Sony slips old tech issues into a new-fangled gadget (PSVR)

Next week Sony’s Playstation VR launches. VR is in a funny place right now. After TONS of chatter leading up to the oft-delayed launch of the Oculus Rift, and to a lesser extent the HTC Vive, gaming and tech sites have kind of stopped talking about VR now that it is widely available. Here comes Sony to see if its solution can get more mainstream traction than the Oculus or Vive have.

Today Sony posted a FAQ about PSVR and revealed a major issue with the technology, at least for some of us. The PSVR doesn’t pass through HDR signals.

Now let me explain that in case you haven’t been following the product.

First, if you don’t have an HDR TV this won’t impact you yet, but your next TV will probably support HDR, unless you’re buying in the next few months and going low-end.

PSVR consists of two parts: the visor and a small box they call the “Processing Unit (PU).” To hook it up you run an HDMI cable from your PS4 to the PU and then run two HDMI cables out of the PU. One goes to the visor and the other goes to your TV, for the ‘social screen’ (which allows async MP or lets people in the room see what you are seeing) and for non-PSVR content.

Now let’s talk about HDR. You might have used HDR on your cell phone to take photos, and HDR on TVs is similar but apparently not quite the same thing. Honestly I’m no techie when it comes to TV. But I do have a 4K HDR-capable TV and I can tell you that in certain scenes (outdoor scenes in particular) HDR makes your TV seem like it’s a window. The lighting is so realistic if feels like you can reach into it. (Mind you, the content you’re watching has to be coded to provide an HDR signal.)

The problem with HDR is that you have to see it in person to appreciate it. I can’t take a screenshot of my HDR TV and give it to you. If you have an HDR display you already know what I mean, and if you don’t, you couldn’t see the effect. It’s kind of like 3D in that way. Just trust me that if you have an HDR display you probably want to take advantage of it.

OK so NOW let’s talk about the Playstation 4 Pro. When it was announced in early September Sony talked a LOT about how it was 4K and HDR compatible, and there were a lot of interviews with developers who said that for them, HDR was more important than 4K. For one thing, HDR doesn’t require a lot of additional processing power so it has a low impact on the performance of a game. Sony even patched HDR capability into the standard PS4. So yay Sony is excited about HDR gaming! (Microsoft is as well, their new Xbox One S supports HDR and already there are games, such as Forza Horizon 3, that take advantage of it…in this way Microsoft is ahead of Sony in HDR terms.)

Sony wants you to experience the wonder of HDR….unless you’re a PSVR user. Because if you have PSVR hooked up, any HDR signal coming from your PS4 is going to hit the PSVR PU and die. You’ll still see a picture, it just won’t be an HDR picture. Basically PSVR removes a feature that Sony just patched into all PS4s and is including (and promoting heavily) in PS4 Pro.

So if you have a PS4 and want to enjoy both PSVR and HDR content, you’re going to have to disconnect the PU every time you want to watch something in HDR. This is not only an inconvenience (whether a major or a minor one depends on your home theater set up and how easy it is to access the back of your PS4 or TV) but it is going to put a lot of strain on your HDMI ports. Think about how many times you plug or unplug an HDMI cable in a given year. Four or five maybe? Now imagine doing it every day. HDMI ports are fairly delicate, not only the port itself but the solder connecting them to circuit boards inside your device. Constant plugging and unplugging is going to wiggle those solder connections and greatly increase the chance that they will fail. Expect a lot of broken PS4s in households that own PSVR and an HDR TV.

Some have suggested a splitter. Take the output from the PS4, split it and run one side to the TV and the other to PSVR and then to TV. Couple problems with that solution. First it requires 2 HDMI ports on your TV or A/V Receiver. Second you need to make sure the HDMI switch supports HDR: many do not. Third, of the ones that do apparently a lot of them default to the lowest common denominator. In other words the switch would detect that PSVR’s PU doesn’t support HDR so it would disable HDR to both outputs.

Any way you slice it, it’s a problem and a big one for those of us who want both the best TV picture and the experience of PSVR. The best solution I can come up with is getting a PS4 Pro for your regular games and leaving the old PS4 as the PSVR console, but of course then you miss out on the added horsepower that the PS4 Pro would bring to PSVR.

I’m so disappointed that Sony screwed this particular pooch. I was kind of excited for PSVR (weird because I never got that excited about Oculus) but now I’m thinking I might cancel my pre-order and wait for a future iteration that offers better support for modern TV technology.

I guess I should be thankful that Sony didn’t keep this shortcoming secret until after the first units shipped.