With Facebook’s Oculus Rift making waves and Sony’s continued advancements on the virtual reality front with Project Morpheus, it’s clear that virtual reality is having something of a resurgence — and potentially a renaissance. But what are the odds of it really coming to fruition?
These new VR headsets are not the first of their kind. VR gaming has been around for decades, but it was simply never a success. Perhaps it was just the technological limitations of the time, or a market that wasn’t ready to embrace the technology (or headaches). Maybe it was just the pricetag. To understand what may be different this time around, it’s important to take a look at some of the iterations of VR in the past.
In the early 1990s, Virtuality Group produced a set of VR systems that included a stand-up arena type system and a vehicle cockpit type. Both used headsets with built in screens to put gamers right into the position of the characters they played in the games. Between a multiplayer first-person shoot called Dactyl Nightmare that let players run around shooting one another as a treacherous pterodactyl attacked them as well as several other games, Virtuality had a memorable presence in arcades.
Unfortunately, with price tags in the tens of thousands, the VR systems were far too expensive for consumers. That didn’t necessarily keep Virtuality from being a proponent in the early push for VR technologies, but it did keep from becoming mainstream enough to make VR the next revolution in technology.
Apple wasn’t the first one with “i” products, and Virtuality Group wasn’t the only one working on VR projects in the 1990s. Virtual I/O put together a headset capable of stereoscopic 3D with color and head tracking — the visuals turned when players turned their heads — and for a price tag under $1000.
Though the iGlasses were thoroughly capable of offering a VR experience to customers, they never became huge. As the story has often seemed to go with VR, nothing has ever truly ignited the market for it. At least Virtual I/O had a good idea with the name of its device. A quick search for iGlasses will result in many different devices showing up, not all of them the ’90s VR headset.
Nintendo Virtual Boy
Many might remember the short-lived Virtual Boy of the mid ’90s. Nintendo released the machine and it could be found in Blockbuster video stores for kids to try while their parents looked for movies. Despite being backed by one of the biggest game companies of the day, it did not succeed.
The virtual boy wasn’t very colorful, and though it had stereoscopic 3D, it also lacked high quality graphics. It was cheaper than many of the other VR options of the time, but it didn’t do a lot of what made VR impressive — there was no head or hand tracking, so it was more of a 3D viewing system rigged out to look like VR. In the end, it wasn’t the spark VR needed, nor was it the one Nintendo needed.
Stuntmaster and Cybermaxx
One of the more impressive VR headsets to come out was the Cybermaxx by Victormaxx. It was preceded by the Stuntmaster, which was more or less an LCD screen embedded in a visor that included an odd system for head tracking that used a pole coming up from a user’s shoulder. The Cybermaxx upped the ante with solid head tracking, colorful stereoscopic 3D, and a pricetag below $1000.
Despite support for a number of games on both console and PC, this system also failed to become a huge success. The story of VR stayed the same.
Forte Technologies released the VFX-1 right in the middle of the ’90s and it proved a highly capable VR headset that may have been the best to come to market by that time. With stereoscopic 3D, multi-axis rotation for head and hand tracking, and both the ability to play games that weren’t actually supported by the system, the VFX-1 had a lot of the makings to be a success. You can check out the old promotional video for the device up above.
At $600, it might have been a little expensive, but it was a particularly advanced technology for the time. Compared to the Virtuality gaming system, the VFX-1 was a steal. Unfortunately, the VR renaissance wasn’t destined to happen then. Even after Forte Technologies was bought by Vuzix and the more expensive VFX 3D was released, it didn’t reach the mainstream.
Vuzix continues to produce headsets for consumers, but they sit at the fringe. A more recent product, the Wrap 1200, offers a close-up, head-mounted viewing system capable of 2D or 3D and able to receive input from a multitude of devices, including video game consoles. As an added option, it can include head-tracking technology. The lack of hubbub shows that it’s still at the fringe.
There are still plenty of games that come close to a full VR experience. Arcades tend to offer them in the form of games based in a cockpit that players actually climb into. A notable one out of Japan is Namco’s Mobile Suit Gundam: Bonds of the Battlefield arcade game.
By putting players into a cockpit that simulates that of the giant mech they operate and adding a wrap-around screen that makes it seem like players are looking out of their mech, it simulates the experience of being inside and controlling the mech. Check out the video below — the action starts at about 1:20.
Fortunately for gamers who have been waiting for VR to make it big, the VR renaissance seems much more likely to get into a groove this time around. With support for Oculus Rift coming from Facebook, Sony getting in on the action with Morpheus, and Microsoft and Google getting into gear, it’s clear that there is some big pressure to finally push VR into the mainstream and make it more widely available and supported by more developers.
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