Virtual Reality … back again.

With the recent news that Facebook is buying a Virtual Reality headset company for 2 billion dollars, it seems I can’t get away from coverage on V.R. For some of us that are older than Facebook, and who experienced commercial V.R. over 20 years ago, I say: bring it on! Or rather, bring it back.

This is nothing new. But it should be improved: higher resolution graphics, and faster framerate.

My first experience with V.R. was a Virtuality “Dactyl Nightmare” arcade game in Dallas. My friend Larry took me on a road trip from East Texas to Dallas to check out a few places – including the defunct Incredible Universe store (look them up sometime for a mind blowing retail experience years ahead of its time). We also visited some placed called Dave and Busters which was, at the time, known as a place for V.R. type games.

Dactyl Nightmare was powered by Commodore Amigas, and thus was vastly more advanced than what any non-Amiga owner has seen. (Remember, it took the PC world YEARS to even remotely catch up to what the Amiga was doing in the 1980s.)

You stood on a small circular platform with a round railing around it, and put on a large headset (like a motorcycle helmet) and a belt. In your hand was a simple controller with a trigger switch button and a thumb button. In the game, you could see yourself inside of an Escher-like playfield with stairs and platforms. You would press the thumb button to walk forward in whatever direction you were facing, and use the trigger button to fire.

Above you flew a pterodactyl that you could shoot at. You could see a digital representation of your arm in front of you. You could hear yourself walking. It was a very intense few minutes inside this virtual world, and when the game was over, my heart was pounding and I had broken in to a sweat.

It was amazing.

A few years later, during a business trip to Canda, I encountered a later version of the Virtuality system running Missile Command V.R. It was an update to the classic Missile Command arcade game from the 80s, but you were seeing things from one of the missile launching stations and had to look up and all around to target incoming missiles and fire at them.

It also was amazing, but wasn’t as fun of a game (to me) as the original. The graphics were better.

Atari released a home version of Missile Command 3-D for their Jaguar system, though playing it on a TV wasn’t quite the same. Atari had plans to release a V.R. helmet, and even showed it off at a trade show, but it never made it to release.

Sega also was working on a V.R. project, and a friend of mine was one of the developers working on three launch titles. Google “Iron Hammer Sega” on YouTube and you will see footage of this old V.R. system.

Around 1994 or 1995, Disney’s Epcot was presenting an Imagineering exhibit on DisneyVision – their attempt to enter the V.R. world. They gave daily presentations where a few lucky audience members we brought up on stage and hooked up to the Aladdin’s Magic Carpet V.R. experience, while the rest of us watched the game play on overhead monitors.

A short time after this, that game was sitting at the Disneyland Tomorrowland arcade with a cast member. I believe it was $3 to play, which I did. The graphics were great and light years beyond Dactyl Nightmare. The goal was to fly on a magic carpet and collect gold pieces or jewels or something. I only played it once, but it was great. You sat down (on your magic carpet, though straddling it like a motorcycle), and you held the edges of the carpet (like motorcycle handlebars). Somehow I think they may have used a motorcycle game as a reference.

There were even home V.R. helmets. I bought a StuntMaster helmet for less than $100. It was a simple non-3-D LCD display in a helmet, and you would clip a rod to your shoulder sleeve. This rod was attached to the helmet, and as you looked left and right, it would rotate an analog input so the game would get LEFT and RIGHT motion. It was barely 3-D, but you could use it on a Sega Genesis or other home systems and turn your head left and right instead of pressing a joypad left or right.

There were many other higher end V.R. helmets being sold during those days, and games for them.

Nintendo even tried to get in to the home console action, like Sega and Atari were, and unlike those two, Nintendo actually shipped their product… As the VirtualBoy. Which sat on a table. And you looked in to the goggles, and couldn’t move them. Bascially, it was a 3-D Nintendo you had to stick your face in, and didn’t qualify as any kind of V.R. system (even the StuntMaster was better than that).

Google it if you haven’t heard about it.

Was V.R. ahead of its time back then? It was more than playable, and amazingly fun. Perhaps if the games were a quarter instead of $3 it would have stayed around longer… But even the .25 arcade games went away. Perhaps if the home helmets were $50 instead of $500 it would have stayed around longer… But larger and larger TVs came out and gaming when super sized…

Will it work this time? Have we lost 20 years of advances because of lack of development?

I can’t wait to find out.

It’s so retro, it might even be cooler this time around.

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