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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

PlayStation VR2: A First Look at the Next-Gen Headset

Sony introduced its first virtual reality PlayStation headset way back in 2016. It was the Before Times, a simpler, pandemic-less age of 1080p graphics and only a hint of real-world apocalypse on the horizon. It’s probably safe to say that these days people are more eager to escape into virtual worlds.

To that end, Sony will soon be releasing a wholly new VR headset for the PlayStation 5. It’s faster, prettier, and more capable than the previous one. Last week, the company offered some journalists (myself included) a hands-on look at PlayStation VR2. The demo took place at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s headquarters in San Mateo, California.

I can’t tell you exactly when PSVR2 will go on sale, what it will cost, how much battery life it gets, or even how much it weighs. Sony is still keeping all of those things under wraps. But the company has said the system will be out sometime in 2023. PlayStation’s first VR headset launched for $399 and now sells for $99, so infer from those numbers what you will about the new one’s price. The first PSVR headset weighs just over 1.3 pounds; I’d say the new PSVR2 feels right around there as well, but of course that’s just a guess.

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There are some immediately obvious upgrades on this new headset. First, there’s no external interface or processor box needed to connect the headset to the console. Just plug the goggles into a USB-C port on the PS5 and it’s ready to go. Inside the headset are dual OLED screens; each eyeball gets a 2,000- by 2,040-pixel display.

The bad news? The PSVR2 works only with the PlayStation 5 (and hey, good luck finding one of those). It will not work with games made for the original PSVR. There’s one color option: white with black accents. Unlike Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 headset, there’s no wireless option. You’re going to whack the cord with one of your flailing hands, I guarantee it. But unlike the Meta headset, the PSVR2 does not require a Facebook account to use.

Apply Directly to the Forehead

With the press of a button on the headset, you can activate a see-through mode that gives you a grainy black-and-white view of the real world around you. This feels like an absolute necessity for people who’d rather not accidentally punch holes in their television. Customizing the play area is simple. After spinning around for a quick auto-scan of the room, you can use the controller to map out the specific area in which to do your flailing. When you get to the edge of your predefined flail zone while playing a game, a vertical grid will pop up to show you where the boundary is in virtual space. Go too far outside that boundary line and the view automatically switches to see-through mode so you can safely reposition yourself.

PSVR2 headsets use a technique called foveated rendering, which tracks the wearer’s eye movements to render the most visual detail right in the area of the display where the eyes are focused. The effect is sort of like the depth of field evident in photos or video, where the main subject is in focus and the rest of the background is softly blurred. The key benefit is efficiency; by simplifying the rendering of the graphics you’re not looking at, it frees up computing resources that can then be used to render the graphics you are looking at in higher fidelity. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, the technique left me feeling like a lot of the virtual worlds around me were out of focus and somewhat removed.

One of the big reasons virtual reality hasn’t caught on as quickly as its proponents hoped is that many people simply don’t want to strap a big bulky rig to their face. Every new headset is lighter than the last, but the bulk is still an issue. The PSVR 2 headset is light enough (again, Sony wouldn’t cite a specific weight) and even comes with comfort-minded features like padding and adjustable straps. But after wearing the headset on and off for about four hours, I really started to feel the physical strain. I could feel the divot in my skin where the headset had been pressing into my nose. (Yes, you can adjust the straps and view box; I fiddled with that several times, to no avail.) I was also slightly dizzy after emerging from each of the virtual realms I explored.

There was some technical jankiness during the demos too. Sometimes if I gestured with a controller too hard, or even just turned my head a little quickly, the game would black out or auto pause. Those could be just demo bugs that will be worked out later.

Take Control

The new VR2 Sense controllers are a big step up from PlayStation’s Move controllers that Sony paired with the first-generation headset. The new controllers have handles with wide white circles that hover around your wrists. The PlayStation VR2 Sense controllers incorporate many of the same features from the DualSense controller Sony developed for the PS5. (It kind of seems like the company should have saved the DualSense name for the controller that is literally two parts, but oh well.) These controllers have the same matte finish around the grip that you can feel on the existing DualSense units. During my demo, one of the Sony reps gleefully pointed out that the roughness was actually made up of tiny PlayStation button shapes—circles, triangles, X’s, and squares. (Look very, very closely at the matte finish on the bottom of a DualSense controller. It’s bonkers.)

The button layout on the VR2 Sense controllers didn’t feel as intuitive as the standard PS5 controller, at least not right away. The buttons are split, with the circle and X button on the right controller and the square and triangle on the left. There’s a single trigger on each controller, and another pressable pad on the handle. There’s no D-pad. The controllers are wireless, but Sony wouldn’t share details about how long the battery will last.

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Finger tracking sensors can match your finger movements in game when you grab for something or pull a trigger. It doesn’t track perfectly with all fingers, mostly just your thumb and pointer, but it’s enough to add an extra layer of immersion to the experience. The controllers can sense a wide range of hand and arm motions too, of course, from wielding melee weapons to throwing objects to climbing ladders.

Swinging a nail-encrusted baseball bat through a zombie’s skull looks crunchy and impactful in a game, but there’s a disconnect when your real life hands don’t encounter any resistance or feel any reverberations. The Sense controllers try to offset this by incorporating haptic feedback—little rumbling vibrations against your skin—and adaptive triggers that add springy resistance to make it feel like your finger is pulling a real trigger. (I can’t confirm how accurate that is, since I haven’t fired many sawed off shotguns lately.)

Play Test

At the preview event, Sony showed off demos of four different games that will be available for the new headset. Sony reps wrangled us media types into individual rooms and let a few game devs—but mostly PR people—rotate from room to room. Reps from Capcom showed off the upcoming VR version of Resident Evil: Village. (Yes, Lady Dimitrescu feels even taller in VR.) The upcoming second chapter in Skydance Interactive’s zombie splattering series The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is chock-full of crates to search and weapons to violently dismember zombies with.

The best one was Horizon: Call of the Mountain, the VR spinoff of the series where you’re tasked with fighting a bunch of robot dinosaurs in a very pretty postapocalyptic landscape. (I must admit that I liked the previous two Horizon games a lot, so maybe I can’t be objective here. At the beginning of the event, I told a Sony rep, “All I want to do today is see robo-dino go big smash.”)

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They also showed off the previously unannounced Star Wars: Tales From the Galaxy’s Edge. Unfortunately, the demo let me play just four minutes into the game before it reset, and half of that time was spent in a cantina listening to a burly alien chef yap at me while I tossed around Ronto Wraps. (They’re hot dog tacos.)

The demos exposed another of virtual reality’s growing pains. Many VR games, and especially these demos, defaulted to “hey look at all the stuff you can touch.” Developers still see it as a gaming novelty to be able to pick stuff up with your actual hands. And sure, such interactions ramp up the immersive factor and show off what the tech is capable of. But it also leaves many of the games feeling too samey, and you have to stretch a little to find potential beyond the gimmicks.

Sony’s promise for PSVR2 is that the device will enable you to “escape into worlds that feel truly real.” It’s your typical hyperbolic marketing statement, but it actually rang true at one moment in the Horizon demo. Early on, the player character gets knocked out of a boat by a giant robot dinosaur. Stuck bobbing in the water, I had to swim to a ladder by some docks and haul myself onto dry land. The whole experience gelled for a moment, and the potential of the hardware seemed viable. I wasn’t fighting a big robot dinosaur, beheading a zombie, or hucking a space taco across the room. I was grabbing the rungs of a ladder, hand over hand, and climbing. It was a simple, quiet moment, the beauty of the virtual world almost disorientingly immediate. For the only time that day, the headset digging into my nose melted off and gave way to the lush, vibrant scenery around me. I gawked at the bright green, photorealistic moss inches from my face. I heard the sounds of the jungle. Watched the water run down my face and arms.

Then I stood up on the dock and had to walk forward, which in Horizon is accomplished by flinging one’s arms up and down. At that point, I went back to being just another idiot in a headset.

Update, September 16, 2022: This story was updated to note that PSVR1 games are not compatible with the PSVR2 headset. 

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