How PSVR is going to bring virtual reality to the masses and what to expect in the future

2017 will be the year virtual reality becomes mainstream. With that in mind, we hear from Shawn Layden, chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios, about the company's plans for PSVR, why we're finally ready to enter virtual realities and what it could do for the movies

A year ago, if you asked what the most popular virtual reality headset was, the answer would probably be the Oculus Rift; but a year from now it will almost certainly be Sony’s PlayStation VR.

Despite not hitting early – and fairly outlandish – sales estimates, the PSVR is on track to becoming the best-selling VR headset in the world in just a matter of months, smashing the records of both the more expensive Rift and HTC Vive.

As a result, what Sony decides to do with its virtual reality headset – and what content is offered on it – is likely to have a significant impact on how VR develops for many, many years to come. For now, however, VR is very much in its infancy.

“It feels like the first time Edison recorded sounds on a wax cylinder: that’s where we are as far as VR is concerned,” said Shawn Layden, chairman of Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios, at a talk at Web Summit. “There are the things that VR provides: if you completely buy into the narrative that you’re in, you’ll become the character that you want to be, which is perilous stretching in some circumstances.”

What to expect from virtual reality

2017 is set to be a defining period for virtual reality. As developers experiment with different ideas, the industry will begin to find its own specific language and set of conventions, in much the same way that the early 3D games drove the development of many of the standards of gaming that we know today.

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Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment

“The tricky thing about VR, and what makes it so exciting for all of us, is it’s a completely new medium; it’s a place where no one’s gone before,” explained Layden. “And we’re still trying to develop the grammar, the syntax, the vocabulary to describe the various experiences.”

VR will in time find its own style and conventions that are completely separate from conventional console games.

“Once you put the headset on and you fall into that VR world, right now I think we can better leverage people’s desire and disbelief as it’s actually happening, but over the next 12, 18, 24 months we are going to actually find out what runs that experience,” said Layden.

“Right now there’s something happening in VR which could be easily replicated from a console experience, but in 12 or 18 months were going to find things in VR that can only be realised in VR and that’s when the whole thing changes around.”

This of course means that many of the VR games that are released over the next year will be highly experimental, and will likely vary far more than their non-headset-requiring counterparts.

“We’re at the nascent stage; we’re at the entry stage. That’s why if you look at the marketplace, VR experiences a real gamut from family friendly job simulator games all the way up to EVE: Valkyrie or an X-Wing simulator my friends at EA are making,” he added.

“It’s all out there and for the next 12 to 18 months you’re going to see a very, very wide palette of different experiences, because we’re all trying to figure out exactly what [works in VR].

“The answer will reveal itself probably in the next 24 months. But what I’m going to do running the studios inside PlayStation is to continue to challenge that, to continue to bring new ideas to the market, realise them within our hardware.”

Virtual reality is ready for the world

Layden fiercely rejected suggestions that the current rise of virtual reality was just another fad, like the era two decades ago that cemented the idea – but sadly not the reality – of virtual reality technology.

“I think that 20 years ago all the excitement around the virtual boy and the adjacent technologies to them were giving the description to the desire for something that delivers that bold, promising, new experience,” he said. “And in the 20, 25 years since that time we’ve come to the point where three things have happened.

20 years ago the world was ready for VR, VR simply wasn’t ready for the world

“One is just the raw horsepower on some platforms like the PS4. Its processing, the CPU and what it can deliver in real-time. Number two is display technology. I give a lot of credit to the mobile phone industry for actually pushing that forward and how much display resolution and screen power we get – the mobile phone, the way it delivers all that technology in that, is insane.

“And number three is really the cellular market; it’s the ability to mass-produce that level of high-tech experience at the price point which is available to everybody in the world.”

In other words, while 20 years ago the world was ready for VR, VR simply wasn’t ready for the world. But two decades later, the technology has finally been able to catch up with our dreams. And it’s not the only thing that’s changed; the world of gaming itself is also very different.

“I think now we can put our hands in our pockets and say there’s movies, music and gaming: those are the three pillars of entertainment,” said Layden.

“I think mobile gaming and tablet gaming has done a lot to normalise or standardise the idea of gaming. It has become something which is truly accepted.”

Virtual reality at the movies

While 2017 and 2018 are likely to see the release of virtual reality games and experiences that come to define aspects of the medium for years to come, VR is set to see development and improvement for far longer.

At present, for example, VR is suitable for experiencing in short bursts, in a manner Layden likens to arcade gaming; and that isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future.

“I think it’s going to be a long time before you’re going to have a Final Fantasy XVII experience in VR for 75 hours,” summarised Layden.

However, the area we are likely to see VR develop the most beyond the next few years is not in games, but in movies. With a few exceptions, movie executives are still some years behind their gaming counterparts in terms of applying their medium to VR, meaning we’ll likely have to wait a good while before seeing the latest blockbuster in virtual reality.

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“Earlier in the year, before we announced the launch plans for PSVR, because of an association with our sister company Sony Pictures, we had the opportunity to introduce VR to a number of Hollywood TV showrunners,” explained Layden. “To a person the reaction when they took the headset of was wow, wow oh my God, and their point coming back to me talking about it was virtual reality completely explodes the idea of narrative.

“How does the narrative work when the viewer has complete free agency in that world? How do I tell my story when I don’t know from second to second where a person is looking? It’s caused a lot of excitement and frustrations along the road, and a lot of head scratching: how do we use this media platform to tell our stories?

“The answer is not coming this year or maybe not even next year, but over time I think you’ll find completely new ideas and experiences with VR as a medium.”

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.