An unbelievable amount of ink has been spilled about the VR headset from Sony — before its release and then even more when it hit the market on 13 October. I read really good reviews in the US tech media and some extensive testing reports on the headset technology. Now I've had the chance to make my own inspection of the technology in the Sony headset — including the significantly poorer tracking of the Playstation VR and the low resolutions. But that's not the important thing here.
Because beyond those technical details, the Playstation VR offers something entirely different: the headset plugs into my Playstation 4 — which isn't in my office, some corner of my bedroom or in the cellar. It's in the middle of the most socially active room in the house: the living room.
Speaking at the Digility in Cologne this past September, Alysha Naples opined on the biggest weakness of current virtual reality solutions: they're not social enough. They don't account for the fact that technology is to a large degree only ever accepted by people when it is social and offers benefits in practical daily use. In recent years smartphones have enjoyed such unbelievable growth not because the technology is cool or especially innovative or because touch is a better interface than mouse and keyboard. The real reason almost everyone in the western world now has a smartphone is because you can talk to other people with it — at any time, from almost anywhere on the globe, instantly and often with video chat. This USP for smartphones created by the net is what makes them so valuable — because we people are social creatures and long to be in social contact with one another.
Virtual Reality has to date been fairly far removed from social embedding. Until recently, most people won't ever have encountered "real" virtual reality using a HMD (Head Mounted Display). At most them might have had a change to try Gear VR, which works well enough but lacks the positional tracking and hand controllers to make it viable as a VR product. And Gear VR or even mobile VR in general don't let spectators follow what the headset wearer is seeing. Only a few people are lucky enough to have a friend with an HTC Vive in their cellar or an Oculus Rift in the office — and themselves take a plunge into the fascinating world of virtual reality. And they were the exception, not the rule.
So not only was it hard to access real virtual reality before now, the experience was also not very social. Playstation VR is changing all of that.
One example: my daughter recently celebrated her birthday and her relatives came to visit in the afternoon — grandma, grandpa, uncles, aunts, cousins. I happened to explain to my father that the Playstation VR is now on the market. Within ten minutes the entire troupe had gathered in the living room, everyone with a pair of VR goggles — joining in on the "Ocean Descent" headed in a cage to the ocean floor. And that was when it really became clear to me just how important the Playstation VR's social screen is: it allows spectators to look at the big TV in the living room and track what the HMD wearer is seeing. In some ways, they are just as important as that headset. Certainly their experience isn't the same as the person experiencing the virtual reality with the headset. But even for VR users, communication with the people around them is highly important, especially for VR novices. There's lots of talking and reports on what they're experiencing. The result: those not wearing the gear don't feel excluded, and the VR-naut isn't left isolated.
Video games are only ready for the broader public when they become increasingly social. Think back to playing Wii with someone on the coach or going online with Xbox 360 — a broad public suddenly realized that video gamers aren't just complete nerds who never leave home and lock themselves in the basement.
When it comes to virtual reality, the social component is even more crucial because the medium itself is so inherently asocial. Someone wearing an HMD is immersing themselves into a different world, leaving social reality. For VT to succeed in the future, it must be designed to be much more social from the start. This makes any developments that move in the direction of Social VR all the more important. Multiplayer experiences in VR as well as communication and interaction with persons outside the VR world should all be accounted for by developers and platform makers. The social screen and living room compatibility of the Playstation VR is a start.
There will of course always be individual VR experiences, just as there are also cool single-player games to be enjoyed on your own — some gamers find the games more intense when played in solitude. But then they usually want to tell their friends about it afterward.
This works even better with VR: I can be on my own, riding along the rails through the night. And my wife is there next to me, laughing. A shared experience with something to offer both of us.