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Project Morpheus: Ten key questions answered

By Mike Jackson on Friday 21st Mar 2014 at 3:30 PM UTC

CVG has play tested both Sony's Project Morpheus and the newest version of the Oculus Rift VR headsets in depth at the GDC expo this week. So, how do they compare?

Sony committed to giving Oculus a run for its money when the platform holder announced the Morpheus VR prototype at GDC on Tuesday.

CVG has already published first hands-on impressions of the Morpheus, and compared the official tech specs of the two units. But if you're as fascinated by these emerging devices as we are, you'll be interested to know exactly how Sony's unit works, what it can and cannot do, and what it feels like to use. And most crucially, is it better than Oculus? Let's get into the nitty gritty details...

Is Morpheus comfortable to wear?

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One of the first concerns for those who've never used VR is how it feels to wear the bulky-looking device on your head. This is one thing Sony has really nailed. The Morpheus looks big and heavy in pictures, but is actually super light-weight. Also, while the rather crudely Rift grips your head with rudimentary straps, the Morpheus uses a more developed plastic bracket that's fully adjustable and lined with super comfortable sponge and rubber buffering material. The actual display unit doesn't put any weight on your nose or cheeks whatsoever.

What are the blue lights for?

The blue lights don't just make the Morpheus look like something out of a Tron movie. They also serve as vital markers for the PlayStation Camera to track in the same way as it does the light bar on the DualShock 4 controller and the orb on the Move controller. Along with internal gyroscope and tilt sensors, Sony's light tracking system provides impressively fast and accurate three-dimensional head tracking to within what appears to be millimeters.

Does the display completely engulf your field of view?

Disappointingly, no. There are still fairly prominent black borders all the way around the outside of your view. You perceive a circle image that serves as your window into the stereoscopic 3D world. The view is very wide - suitable enough to provide an immersive experience - but you can still clearly see black borders. For comparison's sake, we thought the Oculus had a slightly wider field of view, but the differences were negligible.

How do you adjust focus?

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We were surprised that the Morpheus, at least in its current form, doesn't have any real on-board focus adjustment, such as a toggle switch or zoom dial. Instead, the entire unit must be shifted towards or away from your face via a short rail where the unit connects to the head-mounted bracket in the middle of your forehead. The first issue with this is, if you move the unit away from your face to achieve focus, you create a gap between your cheeks and the rubber seal around your eyes, meaning you can look down and see the outside real world, which detracts from the illusion of presence inside the sim.

Our main problem however, was that we simple never achieved a completely comfortable level of focus. The image was always slightly soft and no amount of adjustment seemed to fully rectify the issue. It was tolerable over short play tests, but we can imagine this causing some eye strain over longer periods of use. This, above all else, is an issue Sony must address in future prototypes.

Using the latest Rift prototype, for comparison, we experienced almost no issues with focus at all. We put the unit on and we were instantly comfortable with the clarity of the optics. But there is one catch...

How does its image quality compare to Oculus Rift?

Despite its focus issues, the Morpheus seemed to have the superior screen. The Rift's optics were sharp and comfortable, but unfortunately they are the gateway to a fairly lackluster screen, with a lack of definition and a scan line effect covering the entire display. Conversely, the Morpheus display appeared clearer and crisper.

We should note that pixel density appeared fairly low on both units, with the Rift seemingly using a slight softening filter to disguise the jaggies, which were more clearly evident on the sharper Morpheus display.

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The Morpheus also appeared to suffer from a very slight blur on moving objects, typically caused by poor pixel response.

Overall, we got the impression that the displays used in both units were more comparable to low-end in-car navigation screens, rather than your super-sharp flatscreen TV. We suspect display quality is something heavily hampered by the per-unit target costs. Affordability, after all, is absolutely crucial.

Was there any perceivable lag to the head tracking?

No. We were mightily impressed with how instant the games responded to our movements. In a demo called 'Castle', we were able to look all around a medieval castle courtyard and even convincingly walk around (within a confined space of course) to get a full 360 view of a soldier manikin. Both VR units track movement well, but the Morpheus demos better demonstrated that Sony has essentially already nailed fast and accurate head tracking thanks to the PlayStation Eye.

Can you plug in alternative video sources?

A Sony R&D tech told CVG on the show floor that the Morpheus - at least presently - can receive an external video source via HDMI. But, we were informed, any video source not specifically designed for Morpheus VR will simply be displayed on the Morpheus as a 2D plain in front of the user, and you move your head to look around the flat view. There'll also be no stereoscopy.

It's unclear at this point if universal HDMI-in support is a feature only present in the prototype for testing and development, or if it's planned for the final retail version, although we suspect the latter.

How does Morpheus track your head motion when you turn away from the screen and, thus, the PlayStation Camera?

Sony has cleverly built two additional glowing blue lights into the rear of the head bracket, so even when you're facing away from the PS Camera, it still has clear markers to keep track of.

Is it wired or wireless?

The current Project Morpheus prototype is wired. It connects via a long black cable to a small box which will in turn connect to your PS4. This black box, we were told, also doubles up as a video splitter, offering a second output (via HDMI) to a TV screen where the Morpheus' display is duplicated without requiring any extra processing from the PS4.

Which demo best demonstrated the benefits of VR?

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'The Deep' casts you as a diver in a shark cage being lowered into the sea as a giant shark attacks the cage. You can shoot flairs and it's very atmospheric, but there's otherwise very little interaction involved. Eve: Valkyrie offered the closest thing to a real video game and looks ace. It also used head tracking for real gameplay - you lock onto enemies by physically looking at them.

But we found the most immersive experience was Castle, which places you in the middle of a medieval castle courtyard, stood in front of a soldier manikin. The demo used two Move controllers, one in each hand to represent your in-game mitts. Pulling the trigger on the Move controller gripped with the corresponding hand. The sense of presence was astounding. You can grab onto parts of the manikin and pull on it. You can pick up swords stabbed into the ground on either side of you and swing them around in real time, chopping away pieces of the manikin.

"The sense of presence was astounding"

This was utterly absorbing. We threw a sword with one hand and caught it with the other. We stabbed and punched the manikin. We even walked (carefully, considering the obvious risk of running into something in real life) completely around the manikin and was stunned by how real everything felt. We can't wait to see how developers use this tech in real games.

If you could have one VR headset right now, which would you buy?

This is a tough one. In their current states, neither the Oculus Rift or Sony's Morpheus feel ready for retail. But of the two, Sony's effort feels like a more finished product. Save for the critical issue of poor focus adjustability, the Morpheus is significantly more comfortable to wear, has a better screen, features a sexy futuristic aesthetic and benefits, we think, from its native compatibility with PS4 - a fixed platform that should make its setup and use as intuitive as can be.

So, for now, Sony has the edge. But it's important to remember that neither of the headsets are final - both are prototypes and still in heavy development. It'll be interesting to see how the final retail units stack up and, more crucially, who will make it to market first.