"Virtual reality is the next innovation from PlayStation that may well shape the future of games."
That was the bold message from Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida as he uncovered the Project Morpheus VR headset during a GDC presentation on Tuesday.
The inherent appeal of virtual reality has allured entrepreneurs and game creators for decades, and Sony's Project Morpheus follows numerous crude attempts at VR devices from other companies, most of which were commercially dead on arrival. But PlayStation's exec team believes that now, at long last, the technology has reached a point where the dream of high quality virtual reality can be built at a consumer-friendly cost.
And, at least on the performance side of that equation, the device really is impressive. CVG went hands-on with the Project Morpheus prototype in a cramped demo room at GDC and came away more encouraged by the tech than when we arrived.
We played a tech demo called The Deep - a Sony London Studios production which casts the player as a deep sea diver inside a supposedly shark proof cage. Emphasis on the word 'supposedly'.
The demo starts off calm, giving you an opportunity to just look around and take in the sights. Even in such a seemingly mundane scene, the full 3D head tracking is a striking experience. You can look up and see the boats bobbing on the sunlit surface above you. Look down and you can see the deep blue sea stretching down to an ominous and dark black. If you don't like the sensation of being in deep water, this could be quite daunting.
Schools of fish are rendered in full stereoscopic 3D, catching your eye as they shoal through the water, imploring you to turn your head and watch them dance off-camera. The freedom to turn where you want, and the responsive head tracking that allows it, is a small triumph in itself.
"You are going nose-to-nose with this predator, which is what makes VR so exciting"
But that bubble of tranquillity bursts as a shark swims into view and begins to attack the cage. The intimacy that VR provides, plunging you deep into the moment, makes a shark attack (something that's fairly conventional in games) deeply startling.
You might have expected early VR prototypes to consist of a first-person shooter or some other high-octane experience, but as Dave Raynard, studio director at Sony London Studio explained, The Deep perfectly demonstrates what's special about virtual reality.
"We actually thought this demo was good for acclimatising people, because at the beginning of the demo you're in what we call the sunshine zone, and it's actually very placid. There's nice tropical fish swimming by, you can look up and see the boats.
"That's a great acclimatization for someone that's never done VR before. There's no sudden movement, there's no sudden adrenalin moment, so the whole design of it is to acclimatise you and them bring you into something that's more sinister, a bit more narrative. We've actually thought about that quite carefully," he said.
The shark attack, he went on, wouldn't be as impactful on just a TV: "I think if that happened in a traditional game, it might not be that exciting. But the fact that it's actually all around you - and you're going nose-to-nose with this predator - is what makes the VR experience so exciting."
VR development presents its own set of design challenges. In particular, creating a realistic sense of presence. We're standing in a trade show presentation room, for example, and this is something that was considered when deciding to show this demo to GDC attendees.
"The reason we chose this demo is that it has really good one-to-one mapping of what you're doing in the real world. In the cage you're standing, and the real world you're standing. And that makes the immersion all the more true, and that's something we really learned - no abstraction makes a big difference."
Raynard believes virtual reality development will force even the most experienced developers to go back to the drawing board.
"You really have to throw out the rulebook. You have to evaluate what you think will be good versus what actually is good. Some things you try and they don't work quite so well, there are other things that may sound trivial that are actually really inspiring and immersive."
Besides raw game design, there are several technical hurdles that developers have to overcome in order to offer that all-important since of presence.
"You have to get the frame rate up as high as possible," Raynard says.
"Things don't necessarily have to look real in VR, you can be in a stylized space and it still be really immersive"
"You have to get the latency down. Those things are a must-have. If you're making a traditional game you might leave the frame rate for a bit as you get the game working. With VR, you can't do that. You can't tell what the experience is like unless you've got the frame rate rock solid. So there's a different approach to doing things that way."
Yet, while Raynard also stressed that "graphical fidelity is really important", he argued that photo realism is not.
"Things don't necessarily have to look real, you can be in a stylized space and it still be really immersive. You can have something that's quite abstract - as long as the immersion's right it works and makes sense."
When you consider that perhaps the most enthralling of Sony's demos was a PS4 version of the VR-enabled Eve: Valkyrie - a sci-fi fantasy shooter that lets the player take control of a spaceship as they engage in an epic dogfight, it's easy to see what he means.
However, those new to head tracking VR could find the 360-degree action rather bewildering. We worried that, at any given moment, we could be looking in the wrong direction. And this highlights another challenge for developers.
"That's the thing, you can look anywhere," said Raynard. "That's a great design challenge right there - how do you direct the player to look somewhere when they can look anywhere?"
"To be honest, that's something we're still learning," he admitted. "There's a lot of smart people in game development, I'm sure some people will come up with solutions."
This is where audio could be critical. "We think that perhaps the binaural sound can help," said Raynard.
"If something is happening behind you the binaural 3D sound will direct you to that, so I think that could certainly help. But I wouldn't say we've nailed that in the VR community yet."
Games as they currently exist cannot simply be ported directly over with 3D effects, he explained. A virtual reality game requires specific engineering.
"For any developer to create a good VR experience they have to do some re-authorship, whether that's to do with the frame rate or the field of view or the scale of things," he said.
"That's a great design challenge right there - how do you direct the player to look somewhere when they can look anywhere?"
"It depends on the game itself, and what you're actually doing, what navigation you're doing, what scale the props and the buildings are. But at the same time, great IPs have got loads of great content already - amazing maps and props and scenery, and enemy AI, so it's not like they have to start from scratch. The easiest analogy is, you could probably do a VR director's cut of a particular title to make it compatible."
Raynard expects this is something developers will refine over time.
"I think developers will learn smart tricks to do multi-platform development, as people have done for years; You know, a handheld game versus a console game - people now know how to author things so they can hit two targets. So as we learn more I think that will get a lot easier."
The demonstrations on display offered a solitary experience, but to our surprise, Sony is working on second-screen functionality that syncs with the VR helmet. A companion app for In The Deep allows a second player to take part, and Sony hopes this extra functionality is a critical differentiator when compared to other VR projects such as the pioneering Oculus Rift.
"With the companion app, you get to see a view of the cage, you can see the shark swimming around and you can actually introduce other wildlife. So we can introduce a sea turtle, you can direct where the sea turtle swims to and then the shark will go and attack it."
Raynard explained how this second-screen mechanic can really enhance the immersion and drive interesting social experiences.
"We did another demo with a companion app where we got [PlayStation exec Shuhei Yoshida] walking around in this creepy house, and on the companion app we had these different scary sounds. So we would scare him with these really eerie noises, but the payoff one was this really horrible face that would leap out really close [to the players' face], and Shuhei screamed 'Ahhhhh!'."
"I think there will be a lot of VR multiplayer and, for us, we see a lot of value in multiplayer features"
Naturally, CVG played it cool during the demo, but Raynard said others were not quite so relaxed: "The other day we had someone do the demo - quite a laid back kind of guy. And as the sharked attacked him, he shouted 'oh my fucking God', which I thought was really quite funny."
Multiplayer games will also be prominent, according to Raynard.
"I think there will be a lot of VR multiplayer and, for us, we see a lot of value in multiplayer features. You've got your friends, you want to show them this great kit. You want to do something where you can all have a go, so there's a bit of pass-and-play, maybe some asynchronous play with a companion app, so we're really focused on looking at things like that and making it a social experiences."
Such fresh and experimental experiences will be critical for VR, particularly the ideas that indie studios will deliver.
"I think it's a real tenant of PlayStation; that we have triple-A games and we also have a load of indie games. And I think we'll have a similar mix on VR. I do believe there's a great role for triple-A titles, but equally, smaller bespoke experiences could be really interesting. I love seeing what small developers come up with when they work on these sorts of things," he said.
After our play test, we turned our focus on the hardware itself. For what would appear to be a fairly bulky device, the Morpheus prototype is surprisingly lightweight and sits on the head comfortably. Just as Sony promised in its reveal event, we felt no weight placed on our nose or cheeks thanks to a cleverly designed strap that was lined completely with a super-soft rubber cushion, as is the main visor unit.
"When we first got involved we were working with some crazy bits of tech sort of stuck together, with circuit boards sticking out," said Raynard.
"Obviously what we're showing now, it's not finished, it's still a prototype, but it's a reasonably slick piece of kit, it's not too heavy, it looks nice. I'm pleased with how it looks and feels when you're wearing it, actually. It works well for me and I've got the second biggest pair of glasses in the studio."
Raynard went on to say that focus testing and a hardware team that's good at responding to user feedback has been critical to Sony's Morpheus design. Such an openness to making more changes to the device suggests it's still at an early phase, which means a final retail version could be far off.
"We're probably going to see what the reaction is to this announcement first," Raynard said when asked about a release date.
Above all else this is telling of Sony's reluctance to bet the house on virtual reality, at least for now. The commercial challenges, such as keeping price down, adds to the already daunting prospect of carefully managing internal dev resources so there is the right balance of traditional PS4 and VR games.
Which is why it makes sense that Sony's reveal for the device was delayed at Gamescom and then TGS afterwards. To give Project Morpheus a fighting chance to succeed, Sony must prove the concept works and ensure it's supported by external developers.
Wowing attendees at GDC, an achievement Project Morpheus has emphatically achieved, shows Sony is already on the right path.