Oculus Rift vs Project Morpheus - which is best?
Facebook and Sony battle it out for control of virtual reality market
Despite virtual reality technology having been around for decades, 2014 will be remembered as the year significant strides were made to push it into the mainstream.
In March Sony unveiled Project Morpheus, a virtual reality headset developed for PlayStation 4 with 1080p resolution and a 90 degree field of view. The following week, Facebook forked out $2 billion for Oculus VR, the virtual reality start-up behind Oculus Rift, another VR headset developed by Californian teenager Palmer Luckey.
Details of what Facebook, having previously focused its attention on mobile and desktop apps, is planning to do with Oculus remains shrouded in mystery. Sony has been clearer in its intentions to harness the powers of virtual reality - in plunging players into a new sensory dimension of gaming. Neither headset is expected to go on consumer sale for at least several months, and it's important to remember both are currently only prototypes, with Sony saying the appearance and specs of the final headset likely to look very different to the current Morpheus. But which is the most effective?
I first tried Oculus Rift in March, watching a pre-recorded England rugby team training session on the headset. While it was fun, it wasn't entirely interactive - it did feel like watching a well-executed video, rather than participating in another dimension’s reality. It also juddered slightly as I twisted my head around to look at the team, and I was constantly aware of the thin strips of light in my peripheral vision, which made it difficult to fully shed the realisation you’ve got a hunk of plastic strapped to your face.
Oculus clearly had the potential for greatness, rather than currently being contender. So it was with curiosity but a slight scepticism that I approached Project Morpheus, Sony's horse in the virtual reality race.
In terms of aesthetics, Morpheus looks slicker and more polished than Oculus - it comes with two supporting straps, one elasticated and one plastic, for the back of your head and the screen section is gently curved around your face. Oculus’ screen consists of an angular black box with an elasticated strap and a velcro-ed one for over your head, which felt slightly constricting.
When testing out Morpheus, I experienced The Deep, one of several demos Sony has produced, showcasing how virtual reality could be harnessed for both horror and shooting games. After putting on the headset and a set of headphones, I'm handed a PlayStation controller by an assistant and transported into a narrow diver's cage slowly inching deeper into the ocean as part of a scientific mission. Morpheus' motion tracking features meant waving a controller in my physical hand replicated the movement in my vision holding a flare gun.
A gigantic shark slowly began to circle the cage, agitated by my clumsy attempts to fire flares at it. It slammed itself into the cage, ripping metal slats off in a swivel-eyed rage as I spun around trying to ward it off. I find myself fully immersed in trying to track its movements, feeling genuinely anxious when it disappeared from sight and a thrill of fear as it hurtled towards me. Coupled with the clacking of the broken cage and frenzied breathing of the diver, it was easy to forget I was standing in a Brighton conference centre, wheeling round on the spot. At some points however, my digital and physical hands became 'disconnected', resulting in lagging movement. It was easily solved by pressing the options button on the controller, but it was mildly distracting.
I was also left with a slight headache due to latency - a common side effect of virtual reality headsets. Some individuals are more prone than others to extreme nausea induced by sensory overload, with the brain struggling to process delayed movement. Neither Morpheus or Oculus affected me that badly, and the teams behind both are working hard to minimise the issue as much as possible.
In terms of which headset delivered crisper visuals, less lag and a more immersive experience, I feel Morpheus has the edge on Oculus - for now. It's clear to see that Morpheus, if handled correctly, could be the ideal partner for immersive shooting horrors like Resident Evil - sucking you into the action close enough to touch a zombie's peeling flesh and flail helplessly as it sinks its teeth into your shoulder. The potential is enormous, and when coupled with the right games could be the tipping point in helping to strengthen the case for console gaming, instead of migrating to mobile or desktop.
It remains to be seen how virtual reality could tie in with Facebook's business model - such as watching video content and films, or engaging with interactive adverts rather than playing games. As Samsung is reportedly preparing to announce their own headset in September, smartphones look set to also play a key part in the VR phenomenon. I just feel that as things currently stand, Morpheus seems one step closer to actual reality.