With the successful launches of high profile systems like Google Cardboard, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, virtual reality seems to be the bandwagon both consumers and technology companies are climbing on en masse. But this isn’t the first time this bandwagon’s made the rounds, and all other times this very joyride had ended in a miserable, fiery wreck that left nothing behind but salty tears and ruined dreams. We don’t have to look too far back to witness some of gaming history’s most noteworthy VR pioneers (and failures), so while you’re waiting anxiously on your brand new HMD to coast off the production lines and onto your doorstep, why not have a peek at the miracles, the makers, and ultimately the mistakes that went into making VR what it is today.
Often claimed to be the earliest known example of VR technology, the Sensorama was, more accurately, one of the earliest attempts at “immersive, multi-sensory technology,” or what would today be known as multimodal technology. Its creator was Morton Heilig, an experienced cinematographer who saw in theater the limitations of film in appealing only to its audience’s senses of sight and sound. Heilig dared to dream of a technology that would encompass and excite all the senses in a powerful manner, thus engaging the viewer in the onscreen appearance in a way that film never could. Helig first wrote of his vision, which he called “the Experience Theater” in a paper he published in 1955 entitled “The Cinema of the Future.” After seven years, which we could only assume went by in a montage of Heilig and his assistant arguing over blueprints, frantically scrawling equations on a chalkboard and poring over mechanical innards, their faces hidden behind grubby metalworking masks obscured by the sparks from a soldering iron, Heilig was finally ready to unveil his prototype.
Dubbed the Sensorama, Heilig’s invention premiered in 1962, along with five short films meant to showcase its technological capabilities. The Sensorama was a big, bulky machine that resembled an arcade machine, with a tapered hood that enclosed an individual viewer’s head and peripheral vision, and an attached seat. The Sensorama was capable of displaying stereoscopic 3D in a wide-angle view and playing sound in stereo. Its seat was even able to tilt in time with the action on-screen. And, most spectacularly, there were tracks built into the machine that were meant to funnel wind and aromas towards the viewer in time with the film. That’s right, aromas. The Sensorama featured integrated smell-o-vision. More seriously, nothing about the way the Sensorama worked was digital or computerized; the prototype was a completely mechanical device that, incredibly, still functions to this day.
Unfortunately, the Sensorama was doomed by the financial realities of the time. Filmmakers were understandably hesitant about the risks of investing in a piece of such radical new technology. One major factor was the astronomical cost of making new 3D films, which reportedly required three 35 mm cameras to be mounted on the cameraman in order to capture the action in stereoscopic wide angle vision. Also, the Sensorama was thought to have addressed the wrong senses; advertisers simply couldn’t figure out how to market such a bizarre device to the wider consumer base. The nail in the coffin was perhaps the obvious fact that the Sensorama was built to accommodate only one user at a time; compared with conventional movie theaters, which could entertain dozens with a single film reel, it simply wasn’t cost-effective. In the end, Heilig was unable to secure financial backing for his patents, and was forced to halt work on the Sensorama. While the device still stands to this day as a technological curiosity, Morton Heilig has been lauded as a pioneer in the history of virtual reality. The world simply wasn’t ready for his vision.
Nintendo Virtual Boy
Sometime in the 1980s, Massachusetts-based Reflection Technology Inc. (RTI) prototyped a 3D stereoscopic head-tracking device called the Private Eye. RTI ran into problems when it tried marketing its device to commercial companies such as Mattel, Hasbro, and even Sega, however, as there were doubts about its glaring, single color display and concerns about motion sickness. Finally, it was Nintendo who took the bait, and the Private Eye was enthusiastically received by Gunpei Yokoi, then-general manager of the company’s primary research and development team. Yokoi also happened to be the inventor of the hugely successful Game Boy handheld console, and so had proudly embraced an industry reputation for innovating. In the Private Eye, he saw the potential for a technology that was unique, immersive, and not easily duplicated by the competition.
Four years and one dedicated manufacturing plant later, Nintendo unveiled the Virtual Boy to great commercial fanfare and optimistic applause. But from the onset, problems with its design were apparent: due to the prohibitive cost of using a full color LCD system, the Virtual Boy kept the prototype’s bright red LED. Red LEDs were not only the cheapest to produce, but also reportedly used less battery power. Again, due to costs, the LCD was also not blacklit: instead, upon donning the HMD, users were immersed in darkness, with the games playing out in bright red stereoscopic grids and shapes. Yokoi believed that the blackness would help encourage a more immersive sense of infinite depth. Perhaps most controversially of all, the Virtual Boy completely amputated the prototype’s head tracking functionality, reportedly due to Japan’s timely Product Liability Act of 1995, concerns about motion sickness, and the risk of children developing symptoms of lazy eye. Because it no longer needed to track motion, the prototype was transformed from its original head-mounted goggle device to a bulky, stationary appliance secured to a tripod, meant to sit on a tabletop.
Even with all the cost-cutting measures that went into its design, the Virtual Boy launched at a comparably pricey US$179.85. Inaugural game titles included Mario’s Tennis, which shipped as a pack-in with every Virtual Boy sold, Red Alarm, Teleroboxer, and Galactic Pinball.
Right out of the gate, however, reviews of the Virtual Boy were overwhelmingly negative. Reviewers complained of how uncomfortable it was to play, the lack of intuitive head tracking functionality, an unimpressive lineup of launch titles, and of course, the glaring monochrome display. There were some who argued that the Virtual Boy’s ‘VR’ aspect so aggressively touted in its marketing campaign was little more than a novelty, and wound up delivering little more than stereoscopic View Master. Since the console lacked head tracking, users had to use a controller to interact with the game world, further breaking immersion. To add salt to the wound, none of the games that launched with the system took advantage of 3D; in essence, they were all 2D, or even 1D titles.
By December 1995, total sales of the Virtual Boy numbered at around 350,000 units, a far cry from the projected 1.5 million units Nintendo had expected to sell. In spite of an aggressive advertising campaign, the Virtual Boy ranked number 5 on GamePro’s “Top 10 Worst Selling Consoles of All Time” in 2007. After its abysmal first-quarter sales, the Virtual Boy was quietly discontinued, with nary a press release to mark its lonely demise.
Virtual Boy’s creator, Gunpei Yokoi, shouldered most of the blame for the console’s commercial failure. In spite of having produced several more successful products for the brand, such as the Game Boy Pocket, Yokoi would eventually withdraw from Nintendo, though he did maintain close ties with the company. On the other hand, Reflection Technology Inc., the original inventors of the prototype that would become the Virtual Boy, was reportedly “financially devastated” by its failure. As for Nintendo itself, the gaming juggernaut has wisely learned some important lessons from the Virtual Boy. It would go on to release the markedly more successful Nintendo 64, which featured full color polygonal characters instead of sparse wire-frame graphics, and the Nintendo 3DS, which impressively packed auto-stereoscoping 3D visuals in a convenient, handheld package.
Sega might’ve dodged a bullet when it turned down the monochrome LED prototype that would become Nintendo’s ill-fated Virtual Boy, but that didn’t mean the company avoided the curse of the mid-90s doomed fixation with VR.
Riding high off the success of the Sega Genesis, Sega revealed in 1991 that had its own internal VR project in development, culminating in the original-sounding Sega VR. Unlike the Virtual Boy, the Sega VR was a true HMD that was meant to be plugged into a home Genesis console. Its visor was fitted with LCD screens, stereo headphones, and inertial sensors which allowed the headset to track and react to movements of the user’s head. As noted by Electronic Gaming Monthly during the 1993 Winter Consumer Electronics Show, a larger iteration of the Sega VR had already seen limited release in arcades; indeed, it was Sega’s plan to make a version of this very VR headset for use on home consoles. Four launch titles were planned, including a home port of the popular arcade game Virtua Racing, a price tag of $200 and a release date in 1993 were scheduled. But sometime around 1994, the Sega VR quietly and mysteriously vanished from release schedules. What went wrong?
As it turns out, we don’t know much, and we might never know the full story. The party line from Sega was that the project was terminated because “the virtual reality effect proved too realistic”. Understandably, reviewers and industry observers raised their collective eyebrows and brought out their magnifying glasses. Sure enough, after some scrutiny, it was obvious that the limited processing power of the Sega VR made this claim highly unlikely. There are reports of testers developing headaches and motion sickness, and a research institute did warn Sega of the ‘hazards of prolonged use’ of its VR system, but it’s pretty unlikely that the project had been shelved because it was simply too good.
Sega would go on to create other VR projects for arcades. It even teased a similar VR add-on for its 32-bit fifth-generation console Sega Saturn, but like the Genesis VR that came before it, nothing came of these teasers. Sega’s arcade VR projects would go on to enjoy some limited success as novelty attractions, but its home VR projects never took off.
What makes this generation’s VR is that it actually delivers, or at least—so far—comes pretty darn close to delivering on the promise of creating a fully-immersive, omni-directional virtual experience. Also, unlike the VR systems of yesteryear, both consumers and publishers are actually buying into it, and gleefully enjoying the results. After so many generations of good intentions and abortive starts, is VR finally here to stay? We think so and the bold moves companies like HTC, PlayStation and heavyweights like Facebook and Apple are making, we can’t wait for the next wave of innovation!