Sony's VR headset isn't the best, but it's damn close and nothing else matters.
PlayStation VR demo spaces opened up across the US right after E3, and like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift demo spaces before it I went to try out games I've not yet played in my own PSVR demos and get a feel for what gamers thought. It couldn't be more clear after the first hour that Sony is building something special, the kind of thing that will have parents scrambling this Christmas season to put a PSVR under the Christmas tree.
There's a lot to like here, and gamers are going to get excited fast.
PlayStation VR may be the most glasses friendly of the existing headsets.
Sony's entry into VR may be considered "late" by early adopters, but PlayStation VR gets a lot of important things right on the first try. The headset is by far the most comfortable to wear among the current crop of VR headsets. Instead of straps connecting the headset to your face and constantly applying pressure, PlayStation VR uses a single stretch band to hug your skull diagonally, from just above your forehead to the back of your head. That diagonal grip is just enough to allow the display to rest in front of your eyes such that the rubbery gasket on the outside of the eye sockets is really only there to block out light. You don't even have to have this part touch your face if you don't want it to, which is impressive. This also means PlayStation VR is glasses friendly, in fact it may be the most glasses friendly of the existing headsets.
The downside to this design is how insecurely mounted to your head it is. While watching several people play the same PSVR demo, it was easy to spot the one thing everyone had in common. After a couple mintues of gameplay, the headset began to slide down onto everyone's nose. This wasn't particularly active gameplay either, mostly sitting down plating Eve: Valkyrie or looking all around in a submerged shark cage in Sony's PlayStation Worlds demo. Standing up and moving around, dodging things with your whole body and quickly ducking to crouch behind cover are big parts of room-scale VR experiences, and nothing about the PlayStation VR suggests it would be easy to keep the headset comfortably seated above your nose during that kind of gameplay. It's possible this is the kind of thing you fix by tweaking the headset until it fits your head just right, but it's a serious concern for active and multiplayer VR experiences.
Despite being a pair of 960 x 1080 views in a world of 2160 x 1600 displays, you have to really work to see the "screen door" effect commonly seen in VR headsets today. This effect is especially prominent on HTC Vive and Oculus Rift headsets when reading text or looking at a flat white screen, but on the PlayStation VR neither generate the same effect. This is due in large part to the kind of display Sony used, which offers a full RGB subpixel for every pixel on the display. It's a small difference on something like a smartphone or PC display, but when staring at these displays through lenses that warp the image to fill your field of view, it makes a big difference. Speaking of lenses, Sony's decision to not use Fresnel lenses, which are used in HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, has not had a negative effect on the image quality. Images are sharp at every angle, and text is perfectly readable everywhere.
PlayStation VR does a good job removing the feeling that you have that cord from The Matrix connected to the back of your head.
Having spent hours in the Eve: Valkyrie cockpit on an Oculus Rift, I decided to give the PlayStation VR version of the game a try to see if there were any noticeable differences. While this was only a demo and not likely indicative of launch performance, loading the demo took the PlayStation 4 nearly four minutes. Once the game loaded, there were some noticeable quality differences. Textures were replaced with flat colors in many places, and the whole cockpit was less detailed. It's no surprise that my NVIDIA GTX 980ti-powered Oculus Rift generated a more complete experience, but this was the first opportunity I've had to compare the same game through both systems and the differences were clear. Those differences matter a whole lot less when you're flying through space shooting other pilots, especially when head tracking and motion in the demo were just as flawless as on the Rift.
Sony wasn't prepared to offer any room-scale demonstrations with the PlayStation VR inside of a crowded Best Buy, but it's clear the headset is capable. With a pair of PlayStation Move controllers, or the PSVR Aim rifle controller, turning around and dodging with your body are clearly experiences that are headed to PlayStation VR. Sony is being smart about the cables used to offer this experience as well. The PSVR itself has a thin cord coming from the left side of the headset with a simple controller and a 3.5mm jack for headphones. That cable connects to a small plastic block with a pair of USB cables, which connects to a much thicker cable leading to the PSVR box connected to your PS4. This setup does a good job removing the feeling that you have that cord from The Matrix connected to the back of your head, but doesn't look like it will hold up terribly well should you do something like step on the cord and twist your torso to see what is behind you.
The most impressive part of Sony's PSVR demo has been the people trying out VR for the first time. These are gamers who have seen Oculus and Valve deliver something great but inaccessible to them, as they only game on consoles. That accessibility is going to play a huge role in the success of PlayStation VR, especially with so many people around the world already owning PlayStation 4 consoles. While early adopters have been enjoying their PC-powered VR headsets, arguing among themselves over which headset offers the better experience, Sony has been hard at work making that conversation irrelevant to these future VR owners. That's a huge deal, and with a continued demo presence in stores all over the US for the rest of the summer the hype for PlayStation VR is going to grow at a steady rate. By the time October 13th rolls around, Sony is going to be ready to compete in a very real way.