Sony’s next PS VR helmet is VR’s best chance at going mainstream

VR is the future. There’s little point in arguing that fact. At some point, the technology will be so streamlined and integrated that it will be as common as smartphones. However, VR is currently struggling to find a foothold in the mainstream. It has been getting better over the past decade or so since it started being widely commercially available, but it has never managed to hit a wide audience. A lot of major companies are throwing their weight behind these headsets, too. Facebook, Valve, and Google are some of the biggest tech giants in the world, but even their headsets aren’t finding mass appeal.

Why, then, would Sony’s upcoming VR headset succeed where other tech heavyweights have failed? Sony’s original PlayStation VR was comparatively underpowered at the time, so what makes Sony VR’s last chance to catch the public’s eye, if you’ll pardon the pun? It has a few unique advantages in its favor, but I believe it will only work if the PS VR 2 has a few key features.

PlayStation’s unique position

PSVR 2 Controllers.

PlayStation stands alone as the only home console manufacturer investing in the VR space. Nintendo technically tried way too early with the Virtual Boy and hasn’t looked back since, and Microsoft toyed with the idea of augmented reality (AR) via HoloLens on Xbox One, but never followed through. PlayStation’s PS VR for the PS4 was the only console-compatible VR headset on the market, and proved just how much people valued convenience over specs.

The PS VR is not a powerful headset. The PS VR has a resolution of 1920 x 1080, used the PlayStation camera to track movement, and either the regular DualShock 4 controller or old PS3 Move controllers. The highest-end headset at the time, released earlier the same year, had a resolution of 2160 x 1200, used base station cameras for room scale, and supported the Vive controllers, plusit had other advantages like built-in microphones and headphones.

However, those other headsets had flaws, too. Not only did every other VR headset have to be hooked up to a PC, they also had big price tags. At launch, PSVR was $200 to $300 cheaper than the launch price for all other, more powerful headsets on the market.

Valve is in the closest position to Sony in this regard, owning Steam and (occasionally) developing games. The main difference is the fact that Steam games run on PCs, which can vary wildly in power between any two systems. Even today, there’s a prevailing perception that powerful PCs require you to be a technological wizard who is willing to spend a lot of time, and even more money, to build one. On the other hand, if you’ve already got a PlayStation, then once you get the headset, you’re VR ready. Simple. (This era of chip shortages causing consoles themselves to be hard to find is a wrinkle that Sony can’t really control.)

The PS5, despite all the challenges facing it, is still the fastest-selling PlayStation system of all time. Sales will eventually level out over time as stock finally catches up, but for now, the sales are extremely promising, which is vital for the PS VR 2. The original PS VR only did so well because of the massive success of the PS4, and if the PS5 is selling even better, then Sony is in a perfect position to take VR as a whole to the next level.

What PS VR 2 needs to be

A woman reaching out while wearing a VR headset.
Mark Nazh/Shutterstock

Just shipping out a more powerful version of the PS VR and calling it a day isn’t going to work. VR, even when tied to the success and ease of use of the PS5, is still a hard sell for most people. Before VR can really show people what it is capable of and grow beyond the niche audience it currently has, people have to want to bring it into their homes. Again, this is an area Sony can capitalize on that no other company can, if it does a few very important things right.

First up is the price. Sony managed to do pretty well pricing the original PS VR, although it may have been a bit on the high side. It was basically the price of an additional console, which is a big ask for what most people look at as a peripheral. Even over specs or software, price is the number one thing most consumers will look at before even considering adding an extra piece of tech.

The PS5 is expensive, but not overly so. The market has clearly shown that it hit a sweet spot based on it selling out within hours each time stock is available. The headset cannot cost as much as the console this time around. Sony might have to sell the PS VR 2 at a bit of a loss if it wants to see long-term success. Right now, the cheaper digital edition of the PS5 costs $400, so a VR headset should, at the least, cost $50 below that. If Sony can make it $300, that would probably convert a lot more people early on who might otherwise be on the fence.

Use Sony’s IP

Ratchet and Clank on the PS5 home screen.

The biggest miss of PS VR the first time around was not getting any of PlayStation’s biggest first-party IPs on there. Yes, it did have some first-party studios make exclusive games for it, and a few were actually great, but the vast majority of people out there are way more familiar with the names of Ratchet and Clank, Nathan Drake, Kratos, and even Sackboy than Guerilla Games, London Studios, or Team Asobi. Now that Astro has gotten a chance to shine outside of VR, and as a free experience on every PS5, he could come back to bolster VR, but otherwise Sony needs some iconic characters to sell this hardware.

I don’t just mean some sort of VR “experience,” either, like a Horizon-type game where it’s just five on-rails levels of you playing as Aloy riding a robot dinosaur going down a fancy shooting gallery. Take a page from Valve’s Half Life: Alyx and make some real, full-game experiences for players to sink their teeth into. Those smaller experiences are fun, too, but if there’s nothing substantial to play, most people won’t bother.

People buy PlayStations for the high-quality games we come to expect from its studios. If Sony doesn’t provide that same level of game for PS VR 2, like it didn’t for PS VR, people aren’t going to buy in.

Give it support

Playing poker in VR.

Aside from providing PS VR 2 with prestige first-party titles, Sony needs to keep up support for the system just like it does with the PS5 itself. The early days of the PS VR looked promising in this regard, most notably with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard being fully playable in VR on PS4 and nowhere else. After that, there wasn’t much else besides ports and indie games coming to the system. This led to a cycle where developers didn’t want to spend the resources making a VR game for such a low install base, which in turn kept sales from growing because there were no high-quality games. This loop didn’t end up fully killing PS VR, but certainly crippled its potential.

Sony has great relationships with tons of big publishers and developers outside its own studios. It needs to leverage some deals for exclusive VR experiences. Heck, try and get Half Life: Alyx on there! See if Capcom will port Resident Evil Village. Even getting the rumored Resident Evil 4 VR could move some units. Sony will need to eat a good deal of upfront cost, but we already know that VR can’t succeed on smaller games alone, and until the market is big enough, major studios won’t spend development time and resources for a fraction of the market.

So long as PS VR 2 is compatible with the original PS VR games (which would be a major mistake if it wasn’t), Sony could do some sort of PS Plus Collection equivalent for it. That would be another easy way to make the initial purchase more appealing. If you knew you were getting all the best older PS VR games included, it gets easier to justify that big investment.

Make it work on PC

VR look inside cells.
University of Cambridge

PS5 is currently leading the way for console sales, but Sony has finally come around to the idea of porting its first-party games to the PC. PCs aren’t a competitor, and in the case of VR, they could even be its biggest ally. Right off the bat, you expand your market to sell units to people who either can’t find, or don’t want, a PS5. A lot of gamers have invested in PC gaming and won’t bother with a relatively underpowered console, but would be interested in a lower-priced VR headset. This also helps the support issue: There are way more VR games, or VR-compatible games, on PC that could bolster the PSVR 2’s library the moment it comes out.

And, if we still live in a world where PS5s are a struggle to get your hands on, then people could at least pick up the PS VR 2 beforehand and get those aforementioned first-party games to play via PC.

Go beyond games

A player swinging controllers in Supernatural Fitness VR.

This is thinking further into the future, but when talking about VR, I believe it’s essential. Games should only be the beginning for the tech. Draw people in with games, making it easy to throw on and start playing, but then give them more. Games are bigger than ever, sure, but VR is destined to be used for so much more. Sony needs to pave the way for this, or at least be open to allowing it. We’ve already seen VR spread its wings with other uses, like virtual hangout spaces, theater and concert viewing, exercise, and creative spaces.

This can’t all be on Sony, of course, but it can get the ball rolling in some major ways. Why not do special VR premieres of new Sony Pictures movies? It just purchased the anime streaming service Crunchyroll, so maybe it could make that service VR-friendly. A social space like PlayStation Home from the PS3 days would be a perfect fit for PS VR 2 if built right, and just bringing Dreams as a creative tool to PS5 would inspire tons of artists and designers to strap on a headset and make something.

As for everything else, all Sony has to do is allow people to do what they want with their headsets. If it works with PCs, people are going to find a way to do more with it, after all. As long as they’re not stealing games, data, or anything malicious like that, just let them. I know, Sony isn’t all that fond of letting people mod its work, but the best way for VR to appeal to everyone is to let people do as much as they can with it.

Specs aren’t that important

People playing PSVR on a couch.
Sony

We need to remember that, historically, the strongest hardware doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the most successful. There’s plenty of examples in the console space, but even just looking at VR, we see it. The original PS VR, as of 2020, sold 5 million units. While we don’t have solid numbers for most other headsets, it is widely reported that this was by far the bestselling headset at the time, despite being far weaker and tied to the aging PS4.

At the same time, that 5 million is a mere fraction of 100-plus million PS4s sold by that point. The promise of an easy-to-use VR headset, with no expensive or complicated PC to worry about, and a lower price point is what people care about most. Heck, that’s what the console market is. They’re less powerful than a PC could be, but they just work.

From what we know about this new headset, it will again be a decent device in terms of specs, still have one required cable, and feature controllers that will utilize the DualSense’s haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. Sony proved it can get a foot in the door with PS VR, but stopped short of actually pushing it open. If it doesn’t follow through with this next attempt, it may be a while before VR as a whole reaches its full potential.

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