Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box

David Wagner, Managing Editor | 4/4/2014 | 38 comments

David Wagner
Sony has been the clear winner in the next-gen console wars, but it just made a major mistake. Sony couldn’t ignore the siren song that has lured so many game designers to crash onto the rocks before it and announced this week that it's making a virtual reality helmet. It is almost as if it were forced, like Hercules, to clean out the stables full of video game muck, and it found this old, crappy idea lying there like a festering horse byproduct. It's such a bad idea I feel like heading to Wikipedia to make sure I can mix more Greek metaphors into my intro, because this idea is going to crash like Icarus.

Let’s take a look at it with this video:

Admittedly, it looks pretty cool. Ignore the floating arm and just look around the castle. Sure beats this old video of the Nintendo Virtual Boy, probably the most famous VR attempt before Sony’s:

Combined with the motion controllers and 360-degree sound, Sony has effectively created the Holy Grail of gaming: a 100 percent immersive experience. I should be really excited, right? I should be jumping up and down because I can finally shut out real life entirely and jump into a virtual world, right?

Nope, I’m still unimpressed. Because the very same reasons that have made virtual reality helmets fail over and over still exist.

For one thing, they’re like wearing a blindfold. Who wants to stand in his living room swinging around the glowing sticks and not be able to see whether you are about to smash your TV, your kids, or your cat? And your balance is based on sensory clues, so even if you make a bunch of space, just try to stay standing while swinging your arms around in an intense game without seeing “reality.”

Even if you can stay standing, VR helmets are really a solo activity. Who wants to play a group game together when it means everyone has to stay in his own space with helmet on?

I don’t know about you, but I get sweaty when I play a video game. This is me when I play video games:

How long can you wear a sweaty VR helmet while playing a game before you need to take it off? And who wants to put it on after you? And if all of that isn’t enough, it is still a video screen inches from your face. How good can that be for you?

The VR helmet is never going to be the solution to the gaming immersion problem. Nothing with “helmet” in its name is a solution to anything that doesn’t involve falling rocks.

What is the obvious solution? The value of VR helmets is 360° video, so why not push out the boundaries of video? Instead of trying to bring the video close to you, surround yourself with video. Maybe something like this:

That is Llumiroom by Microsoft, something that was originally rrumored to be on the new Xbox but is not being pproduced at this ttime. One assumes it is only a matter of time, however. And Microsoft has the right idea. Combine the Kinect system to a four-wall video system, and you have the immersive experience of VR helmets without all the pesky side-effects. You basically have the closet thing yet to Star Trek’s holodeck.

And there’s Sony’s mistake. It isn’t that it hasn't made the best VR gaming helmet to date. It looks really cool. The problem is that it is still a helmet. Sony is closing in the walls of gaming while Microsoft is working to push them out. This reminds me of Janus, the two-faced god that looked back into the past and forward into the future. Sure, he’s Roman, but I’m already mixing metaphors. One company is looking into the past, the other is looking at the future. Where would you rather look?

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catalyst   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   5/4/2014 10:40:33 PM
Re: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora's Box

Living off your laurels only goes so far and it is a shame.

It really is a shame. Sony has so much potential. The company brought us the Walkman (tape), the Discman (CD), but then it took some twists and turns (MD) that didn't go anywhere. Today it is about a multi-functional multi-touch portable device that does everything: communications (voice, email, text, IM, etc.), services (financial, weather, fitness, etc.), multimedia (movies, music, podcasts, etc.), games, work (spreadsheet, word processor, presentation tools), etc.

The hardware is just the beginning and it is a shame Sony is stuck there. Unfortunately, I don't see Sony or Samsung or LG surviving in the long run. All companies that are hardware focused will eventually lose to companies that have hardware, software, and services. And those companies are Microsoft, Apple, and to some degree Google (they don't have capability to manufacture tens of millions of hardware devices now, but they could in the future).

PS: It is easier to gain hardware manufacturing capability than to gain software (OS and applications) and services (cloud-based).
DBK   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   5/2/2014 8:24:13 PM
Re: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora's Box
@ Catalyist - I worked in the Broadcast televsion group, video recorders, cameras, prouctin gear etc.  And that was when tape was still a common media.  And your comment "On the other hand, Sony never quite figured out we are shifting away from physical media (CD, DVD, Blu-ray) to digital media and having them streamed from the cloud. But maybe it isn't just about not knowing where to focus your R&D".  This statement is true today and it was true then, that is part of the challenge they have had for the past 30 years.  The consumer divsion at one time supported the broadcast group, then it went the other way, now they are all simply struggling to create a value based identiy with no clear direction.  At one point they were creating prodcuts that were highly engineer and very creative but had no place in the market.  And when asked what we were to do with said products they would reply "Please to buy Sony".  Living off your laurels only goes so far and it is a shame.
catalyst   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   5/2/2014 5:09:29 PM
Re: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora's Box
@DBK: Thanks for sharing the link. What I see is a big company that wants to be innovative but doesn't know what to do.

The VR headset is innovative, a bit too long term to generate any meaningful revenue, but still quite innovative. On the other hand, Sony never quite figured out we are shifting away from physical media (CD, DVD, Blu-ray) to digital media and having them streamed from the cloud. But maybe it isn't just about not knowing where to focus your R&D.

I think it's about Sony being so entrenched in hardware. Sony's highend VAIO notebooks were awesome. So are some highend TVs, smartphones, and the PS4 is pretty cool too. I'm not a hardcore gamer so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but the only game I remember where people got the PlayStation just to play the game was Gran Turismo. I don't know if that's the case anymore.

Sony is terrible weak in software. TVs are getting 'smart' but I don't see Sony working toward building an awesome TV experience: easy exploration of TV content, easy access to favorite TV content, easy access to non-TV video sources, etc. The boxes are pretty, but that's about it. (Personally, I like really dumb TVs.)

The best Sony smartphone is the one where Sony doesn't do anything with the software: the Google Play editions. I should be fair and say that neither Samsung or HTC does a good job here. But even if Sony was good at hardware *and* software, the world has moved on: you have to be good at services too.

Sony is doomed unless the company decides to completely destroy the idea that incremental hardware innovation is sufficient to compete and succeed. Sony needs to start building its hardware, software, and services capability, not separately but as a whole.

Just my two cents. :-)
DBK   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   5/2/2014 1:24:05 PM
Re: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora's Box
@ Catalyst - I was a little reluctant to mention anything specific, NDA's and all but here is a public document that is current and relevant.
David Wagner   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   4/29/2014 12:46:25 PM
Re: Dissenting Thoughts
@catalyst- Wow, an interesting thought. I've never seen a reward in a game for not playing. But I love it.
catalyst   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   4/29/2014 12:25:51 PM
Re: Dissenting Thoughts

Yes, that could be annoying.

I think there are better ways to encourage players to take breaks than to adruptly stop in the middle of the game and ask, "Why don't you take a break?" That's where Nintendo needs to do a bit (lot?) more research on social behavior, psychology, persuasion, etc.

Just off the top of my head, a game could offer an award that can only be gained if you don't come back for another X hours. The longer you wait the better the award, or something similar. Of course the game designers need to accomplish a tricky balance since you *do* want players to play.
David Wagner   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   4/29/2014 12:57:29 AM
Re: Dissenting Thoughts
@singlemud- That's my impression, but obviously it is one person's opinion. But I think Sony is realy trying to perfect an old technology whil eMicrosoft is working on something new.
David Wagner   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   4/29/2014 12:55:23 AM
Re: Dissenting Thoughts
@catalyst- Nintendo does that with their games and it bugs the crap out of me when the little message comes up and says "why don't you take a break." I don't know if it is just me or not.
catalyst   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   4/28/2014 4:39:23 PM
Re: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora's Box
@DBK: Soon Only Not Yet... pretty funny, but must have been extremely frustrating as a design engineer when completed products ready for sale are always next month, next quarter, next year. Do you think you could share with us an example?
singlemud   Geekend: Sony Opens Virtual Pandora’s Box   4/28/2014 3:18:23 PM
Re: Dissenting Thoughts
I used to think Sony is on the front end of invention while Microsoft is holding back. From this article, it is totally the opposite, at least for this VR thing.
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