On Virtual Reality in Gaming.

With the recent release of the Nintendo 3DS I could not think of a better time to write this article. Whether you were too young, forgot, or just plain blocked it out the video game industry had kind of an obsession with virtual reality in the early 90s. It seemed as if everyone was pointing to virtual reality as the future of computer and more importantly video games. Imagine being IN the game. How rad would that be? Not as rad as everyone once thought as evidenced by the fact that no one is throwing on a VR helmets every time they want to play Halo. It was however the focus of a lot of research. Let me take you on a journey through the rise and fall of VR in video games by the two most prominent companies of the day.

Firstly, let me start off with the big question, “What the eff is virtual reality?” It is basically the total immersion of oneself into a virtual space. It was mostly done by putting on a helmet-type apparatus with screens and motion sensors in it. When you move your head so moves the scene. You are also given some way of interacting with the environment either by a controller or by the system detecting your movements. It’s a very nebulous concept, but one everyone was sure they wanted. Think of the Holodeck on Star Trek. That would be the ultimate goal of Virtual Reality, complete world replacement.

Sega


Sega was arguably the first to try its hand at VR announcing the Sega VR in 1991. It was an add-on to the popular Sega Genesis. This was exactly the kind of thing people were looking towards as the future of gaming. It was an apparatus you stuck on your head with LCD screens inside that tracked your head movements. Not much is known about it because it was canned two years later. The cause of its cancellation was said to be due to the experience was SO REAL that users would forget they were in a game and injure themselves whilst moving. The real reason was probably because testers were getting headaches and motion sickness. The last time it was seen was in 1993 at some trade shows. I have provided a video for your amusement.

Nintendo


This is probably the most prominently known venture into VR and goes by the name of Virtual Boy. I will not assume you all know what it is so here is a little background. It’s important to understand Nintendo’s philosophy to understand the inception of the Virtual Boy. Nintendo has always been about using technology that has been tried and true. It’s not cutting edge, but the fact that it has been around allows developers and engineers to use it easily because it’s understood. It also makes the systems cost effective and cheaper for the consumer. The NES used a modified 6502 and the Game Boy used a modified Z80 as their CPUs both of which were considerably dated even when the systems came out.

Everyone was hyping VR and Nintendo wanted a piece of the action. The Virtual Boy codenamed VR32 was lead by Game Boy creator and personal hero Gunpei Yokoi. It was Nintendo’s attempt at consumer level VR. It went through some drastic changes in its development process and more fundamental VR ideas such as a head-mounted unit where the screen would move as the player did were scrapped early on. The Virtual Boy’s claim to fame wasn’t so much that it produced a life-like VR experience, but that it allowed the user to see in 3D much like the 3D that is shown in movie theaters an homes today. The illusion of depth was created much the way your eye perceives depth which is a difference in images between your right and left eye. Although Yokoi insisted more time was needed to tweak the Virtual Boy, it was rushed out the door so additional resources could be allocated for Nintendo’s next big venture, codenamed “Project Reality”, which would later be known as the Nintendo 64. It released in July, 1995 in Japan and August, 1995 in the US. Rushing the system out lead to poor sales and a low adoption rate for third-party developers. It is generally considered a major flop by the gaming industry. Even worse there is much speculation that Gunpei Yokoi, the head of the VB team, was blamed for its failure and was ostracized by Nintendo forcing him to leave the company.

There were numerous problems that plagued the system. There were only two colors the system had which were red and black, which many found to be unacceptable. The problem was that LEDs were expensive and red LEDs were the cheapest and used the least power so to keep the cost manageable and battery life high they built it with only red LEDs. The intensity of the red LEDs was said to cause headaches in some users. The fact that it was marketed as a “portable” system was misleading and lead many people to think that it was a replacement for the Game Boy. This was of course false, it just meant that it could be transported easily as the system is fairly self-contained and can be powered by batteries. This one stood out to me: the system comes with a compartment for 6 AA batteries and no AC adapter even though the system needs to be played on a tabletop. The AC adapter was an extra accessory you had to buy, which I think is a poor choice. As mentioned above it has lousy third-party support and at the end of its life had only 22 games available in US and Japan.

Despite it’s many shortcomings I do believe it was a pretty neat system. If Nintendo had spent a little more time on it, the Virtual Boy might be remembered fondly in the great Nintendo lineage. Being an owner of this console I can attest to the fact that the 3D effect is actually pretty great. It also has one of my favorite games, Wario Land. I’m sure many people, including myself, hope this gets emulated and released on the 3DS.


What we can extrapolate from all this is that the world thought they wanted virtual reality, but in reality (see what I did there?) probably did not. Although, in direct contradiction to my conclusion I will say that we are moving back in that direction in terms of gaming, just maybe not in such obvious ways. With the release of the 3DS we not only have augmented reality, but portable, affordable 3D in games. The 3DS is the ultimate culmination of what the Virtual Boy was trying to be. On top of that we have the Kinect, which allows you to interact with objects in a virtual space without the use of a controller. With all these burgeoning technologies we might end up close to the original theory of VR that we originally thought.

On Heroes.

We all have people who shape our lives. Most people cite their parents, family, teachers, friends…you get the gist. It’s often times people close to us. Although these are the people who likely influence our lives the most, we still have people, whom we have probably never met, who play a big part in shaping our aspirations. I would like to share mine. This list might not be full of names you have heard of, but I promise they mean a lot to me and have played a significant role in shaping my life.

 

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Nikola Tesla

This is the guy. Whenever anyone asks who my hero is he always comes up. He was such an amazing human being. He pioneered the transmission of AC current which is used in all homes with electricity. Some of his theories and designs are JUST NOW being put to use. I mean he had the wireless transmission of power figured out way back in the early 1900’s. I mean listen to this story. During the time of the AC vs. DC wars, Tesla and his AC method got the bid to light the World’s Fair in Chicago. The problem is Edison (a huge proponent of DC) owned the patent for lightbulb manufacturing. What did Tesla do? GIve up? Hell no, he came up with a new method of making lightbulbs that not only was in no violation of Edison’s patents, but was actually more efficient to make. What a guy!

He was the pioneer of all modern electrical engineering and the reason I decided to get into engineering. He should be taught extensively in every history book. He is a constant inspiration and there is not enough words to thank him for his contributions to engineering and science as well as my life. Please, I implore you, if you get the chance read up on him. Here is a link to his wiki.

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Steve Wozniak

The “Woz” as he is known, is a legend, more than a legend, this might be the most influential person in the creation of modern computers. An electrical engineer by trade and education. He has a natural talent for electronics. I have read stories of his incredible understanding and ability to optimize things other people just can’t fathom. He is probably best known for co-founding Apple computers, but what is underlying in that is the computer itself. The Apple II. This introduced the personal computer. The way we interact with a computer today with a display and input device was his brainchild. He introduced the idea of normal people wanting to use computers in their daily lives. He is and forever will be my hero.  Fun loving and genius. This guy deserves more praise than he is already given. Without him I would not be anywhere I am today. Thanks Woz!

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Gunpei Yokoi

You have all heard of Nintendo, but I am sure you have not heard of this gentleman. You should know him though. He was one of the reasons Nintendo is as big of a success as it is today. He is the mind behind the Game Boy. The story goes that he was watching a businessman play with his LCD calculator and got inspired. Thus the Game Boy was born. A system which used outdates (even for the time) part to accomplish a task inexpensivly. That’s why I love the guy and Nintendo as a company. The mentality is that you don’t need the best of the best to compete. You need to approach the problem from a lateral perspective.

In comes the Virtual Boy though. I don’t even know if all of you remember the Virtual Boy, but it came out in 1995. In the 90’s virtual reality seemed like the next logical step in video games. I mean you would be IN the game. Nintendo tried to capitalize on this in their own way. Enter Virtual Boy. It was an affordable home console with the heart of VR. It took the same approach as the Game Boy and took older technology to create a new experience at an affordable cost. Sadly, the Virtual Boy was a failure and Gunpei took most of the heat. He left the company in 1996, but still did consulting work for them. The worst part is in 1997 while changing a flat tire a car ran into him killing him. It was a tragic accident and he will forever be missed.

The Game Boy will forever be his legacy and it is an amazing one at that. His use of seemingly deprecated technology to create fun and useful devices is why this guy is one of the good ones.

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Shigeru Miyamoto

What can you say about Mr. Miyamoto that hasn’t already been said? He is the heart and soul of Nintendo. He brought us Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, and Star Fox. He is a fountain of creativity. He is constantly bringing new an great ideas to video game design and furthering the medium with everything he graces. The fact that he pioneered not only modern platforming with the Super Mario Bros. series, but also made the first really cohesive 3D platformer with Mario 64 would be reason enough to love him, but how he can take something like a childhood backyard and turn it into a masterpiece like Pikmin is profound. He is already a legend, and has so many more stories and ideas to give us.

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Ken Kutaragi

The father of the PlayStation. He vaulted Sony into the video game industry with his incredibly successful console the PlayStation. He is an electrical engineer by education which is already enough to love the guy, but to transform a situation such as Nintendo bailing on you for the CD-I (what were they thinking!) and turn it into one of the best selling consoles in history really says something. He also designed the PlaySation 2 from the ground up. 10 years later and the PS2 is still around. That is a testament to your genius. He also created the PSP and PS3. Wow, Ken you are the man!

 

These are just some of my heroes. The ones that stick out. There is many more, but I would just like to say thanks to all of them. Without them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today. They are and were amazing people and I highly suggest you read up on them. I would love to hear some of your heroes. Please leave a comment, tweet, or post a Facebook reply. I am really interested.