“Welcome to the future” is a phrase that gets used in videogames far too often. Only last week at E3 were Sony and Microsoft trumping their new motion technologies as something that would change games forever. Many were blown away by what was on offer, especially the footage shown of Project Natal.
Countless scenarios have been brought up by gamers on how the new tech could be implemented, from strategy games to RPGs and every genre in between. Before we all start throwing our controllers away and jumping on the motion control bandwagon, it’s time for a history lesson.
“Welcome to the future” – Sega Visions magazine, September 1993
“From the moment you strap on the headset, you know that your gaming life will never be the same again.” That was what Sega Visions magazine said when previewing the Sega VR; a virtual reality headset for the Sega Megadrive/Genesis that was going to revolutionize the way we would interact with what was happening on-screen.
The Sega VR had two LCD screens for each eye, creating what is known as binocular parallax, where two images from each eye are put together by your brain to create a 3d image. Think of an advanced version of the red and blue ’3D glasses’ you’d get in the cinema and you’re on the right track.
The system also had stereo headphones so players could judge the direction of a sound and turn accordingly to where it originated from. All this was tied into a fairly sophisticated (for the time) head tracking system that adjusted the image and sound accordingly as you moved your head.
The system appeared at numerous trade shows throughout 1993, debuting at the 1993 CES show in Chicago. The initial anticipation of how this tech could be used soon turned into derision when journalists got their first play of the system. Using the Megadrive to try and sculpt 3D worlds was an act of extreme folly by Sega, imagine a very crude first person Space Harrier and that’s as good as 3D was going to get on the poor old 16-bit console. Four games were announced for the system:
Nuclear Rush - A futuristic shooter where the player pilots a hovercraft.
Iron Hammer - Another futuristic shooter, this time in a helicopter gunship.
Outlaw Racer - Off-road racer where players would steer the car by turning their heads.
Matrix Runner - Cyberpunk crime caper, supposedly inspired by Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher.
After such poor demonstration showings, (what? steering cars with your head didn’t catch on!?) the Sega VR project was swiftly terminated early in 1994. At the time Sega stated the machine was simply “too realistic” and players were hurting themselves while using it. The truth was that the whole experience was underwhelming, the console couldn’t pull off the ’3D world’ the technology required to an acceptable standard and many testers reported feeling nauseous after prolonged sessions.
While the Sega VR was a miserable failure of an add-on (along with the 32X, Mega CD and Menacer lightgun) it did inspire other companies to try and jump on the virtual reality bandwagon. Everybody knows about Nintendo’s failure with the Virtual Boy, which gave gamers that same nauseous feeling as Sega’s machine. But what about the lesser known attempts at virtual reality?
Virtuality was a British start-up company that specialised in 3D, Virtual Reality hardware. In 1993 they launched their first machine in England’s Wembley Stadium to much press exposure. The initial 1000 series of headsets were powered by an Amiga 3000 (with a super-fast 25 MHz processor and massive 2MB of memory!), and housed such gems as Grid busters and Dactyl Nightmare’. In 1994 the team released a considerably more powerful 2000 series,’the system that was to be the home of the fabled Pacman VR.
Pacman VR put the players directly in the little yellow maze runner’s shoes. Players would travel through the levels, displayed from a first person perspective, dodging ghosts and eating pills. The first person view made for a tense experience as former Virtuality staffer Don McIntyre recalled: “when you turned the corner and were suddenly confronted by a ghost it was quite alarming“.
The game certainly did look intriguing, giving a fresh take on an old classic. In my opinion, If they had adapted the game to include multiplayer, where each player took the role of a ghost, the game could have been great. Sadly Pacman VR would never see the light of day.
With the Sega VR being pulled before launch and Nintendo’s Virtual Boy’being a catastrophic failure, financial backing for Virtuality’s machines was hard to come by. Eventually the company was sold off in various parts to companies around the world, although the Virtuality name was retained. Cybermind UK bought most of the technology until 2004 when Australian company Arcadian Virtual Reality purchased Cybermind.
Arcadian were said to be developing the next generation of virtual reality headsets for arcades, however they have announced on their website that the business has been put into liquidation. For the meantime it seems that virtual reality is a world away from coming to our homes any time soon.
While Microsoft’s Natal technology does look extremely impressive (especially the Milo demonstration), it remains to be seen if it will change the face of gaming forever. Microsoft’s head of Xbox strategy Shane Kim, has stated “the problem is that the controller is a barrier for some people and now with Project Natal we completely eliminate that”. Alluding that Microsoft’s focus is on controller-free gaming as opposed to adding to the current controller-based experience with Natal.
“What has some failed VR headset got to do with today’s games?” you may ask. Well today’s motion controllers sound an awful lot like the Virtual Reality devices of the 1990s, putting the player “in the world” and “changing how we play forever”. There’s a reason the humble control pad has been so dominant and changed little over the years, it works. To many of us, a controller has become so natural, it is like an extension of our hands.
So next time you hear an excited Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo or any company rep proclaim “the future is now!” Smile and nod politely, bearing in mind the countless others who have promised the world, yet failed to deliver.