The Virtual Boy was a virtual reality, 3-dimensional gaming device made by Nintendo and was in retail between 1995 and 1996. It is widely believed to be Nintendo’s only glaring failure in its history as a video game hardware manufacturer. But the story of the Virtual Boy is the tale of one visionary who tried to alter the course of an entire industry. He failed due to the conservative nature of the games industry, as well as the American (and Japanese) public’s reluctance to take a risk accepting a radically different (though flawed) new technology. It also exposed how perfection driven the Japanese business model is (in terms of how the backlash of the Virtual Boy’s failure affected its creator). And finally, the Virtual Boy stands as a great example of a ‘what if?’ moment in history, where we were presented with a potential new lineage of entertainment enjoyed through true virtual space instead of just staring at a flat, distant screen.
The Virtual Boy: Conception:
In the mid 1990’s, the US console market was in transition between 2-dimensional, sprite based graphics and 3-dimensional, polygonal graphics. At the same time the portable gaming market was still based on monochromatic displays popularized by the dominant portable gaming device, the Game Boy (Kent 513). There had been little variety outside of the traditional flat, depthless display. But that was about to change with the partnership of Reflections Technology, a company from Massachusetts that invented mirror scanning stereoscopic displays (capable of creating the illusion of 3 dimensions) and an innovative hardware designer, Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi (Kent 513).
Gunpei Yokoi: The Godfather of Portable Video Games
Starting off as an overseer for the assembly line machines at Nintendo, which in 1965 was still just in the playing card business, Yokoi eventually began designing toys in 1970. His first invention was a wooden device that could grasp things at a distance, it was called the ‘Ultra Hand’. (Pollack) . He eventually moved on to design electronic games for the company, specializing in portable games. His milestones included: Game & Watch (1980), a calculator sized liquid crystal display portable video game system with a built in clock, & Game Boy (1989), the most successful game system of all time (100 million units sold), which was capable of reading different games off of cartridges instead of having a predetermined amount of content stored on an internal hard drive (Kent 330). By the mid 1990’s Yokoi had developed an excellent reputation at Nintendo. It seemed like he could do no wrong.
In many ways, his newest project, The Virtual Boy, was more of a successor to the Game Boy (a portable gaming device with simple, monochrome graphics on a Liquid Crystal Display screen) than to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) or the Super Nintendo (both of which were home gaming console devices that required a television, instead of coming with its own monitor.) In some ways the Virtual Boy could be seen as a hybrid of the two models. It was self sufficient (battery operated and came with its own screen) like the Game Boy, but it also had a physical seperation between the screen and the controller as well as being a fully immersive audiovisual experience like the Super Nintendo. And yet the Virtual Boy was still unlike either in that its ambition was to alter the traditional conventions of how to view the video game being played.
By the mid 1990’s, Yokoi was dissatisfied with the lack of creativity in the market: “I saw that the market had become was so saturated with video games that it became nearly impossible to create anything new. There were a lot of creative ideas for games for the NES and for Game Boy. But there were not so many new ideas for games for the Super Nintendo. I think game companies ran out of new ideas. I wanted to create a new kind of game that was not a video game, so that designers could come up with new ideas” (Kent 514).
This dissatisfaction was the impetus that caused one of the video game industry’s most successful and innovative developers to take a huge professional risk by putting his faith in a new form of perception that had not been utilized for mainstream gaming before, stereoscopic vision.
Stereoscopic vision was not a new concept, and had actually existed before the digital era. It was however more static and did not deal with moving objects.
The Virtual Boy: In Utero
The Virtual Boy was both a technological leap and a step backwards.
The Tech of the Virtual Boy: 2 becomes 1
The principle of the Virtual Boy’s display relied on a human being’s ability to see "2 pictures with parallax separately with left and right eyes and fuse the two pictures in the brain to sense depth” (Patent 53). On one level there are background images and on the other there are objects like characters and items. When looking at these two together, there appears to be depth and a larger sense of the picture becomes clear.
The layers that were produced by using the two mirrors inside the Virtual Boy's viewfinder and the angles at which the light of the LED lights hit the eyes produced a 3-D effect without being truly 3-D. The use of multiple moving and overlapping planes created the illusion of a Z-axis even if the individual objects on each plain are still just 2-dimensional (Wolf 18). This kind of optical illusion builds off of earlier stereoscopic 3-D devices, including analogue devices. Although the machine produces the two separate images, it is up to the user's brain to convert those two images into a cohesive 3 dimensional perspective of the game.
The Setbacks of the Virtual Boy: Seeing Red
Although Yokoi had wanted to create a system that used a whole spectrum of colors, it proved unrealistic because of the potential cost to the consumer as well as hampering the system’s ability to produce the illusion of 3 dimensions (Kent 514). “In the beginning of the development, we experimented with a color LCD screen, but the users did not see depth, they just saw double. Color graphics give people the impression that a game is high tech. But just because a game has a beautiful display does not mean that the game is fun to play.
LEDs come in red, yellow, blue, and green. Red uses less battery and red is easier to recognize. That is why red is used for traffic lights.” (Kent 514). Yokoi’s desire to keep the display limited to red and black would end up coming back to haunt him. It is important to note that Yokoi was simultaneously striving for a revolutionary product while still trying to remaining realistic in terms of pricing. Unfortunately he ended up making too many compromises.
Other Aspects of the Development of the Virtual Boy
What was once supposed to be a sophisticated melding of cutting edge technology with casual entertainment soon became more and more 'neutered' of its appeal. Instead of creating a device on par with some of the contemporary virtual reality headsets that could sell for $599 (Arthur), it became a bit of a joke in comparison. The more Yokoi tinkered with the device, the less high tech it became (in fact, upon its release it was compared more to a Viewmaster than to a true virtual reality head mounted display) (Kent 514). Yokoi avoided using head tracking technology (where presumably the image in the display would be affected by the user's physical movement), he made the unit on a stand (because he felt the device would be too heavy to wear) and instead of using a visor to block out outside light, the console had a rubberized seal similar to that of a diver's mask (Kent 514). The Virtual Boy also featured stereophonic audio to help in the attempt of creating the illusion of total immersion. All of these changes, in addition to the limits of a monochromatic LED display, helped to undermine Yokoi's genuine desire to revolutionize the video game market and bring virtual reality to the masses.
One of the other main attempts at innovation was the controller. Unlike the rectangle/oval shaped controllers of previous Nintendo consoles or the large, cumbersome joysticks that came with computers, the Virtual Boy controller had a dual grip with two sets of directional buttons (patent 2). Of course this was very similar to the shape that future consoles had for their controllers (Sony's Playstation Dualshock controller could be seen as the epitome of this design model, replacing the extra directional buttons with symbolic (triangle, circle, square and X) and adding two analog control sticks). But the main focus for the Virtual boy remained the audio-visual illusion of virtual space. The controller was possibly the least problematic part of the Virtual Boy.
The Virtual Boy: Miscarriage
Nintendo announced the development of the Virtual boy in the summer of 1994 and was ready to display for the public that winter at a Tokyo trade show (Kent 515). The Virtual Boy was rushed to the market to compensate for the delay of the launch of what would become the Nintendo 64. This meant that the system did not get the chance to fully live up to Yokoi's vision due to lack of development time. This would prove to have dire consequences on the system's chances for success.
Early Response: Japan
Despite the high hopes of Nintendo, and especially Yokoi, the Virtual Boy was met with a dismal response. One reporter at the event went on to call the Virtual Boy "Virtual Dog" and proceeded to berate it:
"The November unveiling of Virtual Boy in Japan signifies an important change in direction for Nintendo. Either it has gone completely mad or it deems the future of videogaming to be crude, red, and likely to induce headaches" (Kent 515).
This comment demonstrated the general dismissal of the Virtual Boy by the Japanese market. Was it because of a technologically conservative outlook towards gaming? Or was it only focused on the lack of a Killer-App, a system-selling game that is held with high regard by gamers and critics? The negative attention toward the Virtual Boy did not end there.
The Virtual Boy was originally slated to be 19,800 yen (about $207) (Kent 515). The people who attended the show were unimpressed by the actual hardware and software that the Virtual Boy had to offer. And one physical reaction to the Virtual Boy that was common was headaches and dizziness that was induced by prolonged usage of the device. Apparently, the combination of staring at red light against a black background, as well as improper focusing of the mirrors inside the device (which produced the 3-D effect) were responsible. The reaction was so strong that the Virtual Boy was shipped with a warning that it may cause headaches. (Kent 515). Soon it would be time for the Virtual Boy to have its shot in the United States.
The Virtual Boy software instruction manuals came with detailed instructions of preventing such adverse reactions. First there was a warning that only children above 7 could use this product because of the risk of eyesight and/or hearing damage (Nintendo 2). Then it gave detailed instructions as to how to focus the mirrors. The process ended somewhat similar to an optometrist's vision test for prescribing glasses (the user had to fine tune the device until the images came into focus in both eyes) (Nintendo 4,5). The device even had a built in timer that would pause every 15 (or 30) minutes in order to force the user to rest their eyes (Nintendo 7). This feature showed that the creator was concerned about the user's health and made an effort to protect it. It is fascinating that a similar feature is not included in other harmful electronic products (like cell phones for example).
The Year of the Virtual Boy
The Virtual Boy, despite its early misfortunes in Japan, was poised to be (or marketed to be) a revolution in electronic entertainment.
Commercials: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKKK6FH1vGw ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZCmd5mWYxU ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kxJAJteeefw&feature=related promised that the Virtual Boy could deliver a unique, revolutionary experience. In fact, in an unusual cross-promotional twist, Nintendo, Blockbuster and NBC joined forces to not only to build hype for the virtual boy but also to promote the fall line up for NBC as well as increase rental profits for Blockbuster. The fall promo deal was worth $5 million and was expected to be a massive boom for all three parties (Lefton). It was understandable why the three were so sure of success. After all, Nintendo was dominating the video game market since 1985. No one foresaw that the Virtual Boy would be a flop, especially not Yokoi. One of the problems with the promotion for the Virtual Boy however was that its 3-D image could not be appreciated unless the person were actually using the Virtual Boy. Sales were estimated to reach 3 million units by spring 1996 (Gillen).
The Virtual Boy was released in the United States in August of 1995 to mixed reviews. (Kent 518). It was universally panned by video game based publications, however, thus showing that Yokoi's device had alienated its target audience. It sold less than a million units in its lifespan (which was considered a major failure) and was discontinued a year later.
The Virtual Boy: Afterlife
Nobody could have foreseen the failure of the Virtual Boy, especially not Yokoi. It was the Industry's equivalent of the Soviet Union collapsing (a once strong, idealistic, seemingly unstoppable entity that imploded under its own misguidance and bad decisions). Nintendo's executives, following Japanese corporate structure, made an example out of Yokoi, despite all of the success he had brought o the company in the past. His final Nintendo project was now going for half of its initial retail value and still failing. (Kent 524)
The Fall of Gunpei Yokoi
As a form of punishment, Yokoi was forced to man a booth for the Virtual Boy at a gaming exposition in 1996. The booth was neglected for the most part (the main excitement at the event was for the new Nintendo 64 home console that promised rich, colorful 3-D Graphics but without actually having any of the spatial depth that the Virtual Boy attempted to have), but those who visited got a personal demonstration of the device by it creator. (Kent 524)This form of solitary confinement was his 'reward' for thirty ears of excellence and only one of disaster(despite the fact that the Game Boy was still selling extremely well, pretty much dominating the portable games market)) . He left the company the following august. Although he did create his own business, his life was tragically cut short on October 4th 1997 in a car accident. The man who was one of the principal reasons for Nintendo's success died in corporate exile over one mistake.
Why did it fail?
Were people not ready for a shift into virtual reality? Was the overly simplified design of the device and lack of quality software not compelling enough to boost sales? Was the harmful nature of the visual aspect of the device's LED lights being reflected by mirrors too much for people to overcome? Or was it Nintendo's refusal to support it enough to give it time to find an audience? It was most likely a combination of all these that doomed the red-eyed device.
The Virtual Boy's failure demonstrates the sheer difficulty one faces when trying to stray from the current media paradigm. Unless it was a perfect success, no one besides its creator would defend the need for something that was so different from its more mainstream or 'high tech' contemporaries. Perhaps if a less perfection driven company had sponsored Yokoi, he could have been able to find a way to improve the Virtual Boy instead of letting it fall into the annals of history as his Scarlet Letter of shame.
Besides being the subject of ridicule by video gaming enthusiasts, The Virtual Boy demonstrated one of Nintendo's earliest avant-garde experiments in hardware manufacturing. There have been several indirect successors to the Virtual Boy in terms of challenging the paradigm of gaming. In the portable gaming sphere, there is the Nintendo Dual Screen (DS) which is a foldable gaming device that has two screens: (one normal display on the upper half and the other half is an interactive touch screen that can be manipulated with a stylus). The DS also features an interactive microphone for additional feedback possibilities. In terms of consoles, The Nintendo Wii is considered very unconventional compared to other mainstream consoles. It uses a wireless remote (wiimote)that tracks the user's movement and thus allows for a more kinesthetic style of gameplay (as opposed to the tradition of just using the thumbs and occasionally the other finger). This kind of motion tracking had been removed from the Virtual Boy during its development.
There has even been a somewhat direct follow up to the Virtual Boy: The TOBIDACID (also known as the Solid Eye) that came bundled with Metal Gear Acid 2 for the PlayStation Portable (PSP) portable gaming console. It wasn't a full successor (in that it was more of a niche add-on rather than a full fledged console). The attachment caused the full color polygonal graphics to appear 3-D through a similar stereoscopic viewing technology as the Virtual Boy. But even though it is technically an improvement over the simplistic monochrome display of the Virtual Boy, the Solid Eye is still prone to causing similar negative responses, like headaches. The main difference is that the peripheral is not necessary in order to play the game. It is meant as an enhancement.
- Arthur,Charles. Virtual reality headsets to be given the hard sell. The Independent. London (UK): Jan 14, 1996. pg. 10
- Electronic Gaming Monthly
- Gillen, Marilyn A. Nintendo Readies Virtual Reality Game. Billboard; Nov 26, 1994. Pg. 102
- Japanese advertisement for Virtual Boy http://www.pockett.net/jeu_video/Virtual%20Boy/Dossier/Virtual%20Boy%20Jap. jpg
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