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Sony's Shuhei Yoshida on the state of virtual reality: 'We're in this together'

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Yesterday, PlayStation VR finally joined the ranks of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive after Sony announced a release date and price. Sony’s headset will be cheaper than the competition at $399 — provided you already own a PlayStation Camera — and will also be available later, with a planned October release, several months after the Rift and Vive hit shelves. We sat down with Shuhei Yoshida, president of worldwide studios at Sony, following the announcements at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco to learn a bit more about the present and future of virtual reality, why PSVR doesn't come with a Move controller, and why the three big VR companies aren’t actually in direct competition.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Andrew Webster: I'm curious how you feel right now, after having seen all of these iterations of the headset over the years, and now announcing the final version and release date.

Shuhei Yoshida: I'm super happy to be here. And it's not just our announcement, but all of the things going on. HTC Vive, is really nice and has lots of great games coming out; Oculus will come out very soon, and that will help with the excitement and the investment from game developers and filmmakers and all kinds of startups that can use VR in many different ways. All of that will help.

We are part of that movement, and we feel hugely responsible to do our job right, so that the whole industry can grow at a proper speed.

"We feel hugely responsible to do our job right."

Adi Robertson: Right now Sony is sort of the affordable, high-end VR option, but where do you see your place long-term in the VR landscape?

Yoshida: When you think long-term, everybody talks about things like all-in-one [headsets], AR and VR combined, but we're just thinking of year one of VR. It's really hard to project even three years from now, but we have really focused our efforts on PS4 users first, and hopefully people surrounding the PS4 owners — like families and friends — find the fun of VR.

And the PSVR could one day be used for things other than games and entertainment, even though our focus initially is clearly there. Hopefully all of these things happen, and we can continue to be an important part of the VR experience.

Webster: Given how fast the technology moves, do you view PSVR more as a console where you upgrade it every few years, or something like a smartphone where a new one comes out every year. What do you think the upgrade cycle is going to be like?

Yoshida: In terms of tech, VR is just starting, consumer VR is just starting, and there are also areas where R&D is being done; the resolution gets better, the interface, all of these kinds of things. So even though we are approaching PSVR on PS4 like a console — meaning that anyone can buy it without any technical knowledge — because this field is so new, and advancements will be everywhere as we continue to work on R&D, I can not say that the PSVR will have the same kind of cycle as a traditional console. And PSVR is not launching with PS4 either, it's year three or year four of PS4.

shuhei yoshida ps4 playstation

Yoshida in 2014

Robertson: I was a little surprised that we didn't see a redesigned Move controller. I'm curious what what you think is the input method that you're going for eventually?

Yoshida: Having hand presence in VR is such a great enhancement for lots of VR experiences, and what we need at the core is accurate positional tracking and a couple of inputs like a button. And PS Move is totally capable of doing it. So we chose not to redesign because it does the job so well. PS Move was ahead of its time. It was a VR controller at the core; we called it a motion controller, but what really separated PS Move at that time was accurate positional tracking, and that's the fundamental capability that we require for good hands controllers for VR. I believe PS Move has that.

Robertson: Why isn't it bundled?

Yoshida: Bundles will be created by region. With the PS4 you can see many different kinds of bundles everywhere, in different regions, so there will be some announcements about [PSVR] bundles going forward before the launch. What we announced today is the base model that's globally consistent.

Some people already own the camera, and many people already own PS Move, so as a base we want for people who already have the hardware to not have to get a second that's unnecessary for them.

Webster: So when you're looking at the different control options, is it important to have something that's standardized, not just for PSVR but across VR in general?

Yoshida: I think it's too early. In terms of standards, everyone has PS4 hardware and a Dualshock 4. And a Dualshock 4 is also being tracked by the camera; it's not as versatile as PS Move because you have to hold it with two hands. So when you say the minimum input, actually the minimum input option that developers have is just the headset. Some of the games use just the gaze tracking for the experience, and others use a Dualshock 4 controller, and other games use Move. So it's a choice.

Robertson: Is Sony working in mobile VR?

Yoshida: As far as I know, no. Maybe somewhere some R&D might be done, but I don't know where. Gear VR is a great product, and I'm sure that there are other products being worked on by mobile companies, but I'm not sure if we should spread our efforts across too many [products]. Doing console-based VR by itself is a huge undertaking. We have lists of lots of work still to do.

"This is just year one of VR."

Webster: So now that you have announced the launch timing, is it a concern for you at all that you are sort of giving Oculus and HTC a bit of a head start?

Yoshida: This is just year one of VR. I always say that we are competing in the sense that engineers compete to create the best tech possible. We're in this together, to really help each other to get more people to be interested and excited and become fans of VR. There's one specific moment that each one of us, I hope, had that converted us to a believer of VR. That requires you to go through the experiences so that you really feel like ‘This is it.' It takes a lot of effort to get people to try, so every time anyone of our three companies have events and gets lots of people to try, we are helping each other to get more people to try good VR. It doesn't have to start with PSVR. Someone's first experience might be with the HTC Vive, and if that person gets excited about VR, that's great for all of us. That's how we see it.

In a sense we are not helping the others as much by going late in the year. Because of the launch of the consumer versions of Oculus and HTC Vive, more and more people will try it, and that helps everyone. I'm very excited about having Oculus and Vive coming out in the next few weeks. That will help us. I'm serious. Is that surprising to hear that?

Robertson: I think that [Oculus founder] Palmer Luckey said something like ‘No one who owns a PS4 is going to buy an Oculus Rift.'

Yoshida: I think he's saying the same thing, that we are targeting a different kind of audience. And we help each other by bringing these high quality VR experiences to these other groups of consumers. So in that sense we are really helping each other.

Robertson: How valuable do you think room-scale tracking, being able to walk around a room, is?

Yoshida: It's a great addition. People like the experience. But how important it is is up to the experience that's being designed. Developers, especially game developers, are very good at working around the restrictions of certain platforms.

For people who purchase HTC Vive, some people don't have enough space, and developers have come up with ways to deliver the experience depending on what set-up people have.

Webster: Do you think the fact that you already had really great relationships with indie developers has given you an advantage? Especially given how important smaller experiences are for VR.

Yoshida: That's very kind of you to say, I appreciate it. But look at the indie devs working on Steam, that's way larger. Tools like Unity or Unreal really help these indie guys to make their work easier, so that they can focus on creating great content. As long as they use these middleware tools it's very straightforward for them to bring their content from PC to PS4, or vice versa.

"This is a huge opportunity for indies everywhere in the world."

So we have been working on supporting indies' work for regular games on PS4, PS3, and Vita. And like you were saying, PSVR is so new, and there are so many new experiences that can be created by a small number of people, so this is a huge opportunity for indies everywhere in the world. Especially when I talk to developers in developing nations, in Asia or Latin America, I tell them that VR is your chance. Developers in Shanghai or Taiwan or Korea are now working on VR because they see that opportunity. For us to have always worked with indies is really helping us to get those VR titles to come to PSVR. I'm super excited for these games.

PSVR

Robertson: On that note, how hard is it to support yourself as an indie developer who works in VR?

Yoshida: It's hard. Being indie is hard no matter which platform you are on. Probably the hardest, I'd say, would be on mobile and Steam, because there are so many games coming out. On consoles it's easier, in my opinion, because there are fewer competing titles. In terms of making money, it's the biggest challenge. I'm super happy with how the VR industry is going, and I'm excited for the PSVR launch, but the true test will be a year from now, six months after the launch of PSVR.

Ask those indie guys who are spending their own money, or venture capital money, to create the launch titles for PSVR, how many of them are able to recoup their investment so that they can work on the next project. That's the true test. That's the most important test for me. If a developer comes up with a great game like Job Simulator or Headmaster... if those guys can not continue to make games, that's a big problem for the whole industry.

Webster: You guys have held off on the launch in order to make sure everything is just right, so what do you think is the most important thing for creating that perfect first impression for people using VR for the first time?

Yoshida: For many people, for most consumers, it's going to be their first experience. And just setting it up is a complicated thing. It's not like headset replaces the TV, PSVR uses the TV as well like a social screen. So there's a small box that inputs out to the TV and headset. We've been playtesting the set-up process with consumers and some people try to connect the headset directly to the TV, or some other wrong configuration. We have those manuals but people don't read them. Just making it so it's easy for people to set it up and enjoy playing, along with delivering a high quality experience, that's the biggest challenge that we continue to work on. Having this time, from now until launch, it really helps us to iron out those softer areas.