Getting sweaty with the future of Sony's virtual reality

The private room, elevated above the crazed throngs of E3 attendees, was dark and oppressively stuffy. Inside, Conan O'Brien lay on a beanbag in front of Sony's newest virtual reality demo for its Project Morpheus headset: Street Luge. And he was surrounded by two Nintendo booth babes -- an awkward collision of rival gaming worlds that wasn't lost on Sony PR. Conan was finishing up a shoot for a spoof segment on Morpheus and I had to wait for the celebrity fanfare to stop.

I mention Conan not to drop a bold-faced name, but because his interest and involvement in Sony's Project Morpheus at E3 represents a visible tipping point for VR. The technology is about to go mainstream; it's very nearly ready for prime time. Soon, non-gamers will be donning VR helmets and exploring simulated worlds. It's the reason why Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion and also why movie studios are currently in talks with Sony to create VR experiences. A cultural shift is coming and Sony wants to be right out in front riding that wave. It just won't be doing that in 2014.

"We're still just at this point able to say it's not this year," said Richard Marks, Sony's senior director of research and development. "We don't have quite the number of experiences that we feel would be a good value for people to buy some special hardware for it." That may be true, but it's not for a lack of effort on Sony's part. Marks said that a number of studios, both third-party and internal, are hard at work on titles or demos for Morpheus. So far, though, Sony's only opted to show demos -- the aforementioned Street Luge simulator and Castle -- created by its London Studio since "they've been working with [Morpheus] the most."

For E3, Sony made slight tweaks to the Castle demo it debuted alongside Morpheus at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year. Anton Mikhailov, one of the principle engineers working on Morpheus, said slight improvements to the graphics, like antialiasing, were made, along with the inclusion of a new weapon: the mace. Castle is by far the most comfortable Morpheus experience to demo as there's not much movement required on the player's part. The experience centers mostly on manipulating and damaging a suit of armor with your hands, a control scheme made possible by a pair of the PlayStation's Move controllers. It's impressive stuff, especially when a dragon pops in to tower over and terrify you. I may have even let out a small squeal in excitement when it happened.

But it was Street Luge, Sony's new racing sim, that really drove home the physical effects Morpheus can have on players. I was sweaty and slightly nauseous when the demo had come to end; an aftereffect I found to be partly thrilling and partly alarming. But first, let me explain how I got to that point.

"We don't have quite the number of experiences that we feel would be a good value for people to buy some special hardware for it."

To play Street Luge, I lay down on the very same beanbag that Conan had nestled into earlier and strapped on Morpheus. Steering controls were handled only by the left and right movements of my head and nothing more. I couldn't stop or slow my luge as it plummeted down a road through winding cliffs and tunnels and straight into oncoming traffic. And all of it was fine, really, thanks to improvements made to Morpheus' tracking. The speed was brisk enough so that I could admire the fleeting scenery, but not quite fast enough to make me want to break contact with the virtual world. That is, until I hit a steep downhill drop that caused my stomach to lurch and that indescribable butterfly nausea to creep into my chest. It was exactly as exhilarating as plunging down an actual hill in a car or on a roller coaster, except this was VR; this wasn't real. But as Mikhailov pointed out, it was definitely done on purpose.

Mikhailov elaborated on that particular element of the demo, saying that its inclusion and the resulting discomfort was intentional. The Morpheus team is using these E3 demos as a sort of real-world lab and the press and general public attendees as guinea pigs. Mikhailov's aware that this kind of visceral experience could diminish over repeated playtime, especially as gamers become acclimated to VR. But what he's most interested in is whether or not gamers want that nervous sensation to stick around with each playthrough. Does VR become less real when we can no longer physically feel it? That's the question Mikhailov is seeking to answer with Street Luge -- the question of standards. It's something Sony plans to address not only as a cooperative effort with other VR firms, but also for its own Morpheus gaming platform.

Street Luge doesn't require any physical controller, just the headset and PlayStation Camera. Which makes it the exact type of VR experience Sony wants to lead with when it eventually launches a consumer model of Morpheus. As Marks explained, "Actually, Street Luge is great because you just put [the headset] on and there's no controller or anything ... I don't think it'll be that complicated for those first experiences. But then when you really want to get fully immersed and do things with the controller, Move or two Moves -- that probably won't be the first thing you try. But Street Luge is actually a great one to be first."

The speed was brisk enough so that I could admire the fleeting scenery, but not quite fast enough to make me want to break contact with the virtual world. That is, until I hit a steep downhill drop that caused my stomach to lurch.

The Morpheus of today likely won't resemble the Morpheus that launches at retail. Marks said Sony's consumer electronics division is working to refine its design and form factor for better ergonomics and weight. It'll even ship with "very short headphones" packed in the box, although Sony wants gamers to have the option to use the headset of their choice. But one thing that's sure to remain consistent from now until the release of the first consumer model is its wired connection. "Wireless is challenging," Marks said. "There's a lot of data. All of the visual data that's being transmitted to the displays -- sending that wirelessly is challenging. It's something we're looking at, but it's a very tricky engineering problem."

As for hands-free gesture input, Marks said that it's something his team is "looking at for the long-term future," but that teaching a gesture language presents problems for ease of use. But there's also another issue holding up development on that end: the PlayStation Camera. "It has the ability to create a depth map and then analyze the depth map," he said, adding that, "It's tricky to do that at the same time as you're tracking the colored lights because we have specialized exposure settings and things in the camera to match the lights. And so then the rest of the image gets a little bit dark." Because of that, the Move controllers are Sony's preferable input choice.

Right now, there's no magic bullet for Morpheus or VR in general. "No one's really found the killer genre yet," said Jeff Stafford, Sony's other lead engineer working on Morpheus. "It's too early. There's not enough development yet." To that end, Stafford explained that Sony is encouraging developers to "go crazy and explore all different things" and not restricting dev time to any particular genre.

One genre that Sony is actively avoiding for Morpheus game development, though, is the first-person shooter. Stafford elaborated: "Everyone assumes the most natural genre is the first-person shooter. Actually, we find that first-person shooter, because of the TV screen and the way that they've evolved; you're running around at very unnatural speeds -- that's not so great for VR."

"No one's really found the killer genre yet. It's too early. There's not enough development yet."

Genres for VR may, mostly, be wide open for studios to experiment with, but that also goes hand in hand with the amount of time gamers spend immersed in VR. None of the current Morpheus demos extend beyond five minutes, but that's not because Sony thinks extended sessions are harmful to gamers. In fact, Stafford, who spends countless hours hooked up to Morpheus each day, said that he "could see people playing in VR for maybe two hours" at a time, realistically.

Though Sony acknowledges Morpheus will eventually branch out beyond gaming, for now its efforts are focused squarely on the PlayStation 4. Marks said this is because the PS4 is a known quantity for developers and consumers, and also because of its rapidly growing install base. "We have a known box, which has very known graphical capabilities ... We have known controllers ... So that's our focus; to have this really known experience that we can share with people. And it could be shared across all those millions of PlayStation 4s."

Sony also has one other focus for Morpheus, or whatever it ends up calling the headset when it's released, and that's on approachability and ease of use. It's the key to making VR a mainstream product and a profit driver for the company. As Marks explained, Sony's vision for the consumer model is simple: "[You] just basically hook it up, plug it in, put it on and you're able to get into VR. We really want to make it this an easy experience for people."