Sony's VR headset is a worthy competitor for the Oculus Rift

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Yesterday, Sony suddenly became one of the most important players in virtual reality. At the 2014 Game Developers Conference, it unveiled Project Morpheus, a VR headset for the PlayStation 4. This isn't just a piece of hardware, it's Sony putting its weight behind virtual reality, supporting developers and working to build out an ecosystem for the technology. Today, we got to try out a rough version of that ecosystem, and despite obvious caveats, it's a promising start.

You'll look a little ridiculous, but you'll do so in comfort

The first thing you notice about the Morpheus headset is that it's surprisingly comfortable. Make no mistake, you'll still look ridiculous, but it's balanced to take the weight off your nose and forehead, with the help of a plastic ring that clamps around the back of your head. It's also easy to take on and off — you essentially support the front with your palms while ratcheting the back shut — although it still takes a little fine-tuning. Sony's had a lot of practice with this, improving on the third generation of non-interactive virtual theaters, and that practice shows. The headset knows when you put it on, and the lenses are great, curving without touching your eyelashes, although they can fog up after a few minutes. I'll withhold final judgment until I've gotten to use Project Morpheus for more than 20 minutes, but I could definitely imagine using it comfortably for stretches of an hour or more.

The obvious, unavoidable point of comparison for Project Morpheus is the Oculus Rift, which Sony now says it hopes to stay in friendly competition with. Morpheus and the Rift use 1080p screens and similar head-tracking technologies, but their strengths and weaknesses vary. Both headsets have gone a long way towards eliminating lag, but Morpheus is still a little blurrier than the newest version of the Rift. Conversely, its superior lenses have actually done better at removing the blocky "screen door" effect, even if the display obviously can't measure up to a 2D counterpart. It's great at blocking out light without feeling stifling, something the Rift still struggles with. Its 90-degree field of view, however, is a definite detriment. The first Oculus Rift developer kit left thin black bars in your peripheral vision, but Project Morpheus has unavoidable, often distracting black half-moons. It's still impressive, but it's got to get a lot better before I'd call it truly immersive.

Sony's camera and Move controller build out a VR ecosystem

Sony's peripherals create something of an ecosystem for Morpheus: the PlayStation Move provides motion control, and the console's camera peripheral tracks your head position. It's a fairly versatile system: you can lean over a railing, crouch, or turn completely around. It doesn't, however, seem to track as precisely as the Rift. What you see on the screen can progressively drift away from where you actually feel like you are. My experience with the Move controllers was more scattershot. They're a good idea for virtual reality, giving you a combination of free motion and haptic feedback, but the medieval tech demo meant to showcase them became virtually unplayable when you tried to pick up a sword and saw your disembodied hands shoot across the room.

The actual command center for Project Morpheus is a small set-top box with USB, power, and three HDMI ports, which both connect the headset and split off what your left eye sees in order to mirror it on a television. Actually conveying what's going on inside a headset like the Oculus Rift is extremely difficult, since all you see outside it is a pair of small rounded squares, and Sony has taken a big step forward by adding a clean, non-VR video feed. There's both an element of spectatorship and an opportunity for asymmetrical gameplay, where other players either compete against or cooperate with the person wearing Morpheus.

There's no price or release date on a final version of Project Morpheus, and Sony has confirmed that it's definitely not coming this year. What we've seen, though, is a worthy entrant into the admittedly small head-mounted display market. Sony's hardware improves on the Rift's design, and despite some problems with image quality, it certainly measures up to similar options. For now, what we're really waiting on is a real stable of VR games, beyond tech demos and some adaptations of non-VR titles like Thief. And given its considerable clout with game developers, this will hopefully be an area where Sony really shines.

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