The Oculus Rift is still in development kit form, but for a dev kit that aims to offer virtual reality in the living room for a relatively affordable $ 300 price tag, the device actually delivers. Your less tech savvy friends may not have heard of the Rift yet — and it doesn’t exactly have an impressive catalog of officially supported software — but the buzz surrounding the device is strong and loud. In fact, that buzz is so strong and loud that Sony has taken to developing a Rift competitor of its own.
Sony’s headset, the HMZ-T3Q, is actually the newest iteration in a line of theater virtualization headsets. Last year, Sony offered the HMZ-T3W headset at $ 1,000 per unit. Both units have similar specs and capabilities — personal headsets that simulate watching a screen that measures 700 to 750 inches in size from around 65 feet away. With the previous model, Sony aimed for the market of customers that would like a theater-sized experience when watching media, but didn’t have theater-sized space to set up the appropriate hardware. The headset allows you to have that giant screen and crisp 7.1 surround sound sitting on your face, so you can conceivably live in a tiny New York City-style shoe box of a room, but not miss out on an extravagant in-home media experience. The new model shown at CES 2014 this week takes somewhat of an aim at the Oculus Rift, as Sony touted the head-tracking capabilities of the HMZ-T3Q, and noted that it’s not only compatible with movies and TV, but video games as well.
Being “compatible” with video games, though, doesn’t mean you can just plug it in and suddenly have a seamless experience. The Oculus Rift — a similar VR headset, but made specifically for video games — works, but barely. Games need to be made compatible with VR headsets just as much as the VR hardware needs to be made compatible with games. Team Fortress 2 has “full” Oculus Rift support, and while you can use your head and the Rift to look around in-game, you’re still stuck facing forward — limited by the maneuverability of your head and neck — because that’s where the keyboard and mouse are located. Try spinning 180 degrees quickly enough to neutralize a would-be in-game assassin while your hands are firmly planted on the keyboard and mouse in front of you — even years of yoga won’t help.
So far, the best bet for a VR headset like the Rift to work well with gaming would be to pair it with something like an omnidirectional treadmill. The less immersive setup would be sitting in a chair that can spin 360 degrees, having enough space around the chair so you won’t bump into anything, and using a wireless gamepad. If Sony’s HMZ-T3Q truly was as compatible with games as the Rift, then it would still suffer from the same immersion factor. However, hardware like this is very promising. Even though playing a twitch-based game with the current Rift will greatly reduce your chance of success, the device works. A slow, exploratory game like Dear Esther or Gone Home would do the device justice.
The price of Sony’s headset is currently undisclosed, but the last model was a thousand bucks, significantly more expensive than the $ 300 Rift. Despite Sony’s claims, it remains to be seen if the headset is truly as compatible with games as the Rift — and even if so, if the price of the new model is anything like the last model, it’s a tough sell. If there’s anything the HMZ-T3W does have on the Rift, though, is that it looks like a virtual reality headset, unlike the Rift’s box-on-your-face aesthetic.