Everything old is new again… Virtual reality is back and trendy with many predicting it will be “the next big thing.” Again. Today I want to share an article I wrote over 20 years ago when VR was “the next big thing” the first time around.
But first … Why is VR back again?
I believe it is mostly due to the propagation of powerful pocket computers full of sensors: smartphones.
When the original iPhone was released in 2007, it changed everything. If you look at what a cell phone was before that time, and then what phones are today, you can see a clear jump away from “candy bar” style phones with simple screens and physical keyboards. Today, a modern phone is basically just a high resolution touch screen pocket computer.
Even in the early years, iPhone developers were starting to leverage the sensors inside the device with interesting virtual (or augmented) reality type experiences. I recall a number of early apps that let you hold the iPhone in front of you and then turn around and have the screen respond, as if you were looking through a tiny window in to another place. Today, there are hundreds of such apps for iPhone and Android, with the most famous VR-style experience being Google Cardboard.
When Google created a low-cost VR visor that you could slide your phone in to, they started a huge ball rolling. Now, anyone with a smartphone could easily have a virtual reality helmet. Admittedly, even with the cheap cost of a cardboard visor, most higher end phones today still cost more than the original VR helmets from over 20 years ago, but we already own the phones so why not put them to work?
And if papercraft isn’t your thing, you can buy a plastic VR visor for under $20. Insert your Android or iPhone, load some software, and bingo: instant virtual reality!
But VR wasn’t always this easy or accessible… To appreciate the significance of this, I would like to share an article I wrote back in 1993 that documented my first experience in the world of VR.
My Trip Into CyberSpace
by Allen C. Huffman (12/01/93)
The term “Virtual Reality” is new to some of us, and completely unknown to the rest. This term has been used so often in media lately that it’s difficult to know what it is all about. Movies such as Lawnmower Man don’t help clarify things – after all, Science Fiction is just that. Fiction. Today, however, I had the pleasure to experience the real thing and I must say – I’m impressed.
A friend of mine picked me up this morning and we made a three hour drive to Dallas in search of high tech toys. Our search led us to several large electronics superstores where we had a little hands-on fun with some of the hottest video games and gadgets available. We were told about a place not too far away which reportedly had a virtual reality setup. After making a phone call, we discovered this place was a restaurant, bowling alley, pool hall, and arcade all in one. An interesting combination – and one we just had to check out.
A short drive later we were there. Wandering through the dining section we found a pathway leading to the game room. Once there we saw what we had been searching for: Virtuality.
Virtuality is the first commercial attempt at making virtual reality available to the public for entertainment purposes. We found ourselves watching a rather amusing game in progress. There were two platforms side by side. Each one had support beams around it and a “rail” at about waist level. The players had large helmets covering their faces and held a small pushbutton device in their hands. They turned around, pointed up and down, ducked, and just generally acted silly. We noticed two large monitors displaying, apparently, just what each player was “seeing”.
The helmets contained a set of small monitor screens which projected a three dimensional image in front of you. Sensors in the helmet enabled the computer to know where you were looking, and adjust the image accordingly. If you turn your head right, the view pans to the right. If you look up, you see what is above you. Apparently the images were rather convincing, if the actions of the two players was any indication.
It was four dollars for four minutes in a game called Dactyl Nightmare. My associate and I eagerly climbed aboard when it was our chance. The attendant strapped a belt around my waist then gave me a rod to hold. The rod, held like a gun handle, had a trigger on the front and a pushbutton on the top activated with your thumb. The large, awkward helmet was then lowered onto my head and tightened into place. To my surprise, I saw a perfectly clear image of what the large monitors were showing. In front of me I could see a small checkerboarded area with stairs leading down to a large playing area. The square area had stairs leading up on each side, which allowed four starting positions for participants. The center area had an open roof with poles supporting it, and a large doughnut shaped object in the center. While the graphics were bright colored computer shapes floating in space, one could not help but feel like you were standing inside a giant computer world.
A voice came through the stereo headphones in the helmet notifying me that the game was awaiting another player. As soon as my friend was strapped into his setup, the attendant put the game into practice mode. The top thumb button made you “walk” to where you were looking, while the trigger button fired your gun. Gun? Amazingly enough, when I held my arm out in front of me, I saw a computer generated “hand” holding a gun in front of me. If I turned my hand left or right, my virtual arm did the same. Amazing! I tilted my head left and right and the screen moved accordingly. I even turned all the way around and found myself looking at what was behind me.
We took a few moments to walk around. I could hear virtual footsteps as I navigated my way down the stairs and around the poles. “Are you guys ready?” asked the attendant as he activated the real game. A counter appeared at the top of the image at four minutes, counting down. Scores were displayed in either corner. The game was afoot, and I was ready to blast my friend into virtual pieces.
I eased my way around the playfield, turning my head in all directions looking for my target. There he was at the top of one of the side platforms! A computerized person stood there – arms, legs, and a head with facial details and hair. His legs even moved as he came down the stairs. I raised my gun and fired, but missed. The challenge was on. As we chased each other around the playfield shouting “where are you?” back and forth I couldn’t help but notice how real this all felt. Finally, a shot made it’s mark and I saw my target blast into pieces. He was soon back together at the top of his starting platform. The game of chase continued as he shot me and I shot back. After eight shots, a warning flashed on the screen – it was an image of a winged reptile. Looking up into the blackness, a large green creature was sweeping down towards me. I fired up in a panic and saw it disintegrate. My partner wasn’t so fortunate – after his eight shots, the dino picked him up high above the playfield – then dropped him! No harm done, but valuable time wasted.
We had an audience. As I hid behind objects and leaned over and found myself suddenly disembodied by a shot I never saw coming, cheers shouted out. We chased each other some more with some hits but many more misses until the voice warned us “time is running out”. The counter reached zero, and the game was over. As I stood there, completely unaware as to which direction I was facing in the real world, I slowly heard the noises of the surrounding area and realized where I was. The attendant – after what seemed like an eternity – removed my helmet and I found myself staring at a small line of people waiting to take their turns. My friend looked at me and smiled. We stepped down and proceeded to discuss our feelings on what we just experienced. It was very real.
The technology that makes this all possible is not entirely new. The helmet and playing platform were specifically designed for this application, but the computer than ran the show was a specially programmed Commodore Amiga system. The company that produces this “game” packages everything in their own cases (right down to a custom made label on the keyboard) with a CD-ROM drive to hold the program. After it is all put together, it in essence becomes a virtual reality computer system having little to do with the desktop computer that made this all possible. Each pod contains it’s own computer, and up to four can be linked together. Perhaps next time we’ll find a place with all four units available.
Now, you may wonder just how realistic this all was. It felt real. While the images I saw were certainly computer pictures and could NOT be mistaken for anything we see in the “real” world, the feeling of being there was very convincing. You didn’t “walk” with your legs, and you couldn’t touch anything, but the way the world responded to my commands was stunning. The best part is that this is a first generation example of this type of arcade virtual reality. One can only imagine what the next “game” will be like.
So, if you ever get the chance to check out a Virtuality setup, do it. The money was well spent and the brief four minutes felt like an eternity. It was well worth the three hour drive. (By the way, the final score was three to three so we’re going back soon for a rematch!) What a way to start the new year…
That was in 1993 and, as you can tell, I was blown away. Here is a TV program I found on YouTube that featured the above mentioned game (or at least a version of it):
I actually found a number of clips on YouTube featuring this old hardware (some as recently as 2014, as folks have kept the machines running – I guess it’s retro VR now?). I have even read about a modern remake of the game for Oculus Rift:
But back to the 90’s…
I had completely forgotten this until I found a photo last night (included at the top of this article), but I apparently got to play Dactyl Nightmare a second time, about a year later (also in Dallas, quite possibly in the same Dave & Busters). But Dactyl Nightmare wasn’t my only experience with VR. I also got to try a “next generation” version, this time thanks to Disney.
During a 1995 vacation to Walt Disney World, my father and I watched an Imaigneering presentation about Disney VR. They brought a few audience members up on stage and let them try out a new Aladdin’s flying carpet VR game they were developing. It was a very interesting presentation, and the graphics had gotten much better in the two years since I played Virtuality’s Dactyl Nightmare.
A year later, that VR experiment showed up as a $5 video game at the Disneyland Tomorrowland Starcade. I got to play it there in 1996 and took one tiny 320×240 photo with my first generation Epson PhotoPC digital camera.
The Disney approach had you sitting on a motorcycle-style seat, rather than standing, and you were steering the flying carpet with handles. It was really more of a flight simulator (or flying motorcycle simulator). The game itself involved collecting coins while flying over Agrabah (as seen in the 1992 animated movie Aladdin). The Disney touch was occasional encounters with animated characters that would talk to you during the game.
I don’t know what happened to all of Disney’s work in VR, but I do know that some of this technology ended up as playable games at DisneyQuest in Florida when it opened a few years later. At the time, Disney had big plans for building similar virtual theme parks across the country, but that never happened.
Note: I don’t know if this was the original name, but It appears the game was called Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride when it made it’s way to DisneyQuest. Websites I have found show a photo that is very similar to the installation at Disneyland, though I expect it was a bit upgraded since the descriptions I read mention effects that were not part of the prototype presentation at Epcot or installed at Disneyland’s arcade.
Second Note: Had Disney gone through with building Disney’s America theme park in the early 1990s, one of the proposed attractions was a parachute experience that would have made use of VR helmets. (I once read that a version of this was going to be installed at an ESPN Zone somewhere, but I don’t know if that ever happened.) With all the research and investment in to VR, it looks like they saw big potential in the technology if it had caught on.
My third (and so far, final) arcade VR experience was with a second generation Virtuality pod at an arcade somewhere (I keep thinking it was in Canada) running Missile Command VR. Although the graphics were improved, I didn’t find the game itself as immersive as running around those checkboarded platforms being chased by pterodactyls. (Missile Command VR was planned to be released for the Atari Jaguar VR add-on, but when that failed to happen, the game was released as Missile Command 3-D as a normal TV screen game.)
Sadly, the VR fad of the early 90’s ended quickly. Although upcoming offerings like Oculus Rift look promising, who knows how advanced things would be today if it VR had caught on the first time and been in continual development for the past two decades.
Next time … a look at our CoCo VR project that almost was!