Sony’s PlayStation VR Feels More Complete for These Non-Game Experiences

It can’t be all games on these immersive platforms—more passive experiences will play a part in making the medium a living room staple.
April 11, 2017, 7:00pm

Above: Apollo 11 screenshot courtesy of Sony.

I've not used my PlayStation VR setup for several weeks—not because of the hardware, but purely because of what was available for it. Or, rather, what wasn't. Beyond Resident Evil 7, 2017's line-up of VR-compatible PS4 titles has been a little slim in terms of immediate appeal. But pulling out the headset again today—and literally dusting it off in the process—has been a delight, particularly with others around.

Not because of any one game, although there are more of those imminent. At a recent showcase event I got to grips with the first-person shooter Farpoint and Sony's gun-like "Aim Controller," and the tablet-enhanced survival-horror The Persistence, both of which were enjoyable exercises in pushing into the potential for this medium. That both can bring at least a second player into the mix, the former as a co-op buddy, the latter to aid or impede the headset-wearing player by issuing commands from a second screen, reaffirms my feeling that VR games work great in social spaces—may the revival of our aging arcades start here, he says wishfully.

Right now, though, the platform welcomes some non-gaming attractions that, for my money, are more representative of how VR use in the home is going to look if this medium manages to gain a meaningful foothold in front rooms. None of them are drop-what-you're-doing revolutionary, but as a whole they offer teasers of where virtual reality can take the user. In fact, it's these that may earn PSVR the right to actually be called a "platform," independent of the PS4 itself.

Forthcoming shooter Farpoint is better played with a buddy—and it'll be interesting to see what Sony can do with its Aim Controller beyond obvious FPS implementation. Screenshot courtesy of Sony.

One of my greatest, most memorable VR experiences to date was with Sólfar Studios' Everest VR, and that mountain-climbing simulator is PSVR bound. It achieves what no game can deliver—escapism into a true fantasy, to a place that exists but the likes of myself, and the hugest percentage of readers, will never see for themselves. We can all explore fantastical landscapes in the latest action role-players, or the depths of space through the eyes of an intrepid hero; but these are dreams rendered in polygons. Everest is real—and Everest VR is as close as I'm ever going to get to it.

That's what the batch of experiences I've had on today—and that my kids taken turns watching, too—deliver. Apollo 11, an interactive documentary about the iconic Moon landing of 1969, came out a few weeks ago, and is now joined by a different kind of (pre)history lesson, David Attenborough's First Life VR. It's an on-rails ride, but this immersive dip into the oceans of 540 million years ago, during the Cambrian Period, had both my six-year-old son and myself, on separate "playthroughs", utterly entranced. Of course, it helps that it's voiced by the unmistakable, inimitable Sir David, may he live forever; but even without that, it's the kind of edutainment (uh, that term) that is going to help parents, teachers, people with no interest in gaming at all approach VR with eagerness.

Also available now are a couple of 360-degree documentaries from First Life makers Alchemy VR, exploring the shark life of a Pacific Ocean island—beneath its coastal waves, obviously—and the sunken ships of Bikini Atoll. Neither is astounding of aural information, despite their David Tennant narration (at least, I'm pretty sure that's the good Doctor himself), but both immerse the viewer in the place, in the history.

Virry VR screenshot courtesy of Sony.

The one that most appealed to my kids, today, was Virry VR, a "virtual safari" that came out a few weeks back. You select your region of Kenya, select an animal to observe, and off you go, courtesy of a 360 camera's capture. Seeing my oldest squeal—at least half with delight—when a lioness had her face right in his face was wonderful; and the youngest tried to reach out to a passing elephant, and waved at zebras when they dashed past "his" point of view. There are questions about conservation and population numbers as part of the experience, and again, slipping invaluable information about the state of our world into a package designed to be fun, on a medium that kids want to get their hands on, is never a bad thing. We played around with some of YouTube's 360 videos, too—if you've not seen Gorillaz's Popcaan-guesting "Saturn Barnz (Spirit House)" in VR, and you can, do.

While these downloadable releases are all perhaps a tad expensive given their mostly one-time-through longevity, and none coming in at over 15 minutes in length—Reddit has voiced its thoughts on how First Life "should be free" already—there's no doubt in my mind that they're precisely what's needed to get non-gamers comfortable with VR. And with PS VR the most accessible, affordable headset on the market, it makes sense that there should be more mostly passive, sit-back-and-enjoy titles available for it. Virtual tourism and communication, and really real-world experiences, from extreme sports to the exploration of our planet's extremities, that most of us can only fantasize about.

I can't get my dad to drop by Resident Evil 7's Baker estate for ten minutes the next time he's over—but I can see him rocketing off for the Moon, or taking a dive down to the lair of an Anomalocaris. And the more of that, the more chance VR advocates have of seeing headsets reach the widest possible audience.

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