Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Virtual Reality in the '90s

In the past year we've seen the official releases of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and PlayStation VR virtual reality (VR) headsets. However, these aren't the first VR devices for gaming as a number of attempts at VR were made in the '90s. I've put together a quick overview with articles taken from my magazine collection and I'm including some links to a few worthwhile videos as well.

Electronic Gaming Monthly's
1993 Preview Guide
Sega's VR headset designed for use with the Genesis (or Mega Drive if you prefer) is well-known as images of the prototype made many appearances in articles and a working version was shown off at the 1993 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). From the articles and the video footage taken at CES it would appear that Sega was very close to releasing the headset and at an affordable price of $200. I'm sure I would have purchased it if given the chance but it never did find its way to retail.

Sega Visions August/September 1993
Sega's own magazine Sega Visions has a great article detailing how it works. They even have short descriptions of the first four games that were expected to release for the headset. Nuclear Rush, which was to be the pack-in title, has players piloting a hovercraft through a radioactive wasteland. The other three listed are Iron Hammer, Matrix Runner, and Outlaw Racing.

From Youtube user DigitalNeohuman, this is camcorder footage taken of Sega's VR presentation given at the aforementioned 1993 Consumer Electronics Show:


Two years later Atari unveiled their VR headset that was developed by Virtuality for the Jaguar console. Atari planned to release the accessory in the winter of 1995 but the Jaguar was not selling well so it's not too surprising that the headset was ultimately canceled.

Electronic Gaming
Monthly #71
Electronic Gaming
Monthly #74

Despite not being released, two headsets and one game do exist. The two headsets are not the same though as one is an earlier version than the other. Here is an interview from 2010 with the owner of the second, more complete, headset posted by Youtube user 8comicbooknerd9 (the video is about nine minutes but the interview is only five minutes with the rest of the time spent displaying still images):


Electronic Gaming
Monthly #64
The are a couple of released video game platforms that may be referenced as virtual reality but I wouldn't consider them to be. One is Nintendo's Virtual Boy which is a bulky portable system that may have the appearance of a VR headset but does not have the features of one. The system features red vector-like graphics over a black background and stereoscopic 3D that makes the user feel as if they are looking into the distance. However, there is no head tracking as the system must be placed on a table and not moved during play.

I do have some less than exciting first hand experience with the Virtual Boy. Shortly before it was released I was working in a toy store and the Nintendo representative that visited the store to change out the games in the demo kiosks brought the Virtual Boy with her to preview for retailers. I only got to play Red Alarm, a shooter with a viewpoint from behind a spaceship. As I recall during my brief play time I struggled to get a good feeling for the 3D and crashed into objects often. While I didn't get to play it much at all, it's not hard to see why critics reviewed it poorly and consumers never warmed up to it. The Virtual Boy was discontinued less than a year after it's August 1995 release in North America.

I don't expect Nintendo's ad campaign helped much.

Electronic Gaming
Monthly #77
The other game platform is referred to as virtual reality in an article from Electronic Gaming Monthly but based on product descriptions I'd say it's far from it. Tiger Electronics, makers of numerous handheld liquid crystal display (LCD) games, released the R-Zone in 1995. It's basically a LCD platform but with a head-mounted display and separate gamepad.

Computer users saw quite a few more investments in virtual reality than video game players and that hardware is more comparable to today's products. You can read about Virtual Vision's glasses in the EGM Preview Guide article posted up top with the Sega VR coverage and Greystone Technologies' work below the Virtual Boy article in the image above taken from EGM #64. Here are two more short articles from Electronic Gaming Monthly about a couple of types of VR glasses:



Lastly we have the VFX1 from Forte. I'd say the VFX1 is the most interesting virtual reality system from the '90s. It was released in 1995 and functions similarly to what was released in 2016. The headset can track the user's head movement, it has built-in stereo headphones, and a unique controller. What it lacks are games made specifically for VR and, being from 1995, the graphics couldn't exactly produce realistic environments in games. SiliconClassics produced a video that provides a great look at the VFX1 (the first three minutes and 50 seconds provide a VR overview):



It's surprising to see just how many companies tried their hand at virtual reality during the '90s but not surprising that all of the products were either canceled in the late stages of development or did not perform well at retail. The technology wasn't quite ready for what people were envisioning and VR all but disappeared from gaming for about 20 years. Some may still believe it's a gimmick and maybe the cost of the hardware will keep many big budget, VR-only games from being made in the near future. However, virtual reality will likely stick around this time as technology improves at a rapid pace and its uses outside of gaming continue to grow. 

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