Lifting the VR veil: How PlayStation 5 works with Sony’s last-gen headset
November 7, 2020
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You probably want to put the PlayStation VR headset on your head, not on top of a new PlayStation 5, for an ideal use case. But, hey: You do you.
Enlarge / You probably want to put the PlayStation VR headset on your head, not on top of a new PlayStation 5, for an ideal use case. But, hey: You do you.

Sam Machkovech

Today’s feature-length review of the PlayStation 5 covers a lot of ground, primarily about how it works on your favorite TV set, 4K or otherwise. But what if your preferred PlayStation gaming screen is one you strap to your face?

You’d be a minority, based on PlayStation VR hardware sales since it launched in 2016, but that’s still millions of players. And Sony has confirmed that PS5 works with the existing PSVR ecosystem, hardware and software alike, while otherwise not saying anything definitive about future next-gen VR hardware. (Xbox, on the other hand, has thus far ruled out VR entirely.) But how exactly does it work? Are there any benefits to connecting a last-gen headset to a next-gen console? And should existing VR players on PS4 hang onto their older console for any reason?

I’ve broken this guide out from the PS5 review as a way to answer whatever VR questions you may have ahead of the new console’s launch next week.

Dongles, ports, and thresholds

Earlier this year, Sony confirmed that existing PSVR systems—which include a headset, a PS4-specific camera, and an extra VR processing box—can plug into PS5 consoles and play pretty much every PSVR game. However, this requires a special adapter for PS5 since Sony, in its mid-’10s wisdom, elected to use a proprietary connector for the “PlayStation Camera.” (Confusing matters, the PS5’s launch is joined by the “PlayStation HD Camera,” which is not compatible with PSVR.)

Last week, Sony opened up a redemption program so that PSVR owners can get said dongle. The site’s first 36 hours were a nightmare of vague error codes; the most common response told users to call a hotline instead of simply waiting for servers to recover from a pounding. Once that settled, anyone with a PSVR in their hands could submit the serial code listed on the processing box and get a PS5 dongle shipped to their homes, completely free of charge. (Not even a shipping/handling surcharge! Thanks, Sony.) I eventually got through this site and placed an order, and it came with a hazy pledge of “weeks” for my dongle to arrive.

On the same day, Sony shipped a PlayStation Camera dongle (pictured above) to me as a member of the press. The dongle accepts the PS Camera’s proprietary plug on one end, then feeds it to a USB Type-A 3.1 plug on the other.

The front-facing port can’t handle USB 3.1 speeds.

With this in hand, I pulled my tubby PS5 out of my entertainment center and began connecting cables. This is where I ran into my first problem. PS5 includes three USB Type-A ports, but only two of these, on the back of the console, are rated USB 3.1. (An additional front-facing USB Type-C port is rated for higher speeds, at least.) In comparison, PS4 Pro includes three USB 3.1 Type-A ports, along with a separate dedicated port for its camera.

I came to learn that the last-gen PlayStation Camera requires a USB 3.1 port—as does my external hard drive, which I currently use since PS5’s 660GB of internal storage isn’t enough for my entire library of next-gen, last-gen, and VR games. Neither of those devices will work plugged into the front-facing port; warning messages make clear that they require USB 3.1 speeds, which the front-facing port can’t do. Thankfully, the PSVR processing box doesn’t require that threshold of USB throughput.

Still, with three devices plugged in, that left me with zero USB Type-A ports left for things like charging or pairing controllers, or connecting the next-gen PlayStation HD Camera. The only way around this was to use a third-party USB Type A 3.1 hub, which thankfully could juggle two cameras, a hard drive, and the PSVR processing box.

Older controllers, (mostly) same performance

Additionally, you’ll need some kind of past-gen controller to play PSVR software, since the system’s design revolves around PS4’s PlayStation Camera identifying bright bulbs of colored light. The PSVR headset has multiple colored panels, which the camera uses to orient your position in a virtual world, and the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller uses a “light bar” for the same thing. The PS5’s new DualSense gamepad does not have an equivalent light bar, so it doesn’t work.

If your game of choice uses other compatible controllers, like the PSVR Aim gun or the PlayStation Move wand, they too will work on PSVR via PS5.

To prove out PS5’s abilities with PSVR fare, I went straight to the clunkiest game on the platform: Sony’s own Iron Man VR, an uneven robo-flying game from earlier this year. On all PS4 consoles, the game failed to lock down a consistent high frame rate of 60Hz (as interpolated and doubled to 120Hz via the PSVR’s processing box), and it struggled with slow loading times. Sure enough, without any apparent patches designed around PS5, the game clears both of those technical hurdles on the newer console—but not in ways that feel particularly “next-gen.”

In my testing, an Iron Man VR campaign level that loaded in 126 seconds on PS4 Pro now takes 78 seconds when installed to PS5’s internal NVMe storage or 100 seconds when installed to an external, platter-based drive. And where the campaign level in question (Chapter 3, in virtual Shanghai) was once the game’s most obvious source of stuttering, it now runs at a locked 120Hz (albeit driven by interpolation from 60Hz). And it does this no matter how many robots or effects appear in the game world.

Meanwhile, in-game detail is identical between both platforms. If there’s any increase to the game’s VR resolution on PS5, it’s not significant enough that I can point it out. The sense of increased clarity might be due to a mild jump in base resolution (if the game revolved around dynamic resolution in the first place), or it might simply be because of less frame rate flicker.

Underperforming PSVR games are rare on the platform, owing to them being generally optimized for the system’s lower specs as compared to a VR-ready PC. Iron Man VR‘s performance woes are an outlier, and in the case of Ars Approved PSVR exclusives like Astro Bot: Rescue Mission, Resident Evil 7, and Wipeout: Omega Collection, I perceived equivalent performance and resolution as found on PlayStation 4 Pro.

It works, just not elegantly

If you’ve been playing PSVR fare on a standard PS4 and want to enjoy the mild boosts of Sony’s mid-gen console, then moving your existing PSVR setup to PS5 makes sense (if you are already diving into the PS5 universe, at least). But those boosts are mild, and they should be considered a perk on top of the PS5’s flat-screen library as opposed to a reason to buy a whole new PlayStation.

After all, Sony has stated that it has zero plans to release PS5-minded software or patches for PSVR, though existing PSVR retail bundles have recently been updated to add PS5 adapters to their boxes. That means we should expect some form of PSVR support from Sony for at least one more year, even if the publisher has generally backed away from making major new games—and is still mildly teasing a new Sony VR system to come… some day? In 2022, possibly?

Meanwhile, if you decide to hold onto a PlayStation 4 Pro with a PSVR attached, I gotta say: maybe keep it that way. Testing PS5 with PSVR has forced me to add a USB Type-A dongle, as if I’m the owner of a modern MacBook Pro, and I’d rather keep my PS5 neat and tidy instead of bolting so many PSVR cords and things to it (and I already have to hang onto a last-gen controller, anyway). If you’re planning to reduce your PlayStation footprint by selling or trading your existing PS4 console, of course, PS5 works just fine with PSVR, but definitely add a USB Type-A dongle to alleviate stress about the newer console’s available ports.

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