Having knackered ourselves out enjoying the new and improved Project Morpheus virtual-reality prototype demos at the Game Developers Conference, we grabbed 15 minutes with Sony's two VR pied pipers: Worldwide Studios boss-cum-fan-pleasing indie-game mascot Shuhei Yoshida (pictured above) and senior director of R&D Richard Marks, away from the faceless throng to discuss VR's past, present and exciting future.
You can't move for virtual reality headsets at the moment, be it here, or ever-new ones from Oculus and now Valve and HTC. Is critical mass a good tipping point for VR as a whole or a threat to Sony?
Shuhei Yoshida: It’s absolutely a good thing. The more people try it, and find out how awesome it is, the better. So we are helping each other with Oculus and Samsung, really, trying to get more people to try something that they never thought was possible.
You mention Samsung – what do you make of its Gear VR for mobile phones?
SY: I think it has its own place. It has some limitations, like the power, because of the mobile and the battery, and also not having positional tracking, so it can become very dangerous when people try to reach in. But some kind of experiences it's great for, like panoramic videos and photos. You know, fixed camera, when you don’t have to try to move. It’s a pretty good experience and some of the games are well designed for that device.
The great thing about it is, like a console, it just works. It has its own store, and because there’s only one model supported for now [Galaxy Note 4], developers can make sure the game works before they release to the market. It’s not like the fragmented Android game scene. It's a bit expensive, though – I spent over £1,000 on one as I don’t want a contract. But then I saw that announcement of the Gear VR headset working with the Galaxy S6. So that's the new reality, but reality bites.
What are the main issues of old that the new prototype aims to fix?
SY: Latency, so the biggest thing is definitely the new panel tech. It's really key to making you feel you are not only in the virtual reality but also not making you feel bad. When there's latency you get a headache, but when you've achieved the right tech, you know you can be in it for a long time. We knew we didn't have that in last year's model, so we designed the demos carefully with a nice casual feel. Now, we can go at a faster pace.
We've also focused on ease of use and not having to have your face pushed up, goggle-style, with plastics, or using your head to support the weight of the system. While last year's model already felt better than some other headsets, it was complicated to set up, you needed someone's help. Our engineers observed how people used it over the last year and came up with a one-button solution.
You talked about "reprojection" in your presentation as a method by which the new headset improves the fluidity of what you're seeing. How does exactly does that work?
Richard Marks (pictured below): Well, there are two ways it's used: one is getting the motion data at the last possible moment to lower latency; and the other is if you have a 60 frames per second game and you want to display it on a 120 frames per second panel. Reprojection fills in the frame gap in-between in real time using new motion data.
SY: On a 60-frame game, you want the frame in between but you don’t have the time to render a new frame. But you can slightly move it – when you move your head this way, you move the image slightly that way…
RM: It's taking real data – the rendering started before, but it’s just not ready to show that next frame yet, so it needs to display another 120Hz frame. It has the motion data, takes the old frame and projects it forward. It's not exactly a pure horizontal shift, it's more than that, but that's the idea.
Are there any ideas that you've conceptualised over the last year that you've particularly fond of in the office but that you're not sure will work with the masses?
RM: Well, there are things like that that some of the developers love…
SY: One thing that blew everyone away, especially the industry in Japan, turning everyone into believers on one demo, was Summer Lesson. Its basically like the Heist demo at the beginning, where you have the presence of another character who knows what you’re doing – those interactions where you feel a bit uncomfortable. Well, think if that was a very pretty girl – that's an amazing feeling. Lots of people, boys and girls, like to become a private teacher for the school girl. She’s very cheerful and talks to you and asks you questions.
Why haven't you shown that outside of Japan?
Well, lots of people couldn’t move… They just go, “Wow.” The power of presence.
Speaking of different experiences, when you first launched Morpheus, you talked of virtual tourism, from walking on Mars to trying out hotel rooms before you stay there. With Facebook buying Oculus, these are clearly areas they will be exploring, too. While we know it's GDC, so games are the priority, is any of this nearing being able to try?
RM: Lots of companies are interested in how to use VR for either promotional aspects or sharing information about their company, previewing it in a home setting. But while we announced that a lot last year to show we understand the scope, this year its more of a focus on games because we do feel that's where our passion is and that's our lead.
Oculus has added built-in headphones to its headset, while Morpheus is still using separates. Is this locked in or still to be considered?
SY: We're not ready to talk about the final package but we believe that we better offer the option for gamers who have expensive headphones. If they want to use their £100 headphones, we will offer that option.
With the PS4 selling better than even you guys thought it would, is it difficult to pinpoint when to release Morpheus to best effect? You've said "first half of 2016", is this because you're still weighing up the situation? Want to give the console another Christmas on its own?
SY: What’s actually defining the timing is we have set technical goals for specification – under 20 millisecond latency, the screen, etc. Now we have these, we can draw a roadmap to the launch. We took a year since last GDC, but taking time is not too bad considering more people now own a PS4, so it's easier for us when we release the Morpheus that we have the target market already larger.
RM: Morpheus with the new spec is really well matched to the PS4's capabilities. It will have good experiences right off the bat, but like every console development, developers will find ways to make better use of it and they’ll really squeeze the most out to match that 120fps capability. Like most consoles, you'll see some amazing experiences near the end of its life.
While it certainly has some good experiences right now, I would say only The London Heist feels like it has the making of an actual game at present, rather than the quick thrill of a theme-park ride. Will you continue to insist on bespoke titles for VR, or do you have an eye on non-VR games that you could port to satisfy a need, in much the same way as you've done with indie games on the PS4?
SY: We’ve been saying to developers not to think about porting, even though they can use their asset, like an IP, to create an immersive experience of their own. Although we are finding some genres work pretty well without much change, like driving games, slower paced first-person adventure games – there are many of them nowadays and this experience works pretty well.
So thanks to lots of companies experimenting on PC using Oculus, we are learning a lot. I think developers are learning from each other. It's very straightforward to port from PC to PS4 and just like how we support indie developers on PS4, so we shall with VR.
RM: But for those big franchise games, maybe they don’t bring their game, but they do bring their world over, so people can experience the world in a new way.
The London Heist was my moment where I thought, "OK, VR can really work on actual games." Did you have a similar moment?
SY: For me it was the early days of Half-Life 2, on PC using a Move as a gun, and I saw myself. That was my moment.
RM: For me, last year's demo The Castle is a really good mechanic, but I wanted a game to match that – there’s no game there, it’s just a mechanic. The London Heist starts giving you that game feel to it, though. It’s great to see.
The iteration of Morpheus has been a very public process, which is very different to the behind-closed-doors development of a typical console. It's been fascinating to follow. How have the positives stacked up against the negatives?
SY: There are very few cons. The only thing is we’ve been kind of quiet about the tech’s advancement for a year, so some journalists started to say, “Oh Oculus is showing new stuff, Sony what are you doing?” So we started to hear a bit of that, y’know, but there's nothing negative about it. We are so happy that lots of articles are written about the VR experience, there have been film festivals on it, everywhere you see it now. We played our part to create this excitement, and collaborated with Oculus and other companies in terms of making these things excitable for lots more people.
One last question: we now know the release window, but still not the price. At last year's GDC, Sony group CEO Andrew House said you'd be trying to make it cheaper than the console, is this still the aim?
SY: This is a console product so we like to provide our hardware at as low price as we can do. That approach is always consistent.