A Brief History of Video Game Virtual Reality, and Why This Time Will be Different

Before stepping into the future, we look back at virtual reality's past.

Virtual Reality dominated this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Oculus VR already had its foot in the door before Facebook acquired the company for $2 billion, and Sony threw its hat into the ring with the fascinating Project Morpheus, a headset that immerses gamers in different 3D experiences. 

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However, this isn’t virtual reality’s first foray into gaming. The format appeared many years ago, setting the stage for today’s technology. That said, here’s a brief look at VR’s humble beginnings, and where it’s headed. 

Sega’s VR-Powered Shades 

Sega’s Master System 3D glasses appeared in the 80s, a flickering headset that recreated the effect of 3D in a private setting. Though primitive compared to today’s 3D standards, it created a unique effect across different games, including Space Harrier, Maze Hunter, Zaxxon 3D and Missile Defense. 

The headset didn’t sell as well as Sega had hoped, but the 3D trend came back when Sony introduced a more casual model with certain PlayStation 3 games, including Killzone 3, Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time and the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus Collection. 

Nintendo’s Virtual Boy 

In 1995, Nintendo decided to give virtual gaming a try with its 3D red-and-black based headset, the Virtual Boy. After finding success in a rental campaign during the summer, the company launched it at retail for around $180. 

Several 3D games were introduced, including Teleroboxer, Red Alert and Mario’s Tennis, a brand that jumped to other consoles after its VR debut. It also introduced fans to the Wario Land series, which continues its success on the Virtual Console. 

Despite some players feeling queasy from the experience (the red and black display didn’t suit everyone), the Virtual Boy introduced some cool ideas before Nintendo discontinued it the following year. The aspect of 3D gaming would stick with the company, eventually returning with the release of the 3DS in 2011. 

Arcade VR Units 

In the 90s, a company called Virtuality Group looked to introduce players to a one of a kind arcade experience. It did so with the Virtuality cabinets, huge oversized units where players stepped in, placed virtual goggles over their heads and put themselves in a 3D polygonal world. 

The arcade unit came with several games, including a special virtual reality version of Pac-Man and a fast-paced game called Zone Hunter, and would eventually lead Virtuality Group to try a home model, powered by Philips Electronics, in 1998. Though highly advanced for the time and fairly priced at $299, it only sold about 55,000 units overall. 

The tech turned a few heads, and also inspired the film version of Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man. 

The Return of Virtual Reality, Courtesy of Oculus Rift

Virtual reality entered the headlines again when a company called Oculus VR developed a headset called the Oculus Rift. The device first got its start through a successful Kickstarter campaign, and soon after, Oculus began showing off the tech at trade events, where it was well received. 

The Oculus’ game library will probably be the most telling factor of its success, as it utilizes both original games and popular hits. Games such as Doom 3, Mirror’s Edge and Hawken were adapted to take advantage of the headset, and savvy developers created everything from an 8-bit Legend of Zelda game to the horror adventure Dreadhalls. The 3D effect, combined with the comfort of the headset, promises a convenient and affordable experience. 

More importantly, it now has support. Facebook paid $2 billion for Oculus and its high-tech Rift gear, but it intends to let the company run on its own, meaning the the headset is still on tap for a consumer release a few months down the line. Still, with financial backing now in its corner and increased accessibility, Oculus should have no trouble finding an audience, and making virtual reality popular again. 

Sony’s Project Morpheus 

Not to be outdone by the Oculus Rift, Sony has its own virtual reality tech, which it introduced at GDC 2014. The Project Morpheus is a 3D headset that fits comfortably on a gamer’s head (thanks to an added helmet that takes the weight off the headset), and also utilizes the company’s PlayStation Move controller. 

Although Sony only had tech demos on the show floor, the device received praise. One demo had players flying through space, while another offered a life-like archery experience, shooting arrows into distant targets. 

There’s genuine promise behind Sony’s tech, and how it works with PlayStation 4 technology is cool. Plus, the inclusion of PlayStation Move support gives it a slight edge over Oculus Rift when it comes to involving gamers in their experiences. They can reach out and touch items, rather than using a controller to get around. 

Considering the PlayStation 4 has already sold six million units worldwide, there’s no question that some gamers will be interested. However, we’ll probably have to wait until 2015 for Morpheus release. 

So What Makes this Time Different? 

Despite decent efforts from Virtuality, Nintendo and Sega, VR was primitive to put it nicely. Plus, the support for these devices was secondary at best, as they quickly faded from the market. 

With both the Oculus and Project Morpheus, we’re seeing a new revolution in gaming. Oculus promises to make familiar gameplay experiences fresh again with full 3D immersion, as well as development tools that will allow anyone to make a game. Likewise, the Morpheus has something to offer, especially with the PlayStation Move controllers. In the right development hands, we can see games come to life. Imagine playing as a boxer in Fight Night and feeling the effects of each fight. For that matter, a Killzone game would also be right at home on the device. 

If marketed and priced right, these virtual reality headsets could introduce a brave, creative new direction for gaming – and would certainly move beyond the gimmick factor. Consider this a brave new world, and one we can’t wait to explore. 

Image Source: Virtual Boy Box, Virtual Boy System

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