Thoughts on PSVR2's User Experience 1
Updated: Mar 17
An appraisal from PSVR1’s Immersive Experience Specialist
Part 1 | First Impressions and Hardware features
As someone who worked closely on the development of the original PlayStation®VR as Sony's resident Immersive Experience Specialist, Jed Ashforth has been very excited in the build up to PSVR2’s launch. Here are his thoughts about the Sony's new successor.
The early rumblings in the development underground from as early as 18 months ago were extremely positive, and the feature set of the new system sounded too good to be true. Sony sounded like they were packing so many progressive technologies into the headset and the new controllers, it seemed inevitable that not all of the rumored features would survive to the final rounds of hardware costing, especially given the turbulent markets for some of the necessary tech components when Covid19 hit, which will have screwed up everybody’s planning and sums. So to get the final device in-hand on launch day (a nice surprise that, since the website was still showing as ‘preparing to ship’ at the moment the DPD guy rang the bell) was a real thrill, and I’ve spent much of the last week exploring the headset, the software, and the overall user experience.
There’s a lot (a lot!) to talk about with this headset, so I’ll try to summarize everything into short form points. Knowing how I tend to waffle passionately about VR, though, I reserve the right to go off on more detailed tangents when it feels worthwhile, of course, and you shouldn’t expect anything less. I’ll look at the overall device and hardware experience in this article, and then next time we’ll start digging into the experience of playing the games.
It’s (mostly) a fantastic step forward, but not without some niggles and annoyances.
As a VR consultant I get to use all sorts of different headsets and equipment on a daily basis, and I think this has become my favorite set of goggles so far. Of course I’m in the honeymoon period, so I accept that this isn’t going to be a final assessment, but one of the interesting things about VR is that your relationship to a given headset will often improve over time as you tailor it to fit your physical and usability preferences. Everybody’s head and face are different. It’s impossible right now to design a one-size-fits-all piece of wearable tech that works out of the box for everybody, that's the dream and things are moving in the right direction but we're not there yet. It’s expected that the user will need to spend some time tuning it in for the best experience. This is one of those things where reviewers in the mainstream media sometimes can sound understandably naïve in their critiques; you might get lucky straight out of the box, but for most users it can take a few sessions before your adjustments feel right for you, the fit feels natural, and you can jump straight in and start using it without any faff. It’s kind of like getting a new car, where your ‘perfect’ seat settings need dialing in a little more precisely over your early trips, and you keep squirting your screen spray every time you try to flash your lights.
Is it expensive? Well, yes, but it delivers on that price point. Knowing how we approached the original PSVR pricing, I really can’t imagine Sony ever targeted a price point higher than the PS5’s RRP, or ended up there willingly with PSVR2. I think the price point is probably a result of all the crazy worldwide market forces at play during the device's whole production cycle. Having said that…
For a VR Headset, it’s very feature-rich at this price point. You’re getting a lot of experiential bang-for-your-buck here, with some great headline features that you don’t find in any other headsets at any price, and which elevate the PSVR2 to very often give a best-in-class user experience. For what you get in there, it quickly started to feel like surprisingly good value for money, at least compared to other headsets on the market. It's reliance on the PS5 for running the software does of course mean that Sony can spend the money smartly on an exciting set of hardware features that enhance the user experience, rather than it being shaped by the constraints of supporting a weaker standalone mode. I absolutely believe this is the right way to do console VR. PS5 is a powerhouse for rendering VR and this means users can expect performance in-line with a fairly top-end PC gaming rig, with all the added bells and whistles PSVR2 brings.
Some of the cost-savings adopted here are interesting: the Fresnel lenses are a good trade-off for cost and weight, but I’ll miss the PSVR’s gorgeous custom-made aspherical lenses with that huuuuuge sweet spot. The lack of onboard audio besides a 3.5mm jack and some earbuds might be surprising but it is kind of sensible; Sony know their initial user base is core gamers, and our internal stats had always shown a significant take-up of audio headsets by core gamers. We did surveys, everyone wanted the headset to support their own cans or wireless buds. Plus, a surprising number of users played PSVR using their home theater setups (even though this is missing out on many of the very best aspects of immersive audio). In cost-down terms, it makes a lot of sense, and it’s on-par with the original PSVR approach, but it does go against the grain of what other headsets have been doing. But none of those are console headsets aimed at core console gamers who are more likely to have this stuff already. Plus, Sony’s latest Pulse audio headset is clearly designed to fill this need and Sony won’t mind supporting more sales there.
It’s a mixed bag for me (so far): Considering the ‘new car’ factor, the real proof of the pudding for me will be when I find I’m putting the headset on and off and finding the sweet spot immediately. (For those not in the know, the ‘sweet spot’ is the point where you’re seeing maximum visual acuity in the headset, which means your eyes are perfectly lined up with the fairly tiny central circle you can see on the lenses. This gives not only clearest visuals with lowest amount of chromatic aberration at the edges of the image, but also provides the most reliable targeting for the eye tracking). As such, getting the center of the lenses lined up in the right position is quite easy, and the set-up software helps cleverly with this, but keeping it there consistently during use is more of a problem.
"I've always thought learning to use VR can be likened to learning to scuba dive; it needs familiarity with the equipment, a working understanding of how it functions and thus how to correct problems that arise in the moment, and the understanding that it will take a number of sessions before you become fully acclimated to the physical experience and the psychological factors that accompany it."
The messaging and education could be better: I made the new car comparison earlier, but of course there are far more aspects to tune with a VR headset and millimeters of change can make a big difference to the user experience. It's always been a tripping point for VR mass adoption, for sure, but having taken this same journey many times with many headset I've become familiar with the routine. I do feel that some of the criticisms and quirks that are maybe bugging me a little right now will melt away as part of that normal familiarity curve. But at the same time, the PSVR2 experience doesn't do enough to communicate this to the users.
I've always thought learning to use VR can be likened to learning to scuba dive; it needs familiarity with the equipment, a working understanding of how it functions and thus how to correct problems that arise in the moment, and the understanding that it will take a number of sessions before you become fully acclimated to the physical experience and the psychological factors that accompany it. This has been communicated so well over the last century that most people who never tried scuba diving probably at least know of these considerations. I think we're ready for VR onboarding to explain some of these factors to new users, and be more actively guiding and monitoring new explorers. I'm seeing multiple outlets and streamers having problems getting the fit right, and plenty of up-toots on Reddit and YouTube for bad and misinformed solutions and fixes. PSVR2 feels like it needs to bolster this more than the original PSVR ever did, because of the wider potential audience of new users, and the specificity of achieving a really great fit this time around. A bad fit on the headset can cascade into a whole mess of problems during the experience, so it's critical to get it right.
I like the Halo band: I’m used to halo-style straps on VR headsets. While they don’t always feel as secure as a ski-mask strap arrangement, having the unit suspended in front of your face works great in practice and solves many issues. Having anything strapped to your face is always going to be a huge barrier to even trying it for anyone who might, for example, care if their skin, hair or makeup get messed up. Which is an awful lot of the potential audience who aren’t going to want to even try VR when they might get the opportunity in a store or visiting friends. So yeah, Halo bands rule, and I’m glad they’ve kinda become the current standard. And the PSVR2 one is very nice indeed. Soft padding, feels robust in use, stretches nicely with a button press to pop it on and take it off. Yum. But…
I’m having trouble dialing the Halo band fitting in: There’s no mechanical adjustment of the main unit vertically, so finding the sweet spot is determined by hanging the unit from the correct point on your forehead. And there’s no way to tilt the angle of the unit as it’s suspended there, which is common on some other headsets, so getting the conjunction between your eyes, the center of the lenses, and the screen just right is entirely dependent on getting the correct angle against your forehead. The theory is to put it on your forehead, move the whole unit about on your forehead until you get everything lined up right with your eyes, and then to tighten the dial on the back strap to lock it all into place. That’s more of a faff than normal, and you can only handle the strap itself for fear of breaking the elegant but seemingly fragile connection with the main unit. So positioning and holding while tightening that back knob, while steering clear of banging the eye unit itself, really feels like a three-handed job at the moment. I had a bruise on the bridge of my nose for the first week after I accidentally changed the IPD (inter-pupilliary distance) dial while putting the headset on, causing the nose gap and clearance to change when the lenses came closer together. Probably a ‘new car’ situation again, and I’ll get more comfortable and familiar with slapping it on the right point on my forehead, tuning out issues, and feel braver with handling it. But in general, donning and removing are my least favorite part of using the headset right now.
It’s bad with my long hair: I’m on my way to delivering on my lifelong dream to going ‘full Gandalf’ by the time I hit retirement, and my hair is kinda long. It’s usually great with VR – my secret tip is that most VR headsets benefit if you can make a pony tail and stick it through the strap hole or above the Halo band for added stability during use. I can do this with PSVR2 and it helps, but finding the sweet spot and securing the strap in the right position has become unusually dependent on getting my hair tied in the right place, as the back of the band sits too high on the curve at the back of my skull and it doesn’t feel at all secure if I wear it with my hair down, it tends to slip up and put weight on my nose. I’m tightening it as tight as I dare. However, your head shape and hair will be different, so this is going to be different for everyone.
The Sense(R) Controllers
The world’s most confusing VR controllers: I love the look of those controllers, and their design offers many benefits in use from providing easier tracking reference to keeping your hands tucked inside if you accidentally bop a wall or a smash a lamp. But I challenge anyone to grab these controllers and hold them correctly while VR-blindfolded in under 45 seconds. I don’t believe it’s possible. By feel alone it baffles me endlessly. I feed my hand through the loop then usually find I’ve got the controller upside down or sideways. And you want to use the straps to keep your expensive controllers safe, but the strap length is tiny and attached on the inside of the spherical controller shape and you need it to hang out of a specific opening on a particular side, and attach in a specific orientation to your wrist because there’s so little slack in it that it stops you grabbing the controllers properly. It all seems a bit too much like hard work just to be able to pick up your controllers. While the pass-through camera mode should be the solution here, it doesn’t always help because everything except the outer shell is black, black joystick, black buttons on a black background, and can be hard to distinguish with those lovely deep OLED blacks of the panel (dependent on your lighting of course). I can’t help but think an easy, stylish solution here would have been to colour the top surface of the prong you need to hold white, matching the outer shell, to aid visual orientation when you’re grabbing them through the pass-through mode.
Lovely to use: Basically these are positionally-tracked, split-hand versions of the PS5's Dual Sense controllers and bring with them all that lovely adaptive trigger and refined haptic feedback technology the Dual Sense is known for while dropping the bits VR doesn't need. The touch-pad, internal speaker and Dpad are gone, and the buttons are now split between the two controllers, leading to some confusion for PS5 players from what I've seen on the socials as the orientations and layout have been altered. But when you're not mentally translating what bit of which hand you now have squeeze to press 'R1' or 'Square', they're sublime to use and the sense of feedback and finesse from them impresses me over and over.
Really wanna see those fingers: They also feature finger touch detection, which is pretty standard for VR controllers these day. It's fine here, but without the controllers being 'hands free' like the Valve Index's 'knuckles' controllers, it will always have limited applications and doesn't seem particularly refined over what Quest2 offers. To be fair, it's rarely a showpiece feature in games and feels underused and undervalued on existing platforms, and there's not many examples of it being fully integrated in the titles I've seen so far on PSVR2. Horizon: Call of the Mountain, for example, is big on making you feel embodied in your virtual character, and lets you trigger a pre-defined 'Peace' V hand-pose, but won't let you flip the bird, which is curious in a single player game, but probably done with streamers in mind. Most games trigger some finger movement but it usually feels disconnected from the shape you're trying to make your fingers form. Not that different from Quest 2 in terms of the experience so far, we'll see whether anyone makes a cool something that showcases the tech, Half Life:Alyx style, or if it remains an underused feature on this platform too. As an immersive designer, I feel strongly that it's a huge boost to immersion when done well, and worth it's weight many times over in terms of enhancing the user experience and helping deeper embodiment in your virtual body. It's one of the key reasons Half Life:Alyx feels so deeply immersive. I'd say I'll keep my virtual fingers crossed but, y'know... it doesn't let me do that, either.
The Audio: As well as the cost-down thoughts mentioned earlier, I wanted to point out that even though it's been widely criticized, I kinda like the headphone solution Sony pack in, it's well thought through and not just a pair of buds and a 3.5mm Jack. Sony have created a bespoke plastic fitting that clips onto the headset neatly, the wires already at a perfect length, and the headset band even has these little soft slots that you plug the buds into when not in use. It’s a neat, clever and effective solution if you take a step back. But it still feels somewhat oldey-worldey on such a modern headset, and it’s a sealed unit so you'll have to buy another or 3D print a replacement if this pair ever stops working. And let’s not forget, it’s not ideal if you’re sharing the headset – eww. There’s a few sets of silicone buds packed in so I guess the idea is people can put fresh ones on and you can wash them, but that’s not an ideal solution.
The audio is decent enough with the included headphone solution, so it’s a shame to have to mess about swapping it out for other audio headphone solutions to put someone else in the headset. Sony's top-of-the-line Pulse headset seem to fit around the Halo band perfectly, but other headphones I tried were often an awkward fit and I’ve found putting this on other people’s heads to demonstrate it feels like 2016 all over again, with some logistical planning needed to make it a smooth process. Pro Tip; plug the audio jack into the headset after they’ve got the PSVR2 on and adjusted, to avoid risk of entanglement and accusations of attempted strangulation. I’d like to think if there’s a mid-cycle refresh of the PSVR2 hardware like there was with PSVR, incorporating an integrated off-ear sound solution would be a big win.
At least the plastic clip-on audio bar solution will make it easy for third party audio solutions to fill that gap, and for all we know Sony may have their own off-ear upgrade waiting in the wings. The modularity of the clip-in audio design may be there as a by-product of costing away an off-ear solution, replacing it with 'good enough' buds, and then offering it as a deluxe alternative later? Wouldn't surprise me if there's an official clip-on ‘Pulse VR’ solution waiting in the wings - Sony do have a reputation for high-end audio in their PlayStation brand hardware (and in general) that I’m sure they’ll be keen to maintain, and the clip-on system seems designed to open up flexible options for 3rd Party manufacturers.