Finally, (Real) Virtual Reality

As we’re entering the time of year where lots of games are released, big and small, there is much to be excited about. I just received my copy of Paper Mario: Color Splash, which is definitely cause for celebration for this Paper Mario fan. The Dragon Quest VII remake was recently released, too, so I’m excited about picking that up. The Last Guardian is (finally) coming out in December, Friday the 13th: The Game should (hopefully) be out in the next month or so, Final Fantasy XV will soon be a reality, and Battlefield 1 seems worth checking out. There is one thing that I am easily the most excited about, though: PlayStation VR.

PlaystationVR

I’ve been following the new virtual reality movement since the Oculus Rift was a KickStarter, and I’ve read several of the previews of the different VR systems present at this year’s E3. While I’d love access to some of the more independent and experimental PC titles that will likely show up for the Oculus, I just don’t have the money for the headset and a new computer that could handle it. The PS VR is in my price range, though, and it seems capable enough. I’ve been skimming reviews and editorials about some of the VR units in recent months, and I almost get the sense that the technology is already being taken for granted. I get it. Due to the consumer interest in the Oculus when it was introduced as a concept, the market has quickly become crowded with competitors and could soon be flooded and confusing (if it isn’t already). For me, though, I find it hard to fathom this technology becoming old hat so soon. Why? Well, it all started in the early 1990s…

virtuality
90s VR Experience

Thanks to the increase in households with PCs and the rise of the Internet and web culture, technology was booming in the early-mid 90s. It’s no surprise, then, that the first wave of commercial virtual reality experience popped up then. I was just past ten years old at the time, and my love for video games meant I was ready to throw my time and money away on any VR experience that I could. Luckily for me, living in Chicago meant that I had easy access to what used to be the North Pier mall, which my family would visit pretty frequently. The mall had a BattleTech Station, which housed two sets of ‘virtual reality’ pods — one set for the game BattleTech, and the other set for a game called Red Planet. Both games used similar pods, which were made out of wood with a door that slid shut, leaving the player seated in darkness with a monitor, joystick, throttle, and a bunch of lights and buttons that were merely for effect.

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BattleTech Pod

While not the headset-oriented VR that we’re accustomed to, these pods provided an immersive gaming experience like no other that I can think of for their time. One round of either game was, if my memory serves me correctly, $8 for kids and $10 for adults, meaning that our family of five could usually only afford a round or two. BattleTech was, of course, the more popular of the two, but we only played it a few times. It was fun, but my family members struggled to control their giant mechs (a couple of which I owned in toy form because they were pretty damn cool looking).

batltech1

The game we heavily favored and had tons of fun playing together and with strangers (there were eight pods, so any stragglers would be placed with us) was Red Planet, a game where you raced spacecraft in mines on Mars and took your opponents out with your ship’s mining beams when the opportunity presented itself. I was pretty good at the game and excitedly collected the print-outs of our win/loss and kill/death results after each match. I chose the handle Predator because, well, I was really into the movies at the time. I probably still have a score sheet tucked away somewhere because I loved that game so much that I felt it necessary to squirrel them away for some reason.

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Red Planet

 

Not long after the BattleTech Station opened, another station opened nearby. I don’t recall the name, but they offered people the chance to play an early version of what might look more like today’s virtual reality experience. You wore a headset that displayed the digital world directly in front of your eyes (they must have projected them into your eye like the new sets, right?), and you held controllers in your hands as you stood on a raised platform circled by a guard rail.

VR Standing Station
More 90s VR

Okay, so maybe it was only slightly like today’s VR experience. I don’t remember what the game I played was called, but I remember that the world was made of rudimentary geometric shapes and had a checkered floor (a popular choice in many a PC game at the time, too). I started out on a platform and had to descend stairs to find my opponent (a stranger, as this was a two player game). We exchanged gunfire and were supposed to use the columns and walls for cover, but with the level being surrounded by moving clouds that stretched out into infinity, and slow character movement, it was all a bit disorienting. I remember feeling underwhelmed by it, especially given its $15 per-session price tag.

VR Standing

As disappointing as my first ‘real’ VR experience was, I still had high hopes that the technology and games would get better and cheaper. My dreams were (marginally, at best) answered when Nintendo came out with its Virtual Boy in 1995. I couldn’t convince my parents to buy me one, but I rented one from our local Blockbuster (phew, this blog is making me feel older with every reference) as soon as they were available, with plans on getting one for myself eventually (it would take five or so years). If you haven’t seen one, the Virtual Boy was a headset that sat on a stand instead of your, well, head, and it used a standard game-pad as a controller.

SONY DSC

Some reviewers complained about neck strain, having to lean down to play it, but I never experienced that (perhaps due to my young age and sturdy, youthful neck… or not). Another complaint was eye strain and headaches due to the fact that games were rendered only in red light. I never experienced those effects either, but again, I was young. I didn’t so much mind the red, and I was encouraged by Nintendo’s promise to introduce green and blue lights soon, increasing their graphical spectrum greatly (due to color mixing). The system sold poorly in both the U.S. and Japan, though, so Nintendo stopped supporting it far earlier than expected.

virtualboy

As excited as I was about the Virtual Boy, and as fun as I found games like Mario’s Tennis, the system still didn’t quite deliver the kind of virtual reality seen in movies like 1992’s The Lawnmower Man. Not even close. And with Nintendo’s failure to spark interest in the market, Sega’s cancellation of their own VR headset, and a rapid loss of consumer interest in the kinds of experiences I’d had with the standing VR set and the BattleTech Station, virtual reality died out almost as quickly as it had popped into the consumer consciousness.

But that was 20+ years ago. Gaming PCs and consoles can produce graphics not even conceivable by many of us back in the early 90s, and, from what I hear, the new VR headsets really do make you feel like you are in another world. So, despite some of the cynicism and trepidation surrounding PlayStation VR — at least from some corners of the gaming world — I am incredibly, irrevocably excited. I have been waiting for something like this for most of my life, quite literally. Maybe it won’t be perfect, and maybe the Holodeck is still a decade or two (or three) away, but that won’t stop me from strapping that headset on and fully appreciating just how far we’ve come.

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