WHAT IS IT?
“Project Morpheus” is the working title Sony has given its prototype virtual reality headset. As it stands now, after three years of development by Sony, the Morpheus essentially is an add-on for the PlayStation 4, utilizing the PlayStation Camera for motion monitoring of the device, and for monitoring of the DualShock 4 and the PlayStation Move controls, and connecting to the PlayStation console via a 5-meter-long cable. The Morpheus immerses users in virtual worlds with high-resolution LCD screens, which offer a ninety-degree field of vision, placed inside headsets that track 360 degrees of head movement, an immersion Sony claims it strengthens through 3D audio technology it has developed for the device. The audio and visual features create for users a sense of “presence,” a VR buzzword Sony is really pushing, which it explains simply as “where players feel as though they are physically inside the virtual world of the game.”
The device will support games unique to it, and specifically designed for it, rather than simply porting existing or future PlayStation games to the headset, using the PlayStation 4, along with a separate connecting processor, to power the graphics. Sony is currently trying to attract game developers to build content for it , recently visiting events like the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and the 2014 Game Developers Conference (GDC), and providing demos to Conan and The Tonight Show. Sony has set no release date, no price for consumers, and company representatives remain cagey on possible final product specifications.
For decades a fantasy for sci-fi enthusiasts and gamers, now all the parts for making a virtual reality headset – such as small HD screens and accurate, portable motion sensors – have become better and cheaper and therefore have made a consumer VR product feasible. As a result the field has moved forward quickly over the past few years. The Oculus Rift, the other prominent VR headset currently under development, is an independent startup that raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter in 2012. Facebook made news in March 2014 when it announced its purchase of Oculus for $2 billion. Game developer and distributer Valve has also developed a prototype of its own VR headset, but has also worked with Oculus to support its efforts, for instance by updating Steam to support Rift games.
Rather than (publicly) seeing the Oculus Rift as a threat to its share in an emerging VR market, Shuhei Yoshida, the president of Worldwide Studios for Sony Computer Entertainment, who is overseeing development of Morpheus, characterizes the tech media and public interest in Oculus as a vindication of Sony’s longstanding interest in building and pushing its own VR product, and a sign that VR really will become successful in the near future, perhaps even the Next Big Thing. Yoshida has opined that Oculus and Sony can benefit each other through shared engineering breakthroughs and by encouraging potentially VR-shy developers to design VR games by offering them more platform options.
While of course the Rift will compete with whatever the Morpheus becomes, if one takes Yoshida at his word and doesn’t attribute his exuded optimism to mere corporate spin to downplay the significance of a rival, then one can appreciate his assessment of Oculus as a brother-in-arms on the VR frontier. Given the uncertain future of VR as a commercial proposition, Facebook’s public seal of approval of Oculus could only legitimize the emerging field as a whole, helping Project Morpheus also gain traction with the public. Likewise, the highly-publicized support of a VR venture from another established tech giant like Sony could further legitimize whatever Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook cohorts have in mind for their VR ventures.
CURRENT USES OF DEVICE
Sony wants to attract interest in the Morpheus by letting consumers get to know it as a gaming platform, even promoting it as offering a social gaming experience like the Nintendo Wii (through the means of putting what the headset user sees on a separate screen). PlayStation obviously has proven itself since the first PlayStation console as a successful gaming platform. Given the existing game development infrastructure and game publishing connections at Playstation, and the audio and visual expertise Playstation can tap within its parent company (Sony has a long history of making cameras, headphones, microphones, and music devices), saying that Morpheus could provide strong competition to VR startups isn’t all that bold, even if Facebook now owns one of those startups.
Sony has already presented some interesting game demos, like Street Luge, which doesn’t require a controller, but simply tracks players’ head movements for motion control as they recline and luge down a virtual road incline, dodging cars and skidding under trucks along the way. Another game, called Castle, allows players to become medieval knights and use their Move controllers as weapons to attack a practice dummy. Other game demos include The Deep, which allows players to become divers descending in a cage beneath the ocean while fending off a hungry shark, and Eve Valkyrie, a space combat game. Sony has also announced and released a trailer for a sci-fi/horror game designed for the Morpheus called The Assembly.
If Sony can perfect the Morpheus’s ability to create a sense of “presence” for users, then the potential for the device is considerable; Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t see the Oculus as the next big platform for nothing. The Morpheus can extend far beyond games, creating immersive environments for multitude of reasons. The Morpheus team has already worked with NASA on building a Mars exploration simulation. Though Sony is also partnering with some other major organizations for the Morpheus project, it is now trying to put the Morpheus development kits into the hands of more independent developers to help the company realize the potentials of the device.
PROBLEMS AND ISSUES
Anton Mikhailov, the Sony U.S. R&D senior software engineer, has explained that the biggest overall issue to solve with the Morpheus is the same as any VR headset: ensuring that users actually suspend their disbelief and accept their briefly-inhabited virtual worlds. Which brings us back to “presence.” At the 2014 GDC, Mikhailov lectured game developers on some key issues concerning creating presence for users. One involves syncing game avatar limb movements with users’ movements in the real world; for instance, if players fully extend their arms in the real world, but their avatars’ arms can only extend a few feet because of a virtual brick wall, players will become confused and disoriented because their virtual movements won’t match their real ones. One solution, offered Mikhailov, was simply allowing users’ arms to extend through the wall barriers in such scenarios. Mikhailov also cautioned developers to remain aware that virtual realities can stir strong emotions like fear and anxiety in users, and to keep in mind when designing their software how manipulating heightened emotions could affect users. What’s also unclear is how far Sony can push other senses than sight and sound to create presence. An interesting topic broached at the GDC Q & A panel with the Morpheus team was the issue of haptic input: what is Sony doing with the sense of touch to strengthen presence? The team said they were researching the possibilities. And yet one other issue is that, as Yoshida has admitted, nobody yet knows how long users can play VR games at one time and not become exhausted or disoriented.
And, finally, when considering more practical economic issues, who knows what price Sony will set, if the PlayStation 4 will lose any popularity it may currently have, or if consumers are even ready for VR?
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