It's a 651-horsepower behemoth, a rocket strapped to sheet metal.
The sleek lines of a Ferrari FF, like the sloping hills of a California coastal town, beckon you in their shimmering glory. You stand in front of the supercar and can open and close the door. When you do, there's a satisfying click as though you have opened and closed a door to another universe.
In some ways, you have. Virtual reality is the transport mechanism of our age. When you don the goggles for a Sony PlayStation VR kit, which costs $399 if you already have the required PlayStation Camera and a Move controller (or $499 if you don't), you see everything in surround video. When you move your head to the right, you see the road stretching off in the distance. When you turn to your left, you see the other cars waiting for the race to start. The game, called Driveclub VR, is fantastic--highly-detailed, gloriously immersive, and wonderfully realistic.
VR started out as a burgeoning market last spring. The Oculus Rift (for $599) and HTC Vive for $699) both work with a high-powered desktop computer. They are a bit expensive, but I was impressed with the Vive when I tested it and felt the games were immersive and rich. One of my favorite experiences involved a whale that swam right in front of me and painting in virtual reality using the Google Tilt Brush app. With PlayStation VR, the goggles connect into a PlayStation 4 video game console, which you might already own, and costs much less.
The headset is light, fits snugly, and blocks out the room completely. There's one long cable that connects into a break-out box and then the PlayStation. With the Vive, I had to install two sensors on both sides of the room, and the software took longer to configure. With the PlayStation VR, the software is fast loading and easy to use.
Of course, it's all about the games, and for now PlayStation VR has some powerhouse options. I played Batman: Arkham VR and felt like I had become the Dark Knight himself. When you look down, you see your virtual belt. Reach out and shoot a grappling hook, and you see your virtual hands. Sony uses 3D audio to create a better sense of being in the game. You wear earbuds attached to the goggles but you heard audio from the earbuds and from the television at the same time. On one level that takes place in a dark alley, the audio surrounds you.
The game Eve: Valkyrie puts you into the cockpit of a spaceship. In the opening levels, you can gaze in wonder at asteroids floating next to you. The experience of being able to look around changes everything in space simulations like this. Even the countdown before you launch into the void of space feels more thrilling, even for those who have done that countless times in a normal video game. When I had several friends and family members try Batman, Driveclub VR, and Eve: Valkyrie, they had never experienced anything like it before. In every case, the players didn't want to give up their turn. Only one tester had slight motion sickness.
What I kept thinking about, though, was that Driveclub VR game driving the Ferrari around a virtual track. I've driven a real Ferrari (the California T) and this comes fairly close to what it feels like. You punch it to feel the high horsepower. You see the curves in the road and step off the gas. You try to avoid other cars. You look out over the ocean and see the sun setting off in the distance. It's visual and visceral enough to look and feel convincing, minus the gas fumes. For those of us who could never afford a $295,000 supercar, it's probably as close as we'll ever get.
The VR market is primed and ready for massive growth. It will save gaming. As the costs come down (each new device seems cheaper than the last round of early adopter versions), the games improve, and more people realize how much it engages the sense, there's a good chance this could become the new form of entertainment for movies and games. I can imagine watching a movie where you star as Batman; it's a melding of two entertainment mediums. I can also imagine a future where you won't need a television in your living room. We'll likely connect with other VR gamers and see their avatar in the game. We'll use VR in business to hold a conference and let people "test: out a new product. We'll attend a TED talk, and everyone will have a front row seat with Elon Musk standing right in front of us. Someday, I will go to Las Vegas to the CES tradeshow wearing goggles (and my slippers).
Sony has done an excellent job making this all intuitive and seamless. Connecting the device took less than ten minutes before I was driving that Ferrari. This fall, Ubisoft and several other major gaming companies plan to release new VR games. For now, there are demo-quality movies and videos to watch in VR, but that will likely change soon. The PlayStation VR is a major leap forward in technology.
Everyone should jump in the Ferrari FF for a test run, at least once.