'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' Lead Next Wave in Virtual Reality

'Star Trek Bridge Crew' is a social game that puts you on the bridge of the USS Aegis. Credit: Ubisoft

Studios are starting to crack the code for what makes a great VR experience

Studios are starting to crack the code for what makes a great VR experience

When it comes to virtual reality, things like visual fidelity and screen resolution matter only so much. It's all about the immersion factor – the way a well-wrought VR experience rings effortlessly true to our reptile brains. At E3 this year, game critics bailed out during demos of Everest's high, narrow ledges. The new Resident Evil 7 on VR caused at least one terrified player to freak out, clawing at the headset to get it off, to escape the horrifying world around her. Fortunately, most VR game experiences involve less terror and more fun. 

The PlayStation VR's game lineup and price tag might finally put one of these funky headsets within the reach of the non-connoisseur. Though it's not quite as sophisticated, technically speaking, as either the Oculus Rift or HTC's Vive headset, the barrier to entry isn't as steep (a PS4 is way cheaper than a high-end PC), and the level of publisher support already evident inspires hope that your favorite games might one day be adapted to the medium.

Sony's announcement at E3 that the PSVR would go on sale October 13 wasn't a huge surprise, but the price was a relief. Although $399 isn't cheap, it's less than any other VR platform on the market, and well within the realm of the reasonable for anyone who's purchased a game console in the last 10 years. (Compare that to the $600 Rift and the $800 Vive, both of which require a hefty PC to run.) 

Sony can offer the lower price point partially because it owns some of the hardware production. You may recall when the PlayStation 3 launched in 2006, it was actually cheaper to buy the console to watch your Blu-Ray movies than a standalone player. That was the strength of Sony's supply chain at work.

But the PSVR also comes with a compromise: while the optics are upgraded, offering a crisp picture, the whole system has less horsepower than its PC-based competitors, in part because of the console it's attached to.

One key thing that the Vive and Rift have going for them are the controllers. The level of fidelity they provide is unmatched at this point by PSVR's reliance on a sensor camera and dual PlayStation Move controllers. The Vive offers nearly perfect positional tracking and a multitude of buttons; the Rift's Touch system, the ability to capture complex motions like reaching out and grabbing things.

"There are many technical bars that must be reached to give a user that true feeling of 'presence,' where a person believes at a fundamental level that they are in an alternate reality," says Jason Rubin, head of content for Oculus VR. "An example of presence would be standing at the edge of a virtual building, looking over the edge, feeling your heart pounding and finding yourself incapable of taking a perfectly safe – in the real world – step forward off the virtually visible edge.  

"Of the many technical bars, tracking precision is key. While products that do not reach the tracking precision of the Rift can be exciting and cool, they have a harder time providing presence. The Rift's price point was the minimum possible to hit the technical bars needed for presence, and [we] have publicly stated that we are subsidizing the hardware to get there."

The Move system is less clunky with PSVR than it used to be because of an upgraded higher-resolution stereoscopic camera, according to Rick Marks. He's the senior research engineer at Sony Interactive Entertainment. He's also the guy who helped to inspire both Move and the PSVR itself.

The company also showed off a gun-style controller at E3, the PSVR "Aim," which debuts with the Farpoint shooter. Some games still used regular PS4 controllers.

"The Moves themselves are older, but the camera is new," Marks says. "The Moves did a lot to establish that having hands in VR was valuable."

"For us, it's a really exciting time, because we announced a strong lineup," he says. The PSVR's 50-plus announced titles include new chapters from a pile of favorites: Batman Arkham VR, Resident Evil 7, Final Fantasy XV, Star Trek and Star Wars among them. Those big names help to spread awareness of PSVR's existence, he says.

"Hearing that is making a difference for fans. Not enough people have gotten to try it," Marks says. Sony will be demonstrating the system in GameStop and Best Buy stores closer to launch, in a strategy already employed by other VR platforms.

So let's say you've decided to jump on the bandwagon this fall. What are you going to see?

"A lot of designers have not created VR experiences before, so it's new to them," Marks says. "But you're already seeing game designs that are different than what we see on a 2D platform."

One such title is Red Storm Entertainment's Star Trek Bridge Crew, which has provoked a fanatical response from everyone that's tried it. Bridge Crew launches on PSVR, Rift and Vive this fall. "We've been doing social VR since 2014. VR has been my passion since I was 19," explains David Votypka, creative director at Red Storm. "We had this social mindset going in."

When their parent company Ubisoft showed them a list of franchises and brands, Star Trek immediately leapt out at them, Votypka says.

"Star Trek? The social side is in the DNA of the brand," he says. "The bridge crew is the heart. It's the relationships."

Red Storm took the tech it used for Werewolves Within, a conversational game where players attempt to suss out the secret werewolf in their midst, and applied it to Bridge Crew. Subtle shifts like the turn of people's bodies and the movements of their heads, all controlled by other players or the game's A.I., add to the realism.

"You really feel like you're actually there with other people," Votypka says. Technically, he believes the game could be ported to traditional screens. But it wouldn't be the same. "You'd be missing the whole experience. The magic wouldn't be there. The game was not practical before VR."

Three things are possible with VR that can't be duplicated with traditional platforms, he says. "You can go places and feel like you're there. You can become people you couldn't before. And you can do things in the environment that you couldn't do before. VR lets us bring them into these worlds."

Doing so is exceedingly important for a platform holder with ambitions in VR.

"Sony has the fan faves" like Star Wars and Star Trek, says analyst Joost van Dreunen, chief executive at SuperData Research. "They put the emphasis on content."

He's optimistic about that approach, and hopes that it gives the VR market a boost. His company had downgraded its earlier expectations about VR this year after the Rift and Vive suffered supply chain problems. But he says the question should be, "Is [this] the type of content that can carry the dawn of a whole new platform? The price point is a partial driver, but it's really content-driven."

Harmonix hopes the answer is yes. The company has always been swift to jump on new hardware and controllers when they become available – or to make it available, as the company did with its original guitar controllers. Harmonix will have a launch day title exclusively for PSVR: Harmonix Music VR.

It's a much trippier experience than the typical Rock Band or Guitar Hero, featuring four worlds that range from passive graphic complements for music to some seriously strange (but pretty) virtual world-style interaction.

Jon Carter, the creative lead, says the company approached the game design without any preconceptions. There will be no cinematic camera angles, for example – nothing that interferes with the user's view outside of their own head movements.

"It's just not in the toolbox anymore," he explains. "All of the worlds are immediately different than traditional platforms. The game only exists and only makes sense in VR."

Rubin says developers are still working through challenges like how to provide dramatic in-game movement for the player without making people nauseous.

"Some games call for movement," he says. "Adapting to this and other differences in input, sound design, creative design, art direction, and everything else in games is going to keep us busy for a long time. I am confident that VR will not be constrained by any of this, but that the solutions will make VR games different than older 2D titles."

Carter thinks gamers won't give up on traditional platforms in favor of VR – at least not right away. Instead, he predicts you'll play both.

"I see them scratching different itches for the player. They have their own strengths."