A Look Back at the FIRST Wave of Virtual Reality in Gaming

With the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, the HTC Vive, and others, mass-market, mainstream virtual reality gaming is finally becoming a literal reality. But what you might not realize is that the first attempts at bringing us immersive, head-tracking 3D gaming through a headset actually go back nearly 30 years, largely predating the use of polygons even in standard video games. While there were a few different companies who had some skin in the VR game back then, we’re going to focus on the one that found the most success and got as close as anyone would get for decades to bringing VR video gaming to the masses.

Dr. Jonathon D. Waldern is about as close to a “father of VR gaming” as one can be. He founded garage startup W Industries in 1985, through which he engineered most of what were to become the foundations of virtual reality: the headset, the 3D polygonal worlds, the 3D tracking technology, the exoskeleton data gloves, and the various enclosure designs. It should be noted that many of those elements were developed in various forms by other people/companies prior to Waldern, but he is widely considered to be the first to fully integrate them all into a single unified system. By 1990, he had a fully developed prototype ready to be showcased at a computer graphics expo on London. Not long after, “Virtuality” gaming machines were commercially available.

Powered by an Amiga 3000 computer, there were two variations of the Virtuality system: a standing (SU) version and a sitting (SD) one, both contained within what the company called a pod. The marquee title of the first batch of games was Dactyl Nightmare, a crude 3D shooter where up to four players competed head-to-head in either a basic deathmatch or a capture-the-flag-type competition, with the overarching danger of a giant pterodactyl that could whisk players off. Other games included the robot action game Grid Busters, fantasy adventure game Legend Quest, locked-door-based puzzle game Hero, and VTOL, a game where you took off and landed in a Harrier jet.

Excitement was high for VR gaming in that first year, with a general feeling that VR was going to be the relatively-near future of video games. Powerful enough was the hype that two different magazines launched – CyberEdge and PCVR – that were dedicated entirely to the VR gaming “industry.” In 1991, Sega announced their own foray into VR gaming, Sega VR, as a VR headset accessory for the Genesis/Mega Drive. What was especially promising about Sega VR was its planned $200 price tag, which would’ve been the first VR system to be affordable for a mass-market audience. It was initially projected for release in the Fall of 1993 and was later delayed until the Spring of 1994.

VR mania had invaded pop culture as well, being referenced in TV shows and movies and even having entire films – most notably The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity  – being based around virtual reality. And of course, Chi-Scroller staff favorite movie Hackers has that hilariously awkward scene of Fisher Stevens (as “The Plague”) getting way too into a VR action game.

As for Virtuality Group – which W Industries was now called – things were going pretty well for the company in the first couple of years. Although each individual unit was very expensive and required arcades and amusement parks devote a fair amount of space for them (especially for multiple units to run the platform’s largely multiplayer games), Virtuality Group was, by all reports, turning a profit. Such was their apparent flush of cash that another wave of games was created, including more ambitious titles like a stock car racing game and biplane dogfight sim game, as well as a sequel to their star attraction in Dactyl Nightmare 2: Race for the Eggs! (their exclamation point, not ours). The future seemed bright for Virtuality – and VR gaming as a whole.

Unfortunately, virtual reality’s moderate success and lofty ambitions would fizzle out almost as quickly as they appeared – at least in terms of video games and entertainment purposes. The technology remained prohibitively expense for home use, a hurdle that Sega apparently couldn’t overcome as its affordable $200 VR unit ended up being too good to be true and never made it to market. The technology also just wasn’t where it needed to be, even by 1995, and headaches remained a common complaint as well as sore necks from the still too-heavy headsets. Polygonal graphics even outside of VR applications remained relatively crude in 1995, and with the processing power needed to run all of the other systems that VR needed to run, VR visuals were still nowhere near the then-current standard of 3D visuals present in games like Ridge Racer and Tekken 2. The graphical downgrade that was the trade-off for the games being “virtual” would’ve probably been more acceptable to most gamers had VR not costed so much more than the newly-released PlayStation, which brought “3D” visuals into gamers’ living rooms for a mere $299. There was also the not-insignicant matter of the Virtuality games themselves, which were largely shallow affairs with clunky gameplay and wouldn’t have been given the time of day as non-VR video games. Most felt more like demos than fully fleshed out games, which is fine for two-minute arcade experiences but not what gets people to drop serious cash for home versions – especually, again, with the 3D console generation just getting underway with PlayStation and Sega Saturn already out and the Nintendo 64 looming large on the horizon.

The mid-90’s were also the beginning of the internet going mainstream, making the promise of virtual reality – the ability to explore a “virtual world” – a little less exciting as people could just surf the ‘net for that (without the fancy visuals, of course – or the headaches or financial hit, either). One of the final mass-market attempts at keeping virtual reality relevant was Nintendo’s Virtual Boy system, which had the outward appearance of a true VR gaming device but delivered only monochromatic parallax 3D graphics completely devoid of any head-tracking or use of a glove to interact with the world. Of the many things that Nintendo did wrong with the Virtual Boy, trying to piggyback on a type of gaming that was already falling out of favor – and that the Virtual Boy didn’t deliver anyway – certainly didn’t do the embattled system any favors.

Thus were the final nails in the coffin of virtual reality gaming’s first wave. VR would continue to be used for non-entertainment purposes over the next 15 years, such as military training, medical applications, flight simulations, and industrial design, but it wouldn’t be taken seriously again as a means of playing video games until the blockbuster success of the Oculus VR Kickstarter campaign in 2012. Sony followed suit shortly after with the announcement of PlayStation VR – and planned support from major franchises like Final Fantasy, Tekken, and Dead or Alive – it was clear that VR gaming was finally getting a true second chance. How it all actually plays out and whether it becomes a massive success, fizzles out like Xbox’s Kinect or PlayStation Move, or falls somewhere in the middle as a lasting but mostly niche way to play games remains to be seen, but as of right now, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. And as a nice way of bringing things full circle, you can currently play a version of Dactyl Nightmare on Oculus Rift.