While it would be nice to paint the rivalry between the Oculus Rift and Sony’s PlayStation VR (previously codenamed Project Morpheus) as a David and Goliath-style battle, the lines are actually a bit more blurred.
Oculus could have been the plucky underdog, but its $2 billion acquisition by Facebook back in 2014 turned it into a Silicon Valley giant. Sony, on the other hand, has been hit hard by losses in the last few years, and the former king of tech’s crown is slipping.
But which has the best shot at glory? We’ve gathered together all we’ve experienced, and everything we know about the headsets to find the answer.
Anyone who’s ever found themselves playing a game for hours at a time (just one more level!) will attest how important comfort is, and when you’ve got a headset strapped to your noggin even the slightest irritation is going to be magnified immensely. It’s important, then, that both Oculus and Sony get their headsets just right, but it’s a literal balancing act of packing it with technology and not making it feel like you’ve got an overweight sloth clinging to your face.
The consumer version of the Oculus Rift the company has shown off is light enough to hold comfortably in one hand, but we haven’t got the exact specifications yet, and that includes the weight. Since the first prototypes, Oculus has also improved comfort and usability levels greatly, packing the various HDMI and USB cables into a single sheath and adding a little extra ventilation so you don’t end up wearing a sweat-filled snorkel.
Sony takes a different approach to the design, however, and it looks far sleeker in a kind of Star Trek way. It cleverly positions some of its tech in a helmet-like portion above the goggles, which means it doesn’t feel like you’re wearing an enormous pair of comedy glasses and it also distributes its weight in such a way that none of it is resting on the bridge of your nose or your cheeks.
The consumer version, unveiled at GDC 2016, also moves the majority of the unit’s weight from resting on the top of your head, and it’s even usable when you’re wearing glasses. A quick-release button also makes it easy to get on and off.
PlayStation VR features a 5.7-inch, 1920 x 1080, OLED display split vertically to deliver a resolution of 960 x 1080 to each eye. Oculus confirmed in May that the Rift’s resolution is 2160 x 1200, over two (as of yet size unknown) displays, so that’s slightly more pixels per eye which can really make a difference.
The second Sony prototype upped its display size from 5-inches and added RGB subpixels, which help smooth out the image.
In order to reduce eye strain both screens need to operate at high refresh rates: the Oculus Rift tops out at 90Hz, but it’s now PlayStation VR that wins out in this battle, as the 2015 prototype runs at 120Hz – higher than both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. If Oculus has managed to up this refresh rate in the finished version of the Rift it hasn’t told anyone yet.
The latest Rift delivers a 110-degree viewing angle, over PS VR’s 100-degrees, which means it has a bigger field of vision, however.
The demo version of PS VR has a small gap under the headset, so there’s always a little bit of light bleed and you can see your feet if you look hard enough. This might be oddly reassuring if you’re playing a game in which you have no feet.
All these 3D shenanigans require a hell of a lot of processing. On top of delivering a separate but perfectly synced imaged to each eye, both the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR have to stereoscopically render objects, keep a track of both the user’s head movements and the headset’s position in physical space.
And as the screen is within inches of the user’s eyes graphical quality is paramount: an errant artefact here or a drop in frame rates there could send gamers into that particular circle of hell which is only escapable with a megadose of Migraleve.
The PlayStation 4 is just about up to task for this. It’s at the very beginning of its life cycle so it’s malleable and easy to add extra bits and bobs to, and its AMD graphics processor has been built from the ground up to handle stereoscopic 3D processing.
Nevertheless, Sony has had to create a secondary box that connects to the PlayStation 4 via USB and HDMI, to handle the specifics of PS VR’s operation. A neat feature of the box is that it also includes HDMI-out, so you can connect a screen and see what the user’s experiencing without any distortion.
Thanks to the flexibility of the PC as a platform the Oculus Rift’s system requirements are more relaxed, though it’s gone all-in with Windows 10 thanks to a new partnership with Microsoft, and Mac and Linux support has been dropped for now.
The computer itself needs to be capable of “running current generation 3D games at 1080p resolution at 75fps or higher,” according to the Oculus site, which is a fairly modest requirement given the power of most modern computers. In fact, we reckon you could build a Rift-capable PC for about the same price as a PlayStation 4.
You’re looking at a setup with at least an Intel i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia GTX 970 or AMD 290 graphics card, according to Oculus.
The Development Kit 2 version of the Oculus Rift used a tiny webcam to track LEDs embedded in the headset and provide positional information. This Constellation Tracking system has since been upgraded to allow full 360-degree tracking via a discreet, microphone-style sensor that sits on your desk and monitors the movements you’re making.
Sony’s VR headset uses the PlayStation Camera to provide equivalent tracking, and can also locate the back of the head as well as the front so users can look directly behind them. And no, you don’t need to be possessed by Captain Howdy to take advantage of this: Sony’s The Deep tech demo features fish swimming past the user, who can watch them disappear into the murky depths.
The GDC 2015 announced model also increased the number of head-tracking LEDs from six to nine.
Audio and controls
Sound is a subtle but important part of a virtual reality experience. Sony – which is renowned for its Hi-Fis and Minidisc players – has a decent grasp of this, and used a huge sound studio to create a new 3D positional audio engine specifically for PlayStation VR. Slap on some headphones and you’ll experience footsteps climbing stairs below you, or a helicopter flying overhead, depending on the game.
The newly unveiled consumer version of the Oculus Rift brings integrated audio to the virtual reality mix with headphones attached to the headset, though you can swap them out for your own pair if you’d like to.
Oculus gave the headset a boost at CES 2015 when it announced that an upcoming Oculus Audio SDK would allow the use of Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF) tech, combined with the Rift’s head tracking to create a sense of true 3D audio spatialisation, meaning Rift developers could immerse users “sonically in a virtual world, surrounded by realistic sounds in all directions.” Nice.
As for controls, Sony’s PlayStation controllers are already spatially aware, and The Castle demonstration uses them to hack apart a ragdoll knight with a pretend sword. Thanks to the aforementioned Microsoft deal, every Oculus Rift comes with a wireless Xbox One controller.
Then there’s Oculus Touch, the controllers unveiled by Oculus that look like a gamepad chopped in half. They let you reach out into VR space, interact with objects and make gestures with your hands (you can point at something, for example). They’re optional extras though, and will launch after the Rift has gone on sale for an unspecified price.
There’s plenty to get excited about when it comes toPlayStation VR games. EVE: Valkyrie, War Thunder, The Deep, Castle and Thief were demonstrated on the system back in 2014 and, this year, London Heist is getting rave reviews from early testers.
These are very early days, of course, so we can expect Sony to give a bunch of cash to developers to make their games PlayStation VR compatible – among them is The Assembly, a “mysterious VR adventure game” currently under development by nDreams in the UK. There’s also recently been news that Q.U.B.E. ² is coming to the PlayStation 4 and will support PlayStation VR.
At E3 2015 Sony announced that the PS VR would support multi-player gaming: friends sat with you on the couch will be able to join in with standard DualShock 4 controllers, though they’ll only get the usual 2D experience.
The PC is already brimming with Oculus Rift-ready titles, whether they’re new games, ports or fan-created modifications. Valve – the company behind Team Fortress 2and Half-Life – has been among the first to ensure its games are Rift ready, and the hugely popular social building game Minecraft has been ported to Oculus Rift despite creator Markus Persson’s disapproval of Facebook’s buyout of the company.
The PC also has a well-established indie movement which puts the PlayStation’s to shame: Oculus is investing $10 million to support indie game development and make sure there are plenty of titles available when the headset launches.
At Oculus’ pre-E3 event we saw demos of EVE: Valkyrie(blasting baddies in space), Edge of Nowhere (wandering through a snowy wilderness) and Chronos (an atmospheric labyrinth exploration game). What’s more, you’ll be able to play 2D Xbox One games in a 3D virtual theatre on the Rift.
Price and release date
It’s neck and neck for the VR headsets in terms of getting your hands on them and faces in them.
Oculus VR pre-orders are now open with shipping set for March of 2016. It costs $599 after shipping and taxes, plus comes with a couple of free games and an Xbox One control pad.
And the Sony PS VR will launch much later, in October 2016, but at the much more accessible price of $399. There’s also a launch bundle that Sony’s recently announced. Priced at $499, you’ll get the headset, PlayStation Camera and two Move controllers along with PlayStation VR Worlds and Playroom VR digital download.
There’s no clear-cut winner in this fight yet, but the two companies are far from following the same path. Oculus is taking a function-over-form approach to its headset, concentrating on perfecting the hardware, although there have been significant aesthetic improvements since the first prototypes. Sony, on the other hand, clearly put design first and foremost to begin with, but has impressed with some neat tweaks for the latest model.
The fact that the Japanese company’s VR headset has a dedicated sound system puts it above the Rift when it comes to audio (although Oculus is making great strides in this area), while in head-tracking terms there’s not much to choose between them.
The screen is arguably the most important part of any virtual reality experience and Sony’s recent OLED revamp addresses a lot of the issues of the first prototype.
Then there’s the ecosystem attached to each unit. The PC is the go-to platform for indie games, and it sports a charmingly haphazard flexibility, which always has been and always will be unheard of on the consoles. The PlayStation 4, on the other hand, is more locked down, and this adds a trustworthy stability to its games. Overall we love the fact that the really bizarre, brain-breaking Rift experiments are going to be coming from the PC.
Of course, most consumers will have decided which virtual reality headset they’ll support depending on the hardware they already own (and Microsoft’s deal with Oculus could make a difference here), but the next few months are going to see some big promotional pushes from both companies as they chase your precious coinage.
Watch this space to see how they shape up.