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Sony prepares to join the virtual reality battle

A reference model of the Sony PlayStation VR viewer is on display with a PlayStation 4 system during a press event for CES 2016 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on January 5, 2016, in Las Vegas.
Alex Wong | Getty Images
A reference model of the Sony PlayStation VR viewer is on display with a PlayStation 4 system during a press event for CES 2016 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on January 5, 2016, in Las Vegas.

The virtual world gets its newest citizen on Oct. 13 with the arrival of PlayStation VR, and judging by early critical feedback, Sony's entry in the field could be the headset to beat.

Several media outlets have posted glowing reviews of the unit, noting that, while flawed, it's still the most mass-market-friendly virtual reality headset on the market. (And the fact that it carries a $399 price point — significantly lower than Facebook's Oculus Rift or HTC's Vive — may make it even more friendly to a larger general audience, rather than just tech enthusiasts.)

Sony has high expectations for PlayStation VR, saying pre-orders for the system indicate there will be heavy demand. However, notes Andrew House, president and global CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, the company is throwing a lot of hardware offerings at consumers this holiday season, which could ultimately impact VR sales numbers.

"We're putting a lot of different choices in front of gamers this holiday season, with the Slim PlayStation4, the PS4 Pro and now PlayStation VR as well," he says. "I think it will be a balance among those products. I think PS VR sales are going to be driven by people who are already committed or enthusiastic gamers and are looking for something they've never tried or played before."

(Worthy of note: That's a bit of a walkback from June, when House said, "We'll be supply-constrained with this product, but we'll do our very best to meet demand.")

Virtual reality is expected to be one of the hottest themes of the holiday season. Overall, the category is expected to generate $5.1 billion in revenue in 2016, according to a report from SuperData Research. And Piper Jaffray analyst Travis Jakel says that by the end of the year, there could be 12.2 million VR headsets in homes. (He expects Oculus Rift sales to come in at 3.6 million and Gear VR to hit 5 million. Vive is forecast to sell 2.1 million units, while PlayStation VR is slated to sell 1.4 million.)

House, not surprisingly, hints the number for his unit could be higher.

"We have the advantage that there are over 40 million PS4s out there are that are VR ready," he says. "It's a play experience that doesn't require the purchase of a high-end PC system."

It's also a system that has significant developer support. House says 230 developers are actively working on PlayStation VR content — and the company will roll out 50 games in the launch window. (PlayStation VR titles will generally range in price from $20–$40, though there will be some games at price points equal to traditional PS games, usually around $60.)

Speaking of those launch games, it's something of a mixed bag. CNBC.com has had extensive hands-on time with the PlayStation VR and several games that will launch with the system. One of our favorites, so far, is "PlayStation VR Worlds," a grab bag of five relatively short VR demos that showcase its cinematic and interactive qualities. ("Danger Ball," a VR take on pong, where you use your head to move the paddle, and "The London Heist," a VR action game that is one of the most immersive VR experiences we've tried, are particular standouts.) "Thumper" is a fun, addictive rhythm-based game. And "Batman Arkham VR" shows some promise, but is ultimately too short for its own good — and eschews the action elements of the character. Some tech flaws mar the fun of donning the cowl of The Dark Knight as well.

The headset itself is, arguably, the most comfortable of all the major VR units on the market. It's light and works just as well for someone who wears glasses as someone who doesn't. Setup of the system should only take 15–20 minutes, tops. And, most importantly, it's a lot of fun.

But it's not perfect. The problems come with some of the required peripherals. The PlayStation camera, which tracks the headset's movements, has a limited range of vision — so users can accidentally exit the tracking area through normal movement. And often when we reached for an element that should have been attainable in the VR environment, it resulted in a stuttering video effect that can be headache-inducing.

Another hiccup: If PlayStation VR is hooked up to a PlayStation 4, the system can't show high dynamic range video, one of the key selling points of the two new PS4 systems hitting the market this year. (To take advantage of that, you'll need to temporarily bypass the PS VR's HDMI port.)

Sony, however, is betting that's ultimately something that won't bother too many users.

"It's a question of development timelines," says House. "Our work on PlayStation VR long predates the ability to adopt HDR, so we've had to make compromises. I don't think they're overly onerous for the consumer."