RIP: The fallen heroes of virtual reality

As a new Oculus Rift prototype is unleashed, we take a look back at some of VR's early stumbles.

RIP: The fallen heroes of virtual reality
RIP: The fallen heroes of virtual reality© Flickr

A new virtual reality war is heating up, with Oculus Rift, Sony and even Valve all rumored to begetting in on the action with their own headsets, but it's worth remembering that these devices are anything but a new concept.

Oculus VR may have grabbed most of the attention with the newest “Crystal Cove” prototype of its famous Rift headset, unveiled at this month’s CES in Las Vegas, which drastically reduces lag and the accompanying nausea of simulated movement, but as many companies have learned the hard way over the years, public interest doesn't guarantee the product will be a runaway success. We look at past failures to see what went wrong, and what lessons can be applied to modern VR offerings.

Baby Steps: Sega and Nintendo's 3D glasses

Sega's 3D glasses
Sega's 3D glasses © Wikipedia

 OK, so these aren't strictly virtual reality headsets, but it's nevertheless interesting to see that both Sega and Nintendo experimented with 3D effects all the way back in their 8-bit days. Both the Master System 3D glasses and Famicom (that's the Japanese name for the NES) 3D System employed LCD shutter glasses which gave compatible software the illusion of three-dimensional depth.

© SEGA

Support for both products was painfully limited, and Nintendo's offering didn't even make it out to the West. Sega's 3D Glasses meanwhile received only eight games, but the product is notable for being created with the involvement of Mark Cerny, now better known as lead architect of the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita.

The fame game: Virtuality

Virtuality
Virtuality© Virtuality

Back in the early '90s, when Virtual Reality was being aggressively marketed as the technology of the future and gaining exposure in Hollywood movies such as The Lawnmower Man and Disclosure, Virtuality became the public face of VR gaming. The British firm produced arcade units which captured the imagination of players and press alike; the focus on entertainment made Virtuality's machines a common sight in amusement centers of the period. However, the expensive nature of the hardware and the generally crude experiences contained within ensured that the buzz was short-lived. The company inked deals with Sega, Atari and Ford, but was eventually declared insolvent in 1997.

Empty Promises: Sega VR

Sega VR
Sega VR© Sega of America

Like many companies of the period, Sega dabbled in Virtual Reality during the early '90s and with the assistance of Virtuality, produced an arcade VR ride for its Joypolis venues in Japan. The next logical step was to create a domestic version for the 16-bit Genesis - a device which was so far developed that units were shown at trade shows and promotional material was printed in gaming magazines of the period. Sega canned the project before it went into production, which was probably for the best - the Genesis couldn't produce convincing 3D visuals and the demoed software looked worryingly basic.

Curiosity Killed The Cat: Jaguar VR

Jaguar VR© Gamesniped.com

As well as working with Sega on VR projects, Virtuality also signed a deal with Atari to produce a headset for its 64-bit Jaguar console. It used head-tracking to create a convincing level of immersion, and was set to receive Virtual Reality updates of some of Atari's classic titles - including Missile Command. As the Jaguar struggled at retail however and Atari's finances began to unravel, the deal between the two companies slowly crumbled and the project was terminated. Working units were apparently destroyed, although some of turned up on online auction sites for astronomical fees. In 1998, the former owner of Virtuality produced a headset for Phillips - dubbed "The Scuba" - which used the same tech which would have powered the Jaguar VR units.

Keeping It Personal: CyberMaxx and VFX-1

VFX-1
VFX-1© Digibarn.com

Given that PCs have always been at the cutting edge of gaming technology, it should come as no surprise to learn that several compatible headsets have been produced over the past two decades. Two of the most famous are the CyberMaxx and VFX-1, relatively crude units which retailed for around $200 to $300 back in the early '90s. As was the case with most VR tech at the time, the execution was lacking - the LCD screens used in the headsets suffered from motion blur and the head tracking was poor. To make matters worse, the units themselves were bulky and uncomfortable to use, but at least they managed to make it to market, which is more than can be said for Sega and Atari's efforts.

Money For Old Rope: Tiger R-Zone

R-Zone
R-Zone© Wikipedia

Tiger Electronics is one of those companies whose name will be instantly familiar with gamers of a certain age, but not for all the right reasons. Tiger produced handheld LCD titles based on famous movies, as well as console and arcade licences - the kind of simplistic portable you'd lug around with you before the more advanced Game Boy came along. In the '90s, Tiger tried to gatecrash the VR "revolution" with its R-Zone system, which took the simplistic gameplay of the aforementioned LCD handhelds and transplanted it to a Google Glass-style headset.

© Tiger Electronics

The images from the game would be projected onto a transparent plastic display over your right eye, but there was little in the way of genuine immersion. Unsurprisingly, the R-Zone sank without trace at retail and would be followed by the equally disasterous Game.com handheld. Tiger has since been acquired by toy giant Hasbro.

High Profile Casualty: Virtual Boy

Virtual Boy
Virtual Boy© Nintendoage.com

Arguably Nintendo's most infamous hardware disaster, the Virtual Boy was an attempt to capitalize on the waning popularity of VR in the mid-'90s. A system built on compromises, it boasted red visuals (because red LEDs were easy to source and were less demanding on batteries) and required the player to sit hunched over a table, as the console itself could only be used on a flat surface. Ignored by the gaming public, the Virtual Boy was aggressively discounted and quietly dropped from Nintendo's portfolio less than a year after it launched.

© Nintendo/T&E Soft/Bullet-Proof Software/Coconuts/Kemco/Atlus/l'Max/Pack-In-Video/Taito/Hudson Soft/Bandai/Ocean

Its abject failure had even greater ramifications - it brought to an end Nintendo's association with Gunpei Yokoi, the man who arguably helped make the company what it is today. Yokoi designed Nintendo's first best-selling toys back in the '60s, and also masterminded the Game Boy. He was tragically killed in a road traffic accident in 1997, at the age of 56.