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Project Morpheus is almost ready — it just needs games

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The VR hardware is close, but the software is a bigger challenge

The consumer version of Project Morpheus — Sony's foray into the world of virtual reality — is slated to launch in the first half of next year. But the device itself is basically ready right now. "On the hardware side," says Shuhei Yoshida, president of worldwide studios for Sony Computer Entertainment, "we are pretty close to final."

All it really needs are some games.

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco yesterday, Sony unveiled the second prototype of the headset, one that adds some significant improvements compared to the original that was unveiled one year ago. These include a much nicer 1920 x 1080 RGB OLED display, a 120hz refresh rate for "super low latency," and a more ergonomic design that makes it easier to put on and more comfortable to wear. "Once we finished last year's prototype, we knew that there were certain areas, like the latency and some motion blur, that we knew that we could improve," explains Yoshida.

Project Morpheus demo

So the company has spent the past year quietly tweaking the hardware and taking it to events to garner feedback from potential consumers. While this new version is still a prototype, it’s also very close to the final product that will ship next year. It's not really the hardware that's holding back the release: what Sony is waiting on are the experiences that will sell the device to a wide audience. "We have to ship the new dev kit," Yoshida explains, when asked what is left to be done before next year's launch. No actual Project Morpheus games have been announced yet, as so far we've only seen relatively limited tech demos designed to show what the technology is capable of. But if the latest batch of demos from Sony is any indication, Morpheus will be capable of some incredible game experiences.

"We knew that we could improve."

The company showed off several new demos at its GDC, but easily the most impressive was The London Heist, a brief but thrilling crime caper. It starts with a big, brutish thug trying to get some information out of you: you're sitting down, and you can look around, but otherwise you're totally helpless. If you look at the glowing exit sign, your captor shoots its lights out, darkening an already gloomy room. Your predicament becomes especially clear when he lights the torch in his hand and brings it close to your face. But soon the setting shifts, and you find yourself behind a fancy-looking desk in an even fancier looking room. You can rifle through the drawers and pick up objects using PlayStation Move controllers as a proxy for your hands.

Eventually you're spotted stealing a diamond, and the game turns into a surprisingly fun VR FPS: you can find a handgun in a drawer, and to load it you actually pick up a clip and slam it in place. You can duck up and down using the desk as cover, and it feels incredibly immersive. What's great about this demo in particular is it shows how VR can be used for multiple things — storytelling, exploration, combat — all within the same game world. The London Heist is simple, more like an arcade game than a competitive shooter, but it's incredibly exhilarating nonetheless.

Project Morpheus demo

The other demos, meanwhile, helped show a broader range of possible experiences. Bedroom Robots, created by Japan Studio, is almost entirely passive: you don't need a controller of any sort; instead you just look around a tiny, dollhouse-like scene filled with cute robots. It's when you look at something that it reacts: a sleeping robot wakes up and then stumbles down some stairs, while a robot in a pool gets eaten by an alligator moments after you spot it. There was a tiny flying drone that snapped a picture of me whenever I looked in its direction. I could peer into rooms, twisting and turning my head to spot all the hidden details only visible from certain angles. It was like a tech demo by way of Pixar.

Sony also had a new version of The Deep, one of its original Morpheus demos, which puts you in a cage beneath the ocean, where you're eventually attacked by a disturbingly angry shark. And it's probably the best way to see how improved the new prototype headset is: everything looked crisper compared to last year's demo, and the underwater world felt more complex and full of life. I could actually see the shark's eyes pulsating as it swam past my cage. Watching dozens of jellyfish surround me and then light up in brilliant colors is perhaps the best VR experience I've had to date.

Project Morpheus demo

a tech demo by way of Pixar

The new headset meant that these experiences looked better than past VR demos I’ve tried — Morpheus and otherwise — but the much more comfortable design also meant that I wasn’t taken out of the experience as often. I didn’t have to worry about the headset shifting around and blurring the visuals; instead I could just relax and crane my neck to see cute little robots dancing. It was nice not to have to worry about that.

While these demos show a diverse range of experiences, some of which aren't straightforward video games, expect that the first commercial Morpheus products will indeed be games. VR makers all seem to be experimenting with other kinds of content — Oculus even has a VR film studio now — and even though Sony is interested in that stuff, the company knows its audience. After all, in order to work, the Morpheus needs to be tethered to your PS4 game console, a device that's already in the homes of 20 million people who love video games. So for Richard Marks, the senior director of research and development at SCE, it only makes sense to start there.

"We're leading with games because that's where our passion really is," he says.

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