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.


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.


“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.”

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World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”