Sony introduced its first virtual reality PlayStation headset way back in 2016. It was the Before Times, a simpler, pandemic-less age of 1080p graphics and only a hint of real-world apocalypse on the horizon. It’s probably safe to say that these days people are more eager to escape into virtual worlds.
To that end, Sony will soon be releasing a wholly new VR headset for the PlayStation 5. It’s faster, prettier, and more capable than the previous one. Last week, the company offered some journalists (myself included) a hands-on look at PlayStation VR2. The demo took place at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s headquarters in San Mateo, California.
I can’t tell you exactly when PSVR2 will go on sale, what it will cost, how much battery life it gets, or even how much it weighs. Sony is still keeping all of those things under wraps. But the company has said the system will be out sometime in 2023. PlayStation’s first VR headset launched for $399 and now sells for $99, so infer from those numbers what you will about the new one’s price. The first PSVR headset weighs just over 1.3 pounds; I’d say the new PSVR2 feels right around there as well, but of course that’s just a guess.
There are some immediately obvious upgrades on this new headset. First, there’s no external interface or processor box needed to connect the headset to the console. Just plug the goggles into a USB-C port on the PS5 and it’s ready to go. Inside the headset are dual OLED screens; each eyeball gets a 2,000- by 2,040-pixel display.
The bad news? The PSVR2 works only with the PlayStation 5 (and hey, good luck finding one of those). There’s one color option: white with black accents. Unlike Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 headset, there’s no wireless option. You’re going to whack the cord with one of your flailing hands, I guarantee it. But unlike the Meta headset, the PSVR2 does not require a Facebook account to use.
Apply Directly to the Forehead
With the press of a button on the headset, you can activate a see-through mode that gives you a grainy black-and-white view of the real world around you. This feels like an absolute necessity for people who’d rather not accidentally punch holes in their television. Customizing the play area is simple. After spinning around for a quick auto-scan of the room, you can use the controller to map out the specific area in which to do your flailing. When you get to the edge of your predefined flail zone while playing a game, a vertical grid will pop up to show you where the boundary is in virtual space. Go too far outside that boundary line and the view automatically switches to see-through mode so you can safely reposition yourself.
PSVR2 headsets use a technique called foveated rendering, which tracks the wearer’s eye movements to render the most visual detail right in the area of the display where the eyes are focused. The effect is sort of like the depth of field evident in photos or video, where the main subject is in focus and the rest of the background is softly blurred. The key benefit is efficiency; by simplifying the rendering of the graphics you’re not looking at, it frees up computing resources that can then be used to render the graphics you are looking at in higher fidelity. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, the technique left me feeling like a lot of the virtual worlds around me were out of focus and somewhat removed.
One of the big reasons virtual reality hasn’t caught on as quickly as its proponents hoped is that many people simply don’t want to strap a big bulky rig to their face. Every new headset is lighter than the last, but the bulk is still an issue. The PSVR 2 headset is light enough (again, Sony wouldn’t cite a specific weight) and even comes with comfort-minded features like padding and adjustable straps. But after wearing the headset on and off for about four hours, I really started to feel the physical strain. I could feel the divot in my skin where the headset had been pressing into my nose. (Yes, you can adjust the straps and view box; I fiddled with that several times, to no avail.) I was also slightly dizzy after emerging from each of the virtual realms I explored.
There was some technical jankiness during the demos too. Sometimes if I gestured with a controller too hard, or even just turned my head a little quickly, the game would black out or auto pause. Those could be just demo bugs that will be worked out later.
The new VR2 Sense controllers are a big step up from PlayStation’s Move controllers that Sony paired with the first-generation headset. The new controllers have handles with wide white circles that hover around your wrists. The PlayStation VR2 Sense controllers incorporate many of the same features from the DualSense controller Sony developed for the PS5. (It kind of seems like the company should have saved the DualSense name for the controller that is literally two parts, but oh well.) These controllers have the same matte finish around the grip that you can feel on the existing DualSense units. During my demo, one of the Sony reps gleefully pointed out that the roughness was actually made up of tiny PlayStation button shapes—circles, triangles, X’s, and squares. (Look very, very closely at the matte finish on the bottom of a DualSense controller. It’s bonkers.)
The button layout on the VR2 Sense controllers didn’t feel as intuitive as the standard PS5 controller, at least not right away. The buttons are split, with the circle and X button on the right controller and the square and triangle on the left. There’s a single trigger on each controller, and another pressable pad on the handle. There’s no D-pad. The controllers are wireless, but Sony wouldn’t share details about how long the battery will last.