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Sony Announces Its Virtual Reality Headset, Project Morpheus

"Virtual reality, or VR, is the next innovation from PlayStation that may well shape the future of games."

Eric Johnson

Sony will release Project Morpheus, a virtual reality system for PlayStation 4, the company announced today in an event at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

“Virtual reality, or VR, is the next innovation from PlayStation that may well shape the future of games,” Sony Computer Entertainment worldwide studios president Shuhei Yoshida said.

The Morpheus headset, which will be available to try at Sony’s GDC booth this week, is “by no means final,” he noted. Sony declined to announce final specs or a release date, but the current developer kit has a 1080p display and a “90+ degree field of view,” which R&D senior software engineer Anton Mikhailov described as being at a “sweet spot” and ready to start showing to developers.

Sony has been experimenting with VR technology since at least fall 2010. Its early experiments achieving virtual immersion through a hacked PS Move controller showed potential but were not yet ready for primetime, he said.

VR is so immersive, Yoshida said, that “you forget that you are actually playing a game,” creating a “sense of presence that can only be realized by VR.” The name “Project Morpheus” was decided last week, he added. It was chosen because Morpheus was the god of dreams in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The session, “Driving the Future of Innovation at Sony Computer Entertainment,” was a late addition to the conference schedule with appearances by Yoshida, Mikhailov and research & development senior director Richard Marks. GDC attendees began lining up outside the conference session’s room more than an hour before its planned start time.

“Welcome to this cryptic event in San Francisco. You have no idea what we’re talking about,” Yoshida said in his opening remarks, prompting an audience laugh; word that Sony would make a VR-related announcement leaked out last week.

Marks said the time is right for virtual reality.

“Presence is disruptive,” Marks said. “It’s going to become the preferred medium for all sorts of applications. It’ll go beyond games … even non-entertainment applications.”

Things as mundane as picking out a hotel room could one day be powered by VR, Marks added. He broke down the “awesome vision” into six areas that constitute a compelling sense of presence: Sight, sound, tracking, control, ease of use and content.

Perhaps most important is tracking — the ability to move one’s head in VR and have the virtual world react in a realistic way. He hinted that the PlayStation Camera, an optional accessory to the PlayStation 4, “is almost like it was designed for VR.”

Sony is one of many companies that had been rumored to be entering virtual reality for some time, and just today the Wall Street Journal reported fresh murmurs that its chief console gaming rival Microsoft is also exploring the space. However, unless Sony can get the Morpheus to market first, its biggest competition might be Irvine, Calif.-based Oculus VR, which reignited interest in virtual reality gaming via a 2012 Kickstarter campaign.

Yoshida called out Oculus and Valve (another active VR experimenter) in his presentation, saying he had “an enormous amount of respect for them.”

Oculus has yet to announce a consumer release date for its headset, the Oculus Rift, but released a “kit” to developers last year to encourage experimentation with and software using its technology. In an interview prior to Sony’s event, Oculus VR co-founder Palmer Luckey said he doesn’t see Sony or Microsoft getting into virtual reality as a negative — so long as the VR games they release are high enough quality.

“The more companies in virtual reality, the better, as long as they do it right,” Luckey said. “It improves the perception of VR,” he added, with more fun games in the market, but a poorly made game could scare skeptical gamers off of all attempts at the technology — including the Rift.

Marks said the need for high-quality content is great, and shared the following slide to show who Sony is already working with on the software and platform side. Some of the big names include Unity, Epic Games, Autodesk and Crytek.

In explaining the technical side of what works and what doesn’t in virtual reality content, Mikhailov said immersion can be a double-edged sword: It puts the gamer more deeply into the game, but also introduces new emotions like intense fear or claustrophobia not found in traditional games.

“You have a lot of new emotions to work with, so please be very careful,” Mikhailov said. “But some of these can be fun to watch.”

One of the games Sony will be showing off in its demos this week is EVE: Valkyrie — a surprising choice, because EVE creator CCP designed the game specifically with the Oculus Rift in mind. Last month, Oculus VR announced that it would co-publish Valkyrie as an Oculus Rift launch title.

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