Nintendo Virtual Boy
Virtual Boy was released on July 21, 1995 in Japan and August 14, 1995 in North America. It was released in the "fifth generation" video game console cycle. Other consoles released during this cycle include the Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation, and Sega Saturn. During this time in video game history there was a transition from 32-bit to 64-bit graphics and 2D “sprite” to 3D “polygonal” game animation. Virtual Boy fits into the overall history of video games as a wholly transitional experiment.
Virtual Boy was invented by Gunpei Yokoi, a long-time Nintendo hardware and software developer. He is best known for creating the Game & Watch (1980) and Game Boy (1989) handheld systems and working on successful video game franchises such as Metroid.
In the spring of 1994, rumors were swirling in the video games industry about a revolutionary virtual reality project to be created by Nintendo. The rumors proved to be true; Nintendo had commissioned Yokoi to invent a brand new way to experience video games.
Development & hardware specifications
Nintendo introduced Virtual Boy as “the first three-dimensional stereo immersive 32-bit video game system ever” that “eliminates all external stimuli, totally immersing players into their own private universe.” It was their attempt to bring a 3D virtual reality video games experience to the mass market. Codenamed VR32, Virtual Boy took two years to develop and incorporated a wide range of what was considered advanced technology at the time.
At the heart of Virtual Boy lie its two LED displays developed by Reflection Technologies Inc. The LED displays produce a 3D image similar to the way movies traditionally produced the stereoscopic effect with anaglyph images. The 3D gaming model uses the parallax effect to trick the player into thinking he is seeing one image instead of two. The dual LED displays produce two separate images, but your brain reads them as a single image. Flat oscillating mirrors behind the displays vibrate back and forth at a high speed and help produce the illusion of depth. Perspective is important. The player must look directly at the two displays to experience the full effect. Tilting of the head or viewing the on-screen gameplay from a side angle will result in the loss of the 3D effect. The displays have a 384x224 pixel resolution and produce a monochromatic image using the colors black and red. Originally Yokoi had plans to incorporate many colors beyond the use of red LED pixels; in addition he contemplated using LCD displays instead. During early testing, he found that a full color dual LCD array would not work because it negatively affected the depth effect (testers experienced double vision). He chose to use the color red (when faced with the option to also choose yellow, blue, or green) because it is a striking, recognizable color that requires the least amount of battery power.
Other hardware specifications include a 20MHz 32-bit RISC processor, 128KB of dual-port VRAM, 16-bit stereo sound, an 8-pin serial port, and a controller port. The unit weighs about 750 grams and it measures at 8.5" (H) x 10" (W) x 4.3" (D).
A shoulder harness never made it past initial development stages.
Console setup & use
Setting up Virtual Boy for use is simple. The console shipped with three separate pieces. The first is the head unit. The head unit packs all the circuitry and the dual displays. Unlike all of the video game consoles that came before it (excluding handheld devices), the Virtual Boy does not (and cannot be) hooked up to an external display such as a television. The player must peer into the eyepiece mount to see the dual displays and play a game. The eyepiece mount is surrounded by a removable black neoprene eye shade that shields the player’s field of vision; it helps keep out unwanted light to make gameplay easily visible. The second piece is the adjustable stand. Though it is not required to make the console work, it is highly recommended to use since it elevated the head unit and kept it in place during gameplay. The head unit snaps into the stand and rotating knobs can be used to position it to your liking. The controller doubles as the console’s power supply. Connect the controller to the underside of the head unit, flip the power switch to the left, and Virtual Boy turns on. The console does not feature a main menu; for it to function a game cartridge must be inserted into the back of the head unit before it gets powered on.
The Virtual Boy controller was designed specifically with 3D gameplay in mind. In addition to the standard D-pad, a, b, start, select, and left/right trigger buttons, the odd-shaped controller (that certainly shares design cues with the Gamecube’s controller) also includes a secondary D-pad. Yokoi had high hopes that this second D-pad located on the right side of the controller; he thought it would help players better manage and control in-game objects in a 3D space. Unfortunately game developers on the whole did not utilize this function. In most cases the two D-pads served the same function in a game. A second standout feature of the controller is that it also serves as the console’s power supply. At the back there’s a slideout battery pack that houses six AA batteries. Players had the option to purchase a second slideout accessory that allowed an AC adapter to provide power.
In addition to the cartridge loader, volume slider, a headphone port, and the controller port, the head unit also included an extension port labeled EXT. Yokoi envisioned Virtual Boy players hooking up their head units to each other for multiplayer gaming. Though a Game Link Cable accessory was in the works (Mario’s Tennis was rumored to boast multiplayer support), Nintendo never released it.
A total of twenty-two games were made for Virtual Boy. Nineteen were issued for the Japanese market and only fourteen released in North America. Nintendo published the majority of them. Games were stored on small square cartridges Nintendo called “Game Paks.” North America launch games included Mario’s Tennis, Red Alarm, Teleroboxer, and Galactic Pinball.
Shortly after Virtual Boy was unveiled to the public in the spring of 1994 at the Shoshinkai Exhibition in Japan and its release in Japan and North America later in 1995, the once thought to be revolutionary and breakout product of its time became a renowned failure in the video games industry. After being sold on the market for just about six months, Nintendo discontinued Virtual Boy on December 22, 1995 in Japan and March 2, 1996 in North America. It sold for around $180 USD. Nintendo sold around 800,000 units worldwide.
Gamers and industry analysts place the blame of the Virtual Boy’s failure amongst many factors, the first and foremost being the visuals. Ironically, it’s the awesome 3D visuals that Yokoi thought would successfully market this pseudo-portable gaming console as a revolutionary device—not drive it into oblivion. Players complained that the monochromatic red on black visuals induced headaches and mild dizziness after extended periods of gameplay. In fact, the instruction manual for games warned players about the risk of "headaches, nausea, dizziness, and blurred vision." Though initial console and gameplay setup is simple, players were recommended to tweak Focus and Inter-Pupillary Distance (IPD) if the on-screen images appeared out of focus or blurry "EACH TIME game play is started." Virtual Boy also has a built-in timer that automatically pauses a game every fifteen or thirty seconds to make the player avoid too much eye strain.
The hardware design also served as a major blunder. The instruction manual implores the player to place the head mount on the stand and lay it directly on a flat surface. Virtual Boy was considered to be a hybrid between a home console and a portable handheld device, but its lack of comfortable placement and convenience made it quite the hassle to use. The instruction manual warned that failure to properly adjust the angle and height of the stand and the player's sitting position could result in "eye, hand, neck strain, or other discomfort resulting in injuries." Nintendo was overly concerned with the player's health and safety during gameplay. This would not bode well for sales and consumer mindshare.
Lack of developer support also contributed significantly to Virtual Boy’s demise. Nintendo was the premier developer for Virtual Boy software, and many other developers did not seem to catch on with what Nintendo thought would be a new 3D gaming craze. Nintendo hurt their cause by promising multiplayer support and failed to deliver the proper cable to enable it. Developers declined the invitation to make enticing games for the console, and this resulted in almost immediate consumer disinterest.
The price proved to be steep for most consumers. The original Game Boy cost $89.99 and the upcoming home console Nintendo 64 would be priced at $199. Consumers did not see the incentive to pay $180 for an in-between device that performed poorly in comparison to the N64 and was certainly not as portable and convenient as the Game Boy.
In more recent times, Time named Virtual Boy one of the 50 worst inventions. "The system consisted of bulky, bright red headgear that completely obscured a gamer's vision as he tried to play games rendered in rudimentary 3-D graphics. It was expensive (retailing at $180) and came with a limited slate of games." PC World called it one of the ugliest products in tech history. "The "portable" unit consisted of goggles mounted on a stand (looking like some kind of compact, plastic peep show), along with a full-size controller."
Although Virtual Boy was a complete and utter failure during its short time on the market, the virtual reality three-dimensional gameplay gave technology companies and video games manufacturers reason to research and experiment with new methods of games interaction.
Though it lied dormant for many years following Virtual Boy, 3D gaming has made a huge comeback in recent years. Riding on the coattails of 3D’s popularity in cinema, Sony is making a big push for 3D gaming on the PlayStation 3. Modern active shutter 3D glasses and a 3D compatible television set are required for the stereoscopic effect. Coming next year is Nintendo’s next handheld gaming device, the Nintendo 3DS. In what can arguably be called the Virtual Boy successor, the 3DS will use an updated model of the same parallax effect used in Virtual Boy to provide gamers on the go with impressive depth perception—this time in all colors of the rainbow! The 3DS features a “3D Depth Slider” that allows the player to manipulate the strength of the 3D effect that does not require the use of glasses. In televised commercials Nintendo promoted Virtual Boy as a “3D game for a 3D world.” With much hype behind the launch of the 3DS, Nintendo hopes to prove they were ahead of their time and that portable 3D gaming can work with the right technology.
In addition to the current push towards 3D gaming, Nintendo helps make the point that experimentation in video game interactivity is important for industry growth and diversity. They have proven this most recently with their latest home console the Nintendo Wii. The Wii relies on motion sensing with wireless controllers. It was a bold and risky move to introduce this new method of input, but it quickly proved to be a wild success in the market. Nintendo has sold over 74 million consoles worldwide, and direct competitors Sony and Microsoft are trying to steal the Wii’s thunder with their own methods of motion control in video games (see PlayStation Move and Kinect for Xbox 360).