Monday, June 5, 2017

I got a PSVR. Is it any good?

If you have read this blog, you'll know how much I have ranted about my disappointment in how VR turned out to be, and how it has all the signs of being in danger of becoming a commercial failure of the same kind as the Kinect and the PS Vita. And of course one of my major gripes about it is the exorbitant prices of the headsets (which are more expensive than your average PC; even one that meets the minimum requirements.)

That doesn't mean, and has never meant, that I wasn't eager to get my hands on one of the headsets and try it for myself. It's just that I was not really ready to pay the exorbitant price for a device that at this point is mostly just a gimmick to run a few demos and small indie games, with an abysmal library of triple-A games.

A couple of weeks ago there was a deal in an online store here, where they were selling a bundle that contained the PSVR headset, the game Farpoint, and an Aim Controller, for cheaper than the headset alone would cost normally. So I finally decided to bite the bullet and purchase it (even though it still costed more than a brand new PS4 Pro, but what the heck.)

So, what's the verdict? Was my mind blown away? Did I see the error of my ways, and did all my doubts just vanish, and was I "converted" to the religion of VR?

No. The experience was about what I expected. It wasn't especially surprising or mind-blowing.

I have tried the Oculus Rift Development Kit 1 in the past, and while it had a lower resolution (and thus looked pixelated as hell), I knew pretty much what to expect.

That's not to say I didn't like it. I did. The stereoscopic effect is quite good, and I was actually a bit surprised about how stable the head-tracking is, and how you are able to look at pretty much any direction (including way up and down) without tracking problems, considering that the tracking is done by a camera (although, I think, there are also accelerometers in the headset itself).

It can be quite annoying when the tracking has serious lag issues when the console is loading something (eg. starting up a game, or loading a level). I wish they had implemented a solution to that. However, almost without exception within a game the tracking tends to be very stable and reliable.

For some reason, however, the tracking of the DualShock 4 leaves more to be desired (in games where it's being tracked and shown). Its orientation within the simulated world tends to drift, as it's being used. You can reset its orientation (by keeping the options button pressed for a second or two), but it can become a bit annoying if you have to do this every couple of minutes.

My biggest disappointment, however, is the pixel resolution.

The headset has a full-HD 1920x1080 display panel, so one would think that ought to be more than enough for a very decent picture quality. Most reviews, however, mention how regardless of this there's still very visible pixelation, which can be annoying.

They were right. It's hard to imagine how bad the pixelation is until you see it for yourself (the irony of which doesn't escape me, considering what I said in the other article I linked about in my "verdict" paragraph.)

The viewing angle of the headset is somewhere between 100 and 110 degrees (it's hard to find an exact figure). This would be approximately equal to watching a 22-inch 1080p monitor at a distance of about 20 cm, or the like. However, the pixels look much bigger than that with the headset than with a monitor (looked at that distance). I don't know what the technical reason for it is, but it might be that due to how it's physically implemented, how the lenses work, it might be that the lenses magnify the pixels at the center of the view.

In some games it's more bothersome than in others. For example the Resident Evil 7 Kitchen Demo was particularly annoying in this regard. An example screenshot of the demo:

This is a detail in that image, how it looks normally on screen, and how (approximately) it looks with the PSVR headset (click the image for a larger version):

You might think I'm exaggerating, if you have never used a PSVR, but it really looks that bad. And it looks even worse when animated because a moving image just emphasizes the pixelation.

I have never used an HTC Vive or an Oculus Rift, but I doubt they are significantly better in this regard. While the PSVR has 1080 horizontal lines, those have 1200 lines, which is only 10% more. I doubt this improves the pixelation problem by much.

In fact, based on this experience I would guesstimate that even a 4k VR headset would have some pixelation problems. It would, of course, be significantly better in this regard, but I'm guessing that you would still be able to see the pixels quite clearly. Which seems incredible given how dense a 4k display is, but on the other hand, it just doubles the amount of pixels on each axis compared to 1080p.

The resolution is, of course, a technical limitation. Surely if consoles and PCs had a hundred times as much rendering prowess as they currently have, and if display technology was ultra-cheap and we could easily use 8k displays in VR headsets and have PCs and consoles run games easily using that resolution, that would be done. However, that's not where technology is currently, and we simply have to live with it.

This is, in fact, one additional notch to my list of disappointments about VR: Low resolution, which feels like quite a big step back in gaming technology.

Speaking of 4k, PSVR has a really annoying technical limitation, which is quite incomprehensible, given that PSVR and the PS4 Pro came out about at the same time (and thus they were developed pretty much concurrently).

The PS4 Pro has an HDMI 2.0 output. This means that it's able to output to a 4k display at 60Hz in RGB mode.

However, the processing unit of PSVR (which sits between the PS4 and the display, and which the headset also is connected to) has only an HDMI 1.4 output. HDMI 1.4 cannot output to a 4k display at 60Hz in RGB mode (because it doesn't have the required bandwidth.)

This means that when you have the PSVR set up, the PS4 Pro cannot connect to your 4k display directly, using HDMI 2.0. It can only connect through the PSVR Processing Unit, meaning it can only connect to your display using HDMI 1.4, which means it cannot display in RGB mode.

It is able to use the 4k display at 60Hz, but only in YUV420 mode (which requires less bandwidth), if the display supports it. However, this is an inferior mode with a reduced color resolution (YUV420 works by converting the image to brightness and color components, and then reducing the resolution of those color components; the same technique as old analog TVs use.) The colors are not as vibrant, and there may be visual artifacts in the colors (similar to what happens in analog TVs). Also, if the display supports HDR, it can't be used in this mode.

This is quite a major hindrance, if you have a 4k display (as I do.) Either you will have to use the console in an inferior display mode, or you will need to physically switch cables every time you switch from a PSVR game to a regular game, and vice-versa. (No, there is no way around this. You really have to physically switch cable connections. Any sort of HDMI switchers won't work with this.)

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