PlayStation 4 Oculus Rift Rival May Be Unveiled at GDC Next Month

Ready for a PlayStation 4 VR helmet?

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An attendee wears an Oculus Rift HD virtual reality head-mounted display at he plays EVE: Valkyrie, a multiplayer virtual reality dogfighting shooter game.

PlayStation 4 owners, listen up, because it sounds like those grapevine tales of a virtual reality headset for Sony’s console that’d square off with Oculus VR’s Rift could finally pan out at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next month.

TechRadar cites “an inside source” who’s laid hands on the “helmet” (TechRadar’s term), and who says Sony’s finally ready to come clean about its existence. “The quality and resolution are really, really good,” says TechRadar’s tipster, adding “People will definitely be impressed with what Sony’s built.”

Put March 17 on your calendar then, if you haven’t already: That’s when GDC 2014 takes place in San Francisco, running through the 21. Unlike the spectacle that defines (and undermines) a trade fair like E3, GDC is put on by professional game developers, for professional game developers. It’s the most highly esteemed annual games show.

In the future, we’ll probably plug wireless receivers into our heads (or give vacancy to neurally interfaced nanites) when we want to visit imaginary vistas, but today, the cheapest, most effective way to provide wraparound visual immersion in a computer-generated world is by wrapping clumsy headgear around our craniums — gear that blasts high definition visuals displayed on tiny screens at our eyeballs. We’ve been doing it for decades, to one degree or another, with short-lived products that seemed like grand ideas at the time. The technology’s crude by Star Trek standards, but then we’re talking about the difference between faking out the brain and literally rewiring it.

Establishing an audience for quirky products is a mix of guesswork, timing and luck. Platforms like Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect sold tens of millions of units because Nintendo and Microsoft managed to fire consumers’ imaginations with promises of mechanically simple, futuristic motion-control for next to nothing, price-wise.

If Sony’s about to unveil a VR headset, it has a two-trick challenge: convincing the world it’s developed technology that rivals — or betters — what Oculus VR’s been up to, and marketing the technology with sufficiently alluring software to unlock hearts and wallets.

The former’s largely a matter of specifications and execution — you either have them or you don’t. The latter’s the real trick, just as it will be for Oculus VR when the Rift finally shifts from development into consumer product mode (supposedly this year).

If we’re going to accept the notion that we have to wear fashion-evil hardware on our heads to kick the ball a little further down the simulated field, the price is pairing that technology with mind-bending software. Novelty won’t cut it. The games have to use the technology in ways that make sense. The technology-software interface has to work in ways that won’t give us whiplash. The hardware has to be comfortable for extended play sessions (VR experiences that involve wearing a helmet are by definition not casual). And the price has to be mass market, not boutique, if you want to be more than a niche bragging-rights trophy for futurism wonks.

I haven’t given Oculus Rift a shake yet, but I’m familiar with its raves as well as the many celebrity game industry endorsements. I guess you’d have to say I’m skeptical, no matter how well-executed Oculus VR’s riff on a very old workaround idea turns out to be, for the same reasons Eye Toy creator Richard Marks was about head-mounted VR devices when I interviewed him about wearable interfaces in the mid-2000s: People don’t like to wear stuff in an everyday capacity that’s much off the spectrum of cultural norms. It’s kludgy, and kludgy doesn’t sell. Bear in mind that we’re talking about headgear that looks radically weirder than something as innocuous as your average pair of stereoscopic 3D glasses. And we all know how well the latter’s done.

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