Ladies and gentlemen, we have two front-runners in the virtual reality race. Sony's Project Morpheus and the HTC Vive are the best VR we've ever seen. Both let you actually reach out and grab objects, unlike the Oculus Rift. But which of these two technological marvels is the most promising?
Before today, we couldn't begin to answer that question. I saw Sony's latest Morpheus prototype in San Francisco, and my counterpart Carlos Rebato saw Valve's Vive demo in Spain. Our experiences were an ocean apart.
But today, I tried the Vive too. Now I've seen both.
Sony's Project Morpheus is still the most comfortable VR experience I've ever tried. It still blows my mind that Sony managed to figure out a way to balance the headset so the display just floats in front of your head. The Vive still uses the typical ski goggles approach of strapping front-heavy displays to your noggin with elastic bands.
And honestly, I also really prefer the Sony's lenses, which gave me a slightly wider field of view and felt more... transparent. With the Vive, I occasionally felt like I was looking through goggles instead of just using my eyes.
But Sony's weakness is that Morpheus is limited by existing hardware: the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Camera.
The PS4 is powerful, sure, but the virtual environments it creates don't have anywhere near the detail that Valve is pumping out with a single Nvidia GTX 980 graphics card inside a beefy gaming PC. In Valve's Aperture Science demo, an incredible experience that sticks you right into the technologically advanced world of the hit video game Portal, you can get right up close to objects that are so lifelike that my brain forgot they didn't exist.
See this picture? The text on this holographic display is actually readable. Total mind trip. It also probably doesn't hurt that the Vive's twin screens offer 1080 x 1200 for each eye, compared to the single 1080p RGB OLED panel that Sony uses in the Morpheus.
And while the PlayStation Camera can only track motion that happens in front of it, leading to relatively stationary, arcade-like experiences like shooting at enemies from behind a desk, you can actually walk around in Valve's virtual reality thanks to a pair of laser emitters that cover your walls, floor, and ceiling in dots of invisible light that the Vive headset and controllers can see with their tiny embedded cameras.
You don't have to worry about running into walls or bumping into objects: once you specify the size and shape of your room, you'll see a virtual grid pop up whenever you get too close to a wall. I reached out and touched it again and again, and the wall was always exactly where I expected it to be. With the controllers, the tracking is so perfect that you can "see" the actual device you're holding. When Valve's Joe Ludwig first handed me the wands, I didn't need to feel around blindly and imagine where they would be in the real world. I saw them right in front of me, and I grabbed them. Done.
And then, it hit me just how smart these controllers are. Not only do they track your hands in 3D space with insane precision, they have buttons on the sides that depress when you grip them firmly, triggers under your index fingers, and touchpads under your thumbs that can tell exactly where they are. Unlike the PlayStation Move, which only has the index-finger-trigger, these controllers could let you grip objects way more like you grip them in the real world. They don't really resist your grip, mind you, no haptic sensation, but it still feels less disembodied than Sony's solution.
None of this is to say that Valve and HTC's collaboration is ready for market. The demo I saw was still a little hacky, requiring my to wear an elastic belt covered in cables to hook up the two controllers. Valve says the final controllers will be wireless, but it's kind of awkward right now. And even then, the headset won't be wireless: both the Morpheus and the Vive have to be physically tethered to their respective computers, and it's way more of an issue with the Vive: I came very close to tripping over the cord a couple times as I walked around.
When I confronted HTC about the issue, they wouldn't or couldn't say if they had any solution, only that they were committed to providing the best possible solution for their customers. Valve also couldn't tell me how they will compensate for other objects in the room — like a couch. I'm optimistic they will figure something out. Because now it's Valve and HTC's Vive — not the Sony Project Morpheus — that's the best VR experience I've ever tried.
Honestly, at this point I would throw money at any company that has a headset with games as good as the demos I've tried inside either headset. They're both damn good. But at this point it seems more likely that Valve will get my hard-earned dollars.
Plus, HTC says the Vive will actually arrive this year. The Morpheus isn't due until 2016.