The Secret History of the Virtual Boy

It was the first widely available virtual reality headset, but it was also an unmitigated and near unparalleled failure. We unearth the secret history of Nintendo's Virtual Boy

It’s 1995 and the US is reeling from the Oklahoma City bombing, financiers are mourning the shock closure of the world’s oldest investment bank and Michael Jordan is on his way back to the NBA.

Amid all of this, Nintendo releases a product that many had been excitedly awaiting for years: the Virtual Boy, an affordable VR headset supporting games from one of the best publishers around.

Boasting “three-dimensional high-resolution graphics so detailed and clear you’ll swear you could reach out and grab them” and promoted through bizarrely conceptual adverts focusing on exploring “a third dimension”, the Virtual Boy sounded amazing, but in reality was anything but.

One of the adverts used to promote the Virtual Boy in the US. Image courtesy of Vintage Computing. Above: Image courtesy of Jason Matthews

One of the adverts used to promote the Virtual Boy in the US. Image courtesy of Vintage Computing. Above: Image courtesy of Jason Matthews

Visualising 3D environments in a hellish combination of red and black, the headset left users with dizziness, nausea and headaches, with the vast majority of people unable to use the system for more than a few minutes at a time. Add to this the fact that the system had to be permanently fixed to a table to use, and it’s not hard to see why it wasn’t a success.

But while it’s easy to dismiss the Virtual Boy as a product that was simply developed too soon, it’s quite possible that in other circumstances the headset could have been a success, and could have even kicked off the virtual reality boom more than a decade before it really did happen.

The core technology

Contrary to popular belief, the core technology behind the Virtual Boy was not in fact developed by Nintendo. Instead, it was produced by a now defunct American company, Reflection Technology, which had been working on the display tech since 1985.

What they had produced, however, more closely resembled Google Glass than any conventional VR technology. Dubbed Private Eye, the device provided 3D stereoscopic head-tracking, but outputted to a tiny 720×280 pixel screen which was suspended in front of the wearer’s right eye.

Contrary to popular belief, the core technology behind the Virtual Boy was not in fact developed by Nintendo

This screen was a technology known as Scanned Linear Array, which made pioneering use of LEDs to provide a parallax effect, giving a sense of depth to images. This was achieved by overlaying a red LED on an unlit background, resulting in a single-colour display but providing the 3D effect required. Convinced they had a marketable technology on their hands, Reflection Technology produced a demo for the system in the form of a tank battle game, and began showing it off to potential manufacturers. They clearly felt that the technology had potential as a children’s toy, because among the companies it was shown to were Mattel and Hasbro, both of whom passed on the tech.

Sega, too, was less than enthralled, and turned down Private Eye, citing concerns over motion sickness and the lack of a full-colour display. However, their approach to Nintendo was much more positive and the company opted to adapt the technology into something far closer to the VR systems we know and love today.

Enter Yokoi

The man tasked with making the Virtual Boy a reality was Gunpei Yokoi, someone who gaming owes a tremendous amount to, yet is sadly barely remembered. At this point Yokoi had been working at Nintendo for around three decades, and had already produced a number of industry-defining products. He effectively invented the modern-day handheld gaming system when he created Nintendo’s Game and Watch – an idea that came to him after watching a bored businessman playing with an LCD calculator while on a train. In doing so, he also developed a new control system for the console that is now present on almost every controller in the world: the D-pad. And if that wasn’t enough, he also invented the Game Boy, supervised the first Donkey Kong game and mentored Mario creator and Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto.

In short, few people have had as great an impact on gaming as Yokoi, so it’s easy to see why Nintendo entrusted him with making the Virtual Boy a success. As head of the company’s R&D1 department, Yokoi had been looking into VR for some time, after buzz about the technology’s possibilities – a popular topic for the gaming press at the time – had filtered into his team. “At the time I was interested in virtual reality, and was one of the staff that went on and on about how we should do something with 3D goggles,” recalled Shigeru Miyamoto, who had light involvement with the Virtual Boy’s development, in a 2011 Iwata Asks interview for Nintendo. “I didn’t exactly twist his arm, but I would talk with Yokoi-san about how goggles would be interesting.”

As a result, Yokoi had been considering a number of different VR-enabling technologies by the time Reflection Technology got in touch. “Our first decision was to make use of virtual reality-type technology. From there, we thought about many concepts as display apparatus, including LCD devices,” said Yokoi in a 1994 interview with Next Generation magazine, which has been preserved for posterity by Planet Virtual Boy.

Initially the plan was for the device to be head-mounted, utilising the core technology’s head tracking abilities, however Nintendo quickly backpedalled on this due to liability and health and safety concerns

“[Reflection Technology] approached us about three years ago, but they didn’t have any specific end-product in mind. So we hit upon the idea of utilizing two separate screens to make a 3D display.”

The challenge was to create something that felt futuristic and exciting, but at a price point the average consumer could afford; a problem that still plagues VR hardware creators to this day. As a result, Yokoi kept Reflection Technology’s red-only system, and 3D graphics were largely created through wireframes, rather than the polygon approach of most other consoles.

Even this, however, required some of the most powerful tech around, and so the Virtual Boy became the first Nintendo product to utilise the gaming-changing 32-bit RISC CPU chip. Initially the plan was for the device to be head-mounted, utilising the core technology’s head tracking abilities. However Nintendo quickly backpedalled on this due to liability and health and safety concerns, particularly around motion sickness and the development of lazy eye problems in children.

“We are worried about the possible danger of HMD [head-mounted display] technology, but we also considered the fact that if a woman wearing make-up was to use the head-mounted design, the next person might be hesitant in wearing it!” said Yokoi. “So we changed the design so that you can just look into the viewing apparatus and still appreciate the 3D experience.”

Nintendo’s blunders

Blame for the Virtual Boy’s failure is often laid at the door of Yokoi, who left Nintendo just a year after its release, and was sadly killed in a car crash in 1997. However, in reality it seems that Nintendo itself deserves a far greater share of the responsibility than it is often apportioned. For starters, Yokoi never intended the version that was released to be made available to the public. He wanted to spend far more time refining the Virtual Boy, to correct the problems that repeated downscaling had brought.

But Nintendo had other plans. The company had been developing another console in tandem with the Virtual Boy, the Nintendo 64, and it became increasingly clear that this had far greater potential for mass appeal than the VR system ever could. As a result Nintendo was keen to get the Virtual Boy out into the world as quickly as possible, and so rushed out a version that was not anywhere near as polished as it should have been. But it seems no one told its marketing department, because the other major failure of Nintendo was how it advertised the system to consumers.

Mario Tennis, one of the games for the Virtual Boy

Mario Tennis, one of the games for the Virtual Boy

“Virtual Boy had two big tasks to accomplish, and it went out into the world without satisfying either one. It’s not so much that the machine itself was wrong as a product, but that we were wrong in how we portrayed it,” explained Miyamoto.

Early press releases for the system promised that it would “totally immerse players in their own private universe” and adverts that ran in the US painted the system as a mind-expanding, deeply immersive affair, opting to show images of tripping gamers in post-apocalyptic garb over actual screenshots of the games.

In essence, it tried to treat it in a similar way to the Game Boy, which was simply never going to work, and unsurprisingly failed to meet its goal of 1.5 million units to be shipped in the US within the first year. The real number was a rather embarrassing 350,000 units, and the system was canned the following year, having only been released in the US and Japan.

What could have been

While the recent efforts in VR suggest that Nintendo would never have been able to develop a virtual reality system in the mid-90s with the level of presence expected today, it is possible that in other circumstances the Virtual Boy could have been a success.

In Miyamoto’s view, presenting the system as a modest but fun toy that offered the first taste of VR would have done wonders for its perception as a flop. “It was the kind of toy to get you excited and make you think, ‘this is what we can do now!’” he said. “I imagined it as something that people who were on the lookout for new entertainment or who could afford to spend a bit of money could buy and enjoy even if the price was a little expensive. But the world treated it like a successor to the Game Boy system.”

However, it’s hard not to wonder what Yokoi, undoubtedly a genius when it comes to gaming systems, would have done with this product, had he been allowed to spend as much time as he wanted developing it.

While it obviously never would have matched modern systems, it is possible that it could have been much more polished, and done more to tackle the motion sickness issues that it produced. And that could have had a tremendous impact on how it was perceived.

Virtual Boy’s Legacy

Despite being an almost unparalleled failure for the company, the Virtual Boy has had a positive impact on Nintendo. Most significantly, it does not appear to have rushed out a product since, earning it a reputation for quality that must make other publishers green with envy, although admittedly not always translating into sales. The company’s upcoming game The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, for example, was originally slated for release in 2015, but now won’t put in an appearance until 2017. And while this has frustrated fans, it makes it highly likely that the game will be worthy of glowing reviews when it finally does come out.

Over in the world of virtual reality, the system is now looked upon with an odd kind of nostalgic fondness, but has undoubtedly provided key lessons on what not to do in VR. All the major known issues with VR – motion sickness, the need for presence and frame rate, to name a few – were demonstrated on the Virtual Boy long before Palmer Luckey started cobbling together a headset in his bedroom, and it is highly likely that some VR companies did take a good look at the system as part of their development processes.

factor-archive-27As for Nintendo, however, the experience seems to have put the company off VR for now. While it continues to prevail in augmented reality products, it maintains that it has no plans to develop a VR headset at present, despite most other companies scrambling to get a headset out the door.
One day that may change. And when it does, we can only hope they announce the Virtual Boy II.

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