Project Morpheus. Image: Sony.
Project Morpheus. Image: Sony.

No, this isn’t a ghastly spin off of the Transformers series; it is potentially one of the most important battles in the future of video games. Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus are the lofty – and somewhat ridiculous – names given to the opposing virtual reality (VR) headsets being planned by Facebook and Sony, in their attempts to revolutionise, and further monetise, the virtual world. If successful, Facebook’s new acquisition could potentially transform and even destroy the console market as we know it.

The Oculus VR project started life as a brainchild of Palmer Luckey. An aficionado of 3D and head-mounted displays, Luckey dreamed of bringing VR back into 21st century homes at a price widely affordable to consumers.

In 2012 he set up a KickStarter project for the Oculus with an initial target of $250,000. The fundraising project became a runaway success, eventually achieving $2.4 million in donations. This success allowed the Oculus to become a tangible product, resulting in the release of developer kits that have allowed software designers to create content for the headset in anticipation of a future release.

Though gaming has been assumed to be the core future use of the Oculus, and the main focus of those working on the project, the headset has also been considered for more left-field entertainment purposes such as ‘immersive’ VR porn. No matter what people plan on using the device for, the Oculus has long been rumoured as the ‘next big thing’ in gaming hardware.

In a recent interview with Edge magazine Luckey predicted that competition for the Rift was sure to follow, and he was soon proved right. Sony unveiled Project Morpheus – its very own VR headset – at the Game Developers Conference on 19 March.

As well as being more aesthetically accomplished, the Morpheus is slightly more technically advanced than its competitor. Additionally, Sony has already agreed support from 13 developers, including the creators of the Gears of War franchise: epic Games. Outside of games the Morpheus so far has a partnership with NASA’s jet-propulsion project, allowing consumers to experience the exploits of the Curiosity Mars Rover from their own living room.

Neither headset has a fixed price-point or release date as yet, though an Oculus Rift development kit is considerably cheaper than a Project Morpheus one. However, with development at a relatively early stage, this is perhaps unlikely to reflect the gap between pricing when the two are finally released.

Nevertheless, the recent $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook has potentially changed everything and called into question the extent to which the two devices will be in direct competition. If the Rift becomes more of a tool for social networking than gaming, it is possible that the two devices will eventually end up fighting on separate battlegrounds.

Indeed in his press release announcing Facebook’s new toy, Mark Zuckerberg expressed some interesting plans: “We’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.”

Crucially, however, the 29-year-old was quick to dismiss the idea that the Rift’s new owners would divorce the device from gaming: “Oculus’s mission is to enable you to experience the impossible… immersive gaming will be the first, and Oculus already has big plans here that won’t be changing and we hope to accelerate.”

What will this mean? This decision could be a game changer, not just for the future of the VR market, but the console gaming industry as a whole. If the Oculus Rift becomes both a gaming and social device, Sony will have to give Morpheus its own killer app if it is to be commercially competitive, for the Japanese tech firm surely cannot hope to equal Facebook in terms of the social experience their device will deliver.

Furthermore other companies who are likely to enter the VR market – such as Microsoft or Nintendo – will likely face similar conundrums when squaring up to Facebook’s device. If they are unable to undercut the Rift as a gaming or social device, it is possible that Facebook will not only enter, but dominate, the next console war.

Though potentially beneficial for consumers in the short term the results of this could be devastating. As Facebook continues to increase the homogeneity of our daily interaction with technology, the firm could monopolise yet another element of our lives: gaming. This would surely immerse us in a very bad thing indeed.

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