SAN FRANCISCO — Reloading a gun in home video games is bullshit.
Shooting is also nonsense in a sense. Moving your mouse or tilting your joystick and pressing a button doesn’t quite simulate the feel of pointing and firing a gun, but at least it has some direction and physicality (especially if you’re doing a shoulder trigger on a handheld). controller). Reloading, on the other hand, is total bullshit as an analog to the real-world action it simulates. All you have to do is tap a button and then watch a canned animation of your avatar making a complex sequence of moves to precisely fill an ammo clip with an unseen supply of bullets just sitting in an unseen backpack or something.
I didn’t really realize how unsatisfying and artificial this process really was until I played with the latest prototype of Sony’s Morpheus virtual reality headset today at GDC. There, in a demo called London robberyI dodged and dodged behind a solid wooden desk as attackers fired at me from all directions and leaped out to aim carefully placed shots by moving and tilting the PlayStation Move controller in my hands.
When the gun ran out of bullets, I realized I had no idea how to reload – the attendant at the demo had only told me that I could fire by pulling the trigger on the controller. There were extra ammo clips on the virtual desk in front of me, but I couldn’t just magically pick them up by running over to them and/or tapping a button like in most games.
What I could do instead was reach out my left hand, pick up a clip with a squeeze of the trigger, and then slam that clip into the bottom of my empty gun with a satisfying click. I did this in game, but I also did it in the real world, moving my hands and bumping my palms together in a natural and intuitive way in a motion that I imagine mimics a real fast reload situation quite closely .
This, more than anything, is what gets me excited about gaming with the Morpheus. The PlayStation Move is so suited to virtual reality that it’s a little hard to believe it was a consumer product for the PlayStation 3 years before Oculus brought the concept of home VR back to life (although Sony may have even thought of Morpheus ). earlier). The combination of camera tracking and gyroscopic angle tracking quickly and accurately maps the position of your hands in real space, making it easy to interact with the virtual world in the same way you interact with the real world.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve been impressed with the way the PlayStation Move has been integrated into the Morpheus experience. Back at E3 2014 I tried an updated version of a GDC demo where I picked up a sword and attacked a training dummy with real swings. On a whim, I decided to unleash my inner juggler and try to throw the sword up and to the side to see if I could catch it with my other hand.
It took a minute or two to get the timing right, but sure enough, the simulation and the controllers made these impromptu experiments possible. More than putting on a headset or seeing compelling virtual reality visuals, the moment I caught that sword in my hand was the moment I knew that virtual reality could lead to truly new and interesting experiences in gaming. Reloading that clip today was another.
Still well designed hardware
As for Morpheus, PlayStation Move integration is already old news. Today, Sony really showed off a new headset prototype with much improved specs over the model at last year’s show.
I can’t say I noticed much difference between the new OLED screen and the LCD screen of the previous prototypes. The image persistence and refresh rate seemed perfectly adequate 12 months ago and seemed perfectly adequate today too, with no noticeable blurring or smearing. If I were to see both prototypes side-by-side, I might see a clearer change from the roughly 40ms latency of the past to today’s 18ms latency, or the jump from a 75Hz refresh rate to 120Hz. However, separated by months, it was difficult to really appreciate these improvements.
I was a little surprised that Sony’s headset hasn’t gone beyond the 1080p resolution we saw in last year’s Morpheus prototype, especially when devices like the Gear VR are already pushing more pixels into users’ faces in homes in the whole country. At the current resolution, there’s still a subtle but noticeable ‘screen door effect’ that can distract from the experience, especially when trying to focus on close-up virtual objects.
This is still a prototype about a year after release, but I’m a little worried about Sony sticking with the 1080p resolution that’s already proven comfortable for the PlayStation 4 hardware on TV screens. It’s possible that the system just can’t go over that resolution and still maintain the high frame rate needed to convince VR (at least, not without sacrificing the visual fidelity of in-game models).
I’m still impressed with the Morpheus prototype’s industrial design, which puts most of the device’s weight on a headband rather than elastic goggles that clip onto the front of your face. The new prototype has a few buttons that make it fairly easy to quickly adjust the fit and focus, and to slide the screen so that it floats a comfortable distance from your face. I think the unit felt lighter and less cumbersome than last year’s prototype, but I couldn’t swear this change wasn’t just in my head.
The most annoying part of the design is still the wire hanging from the left side of the device. That wire goes to a small junction box that integrates the multiple wires coming out of the PS4 and provides a nearby plug for headphones. I found myself constantly bumping into those wires and the dangling box they were attached to as I twisted and turned through the demos. The need to get all of this out of the way while using Morpheus may be unavoidable for now, but it’s still annoying.
An exciting firefight
Even at 1080p, the demos Sony showed today were still quite visually impressive in their own right. The revamp of “The Deep” and a new demo of “The Toy Room” used directional lighting to great effect, convincingly projecting three-dimensional rays and shadows in real time. Strong art direction in both demos made it easier to largely forget about the relatively low resolution.
London robbery however, was definitely the standout demo experience. A short introduction showed that being threatened with torture by blowtorch is much more convincing if you can’t just look off screen to prevent the flame from dancing in your face. Holding a virtual cell phone to my ear and hearing the audio come out accurately based on the distance from my face also proved the value directional audio can add to the VR experience.
It wasn’t long before I was flipping through virtual desk drawers using the Move controllers, looking for a key to open a compartment that hid a gem and ducking behind a desk to avoid guards. When the experience finally degenerated into a gunfight, it felt incredibly natural to kneel down on the ground and emerge from the hail of fire. Point and shoot was like something out of an arcade light gun game, only with a playing field that surrounded me instead of being confined to a small flat screen.
Simply pointing my virtual gun at a target and pulling the trigger was much faster and more intuitive than any mouse or joystick setup I’ve ever used for the same purpose, and is more satisfying to boot. Reaching around the desk to fire blindly or quickly tilting up to take out an attacker on the balcony all felt simple and fresh in this new environment.
The only problem, of course, is that I was stuck in a relatively small play area for the entire shootout. Even when my virtual co-conspirator yelled “Get out of there” in my ear, I knew I couldn’t really run for the exit without taking the entire Morpheus and PS4 device out into the real world. Moving this kind of VR experience from a virtual shooting gallery to a fully explorable first-person shooter world will continue to be a challenge.
It’s the kind of challenge I look forward to seeing more developers play with it. With the operating system, minimum hardware specs, and a launch window in early 2016, it’s time to see what third-party developers can do with Sony’s robust-looking virtual reality effort. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.