Virtual reality (VR) headsets have been around since the 1960s, and as you would expect, they have evolved and gotten better over the years. But they really haven't caught on as viable consumer products. You may have seen the occasional VR headset in an arcade, and home models have popped up now and again to be snatched up by enthusiasts and then fizzle out, but at the moment, they're more at home in research labs or military training facilities. Despite their continued existence and the obvious cool factor, they haven't become as common as our speculative fiction led us to believe they would have been by now. There are lots of possible reasons, including their low resolution, tendency to cause simulation sickness and the prohibitive cost of the better models.
But conditions have changed. Graphics processing, motion tracking and display technologies, among other things, have all improved vastly since the inception of VR, and everything has gotten smaller and cheaper. We now have far more powerful processors, a myriad of sensors and small high-resolution displays that are bringing consumer VR into the realm of possibility. The release, to much fanfare, of the Oculus Rift VR headset development kit in 2013 has made relatively inexpensive home models seem likely in the near future.
Now a major company is jumping into the VR arena. Sony Computer Entertainment has developed a working VR headset, codenamed Project Morpheus, specifically for the PlayStation 4 gaming system. It's in prototype phase as of this writing, so the specifications, functionality and the name may change once the consumer model is finally out, but it will be no less cool.
Read on to find out from whence this electronic marvel came.
History of Project Morpheus
Although we're just now getting details on Project Morpheus, it's been in the works for more than three years, so the device isn't just Sony's response to the Oculus Rift. Sony was already making virtual theater headsets like the HMZ personal 3D viewing device. In 2010, the company released the PlayStation Move motion controllers for PlayStation 3, which enabled sophisticated motion tracking. At that point, various internal groups began delving into the possibility of virtual reality for the PlayStation gaming system. The groups began batting ideas back and forth and sharing their work with each other. Higher ups in Sony took note and it developed into an official project.
A team called Grover was formed from members of the Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (SCEI) Hardware group, Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA) R&D and Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios to work on a prototype, and it has gone through several iterations. First, they duct taped PS Move controllers to a HEADPLAY Personal Cinema System, a third-party headset for viewing movies, games and other media. Then in 2011, they attached PS Move components to a higher-resolution Sony HMZ viewer. In 2012, they produced a demo video of a VR prototype that consisted of an HMZ headset with one attached Move and another Move controller in the user's hand for more control. It had a much narrower field of view than their ultimate goal, but it worked for demonstration purposes.
More than three years of experimentation have finally yielded Project Morpheus, a prototype that was unveiled at the March 2014 Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco by Shuhei Yoshida (President - SCE Worldwide Studios), Richard Marks (Senior Director of Magic Labs - SCEA R&D) and Anton Mikhailov (Senior Software Engineer - SCEA R&D).
The device's current name comes from Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, for the dreamlike experience the headset is supposed to evoke. Despite not being ready for market, Project Morpheus has a lot of cool components and capabilities. Read on to find out what technical details we know as of mid-2014.
The current Project Morpheus prototype is a sleek black and white wearable VR headset. It has a 5-inch (12.7-centimeter) LCD display with 1920 by 1080 pixel (960 by 1080 per eye) resolution, which users will view through special lenses. In order to mimic 3D binocular vision, each eye will see a slightly different rendering of an image at a different angle.
The device provides a 90-degree horizontal field of view for people wearing glasses -- possibly more for others. They have built 15mm to 25mm of eye relief into the headset. It also allows for a wide range of interpupillary distance (IPD).
Several components and peripherals will work together to handle positional tracking and motion control for Project Morpheus. The headset incorporates inertial sensors (gyroscopes and accelerometers) to track head motion and orientation. An external PlayStation Camera (an optional peripheral for PS4 that will be required to use Project Morpheus) will track LEDs all around the device, even on the back of the headset, to keep tabs on the user's position. The device will also work with existing PS Dualshock 4 and PS Move controllers so that PlayStation 4 can track your hands as well as your head. The system allows for six degrees of freedom, has a 3-meter working volume and tracks the position and orientation of the headset with a refresh rate of 1000 Hz.
Project Morpheus also incorporates 3D audio technology that delivers omnidirectional sound by simulating up to 60 virtual speakers so that sounds seem like they're coming from very specific directions all around you. The audio will change accordingly as you move to deliver the most realistically immersive experience possible. The sound is delivered through headphones plugged into an audio jack on the headset. Wireless headphones will also work.
Aside from the headphone jack, the device has HDMI and USB ports and is currently wired with a 5-meter (16.4-foot) cable, although the team will look into making the consumer model wireless. The prototype connects via the wire to a small breakout box, which in turn connects to the PlayStation 4 (and optionally your television). The box includes a USB port, three HDMI ports and a power connector.
The prototype was made with comfort in mind. It was designed so that your head would bear the load without putting weight on your nose, cheeks or other parts of your face. An open-air design allows for airflow to help prevent lens fogging or overheating, but still manages to block light to your eyes to decrease potential distractions. There are various adjustment points on the prototype to make room for different head shapes.
All of the technical specs are tentative and could change in the next version or versions. For the consumer model, they are considering a higher quality OLED display, and they plan to work out any kinks and make it as plug-and-play as possible so that anyone will feel comfortable using it. No firm details for future versions have been released at the time of this writing.
What can Project Morpheus do?
Project Morpheus has been designed to work with the powerful PlayStation 4 to provide an immersive VR gaming experience where you put on the headset and lose yourself in a virtual world. Sony is calling the anticipated experience "presence," which is the feeling that you are actually physically present in the game world.
According to the developers of Project Morpheus, some of the key elements to creating presence are low latency, high frame rate, good calibration, believable or consistent scale of game objects, clean image rendering and realistic 3D audio. Low latency and high frame rate are also keys to avoiding motion sickness. It also helps if there are contact points within the game that match the position of your actual hands, say on a steering wheel or other specialized controller or attachment like the PlayStation Move. With the right game and right implement, you could feel like you are actually swinging a sword or steering a car.
The breakout box can be connected to your television to display the image that the headset user's left eye is seeing so that others can watch the gameplay. There's even the possibility of non-headset users playing against the person with the headset, although at present only the headset-wearer's view is possible on the TV screen. Players may also be able to interact with the headset wearer through the PlayStation phone app or the PlayStation Vita portable device.
Even though Project Morpheus is a gaming console peripheral, the company hopes that it will be used for other things like shopping or visiting museums or other parts of the world -- even beyond. They have already worked with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on a Mars demo using real footage captured by the Curiosity rover.
Sony is working on game engines, development tools and a VR distribution channel. They are partnering with lots of third-party companies for developing content and other necessary software. Some partners include Unity, Havok, Gigantic, Autodesk Gameware Scaleform, DDD, Epic Games, Silicon Studio, CRI Middleware, Bitsquid, Crytek and FMOD. The Project Morpheus team is also particularly keen to work with indie game developers because they can create new and innovative experiences without having to wait for approval from a corporate entity.
Even though the device isn't out yet, a few games or partial game experiences have been demonstrated with the headset, including the following:
- "The Deep" -- a partial demo game created by Sony's London Studio where the player is lowered into the ocean in a diving cage to view, and sometimes battle, sea life.
- "Thief" -- a non-game build of the sections of the game "Thief" that allows the player to explore the "Thief" universe.
- "The Castle" -- a medieval game where the player uses two Move controllers to grab various weapons to beat, mangle or otherwise manipulate a dummy.
- "EVE: Valkyrie" -- a spaceship dog-fighting game made specifically for VR by CCP, creators of the popular online game "EVE."
Does Project Morpheus have competition?
The most likely competitor of Project Morpheus is the Oculus Rift VR headset, which was released in the form of a development kit in April 2013. The Rift initially received funding through a Kickstarter campaign in 2012, to the tune of nearly 10 times its initial goal. Facebook recently purchased the company for around $2 billion. The initial development kit had a 720p display and was missing positional tracking, but the new Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 (DK2) has specs more in line with Morpheus. The updated Rift includes a low-persistence 1080p resolution OLED display (slightly better than the Morpheus LCD display) and allows for a 100-degree field of view (down from the previous dev kit's 110-degree fov). For tracking, it comes with a camera and integrates a near infrared CMOS sensor, gyroscope, accelerometer and magnetometer. Its refresh rate is similar to that of Project Morpheus. Oculus Rift also includes a built in latency tester to help developers monitor and lower latency.
The Oculus Rift DK2 is $350 and is available for pre-order as of this writing, which puts it way ahead of Project Morpheus as far as availability goes. There isn't currently a projected release date for the consumer model, but tens of thousands of dev kits have already been shipped and several games are already available for the Rift, with many more in the works. Incidentally, "EVE: Valkyrie," which has been used to demonstrate Project Morpheus, was initially created for Oculus Rift. Right now there are only a few Project Morpheus prototypes, but more will reportedly be produced and made available to hundreds of developers as a dev kit, along with a software development kit (SDK) that's in the works.
Other Rift advantages are that it's somewhat platform independent (although right now it only works on Windows, Mac and Linux machines, no game consoles) and has open source software and hardware. Rift's software development kit (SDK) is available for free.
Valve, the software company famous for creating the games "Half-Life" and "Portal," created its own prototype VR headset and demonstrated it to a handful of developers at their Steam Dev Days conference in January 2014. The prototype was reportedly more impressive than the first Oculus Rift dev model. However, the company has no plans to release a consumer VR headset. They've even worked with Oculus to improve its product.
Two other VR headsets debuted at GDC 2014: the Sulon Cortex and the Seebright. However, both use your own cell phone as the display and content delivery system, so they aren't quite in the same league as Oculus and Morpheus.
So Oculus and PlayStation may be the only games in town for a while for fully immersive 3D VR unless other major players jump in. Project Morpheus has the advantage of being developed by a major company for a mainstream gaming console that as of this writing has already sold over 6 million units in the short time it has been out. The existence of PlayStation Move also gives them a readymade VR controller. But Oculus VR's purchase by Facebook puts a lot of weight behind the Rift, too. Both companies, however, seem to be viewing the other's fortunes as validation of VR as a viable technology rather than worrisome competition.
Reviews and Availability
Word from people who have been able to try the device is that it's pretty impressive as far as delivering virtual reality experiences, but, being a prototype, it still needs a little work. It inevitably draws comparisons with the Oculus Rift, especially their new Dev Kit 2 version. In fact, both were demonstrated at GDC 2014.
Early reviews based on demos say that Project Morpheus reportedly has better lenses and doesn't have as much of the effect of looking through a screen door as Oculus Rift. But Project Morpheus has a little more black space in the peripheral vision area due to the narrower field of view, slightly lower display quality and a little more of an issue with image persistence and motion blurring. Project Morpheus also reportedly has a little room for improvement in the comfort arena, and there were a couple of reports of the lenses fogging after a few minutes of use. Although it blocks light, you can apparently see out the bottom of the device when you look down.
As far as the game demos went, "EVE: Valkyrie" reportedly delivered the most immersive experience, although "The Castle" got props for using the Move controllers to give the game character two hands with more realistic motion than the other demos.
Project Morpheus is still in the prototype phase, so a lot can change between this model and subsequent models. And regarding any competing devices, if you're a PlayStation 4 owner, Project Morpheus will likely be the one for you, if you want VR on that platform.
As of mid-2014 release date had not been announced for Project Morpheus. A consumer model was not expected in 2014, so 2015 is the earliest possibility. As mentioned in the previous section, the current prototype will be the first developer's kit, and an SDK is expected in the near future.
Time will tell how the final product will look and function, but it's bound to be a fun peripheral. And with so many competing dev kits in the wild, a lot of VR games are already in development. We are living on the cusp of realistic, in-home virtual reality. Let the immersive gaming begin.
Author's Note: How Project Morpheus Works
This is an exciting time for virtual reality. I've played VR games in the past, and they were unsatisfying and nausea inducing. But that was the 90s, when high latency and low definition were the rule (at least by today's standards). Project Morpheus and Oculus Rift are both making at-home high-def VR seem like a near-future possibility. Honestly, I will probably want both devices when they are out in consumer form. It's not like I don't have more than one gaming system, each with its own peripherals. And maybe a little competition will make them both strive for even higher quality than they've already achieved. Holodeck, here we come.
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