposite direction.  We’ll get there.

Oculus Rift DevKit 2

Oculus clearly has the backing (Carmack, Valve) to be viewed as the most serious threat to Sony's newly announced Morpheus.  And it enjoys a substantial lead over Morpheus in developer deployment.  But the key area where Sony is ahead is content.

Oculus Rift DevKit 2
 
Mr. Palmer acknowledges that Oculus Rift will bomb unless he can find a way to effectively make content available to buyers.  He teases:

It will ship with [the consumer version of the hardware.] It must ship with consumer. It will actually ship before consumer, because developers need time to learn it.  The current solution is manageable for developers, but it would be nightmarish for consumers.

It’s really big.  I can’t talk about it too much yet. It’s a big project to build something like that. It can’t just be a web page or a store, it needs to be integrated for VR, and you have to figure out how to do that well. We have a lot of people working on it. It’s too early to say anything, I don’t want to pull a Molyneux here.

Oculus VR must bring its A-game because there are more challengers on the horizon than just Sony.  After being scorned by Valve, Jeri Ellsworth took her experience and launched a rival VR startup, called Technical Illusions.  Technical Illusion's strategy is a little different -- offering a leaner VR vision known as "augmented reality" (AR).

CastAR

CastAR

The product can be viewed as a gaming-geared counterpart to Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Glass Explorer.  The CastAR is designed for use with board games and other real-life gaming objects that could benefit from a dose of augmented reality.  With $1M USD in hand from a successful Kickstarter, it would not be surprising to see Ms. Ellsworth shift back into traditional gaming eventually.

CastAR

CastAR

And there's also SixSense -- a company currently looking to augment VR helmets with handle controllers.  Again, it wouldn't be surprising to see them make a HMD of their own.
 
With this explosion of VR, it's easy or gamers to think that we're entering a golden age of virtual reality.  And maybe we are.  But at the same time the revival of VR in 2014 is creating, for those that have followed the gaming industry for some time, an unsettling sense of deja vu.  It feels almost as if we have entered into a loop in the space-time continuum.  The end point lies two decades back.
 
V. A Ruby Red Dream
 
"[It will] totally immerse players into their own private universe."
 
That's not Sony speaking.  That quote takes us two decades back in time.
 
It's late in the fall of 1994.  Somewhere the Wachowski Brothers are pitching the basic storyline to The Matrix, a pitch that wins them funding.  
 
Across the ocean a Japanese gaming giant -- Nintendo Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7974) -- has devised what it thinks is a fundamental paradigm shift in how the public interacts with video games.  The harbinger of that shift is a lumpy ruby red headset, full of firsts.

 Virtual Boy

It's the first Nintendo console to pack a 32-bit processor.  It's the first to offer a goggle style built-in display -- possibly wearable.  It's the first Nintendo console to directly pump audio directly into the player's ear.

Virutal Boy 3D
[Image Source: Nintendo via Giant Bomb]

This will change everything.
 
VI. From Virtual Reality, Back to Reality
 
Fast forward only one and a half years and somewhere on the Japanese lowlands crickets are chirping.  The dream is dead.  Faced with abysmal sales, Nintendo has pulled the plug on its consumer virtual reality device.  Finger pointing ensues.  Cost is blamed.  A weak library is blamed.  The display's garish red and noisy projection technology is blamed. 

Virtual Boy
[Image Source: College Humor]

And most of all, one of Nintendo's brightest minds is blamed.  Gunpei Yokoi had made shareholders a fortune, creating the Nintendo Gameboy, a device that held a seemingly unbeatable console sales record for a decade and a half.  The Gameboy made and defined Mr. Yokoi's career at Nintendo.  The Virtual Boy had destroyed it.  Soon the visionary is driven from his beloved country.  A year later, in 1997 he would die in a tragic accident, struck by car when inspect damage from a highway fender bender.
 
Suffice it to say there's cause for skepticism when it comes to virtual reality consoles.
 
Yet today it seems we've jumped in the time machine, with Valve dreaming up wearable VR headsets, and venture capitalists showering $91M USD in cold cash upon Oculus Rift.  And Nintendo's long-standing rival has found itself falling hard for the allure of the technology that once drew Nintendo and Gunpei Yokoi in like a moth to the fire.

VII. Virtual Boy and Morpheus -- A Story of Bloodlines

The ties between Morpheus and the Virtual Boy run deep.

Sony came into the video game industry almost by accident, having vowed to create its own console following Nintendo's decision to snub its compact disc drive -- the CDi.

Nintendo CD
A magazine shows the upcoming SNES CD edition (referred to as the "Mega CD" or "Super CD") [Image Source: Abandonware.org]

SNES CD
A prototype of the Sony-Nintendo console is seen here. [Image Source: Blogdot.tv]

Nintendo dumped Sony for Koninklijke Philips N.V. (AMS:PHIA), a union which gave birthday to the CDi, a console so despised that it ranks fourth in some lists of the worst selling consoles of all time -- just ahead of the Virtual Boy.
 
Sony meanwhile went on to produce the PlayStation, which ranks just after Gunpei Yokoi's Gameboy in all time sales.  It would follow that with the PlayStation 2 (PS2), which still holds the record for most units sold (>155 million).

PS2 Slim

The PS3 was announced in 2005 and released at the end of 2006.  Despite falling ahead badly to Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Xbox 360, the PS3 would eventually heat up and sell 80 million units worldwide (as of Nov. 2013), making it the eighth best selling console of all time, just a few million units behind the sixth place Xbox 360.

Despite winning the publicity war in the wind up to last fall's launch of the PS3's successor, the PlayStation 4, Sony has its work cut out for it.  Microsoft's Xbox One console already may have an edge in its current library thanks to exclusive titles like the AAA mech warfare game Titanfall.  It also has its own bleeding edge control scheme -- the voice-and-motion-controlled, 1080p Kinect 2.

Kinect 2

While Sony has moved 6 million PlayStation 4s (PS4s), that success has been offset by disappointment on the controls front.  Unlike Microsoft Sony opted not to bundle its own second-generation camera controller -- the PlayStation Eye -- with its console, part of why the PS4 is $100 USD less than the Xbox One.
 
On paper the PS4 Eye is superior in some regards to the Kinect 2.  Both controllers come with four stereo microphones.  The Kinect 2 trumps the Eye in resolution, with a single 720p camera, but the PS4 Eye has dual 720p cameras that allow it a wider view (85 degrees versus 70 degrees for the Kinect 2) plus (potentially) better accuracy.

PS4 Eye
The new PlayStation 4 Eye camera

But Sony has struggled to prod developers to support the controller and has stumbled even more in its inability to keep up with demand.  Senior Sony staff engineer Chris Norden admitted at the 2014 GDC this week that the peripheral was "severely supply constrained".  He also revealed that only 900,000 units had shipped, indicating an attach rate of 15 percent or less.  He tried to reassure developers, commenting, "Please be patient."

VIII. New Direction

Instead of focusing on its struggling camera controller, though, Sony tapped Sony Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida and senior software engineer Anton Mikhailov to create an entirely new controller.

Sony Morpheus
Shuhei Yoshida, creator of the PS2, pulls the wraps off his new creation -- the Morpheus VR HMD.
[Image Source: Road To VR]

The resulting device is similar to Oculus Rift, packing a 1920x1080 pixel display, with 960 x 1080 pixels per eye.  Its sensor layout is also very similar to the Oculus Rift DevKits, based on accelerometers, gyroscopes, and magnetometers.
 
About the only place Morpheus trails Oculus Rift in spec is in its use of LCD technology, versus the more problematic OLED, which may offer Oculus Rift an advantage in color, brightness, and power usage.  By the sound of it, Oculus VR has Valve to thank for that advantage.  Sony's deep audio experience gives the built-in 3D stereo audio a likely edge over Oculus VR's device, though.  Sony also is leveraging its integration with the PlayStation Move controller, as a VR controller (similar to SixSense's technology).

Morpheus

Sony's advantage, again, is its experience as a marketing and distribution juggernaut.

IX. All Eyes on Me

At the 2014 GDC both PlayStation team superstars -- Mr. Yoshida and Mr. Mikhailov -- were glowing with pride at Project Morpheus, their vision of the rebirth of VR.  Channeling Nintendo's bold proclamation from 1994 two decades later in 2014 Sony has proclaimed:

“Project Morpheus” (Morpheus) [is] a virtual reality (VR) system that takes the PlayStation®4 (PS4™) system to the next level of immersion and demonstrates the future of gaming.

Mr. Shuhei cheered the new device, stating:

At SCE we view innovation as an opportunity to build on our mission to push the boundaries of play.  Project Morpheus is the latest example of innovation from SCE, and we’re looking forward to its continued development and the games that will be created as development kits get into the hands of content creators.

Mr. Mikhailov went a step further, saying he views the device as "a medium, not a peripheral".

PS4 Morpheus
Don't call Morpheus a peripheral, says Sony.

Like the creator of the ill-fated Virtual Boy, these are men who seemingly have the credentials to back up such bravado.  Mr. Shuhei was a veteran of the original PlayStation project and would go on to lead the team that designed the best-selling console in history -- the PlayStation 2.
 
And Mr. Mikhailov is a young and fast-rising star from SCEA's user interface group.  He helped design the PlayStation 3's Move peripheral and that impressive, yet struggling Eye camera.
 
Now the superstar duo is backing Sony's bold virtual reality vision, Morpheus.  What could possibly go wrong?
 
X. Are You (Folks) Ready for the New (Stuff)
 
Gamers will soon face a tough decision: after two decades, is virtual reality FINALLY ready?
 
The answer is not easy.  While the devices have dramatically improved in wearability, comfort, and eyestrain over the Virtual Boy, you're still strapping a gangly set of goggles onto your face.
 
Aside from the humorous geekiness of such a look, it also can be a mild danger, should you be tempted to blindly move about.  Some have suggested that a front camera might allow users to "see" their surroundings, preventing unfortunate accidents.  So far neither Sony nor Oculus VR have announced such a feature, though.
 
The biggest issue with VR is simply price.  It would not be surprising to see Oculus Rift launch at north of $500 USD.  Sony has not announced a price for Morpheus, but based on the price of its past wired HMDs, a sticker of $500-800 USD is likely.

Oculus Rift wow
Wow, such money. [Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech LLC; NintendoLife (Virtual Boy guy)]

At $100 USD or so for the incremental cost of the bundled Kinect 2 sensor, the novelty may be enough to convince buyers to accept paying a bit extra.  But at $500 USD extra, the novelty of the gaming HMD starts to wear thin.  It's come a long way, but when you're paying as much as a whole console for a peripheral, the market will likely be small.
 
The console will surely sell.  People forget that the Virtual Boy did ship 1.26 million units -- more consoles than there are PlayStation 4 Eye sensors in the wild now.  But as those numbers indicate sales does not necessarily equate to success.
 
It should be interesting to watch the public's reaction when these products are finally made available this holiday season (or perhaps next holiday season).  It's reasonable to expect that reaction will be strongly correlated to how low Sony and Oculus VR can make the price.
 
Some would argue it's unfair to compare Oculus Rift and Sony's Morpheus to the Virtual Boy.  It's true both consoles may yet offer up superior libraries to the paltry offerings of Nintendo's ruby-red VR device.  But remember that at this point there are no exclusive AAA Oculus Rift or Morpheus titles -- current software consists of either demos or modified versions of preexisting titles like Doom 3.  And also remember that for all its flaws, Virtual Boy was a precocious offspring birthed from the thoughts of some of Nintendo's bright minds of all time.  Despite that brainpower, the console still flopped.
 
If the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day taught us anything, doing subtle variations on the same failing theme over and over again may finally breed success.  Or maybe that's just Hollywood trying to justify its own behavior.

Marty McFly VR
Are we going back to the future? [Image Source: Universal Pictures]

Whatever the case, while the thought of actually being immersed in the experience of charging into Tamriel or UAC bases on Mars sounds promising and we readily admit that mouse aiming is rather annoying for those of us who aren't FPS masters.
 
But at the same time, price and rough edges leave a bit of a queasy feeling in our stomachs, sort of like the feeling of sickness you encounter after spending too long peering into a Virtual Boy or with an Oculus Rift DevKit strapped to your head.
 
Many of us have already lived through one Virtual Boy.  If history is repeating itself, never fear, sometime around 2034 we should start hearing about that perfect virtual reality device.

Sources: Sony [press release], Oculus VR [press release], Polygon



Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

Wireless?
By Dr. Kenneth Noisewater on 3/21/2014 11:47:02 AM , Rating: 2
Will the goggles be wireless? Between wireless HDMI and OLED, the Oculus ones could be, with a micro-USB port for charging or operating (with a long-ass extension cord)..




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