Over the years, there were a number of cool ideas at Sub-Etha Software that I really wish we’d followed through on. Last year, I mentioned some unfinished software projects I uncovered when going through all my old floppies, but there were also a few hardware projects that never made it out of the idea or concept stage…
For instance, once I found a low-cost gadget at Walmart that interfaced a telephone line to a computer. It was controlled by a serial port, and plugged in to the audio in/out ports of a sound card on a PC. It came with software to turn the PC in to an answering machine.
I bought one to hook it up to my CoCo, and had plans to create a simple CoCo answering machine. On a 128K CoCo 3, it would be possible to play a short greeting, and record a short message from the caller then save it out to disk. Sure, the audio quality would have been poor and it would probably be cheaper to just buy an answering machine, but wouldn’t it be fun?
I was even wanting to do touch tone decoding in software and create a simple voice mail system with mailboxes. There was even a plan to create a “telephone adventure game” where a description would be read and the user could make a choice by pressing buttons on their phone. (Years later, the Tellme company did something similar with a version of blackjack you could play over their 1-800-555-TELL demo line. It was so cool, Microsoft bought them!)
Woulda, coulda, shoulda…
I will try to share some more of these “lost” projects in the future, but today I wanted to focus on a virtual reality project I was working on.
VR was a big buzzword in the early 1990s, and many thought it was going to be the next big thing. As we know know, it fizzeled out rather quickly, with Atari, Sega and Nintendo abandoning their home VR products.
The Sega VR project has a CoCo connection, since one of the launch titles was being worked on by legendary CoCo game programmer Steve Bjork**! I believe this is the game that Bjork was working on: Iron Hammer
Nintendo’s effort eventually came out as the failed Virtual Boy where, instead of wearing an immersive helmet over your eyes, you peered in to a 3-D viewer that remained stationary on a table. Hey, at least they tried!
But I digress…
In the pre-world wide web days, we had things called catalogs which were like paper versions of Amazon.com. One of the catalogs I received always had interesting items often at cheap liquidation prices. One such item was the VictorMaxx Stuntmaster VR helmet. The wiki page claims this was the very first commercial VR helmet made available.
TODO: I need to add a photo of my VR helmet, as soon as I figure out which storage box it is in.
The Stuntmaster wasn’t a real VR helmet, though. It did not provide a stereoscopic display, and did not have any head tracking capability for use with true VR games. Instead, there was an analog dial on one side that connected to a shaft which you clipped to your shoulder. As you turned your head left or right, the shaft would turn the dial, allowing a simulation of left/right head tracking.
You could plug this helmet up to a Sega Genesis game console and then play some games where you held the game controller to play, but used your head to turn left and right. It seems unlikely that this would have worked well with any games not specifically designed for this, but hey, it was the first.
Here is a video of it in all it’s glory:
When I saw this in the catalog, I immediately ordered one to see if it could be used with the CoCo. My plan was to send CoCo video and audio to the helmet, then wire the left/right control shaft up as a joystick. Taking a nod from the controls of the Dactyl Nightmare arcade VR game I played, I was going to use the two joystick buttons for “walk” and “shoot”. My thought was you could turn your head left or right, then walk in that direction using the button. I guess I was thinking we’d build a special pistol grip controller to work with the helmet.
I had become friends with Vaughn Cato*, who did the original bouncing ball demo when the CoCo 3 first came out. He had been writing routines to do bitmap scaling and such, and I was hoping to use some of this in some CoCo game projects.
On of the coolest things he created was a 3-D maze engine that drew everything using lines (I guess we would call this a vector engine). It looked similar to Dungeons of Daggorath but you could move through it in all directions, like Wolfenstein 3-D or DOOM did.
I cannot remember why, but for some reason the demo executable was called toast. It would read a small text file that represented the maze, then you could walk through the maze in 3-D. Things never went much further than the demo, but I thought it would work well with the VR helmet as the basis of some kind of VR maze game.
I think I was planning to create something like Phantom Slayer VR (a tribute to the old MED Systems 3-D maze game by Ken Kalish). I certainly know I had worked on this concept before without VR in mind, as well as a 3-D Pac-Man game. The Pac-Man one was interesting, as I got as far as recreating the original Pac-Man maze in 3-D and had it populated with dots you could walk over to “eat.”
Woulda, coulda, shoulda…
I still have the helmet. Who knows . . . maybe some day CoCo VR might still get done, even if there is no longer a supply for helmets to make it a sellable product.
*Vaughn Cato may be the only former CoCo guy to accept an Oscar. He was working with a company doing motion capture and he was on stage to receive a 2005 Technical Achievement Award. That’s quite the trip from a bouncing ball demo on a TRS-80, don’t you think?
**Steve Bjork has also had encounters with movies. If I recall correctly, he was an extra in films like Rollercoaster and The Goonies, as well as working on movie related video games like The Rocketeer and The Mask. Oh, and his CoCo program Audio Spectrum Analyzer appeared in Revenge of the Nerds, and his CoCo Zaxxon program appeared in Friday the 13th Part 4.