30 Minutes With Sony’s Virtual Reality Headset, Prototype-SR

Sony’s HMZ headset is the one getting all the attention right now, but TGS had a smaller, more private showing of a more experimental model, the Prototype-SR. My half-hour demonstration was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

This Prototype-SR virtual reality headset combines what you’ve actually got in front of you with pre-recorded 3D movies, and then adds an alteration of reality not unlike what the PS Vita does with its augmented reality games. The combination is, technologically speaking, rather impressive.

I began in a plain white room — no headset yet, just talking to a nice lady. It took a minute or two to get the thing on my head securely, which was done primarily by tightening a belt in the back. It took several attempts for the assistant to get the thing into position, thus exposing one of the more prominent problems with the device: this technology needs to be very precise, but precision is not Mother Nature’s specialty. Human heads, while usually within a certain size range, are different sizes and shapes, and the problem compounds when you factor in the nose and eyes. If this headset is out of position on your face — even by a millimeter or two — the view goes from crisp to blurry.

The HMZ has a nose piece, but this Prototype-SR doesn’t. Nevertheless, the amount of time it took for the crew to strap me in was alarming. Given my time limit with this thing, I eventually had to settle for a view that I didn’t feel was ideal. I had to angle my head strangely in order for it to sit on my face in a way that gave me a good view of what was in front of me. Even when I could get the thing into a good position for looking straight ahead, my peripheral vision suffered. The guide took a few steps to her left as I sat in the chair and watched her. She beckoned me to follow her. Moving my head to do so had to be done slowly. I got the feeling like an action situation — a quick shoulder check — might have caused the headset to slide out of position or fall off entirely. This was just one thing that makes the “Prototype” part of this headset’s name seem very appropriate.

The woman and her soothing voice led me all over the room. She then walked out and cued up a 3D trailer of the movie Biohazard 5, which was of course loaded with jump-toward-the-screen moments to show off the 3D effects. Trailer over, my guide returned and asked “How was it?” She said some things about the technology before falling ill, clutching her stomach and collapsing to the floor. She arose as a bloodthirsty zombie and lunged at me as the screen inside my headset cut to black.

The lights — the real lights — came on and the woman walked around the corner just as she had done 30 seconds earlier. At the time as well as my zombie encounter, I couldn’t tell if I was watching a pre-recorded movie or if the woman was actually in front of me, in real time. Either way, I was safe, with my cute guide and her soft voice back to show me something else. She asked me to follow her around some more. “Can you see me?” I confirmed that I could. She then faded from my view via some kind of teleportation, or so it seemed. She faded into view like a ghost might do, this time in front of my opposite shoulder. The heck?

She did it again and again, fading in and out, transporting from one side of the room to the other. Was I watching a recording again? She seemed to know what I’d be thinking and challenged by thoughts. “This is reality,” she said. She held her hand up and begged that I touch it. I slowly complied, half scared I might see my hand go right through hers. But it didn’t. I felt contact with her hand as I expected to. I half anticipated “I’m here for you, James. You see? I’m real.” to follow. I could see my own hand in front of my face, and yet, there were teleportations going on all around me. I wanted to cling to that hand — to hold it, to cling to my reality as it was being turned upside down. What the hell was going on here? This experience was getting awesome.

My guide left the room and introduced a violinist who would play a tune for me. I watched, enjoying the music, as she played while standing directly in front of me. She began to walk around the room while playing, and began to do the ghost thing that my guide had done a minute earlier. The music continued without interruption, but the violinist would disappear and reappear in different parts of the room, still in constant motion as she played it.

It. Was. Bizarre.

This is where I chose to cheat a little bit and see what it would take to break the illusion. I began to look around the room freely. Just like the best augmented reality technology, the visions in front of me stayed the same. I could view them at different angles while the images stayed consistent with how reality would be, because these sequences were filmed in 360 degrees. Where I found a hangup was that I knew my backpack was in the left corner of the room, behind me. I looked to see if my backpack was still there. It wasn’t, but a crouched technician in a striped shirt was. What she was doing, I’m not sure, but my backpack was definitely there in realty, but I couldn’t see it with this headset.

When the violin demonstration was over, I reconfirmed the location of my backpack; it was sitting exactly where I’d left it, undisturbed. The whole thing was crazy.

While the experience was unforgettable and impressive technologically, the problems became obvious. A satisfactorily clear view was hard to find, and even harder to maintain. Watching action or horror movies that cause viewers to jump might be asking for trouble, as finding a way to really lock the headset in place without cutting off the bloodstream seemed nearly impossible. Even during the times when I’d physically hold the unit in place for optimum clarity, moving my eyes without moving my head — a perfectly natural action — sometimes led to trouble.

Sony has no plans to market the Prototype-SR, but is using it to show off the potential of the HMZ. It seems to me that these things reaching their full potential is several years away, at the very least. Just the same, this glimpse of the future was very interesting. The games our children someday play and movies they watch will probably blow our minds.