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Sony’s long-standing interest in virtual reality gives Project Morpheus an edge

sony sees facebook purchase oculus validation vr efforts project morpheus
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The most impressive thing that Sony’s Project Morpheus could possibly do in its 2014 Game Developer’s Conference reveal is work, and work well. The virtual reality headset immediately carries all of the same promise evident in the most recent iterations of Oculus VR’s Rift offering, and we’ve only just seen it for the first time. Of course, Sony’s been working on Morpheus in secret, compared to Oculus’ much more public crowd-funded development.

“We’ve been doing VR for this project for about three years, so we definitely started before Oculus was even funded,” Sony U.S. R&D senior software engineer Anton Mikhailov tells Digital Trends in a GDC interview. “Certainly, they brought a lot of steam to the whole VR ecosystem, so that’s been a great help for us as well as them. We’re not ignoring their contributions. We think they’re a fantastic group of people who are very excited about VR, but we started our project quite awhile ago.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Sony has a history with head-mounted displays that extends all the way back to 1997’s Glasstron, of which multiple models were released. That was later succeeded by the HMZ-T1 in late 2011, with T2 and T3 models following in 2012 and 2013, respectively. The Glasstron actually featured some limited game support, but all of these earlier Sony devices amounted to little more than floating screens inside a headset, with a projected image looming large in an otherwise blacked out space. Hardware and software support for head-tracking got its biggest boost in years with the success of Oculus on Kickstarter, though that’s largely a product of great timing. As some form of tech is more widely embraced, expensive supply lines that drive up the cost to consumers become less of an issue.

Sony's Glasstron
Sony’s Glasstron Image used with permission by copyright holder

“This is similar to what we saw with motion control, where you get some big market like cellphones bringing down the cost of something like motions sensors significantly,” Mikhailov says. “So basically, you have this cross-section right now where display panels have gotten small, high-resolution, and affordable, whereas before to get such a panel you’d need to go to military-grade VR simulations. Now you can buy them for a reasonable price. So at this point we can actually make a good quality VR system that is still affordable for people to purchase.”

“It just seemed like the right time. That’s why you’re seeing a lot of this kind of advancement happening very rapidly.”

Sony hasn’t yet assigned any sort of release date for Morpheus, as the hardware is still in development. The Sony-developed demos that we spent time with on the show floor at GDC are more proof-of-concept than sneak previews of future games. Sony’s research team is actively thinking about what a content-rich future in VR looks like, however. There’s nothing confirmed, of course, though we do know that CCP Games’ in-development space combat simulator EVE: Valkyrie is coming to Morpheus. Eidos Montreal’s Thief was also converted for demo purposes at the show, but it’s still undeniably early days for the software development side of Morpheus.

“At this point we can actually make a good quality VR system that is still affordable for people to purchase.”

“We really think that presence is the killer app for VR,” Mikhailov says. “The feeling that you get that you are surrounded by a real world. So I think just feeling that you’re in a fantastical environment is already worth the price of admission. Now how you design games in that environment is fairly open-ended. We don’t have much to draw upon. Not many people have done virtual reality games.”

“It’s a little too early to say what is sort of the main genre or whatever, it’s all very up in the air. That’s why we’re revealing this at the Game Developer’s Conference, because we want all the developers to come along and learn with us. We want to be very open with people about our learnings and hope that they’ll be very open with us as well so we can bring this industry up.”

Even input methods remain a massive question mark. It’s one that Oculus continues to wrestle with as well. Is a standard gamepad right? Motion sensing wands? Some sort of elaborate hybrid, like Sixense’s STEM system? It’s here that Sony actually has something of a leg up. It remains to be seen if VR content demands don’t call for revisions on the controller hardware side, but both the PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4 gamepad and the Move motion-sensing wand are effectively VR-ready when paired with a PlayStation 4 Eye.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

“We designed the DualShock 4 so that it can be tracked by the camera because we really believe that VR input is a huge deal. When we designed the PlayStation Move, we actually designed it to be a VR input controller,” Mikhailov explains. “It launched alongside the Wii and the Kinect, which were more focused on party[-friendly] casual titles, whereas the Move was always very much focused on precision input. That might’ve gotten lost in the messaging, but it was always designed to be a virtual reality controller. So when we started doing Project Morpheus, it was quite nice because we already had a leg up on that.”

Oculus rift crystal cove full angle
Oculus VR’s latest Rift development kit Image used with permission by copyright holder

The tricky thing with VR inputs is that, when you get right down to it, there’s no one input solution that qualifies as the “right” one. Just as in real life, different activities require different modes of interaction. Steering a car is not like swinging a sword is not firing a gun… and so on. Again, it goes back to what Mikhailov said about presence. It’s about selling the user on the illusion in any way that you can, which further heightens the sensation that the virtual reality in your headset is actually a physical space you inhabit.

“In the EVE: Valkyrie demo that [CCP Games] put together for Morpheus, the controls that the pilot has when you look down look remarkably similar to a DualShock,” Mikhailov says. “They did that on purpose because when you’re holding a DualShock and you see your hands holding something like a DualShock, it increases your sense of presence. The next step is to track the DualShock; they haven’t gotten around to that, but when you track the DualShock [so it has 1:1 movements in the virtual space] and use it as a sort of 3D flight input, it can work as that kind of device. I think the most intense presence experiences are going to be lined up with whatever object using the VR matching with the real-world objects that you’re using.”

“We really think that presence is the killer app for VR.”

Sony’s R&D team is also looking at a few other possibilities for enhancing the capabilities of Morpheus. The company’s GDC booth tour included an in-development project involving eye-tracking. It’s not something that’s being formally integrated, for the VR headset or anything else (according to Sony, at least);  it’s simply a nifty toy with promising future applications. The short version is, you sit down in front of an eye-tracking camera and, once you’ve calibrated it (a quick process), your eyes effectively double as a DualShock 4’s right analog stick. The booth demo paired this technology with Infamous: Second Son, and it works extremely well.

“We’ve been using [eye-tracking] for a long time actually,” Mikhailov says. “My personal opinion, the most exciting thing about it is it gives you this feeling like it’s reading your mind. A lot of people talk about mind control interface, they talk about thing that you stick on your brain and then it reads your thoughts, but what’s funny is that your eyes are super correlated with whatever you’re thinking about.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

He goes on to describe a demo in which the participant is asked to look at a map and think about just one of the countries they see on it. The person conducting the demo then lights up the country on the map and, nearly every time, it’s the one the demo participant was thinking of. This isn’t mind-reading; it’s simply a process of understanding expected physiological responses. In this case, the eyes are naturally drawn to the location on the map that’s being thought of, and the technology has advanced to the point where reading their movement with that sort of precision is possible. It’s evident in Second Son; your eyes don’t just control the camera, they also pinpoint targets, even distant ones.

Anton Mikhailov, senior software engineer at Sony U.S. R&D
Anton Mikhailov, senior software engineer at Sony U.S. R&D Image used with permission by copyright holder

“There’s a lot of really exciting possibilities [with eye-tracking] because it’s much more reliable than anything mind control-related,” Mikhailov continues. “You can imagine cases … I look at a gun in a first-person shooter game and the enemy dives for that weapon. Stuff where the game really knows how you’re interacting with it beyond the button input. I think that’s the most exciting for me, orthogonal to the advantages of an HMD space.”

The idea of combining something like Morpheus with eye-tracking is a definite possibility. “It’s kind of a natural combination. How we mesh that or whether we put that in the devkit is still open, but it’s definitely something– I believe Valve has talked about it, I think Oculus has talked about it somewhat. Basically, a lot of people have suggested it as a natural pairing for VR, so it’s something we’re interested in looking into as well.”

One thing that isn’t a consideration – at least at the present time – is evolving the Move controller. It was originally designed with VR applications in mind, and the current model already works with Morpheus. Sony’s so-called Castle demo, in which you swing fists and swords at a training dummy in a castle courtyard, involves holding one Move controller in each hand. With Morpheus wrapped around your eyes, those two Move controllers appear as your in-game hands and arms. The controllers replicate your real-world movements with 1:1 precision.

“Move already got a boost from PS4’s new camera, it got some accuracy improvements there. We were able to implement some improvements for free, effectively, because we can support the same hardware [that we originally launched for the PlayStation 3],” Mikhailov explains. “Move 2 is a longer-term discussion. If we come up with enough features to create something like that then that’s something we might consider, but at this time we don’t have anything to announce on that.”

Sony Smart Glasses patent image
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Mikhailov pleads the fifth when asked how Move could possibly evolve beyond its current form, though he does dangle some tantalizing possibilities. “When we did Move, we published a whole slew of patent work around the various other things that we considered doing for Move but didn’t quite make it in,” he says.

“If you look through some of those, you’ll see some of the crazier ideas that we’ve done. I don’t know if I’ll comment further on exactly which of those we think are the most viable, but we have a lot of patents in the area of what might make sense for a virtual reality device. The core of it already works; it’s more about the finer tweaks, if anything, but [Move is] definitely a VR-ready controller as it is now.”

Adam Rosenberg
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Previously, Adam worked in the games press as a freelance writer and critic for a range of outlets, including Digital Trends…
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