PlayStation’s Global Head of R&D talks the future of VR

PlayStation VR on table

With more than 4.2 million units sold, Sony’s PlayStation VR has become the most successful high-end VR headset on the market.

Since launching the headset in October 2016, Sony and its developer partners have released several hundred PlayStation VR games, as well as several bundles and price drops.

Having said that, with nearly 100 million PlayStation 4 systems in consumers’ hands, there is certainly room for growth with the PlayStation VR.

This has been a major focus for PlayStation, according to Global Head of R&D Dominic Mallison. A 26-year veteran of Sony, Mallinson has overseen development on both hardware and software at the company, most notably at its now-defunct Liverpool studio.

Mallinson hosted a PS VR-focused panel at the recent Collision tech conference in Toronto, and while there, he also spoke to MobileSyrup about the future of VR, both at Sony and as a whole.

Question: The PlayStation VR has been a solid success since it launched more than two and a half years ago. Looking back on that time, what do you think are some of the most notable accomplishments that Sony has made with the headset?

The first notable thing we did is build a good catalogue of software. Today, we have over 400 games and experiences available and they’re very high quality. We have games that are well up on the Metacritic rating. For example, Astro Bot: Rescue Mission has a 90 Metacritic. For me, that’s the biggest achievement, having that high quality and great catalogue.

Q: Having said that, what are some areas that you’d like to improve or expand upon in the future?

We’ve done a few social games and experiences so far and we’ve always found that they’re incredibly popular. Recently, we had a game called Firewall: Zero Hour and the people that played it are so engaged and keep coming back. As we grow the [PS VR] installed base and get more users in, the opportunity for really fantastic multiplayer and social games will just increase. I think that will be an area we focus on.

Q: Of course, gaming will always be a core tenant of PlayStation VR. But VR obviously offers other entertainment experiences, like concerts and comedy shows. The PS VR has some of those already, but how is Sony looking to grow the catalogue of VR experiences beyond gaming?

We’ve got two ways we’re doing this. One, we have a group dedicated to finding new experiences and getting that content. And we’re building it in-house, so we’ve been partnering with colleagues at Sony Music and Sony Pictures to try to bring the great music and picture content to VR. For example, we recently did [a VR experience] with Tom Grennan, a breakout music artist from the UK. Before that, we did a VR experience with Joshua Bell, a famous violinist.

These experiences were [about] Sony doing two things. First, it’s bringing in non-game content, but it’s also delivering on new technology — in this case, how to do video in VR, where you can actually move a little around and see a character from a new point of view. For example, when Tom Grennan is coming close to you, we can just slightly modify his eye contact to make sure it stays with you [as you move].

Q: Certain PlayStation VR titles [like the Persistence sci-fi horror game], have had accessibility features patched in post-launch. But what is Sony’s larger approach to accessibility in VR? What are some of the ways that Sony’s might be trying to make this technology more accessible to people with disabilities?

We have a lot of initiatives in-house for making software accessible. We have put a lot of effort into making sure our user interface has menus that let you change the size of fonts, the mapping of the buttons and whether buttons need to be mashed, things like that. We have a lot of accessibility software at the general level.

When it comes to VR, specifically, we found that the 3D audio capability of VR actually helps with a lot of accessibility for visually-impaired. Some games require you to go in a certain direction or shoot something in a certain direction. We found some of the impaired people found this a little bit easier because the quality of the 3D audio is so good in VR. So we might capitalize on that and grow that part of VR experience to try to make it even more accessible.

Q: On the subject of accessibility, VR has proven to be quite applicable in health care, whether it’s pain relief, treatment of phobias and the like. And some doctors have even noted that VR can be a powerful health tool at home for people who might not be able to travel. So with all that said, is Sony looking to help out in this field? Is the company working with researchers or medical professionals? Or can users maybe expect some sort of future remote care application on the PS VR?

First of all, Sony Corporation has a lot of initiatives in the professional space to produce this sort of technology in the future. Of course, we share all of the technical feedback to offer them the building blocks to allow that. But the PlayStation VR is focused on entertainment — games, narrative stories, experiences of that sort. We ourselves at PlayStation are not focused on the medical applications of VR.

Q: Sony has confirmed that PS VR will be supported on the next-generation PlayStation console. I know you can’t speak to specifics about that at this time, but looking more broadly, where do you envision the future of the VR industry within the next 5-10 years?

I think it’s [looking] very positive. Back in 2014, the projections were [unrealistic]. Fortunately, that was readjusted and much more realistic; now, we’re seeing very controlled growth for the entire VR and AR industry. Being more specific: how comfortable the device is, how it feels to put on and take off, how encumbering are its cables, the quality of its imagery… these are all areas in which we’re gonna see significant improvement in the next few years.

The most exciting technology for me is gaze jumping, which is the ability to know in VR where a user is looking. This brings up so many possibilities for user interface alone. But for the content to know what you’re interested in and then dynamically change the experience to tailor to what you’re doing in the game — that has huge potential.

This interview has been edited for language and clarity.