Before we kick off this month’s Built to Play theme on Virtual Reality, let’s take a trip through the history of consumer-level VR game technology, shall we? Now hold my hand, count to three, click your heels, and strap a computer to your face, because it’s time to go!
Sega’s 3D Glasses (1987)
While it isn’t technically virtual reality, the Master System’s 3D glasses are the first example I can find of a game developer using dedicated hardware to push immersion. Or, more accurately back then, the promise of immersion to sell dedicated hardware. To be fair to these guys, Master System 3D is in full colour, trading out red and blue lenses for rapidly moving shutters. Games that use the 3D effect have to specially coded for this flicker, which makes the Master System 3D glasses more like the Guitar Hero controller than anything- a few specific games use it, but otherwise, it was a $60 waste of plastic.
The flickering effect essentially halved the frame rate, which made it pretty unappealing for players who just though the 3D games had crummy, choppy animation. In turn, Sega sort of gave up on the glasses wholesale. The Master System 2 doesn’t feature the card port that the 3D adaptor plugged into, meaning newer models of the system can’t take advantage of glorious three dimensions, instead forcing players to squalor in a mere two.
3D has moved in and out of fashion over the years, usually coming around every other decade or so, when movie producers and game publishers have run out of quick,easy gimmicks, and need to rely on a tested idea while waiting for the “next big thing”. But, it’s also often the beginning of pushing towards a more effective method of immersion. 3D came back with 3D-TVs and the 3DS right before the current VR craze that Oculus kicked off. It’s too bad the VR inspired by the 3D crazy of the 80s led to stuff like...
Virtual Boy (1995)
...The Virtual Boy. In an attempt to capitalize on the 90s wave of the future, Nintendo had Gunpei Yokoi design what has since become the black-and-red laughing stock of both the virtual reality, and gaming hardware worlds. Contrary to popular belief, the Virtual Boy was not the last thing Yokoi made before leaving Nintendo. The Virtual Boy came out in 1995, and Yokoi founded Koto Labs in 1996. In fact, he stayed on to design the Game Boy Pocket as a sort of farewell present.
According to David Sheff’s book Game Over, Nintendo rushed the Virtual Boy to market so they could focus development resources on the then-upcoming Nintendo 64. Yokoi wasn’t particularly happy with the fact that his machine was put out in what he (and eventually many others) considered to be a sub-par form. The Virtual Boy is bulky, headache inducing (Yokoi used the infamous red LEDs because they were cheaper), and completely impractical as a portable console.
But, the Virtual Boy is the first dedicated, stand-alone VR console. It’s also pretty much the only vaguely successful one, arcade units aside. Obviously it was a commercial and critical failure, but it’s stuck around as a sort of Nintendo in-joke. It’s in Animal Crossing, Smash Bros. and Tomodachi Life, and it doesn’t show any signs of disappearing from its position as a jokey prop in less “serious” Nintendo games. It has a legacy as this spectacular failure, one that seemed to prove, at least for a while, that VR was a terrible, terrible idea. But the 90s VR wave wasn’t done giving. Before it sputtered out, it gave us one other halfway decent idea, run through the less-than-decent filter of 90s technology.
In 1991, the Virtuality Group, headed up by VR researcher Doctor Jonathan Walden ushered in the 90s with their VR 1000 series Arcade Units. The games were undeniably impressive for the time, with both standup cabinets that used joysticks to control the position of the players in-game hand, and sit down units that had a more traditional layout suited towards flying and driving simulators. They also offered some of the least impressive 3D graphics this side of the PS1. Choppy framerates and bare polygons look thoroughly dated now, but back in 1991, they made for the most realistic, immersive arenas you could play Dactyl Nightmare in.
Virtuality stuck around for a while, there was a second series of units in 1994, the same year the movie Disclosure came out. In an interview with Eurogamer, former Virtuality staff member Matt Wilkinson said that the movie’s portrayal of VR as a photorealistic jaunt through a world made Virtually efforts look like a bunch of crummy polygons. Of course, Disclosure’s promise still hasn’t come to fruition, nor was it such a popular movie, but the public perception of what VR did change. People started expecting the holodeck, and what they were getting was sub-N64 quality polygons.
Possibly a better reason for Virtuality’s failure was that each unit cost $5 to play in their heyday, and often had attendants nearby to explain how to play the games to players who’d never used a VR unit before. You got about five minutes of playtime too, meaning the whole thing could end up being far more expensive than, say, the Street Fighter II units across the arcade. The 2000 series, which had far better looking games, better head tracking, and even a Pac Man licensed game, couldn’t manage to turn heads.
Virtuality got by by licensing out their tech. Sega tried playing around with arcade and home VR, even drawing up ads for a Genesis VR helmet, but nothing serious ever came of it. Eventually, Virtuality got into designing anesthesiology simulations, for doctors to practice on before accidentally killing a patient. They also designed oil rig simulations, to test how workers reacted to emergency situations- whether or not they could follow orders. Virtuality was eventually declared insolvent in 1997, at which point the VR boom had already died. Gimmicky tech like the 1000 series and the Virtual Boy proved to the public that VR just wasn’t ready yet. But that didn’t stop companies from trying to wring out every last drop of goodwill from VR’s corpse.
Speaking of head-mounted displays, the R-Zone (not to be confused with the part of Toys ‘R’ Us that sells video games) may be the single lamest example of games you strap to your face in the history of face-strapping games. In 1995 Tiger Electronics, makers of popular junk LCD-games (not to be confused with Tiger Telematics, makers of junk Gizmodo games), decided to take their terrible, barely video video-games and put them as close to your eyes as possible and make them red, hoping you wouldn’t notice how bad they were. Unfortunately, there are no working R-Zone emulators, partially because that’d require recreating terrible LCD games from scratch, but mostly because why would you ever want to play an R-Zone game?
Each R-Zone cartridge featured a transparent LCD screen in the middle, which, when inserted into the giant head-mounted unit, would be projected onto a plastic surface hovering over your eye. The games were, for the most part, licensed titles that barely resembled the properties they were based on. Mortal Kombat 3 looks more like a beat-em-up than anything, and trades the MK-standard pre-rendered sprites for blocky LCD images that animate like they’re in a two-page flipbook. Though, to be fair, the R-Zone MK3 manual says that Sonya Blade is “a woman who gets her kicks from kicking,” and that has to be worth something.
Unlike the rest of the VR-units we’ve talked about so far though, the R-Zone is free-standing. It’s not attached to a base, or even a larger console. In that way, it’s sort of the predecessor to the Oculus Rift. But then again, that’s like saying rocks are the predecessor to skyscrapers. Also, as a fun aside, the R-Zone is Tiger’s first interchangeable cartridge system. Their follow up? The Game.com of course.
Oculus Rift (2012):
And now we’ve come full circle. From dumb, mostly pointless and ineffectual head-mounted 3D, to fascinating, fairly effective, but mostly purposeless (for now) head-mounted VR. The Oculus Rift is the kind of futuristic, impossible VR that Virtuality claimed killed it back in 1994. It’s fully immersive enough to inspire headaches and nausea in half of the players who try it out, and frothing demand in the half for which it works. The Rift proper isn’t available at a consumer level just yet, but Oculus has teamed up with Samsung to release the Gear VR, a headset which uses the Samsung Note 4 as a screen.
While this does get around one of the Rift’s biggest issues (the set-up involved, along with having a computer that can run Oculus’ software) it also introduces some brand new ones. Namely, why would anyone want to strap their phone to their face? To do anything at all? But, it does take us closer to the all-in-one, self-contained VR headset of the future that cyberpunk writers could only dream of. And, admittedly, the level of immersion that the RIft (with a good pair of headphones) provides is impressive. It can actually feel like you are inside the world of the game. However that isn’t necessarily the best thing for every single type of game, but we’ll get to that another time. For now, the Oculus Rift is the first (eventually) consumer level piece of VR that isn’t a complete pile of steaming dog shit, and it only took 25 years!