As a kid growing up in the 90s I was bombarded with references to hypothetical technological breakthroughs that would occur in the future, such as hoverboards and Total Immersion Video Games.
By Steffan Le Prince - follow on twitter here: https://twitter.com/LeRinse
These were to be found in popular culture at the current time, as well as from the previous decade. When new gaming products came out back then which were marketed as “Virtual Reality” I was immensely excited.
I remember I imagined that I would be playing as a Ninja Turtle fighting hordes of “The Foot” on the gritty streets of Manhattan, viewing all the action from a truly first person view through the eyes of Leonardo, looking down at my blue bandaged, katana wielding mutant turtle arms.
I also winced at the thought of the pain of being struck by enemies, as bizarrely/ through the pop culture speculation I must have imagined that either a) it would be so realistic as to result in my brain being fooled into stimulating pain receptors, similar to feelings and sensations felt when dreaming or b) that part of the immersive experience would actually involve some kind of virtual pain s(t)imulation transferred by some kind of peripheral. This may not have been as ridculous as it sounds since coincidentally channel 4 recently advertised a VR peripheral of this nature, more on that later.
The reality of the equipment available in the 90s was of course very VERY different.
^ Stuff of nightmares.
Not quite the Virtual Boy. If you thought that was bad and you have never seen this, oh boy you are in for a treat. This was basically Tiger’s rip-off of the VB. Available at a low budget, for $30 it could have been yours at launch.
The “R-Zone”. I still own it after finding it lurking in the gloomy depths of the garage in my mum’s old house. It is akin to having one of those Tiger LCD handheld games strapped to your face, complete with red calculator/ Casio watch graphics instead of black. The red lines brilliantly shining at your retina (unlike the VB only one eye is treated to a screen).
The gameplay is the same as those handheld games, with licensed but disappointingly rendered titles such as Virtua Cop and Daytona (the 2 games I have for it). I installed new batteries (tiny screwdriver required) and sure enough the device still works, albeit with no functioning sound, which may have been a blessing. Strangely when I filmed the gameplay the “graphics” were sharper on the film which could have to do with the fact that the game is in front of one eye when wearing the headset. It functions via light shining through the actual cart, sort of like magnifying a tiny version of one of their normal handhelds. It took some time to get it working properly, you have to angle the screen just right and to start with I had nothing, then I had a really blurry picture and thought something was wrong, but no that's just what it's like.
Virtua Cop - move crosshairs left, right up and down and shoot the bad guys. For some reason there are 2 buttons that reload, one that fires and one that does nothing. Daytona - you have to press the start button a million times before it decides to begin the game. You only use the d-pad to move left and right. The other buttons do nothing as far as I could figure out. You have to try and avoid being crashed into by the other cars.
I will not be in any rush to play on this system again any time soon.
I did also retrospectively have the chance to play the Virtual Boy at Play Expo Blackpool 2014. It has the same familiar red lines but with better “graphics”, more Game Boy than Game & Watch.
With both eyes covered it was slightly more immersive, like having said Game Boy strapped to your face - at least you couldn't also see your surroundings simultaneously and the controller wire was not annoyingly dangling in front of the screen!
With the R-Zone it was disappointing to see the mess in the surrounding room, further reminding me of my chores to do completed, whereas we tend to play games to escape the humdrum of day to day life.
What It’s Like, 2018
I had the opportunity to try out some cutting edge VR arcade machines (woot, return of the arcades?) in January at a place called VR Star in Bristol, the first of it’s kind in Europe. Here are some brief summaries of the games experienced, I don't know the real names of the games:
This was a futuristic hoverbike racing game complete with physical bike to pilot. Hydaulics were implemented, a cool feature for getting “air”, I felt like it could have propelled me higher/more vigorously (oh behave) for a more thrilling experience. The techno soundtrack was banging and it was immersive enough to make me flinch and recoil slightly when trying to drive past lasers without being hit.
This involved sitting in a motorised egg shaped one person pod, similar to old skool simulators found in some arcades back in the 90s - but with the VR headset.
I hated this, I felt too awful to precisely remember what the graphically represented scenery was like however I do recall it was very clear that I was having a passive experience with a headset on, limited to having the ability to use the field of vision feature. I certainly wasn’t going to be screaming and putting my arms in the air or laughing and saying “oh my god that was insane we have to ride again!”. The sickness was motion sickness instead of g force loop tha loop stomach upset. I wouldn't play this again, I forced myself to keep the headset on until the end but in hindsight I should have just tapped out.
Max Payne Stylee
This was a first person shooter complete with bullet time, on a treadmill wearing shoes with wheels on them. Looking down at my hands, I could see the guns and feel the triggers. No pain was felt apart from slight bruising from the harness after getting too into it. Most similar to how I imagined it. Graphics are such that you still know you are playing a game (you couldn’t wake up on the machine thinking it was real - we haven’t gotten to that stage...yet). The movement is nothing like really running/walking and you have to do an unnatural shuffle run for more effective movement. This was hands down my favourite of the experiences I tried in the time I had, there were various more which I didn't have time to try.
^ The future?
I don't know what the establishment’s policy is on taking photos so I didn't take any but I hope to take some next time I visit, it was entertaining and immersive to the extent that I'd look forward to a revisit.
The Future Future
When I saw the advert mentioned previously on Channel 4 for a VR peripheral neck band, which amongst other things claimed that it constricts around your neck to add fear and pain to an immersive experience, I suckered myself into not realising it was a hoax even though they have pursued such antics previously with fake product recall ads advertising TV show Humans via shock factor and exploiting our innate inquisitive nature. However with this one they went to the extent of apparently creating a fake website for the product as well as fake reviews of the product by well known YouTube channels.
Something real like this, along with better graphics, could be how my delusional ideas in the 90s may no longer be of fiction in the near future, where the experience fools your brain into thinking it's really real. I would have never predicted that these virtual reality experiences which kind of flopped back then would make a comeback. We are on the right track, I mean it’s already now possible to have a VR lightsaber fight which is a childhood dream realised in itself.
By Steffan Le Prince - follow on twitter here: https://twitter.com/LeRinse