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Why Sony's VR Ambitions May Outgrow PlayStation

Everything we’ve heard about Sony’s next generation VR headset for PS5 thus far sounds… really quite good.

For starters, we know PS5 can pull off much higher fidelity VR experiences than what’s possible with the PS4. And we know the as-yet unnamed device will have better resolution, field of view and tracking. We also know it will connect to PS5 with a simplified one wire setup. We now even know what its controllers look like, and they seem to be a significant leap over the 11 year old (!) Move controllers.

All of these signs point towards a device that will offer a significant jump in quality over the original PSVR and, as a result, something that could well surpass the five million milestone its predecessor hit in January of 2020. But, even then, as a console peripheral inherently tied to an already-expensive box, there will be limits to just how far PSVR 2 can perform, especially when pitted against standalone headsets like the Oculus Quest 2.

Sony, it seems, understands this very well.

The Future Of VR On PlayStation

A handful of quotes from Sony Interactive Entertainment President and CEO, Jim Ryan, paint an interesting picture about Sony’s outlook on VR going forward. The first is the now somewhat-infamous “future of VR” quote given to The Washington Post last year:

“I think we’re more than a few minutes from the future of VR. PlayStation believes in VR. Sony believes in VR, and we definitely believe at some point in the future, VR will represent a meaningful component of interactive entertainment. Will it be this year? No. Will it be next year? No. But will it come at some stage? We believe that. And we’re very pleased with all the experience that we’ve gained with PlayStation VR, and we look forwarding to seeing where that takes us in the future.”

At the time, I internally drafted two theories from this quote. Firstly — and this is the one I’ll admit I was ready to assume — it could be seen as Sony trying to take a graceful exit from the VR market. It’s a strange move to paint the future of VR as some far-flung thing only to announce a new headset less than four months later.

The other theory I’ll explain after this more recent quote, given to GQ on the day the PS5 VR headset was announced.

“We believe in VR and have been extremely happy with the results with the present PlayStation VR and think that we will do good business with our new VR system for PlayStation 5. More importantly, we see it as something beyond this coming iteration that really could be really big and really important.”

This quote aligned pretty perfectly with my second theory, which was that PlayStation doesn’t see its second PSVR headset as a game-changing device that will deliver “the future of VR”. Again, perhaps a bit of a strange way to talk around your upcoming product that you want to sell a bunch of units for, but it’s an undeniably astute point, one that suggests Sony understands how much further its work with VR has to go.

Console peripherals, by their very nature, don’t sell as well as the consoles themselves. Even success stories like the Kinect for Xbox 360 only make up a fraction of the overall install-base in their lifetime. It’s enough to make a tidy profit as a side-hustle — or in Ryan’s words, “good business” — but we all know that VR as a medium is destined for bigger and brighter things than sidekicks to home consoles. Ryan’s quotes seem to acknowledge this and suggest that, even as Sony builds towards PS5 VR, it’s planning future iterations that will broaden the company’s standing in the VR industry far beyond what PSVR 2 can do.

The Future Of VR At Sony

That quite likely means a standalone headset of its own, and perhaps not one as intrinsically tied to the PlayStation brand itself, but instead developed across the entire Sony Corporation. Speculative as that may sound, there is precedent for this; in August of 2020 the wider Sony Corp in Japan posted a job listing to work on a VR headset “with a view to five years from now”.

This makes a lot of sense. Sony is, after all, a multi-faceted company with bleeding-edge TV, camera and audio products, not to mention a motion picture division to boot. All of these arms extend to VR in one way or another, and VR’s real potential lies not just in gaming but also productivity, fitness and film, areas that PlayStation as an entity isn’t as closely associated with (though I would love for the future of work to be on the PlayStation).

I can’t wait for PSVR 2 (or whatever it ends up being called). I can’t wait to be playing big, AAA games with refined motion controls and superior graphics. And I’m optimistic that it will have a healthy life, strong enough to support the game developers that take a chance on it. But gaming is only one small part of “the future of VR”, and it seems like Sony at large understands this. As a result, its VR ambitions may well grow beyond PlayStation itself.

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