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Tech Fix: Sony PlayStation VR Review: The Best of an Early Crop

The experience of being a Dark Knight who is unable to walk underscores the limits of virtual reality. The still-nascent technology began seeping into consumer consciousness this year with the release of high-powered virtual-reality systems like Facebook’s Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive, which are more expensive alternatives to PlayStation VR. In my tests, the Rift and Vive had major flaws, including a lack of compelling content, complex setups and issues with wearing the headgear.

PlayStation VR was meant to overcome those hurdles. The system was the odds-on favorite for mainstream success, partly because it has a lower barrier to entry and partly because tens of millions of people who already own a PlayStation 4 can easily hook it up to the console. In contrast, Oculus Rift and Vive require using a powerful, expensive computer to get a virtual reality experience.

But after testing the PlayStation VR for a week, I’ve concluded that most consumers can wait for more content to become available before buying the headset. Among the nine games that Sony provided for testing, I found only two titles to be noteworthy: the Batman simulation and Super HyperCube, which is like Tetris with a virtual-reality twist. The other games were awkward to control with the game controller or Move wands; some were just plain boring.

For now, the headset is best just for early adopters, who will benefit from PlayStation VR’s easier setup and more comfortable feel than competing virtual-reality systems.

A Straightforward Setup

Setting up PlayStation VR involves a bit more than plugging the device into a PlayStation.

First, you hook up a box containing processors to the PlayStation, and then you plug the headset into the box. The processor box adds the ability to use 3-D audio — for example, you can hear helicopter sounds from up above, or footsteps coming from the stairs below.

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The headgear connects with Sony’s PlayStation 4 game console, working with the PlayStation camera, to detect body movements, and Sony’s Move motion controllers. Credit Sony

From there, you plug the camera into the console. If you are using Move controllers, you also plug those into the console to pair them up. Then you can unplug the Move controllers and use them wirelessly, or use the traditional PlayStation controller to navigate the menu and play virtual-reality games.

Putting on the headgear is easy. Pressing a button on the back of the headset lets you extend it until it fits around your head. On the headset’s cable is a headphone jack.

After that, all that is left to do is download some games and wait for them to install to get started. Over all, it took about 15 minutes to set up the device and another 15 minutes to download a game.

Compare and Contrast

Among the three premium virtual-reality devices — PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive — the PlayStation device is the only one I would recommend for consumers who are eager to dive into virtual reality. There are four main reasons:

■ PlayStation VR is significantly cheaper than rival systems. When the price of Sony’s headgear ($ 399) is combined with the price of a slimmer PlayStation 4 ($ 299), along with two Move wands ($ 99 for a pair) and the PlayStation camera ($ 59), that totals about $ 860. By contrast, Oculus is selling its Rift headset for $ 599, or about $ 1,400 when combined with a computer. HTC’s Vive is even more expensive: about $ 800 for the headset and roughly another $ 800 for a computer that supports it.

■ PlayStation VR is a safer bet for games. In the video game industry, the console with the best content is king. Sony has had longstanding relationships for decades with game developers big and small, dating to the original PlayStation, so you are more likely to see familiar game franchises appear on PlayStation VR than the other systems. Sony’s sample of nine titles for testing PlayStation VR was more compelling than the first titles for Vive and Rift.

■ The PlayStation virtual-reality system is more practical to have in a living room. Because PlayStation VR connects with the PlayStation console, the system won’t take up as much space. Both Oculus Rift and Vive require a PC, along with a mouse and keyboard to download or open games, which is cumbersome. (Have you ever tried using a mouse and keyboard on the living room floor or on a TV stand? Not pleasant.)

■ Sony’s entry into virtual reality has been smoother. Before releasing PlayStation VR, Sony had already released motion controllers and a camera that would eventually support the technology. Oculus has postponed the release of its motion controllers for Rift, which severely limits what you can do inside virtual reality, and HTC’s release of Vive ran into many problems.

Bottom Line

Virtual reality is still in its early days, and it’s unclear whether it will ever catch on with people beyond gamers. If you already own a PlayStation, spending a few hundred dollars for the headgear and accessories is a worthwhile purchase to get started on virtual reality.

But for the average consumer, the thrill of virtual-reality gaming with PlayStation VR may be fleeting. Initially, virtual reality will probably mesmerize you because it’s so unlike any gaming experience you have ever had. But the scarce number of good games available today, combined with the fatigue you will experience after 30 minutes of game play, may drive you back to gaming on your smartphone or television screen.

So I wouldn’t run — or even stroll, for that matter — to buy a virtual-reality system. Batman can’t even walk yet, anyway.

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