Ah, the “metaverse.” Will a fantasy where our office meetings and social gatherings take place mostly in virtual reality ever come true?
As a tech critic who has worn almost every pair of virtual-reality goggles released in the last seven years, I’ve been holding my breath for a long time. And based on my testing of this year’s first big hardware release in the metaverse category — Sony’s PlayStation VR2, which arrives Wednesday — I’ve concluded that V.R. still has a ways to go before becoming a mainstream staple for work and play.
To be clear, the PlayStation VR2, priced at $550, is one of the best pieces of V.R. hardware you can buy. The curvy white headset plugs into the PlayStation 5 console, which is equipped with a powerful computer to run high-resolution games more smoothly; by contrast, Meta’s V.R. devices, including its $400 Oculus Quest 2 and $1,500 Quest Pro, work wirelessly and rely on slower computing chips built into the headsets.
Also unlike Meta, Sony leans into the use of V.R. goggles only for gaming — a wise choice because, so far, games are the most popular V.R. applications and productivity apps for taking video calls through headsets haven’t gained traction.
Still, none of this is enough to make V.R. more than a niche, even as more brands, including Apple, prepare to enter the industry. That’s because many of the problems people have had with V.R. headsets since the get-go — including their off-putting aesthetic and high price — remain for the PlayStation VR2 goggles. That being the case, I can recommend them to enthusiasts, but not to those who play the occasional video game.
Here’s how I felt about virtual reality and the metaverse after a week of testing the PlayStation VR2.
What Is the Metaverse, and Why Does It Matter?
The origins. The word “metaverse” describes a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. It was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel “Snow Crash,” and the concept was further explored by Ernest Cline in his novel “Ready Player One.”
An expanding universe. The metaverse appears to have gained momentum during the online-everything shift of the pandemic. The term today refers to a variety of experiences, environments and assets that exist in the virtual space.
Some examples. Video games in which players can build their own worlds have metaverse tendencies, as does most social media. If you own a non-fungible token, virtual-reality headset or some cryptocurrency, you’re also part of the metaversal experience.
How Big Tech is shifting. Facebook staked its claim to the metaverse last year, after shipping 10 million of its virtual-reality headsets and announcing it had renamed itself Meta. Google, Microsoft and Apple have all been working on metaverse-related technology.
The future. Many people in tech believe the metaverse will herald an era in which our virtual lives will play as important a role as our physical realities. Some experts warn that it could still turn out to be a fad or even dangerous.
V.R. has yet to find a truly killer app.
Why use V.R. for making video calls, streaming movies or playing games when the existing methods already work well? This is the perennial question surrounding the metaverse. Despite making progress with the technology, the new PlayStation goggles don’t offer a clear answer.
The most compelling new game I tried was Horizon Call of the Mountain, a V.R. spinoff of the best-selling PlayStation 4 title Horizon Zero Dawn, a post-apocalyptic role-playing game. In the V.R. game, you control the character from a first-person perspective and can swing your arms to run around and climb mountains; you can also move your hands to grab an arrow from a quiver and shoot it with a bow.
Brian X. Chen, author of the Tech Fix column, playing Horizon Call of the Mountain while wearing the PlayStation VR2 goggles.
It’s a fun game with impressive graphics that show off the hardware’s muscle, but in the end, I still preferred the gameplay and deeper story of the original Horizon Zero Dawn, which I finished years ago on the PlayStation 4.
Otherwise, a majority of V.R. games accompanying the device’s launch that I tested were relatively old and uninteresting. Those included Star Wars: Tales From the Galaxy’s Edge; Tetris Effect: Connected; and Moss, which were previously released for the older Quest 2 and first-generation PlayStation VR.
In general, the graphics and motion in the new PlayStation goggles looked clearer and smoother than Meta’s V.R. products. Still, more often than not I found myself wondering why a game should be played in V.R. instead of on a television screen.
In the Star Wars game, where you take on the role of a droid mechanic, shooting a blaster at an enemy would have been just as simple using a game controller. The same could be said about Moss, where you control a white mouse in a 3-D environment. Tetris Effect: Connected involves rotating pieces known as tetrominoes, just as you would in any traditional Tetris game made in the last few decades; there was no clear benefit to playing this in an immersive environment.
Other games that will soon be available for PlayStation VR2, which I could not test, include big titles like Gran Turismo 7 and Resident Evil Village. Those are popular franchises, but both were released for traditional consoles in the last two years.
Gaming may currently be V.R.’s killer app, but if you want fresh and exciting games, the console-plus-TV combo is still king.
Headsets still look and feel weird to wear.
Since V.R. hardware started hitting the market about seven years ago, headsets have shed some weight. At 20 ounces, the PlayStation VR2 is an ounce lighter than its predecessor and five ounces lighter than the Meta Quest Pro. But all the goggles still felt too heavy. In my experience, I could wear them for no longer than 30 minutes before starting to feel neck strain.
Case in point: The PlayStation VR2 fell off my face and hit the ground when I was playing the Star Wars game and bent over to pick up a tool from the floor of a virtual space station. The wire plugged into the console also made the device feel more cumbersome than wireless headsets, and it created a tripping hazard in the living room.
And like all the goggles that came before it, the PlayStation VR2 looks pretty ridiculous. My wife couldn’t resist shooting videos to mock me as I wore a headset that made me look like a character from the movie “Tron.”
For storage, Sony includes a charging station to hold the motion controllers, which is convenient. But along with the headset, the product takes up precious space in a living room — and unlike a laptop or smartphone, V.R. goggles instantly make a tidy room look cluttered. For single folks, I fear that the sight of the goggles would kill the chances of a second date.
The metaverse is lonely.
For the concept of the metaverse to succeed, we need to be able to connect with our loved ones in that space. In its current state, V.R. is still a mostly solitary experience. When you wear the PlayStation goggles, you block out your view of the real world. What you’re doing in the game is shown on the TV screen that the PlayStation is plugged into. That lets others in the room follow along, but it’s not very social.
Which brings up another issue: To have friends to play with in the metaverse, they must buy the same headset — and the tech is still expensive.
When consumer technology goes mainstream, it typically becomes cheaper and more accessible. Despite being on the market for most of the last decade, virtual reality is heading in the opposite direction. At $550, the PlayStation VR2 costs $150 more than its predecessor — and that’s on top of the $500 you have to pay for a PlayStation 5.
Sony is not alone in the price creep. Last year, Meta raised the price of its best-selling headset, the Quest 2, to $400, from $300. Apple’s headset, which may release this year, is expected to be a premium device that may cost thousands of dollars, according to reports.
So maybe one day — when the tech is cheaper, has a truly killer app and doesn’t make people look like weirdos — we’ll all hang out in the metaverse. For now, I’ll continue to meet folks in person and online the old-school way.