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With Project Morpheus, the PlayStation 4's Worst Feature Finally Makes Sense

For most PlayStation 4 owners, the mandatory controller light bar is mostly useless. VR might make it useful.

Eric Johnson

The PlayStation 4 was generally well received by critics at launch, but one feature has generated a fair bit of befuddlement: Why Sony placed a mandatory always-on “light bar” on the back of the controller, which some say lowered its battery life.

In her review of the PS4 last year, my colleague Bonnie Cha found that the controller ran out of juice after 10 to 12 hours, rather than the 15 Sony estimated. Other anecdotal reports online, and my own unscientific observations as a PS4 owner, have pegged the battery life at even less than that.

Ostensibly, the light bar is for use with the PlayStation Camera, an optional $60 PS4 accessory that works sort of like the Xbox One’s Kinect motion camera. The camera looks for those always-on light bars to play games that tap into the movement of the controller, like the Pong-type game in this video. Bonnie found the camera’s functionality lacking back in November, and so couldn’t call it a “must-have accessory.”

But once Sony’s new virtual reality initiative, Project Morpheus, makes it out of the lab and into consumers’ hands, the PlayStation Camera and the light bars might finally make sense as integral parts of the console. PlayStation research & development senior director Richard Marks hinted as much during the unveiling of Morpheus yesterday at GDC, saying the PlayStation Camera “is almost like it was designed for VR.”

From a technological perspective, this makes sense — early Morpheus prototypes used the camera and the PlayStation’s Wii-like PS Move controller to detect where a player’s head was, as shown in these pictures of Shuhei Yoshida, worldwide studios president, trying them out. The PS4 controllers’ light bars are the modern successors to those light balls on top of the PS Move; using previously developed camera technology may keep the TBD price of Morpheus down.

More compelling, though, are the gameplay implications. One of the biggest hurdles in virtual reality immersion is preserving the illusion that players are in the game when they inevitably look down at their own bodies. When I first talked to Oculus VR co-founders Palmer Luckey and Nate Mitchell last year, they indicated that motion-based gaming on devices like the Kinect or Leap Motion could make it possible to eschew a traditional console-like controller altogether.

“We always joke, you want to look down in the game and go, ‘Yes, I’m Batman!'” Mitchell said at the time.

So, the default position for a controller, held slack above one’s lap, could change. A virtual reality game about, say, dogfighting in space would be much more intense if players had to physically turn the controller to make sharp turns while looking over their shoulders for enemies on their tail.

Whether preserving the gamepad is too much of an “abstraction,” as Luckey called it, is debatable. For someone who already plays PS4 games and knows how the controller works, turning it into an extension of the body may be immersive enough. GDC attendees will begin to find out if that’s the case this week, when Sony will be demoing Morpheus at its conference booth.

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