VR headsets have been arriving in force in 2019 so far with new hardware from Oculus, Valve, and Vive. Sony’s PlayStation VR, which debuted back in 2016, hasn’t made that next evolutionary leap yet, but that time is coming … and it likely won’t be alongside the debut of the PlayStation 5.
During Toronto’s Collison conference, Sony’s Global Head of R&D for PlayStation, Dominic Mallinson, sat down with CNET to discuss what’s on the horizon for PSVR, and what we could possibly see next. None of these are guarantees, but they could be key features of PSVR’s next leap.
When you look at the PSVR, you could say it has been a success story relative to other VR hardware, selling over 4.2 million headsets … but the PlayStation 4’s install base of 96.8 million dwarfs that. Mallinson admits that PSVR “does need to evolve. It’s not quite there yet as a mass-market proposition.” A key step could be making it easier and less cord-tangly. “We do want it to be lighter weight, and easier to put on, fewer cables, less mess.”
But as much as a wireless headset out of the box would be nice, a wireless option could take the form of an add-on instead of the default.
“Wireless suffers from the issue of being expensive, if you don’t care about cables then it’s a lot cheaper than to have a wireless system. But at the same time, having wireless just makes you so much freer.”
Recent patent filing reports show designs indicating a wireless headset. The current PlayStation VR rig is relatively bulky, and its tether and break-out box mean gameplay needs to happen in close range of the PS4.
So far, there is one thing that many mainstream VR headsets don’t use (as of this writing), and that is eye tracking — but eye tracking (or gaze tracking) is something that PlayStation is actively considering, and Mallinson thinks is crucial.
“That’s the one that excites me the most … I think there will come a point in time in the not too distant future when you cannot launch a VR headset without eye tracking.”
When you look at eye tracking, it has some practical benefits. For example, eye tracking can help reduce graphics load to make games perform better via a technique called foveated rendering, which could help a game console perform more like a high-end PC.
Mallinson said: “It’s a win-win in that respect. For me, it’s a pretty obvious technology.”
Part of the current PSVR design was always about getting to the lowest price possible, which meant using the existing PlayStation Move controllers and PS4 cameras instead of VR-specific controllers (while PlayStation VR games can also use the standard DualShock 4, he says Move has won out slightly with developers).
“We knew if we went back into the R&D labs and we did something brand-new, we could have created something better than PlayStation Move, but it would have cost more,” Mallinson says, but hints at what a better solution is: “We do recognize that does need to be evolved, and in the future, we will obviously replace it.” This looks to be happening as the company has been filing patents for new controllers for a while now.
Mallinson does seem satisfied with how PlayStation VR rolled out several years after the PlayStation 4 was on the market. The current PSVR will be PS5-compatible, which means a new headset isn’t necessary right away. And that could mean Sony will wait to debut a new headset for some time.
“There’s no reason for us to coincide it with a new console. From the point of view of the consumer, to be bombarded with many many things — oh, you have to buy this, you have to buy that — is a message that we don’t want to send. In some ways, it’s good to have a little breathing space between those things.”
Most importantly, he sees VR as finally becoming a platform that can work. Sony’s recent lineup of VR games has been impressive and some of the PlayStation’s best games of 2018 (Moss, Tetris Effect, Astro Bot: Rescue Mission) were VR titles. “We’re just reaching that level now where, as a developer, you can say, ‘OK, I can make money. It’s not easy, but I can now make money.'”