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Back In My Day: The Virtual Boy

Thursday, 23 October, 2014

Illustration by Sarah Haris

In the current technological climate, virtual reality is everything. Those who have been playing attention will know that Facebook recently acquired a popular VR headset—the Oculus Rift—for over $1 billion. For the last column of the year I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at a ‘90s device that is considered a stepping-stone on the ongoing path to achieving flawless virtual reality. Well, okay, maybe not a stepping-stone—more like a dark side-alley full of drug peddlers and prostitutes that you probably shouldn’t have gone down. But, oh well, what’s a bit of chlamydia anyway?

The Nintendo Virtual Boy is widely believed to be the biggest failure in the company’s long history. The Virtual Boy was a 3D gaming headset that displayed digital 32-bit graphics. It was released to poor reception in 1995 in North America and Japan and was completely disbanded after that. Because seriously, if the country that has run and loved a trillion seasons of The Big Bang Theory doesn’t like your product, no one will.

The Virtual Boy used the parallax method to create an illusion of 3D on a 2D screen. This meant that when you looked through the head-mounted goggles you experienced two different coloured images, side by side, merging together. I could have just said ‘those shitty SpyKids 3D glasses’ but Parallax sounds cooler. The device was constructed to be used sitting down with a conventional game controller. It had speakers in the goggles and a pair of rapidly vibrating mirrors in front of the eyes. These gave off a constant humming sound as you played, because we all know how good playing Mario Kart in a beehive is.

The catalyst to the V-boy’s (gangster name) downfall was really Nintendo’s insistence on cheap innovation. They wanted to change the world on student rates. Due to cost cutting, Nintendo elected to make the display monochrome: all one colour. This would have been fine had they have chosen a simple black and white or a calm blue, but no… of course, they chose bright red. Many gamers who used the V-boy complained of intense motion sickness, migraines, dizziness and Kanye West.  This red display made the device the infamous cultural icon it is today. It probably didn’t help sales too much either.

Nintendo spent $25 million on marketing campaigns that tried to position the tech as an innovation not only in games but also in education and history. Several projects included players navigating their way through some kind of natural history exhibit, while others took players on a psychedelic acid trip. It sounds laughable, sure, but back then red-tinted drug trips on the V-boy were top of the range.

Though the V-boy launched with 19 different games, most were terrible and saw a severely limited shelf life. Arguably the only one that stood out, and is still enjoyed today, was Mario Tennis. Nintendo’s classic character roster got together for some action on the court, much like the more recent Wii Sports Tennis… except with less fun… and more seizures.

While it may have just been one giant cock-up from start to finish, the Virtual Boy provided some much-needed education in hardware design and innovation.

I could say that the gaming industry has learned something from the fall of the Virtual Boy. I could say Nintendo has moved on from past failings. Or, I could point out the virtual booby-squeezing simulators on the Oculus Rift.

What a time to be alive.