|The Virtual Boy came out in 1995, sandwiched between the SNES and the Nintendo
64, and, much like the Wii, was an attempt to completely change the game plan
It was a fully integrated head mounted display system (HMD) console. The entire
console was pressed to the user's face, with their eyes peering through a rubber
aperture on the back of the unit.
Similar systems before this had been tried, where the user wore the head mounted
display like an oversized pair of goggles. Indeed, this is the system we still
usually use today. Unfortunately, unlike the modern systems which typically
weigh 4-6 ounces, the HMDs
of the 1990s weighed anything from one to two pounds. This additional weight
on the head continually pulls on the muscles on the back of the neck, and in
a short period of time is capable of severe muscle strain, and even tearing
To counteract this problem, the designers of the time had two options:
1. To screw the device into the ceiling as a permanent fixture, with the system
hanging down. This was the layout used by BOOM
systems from the late 1960s onwards. Not very practical from a home user standpoint.
Can you imaging having to screw your PS3 into the lounge ceiling in order to
2. To somehow secure the device such that it is capable of taking its own weight,
but at the same time allowing the user to press their head up to it comfortably.
Continually leaning forwards and bending down to press your head to a box on
the media cabinet would be extremely bad for posture, and would cause damage
to the back muscles and spine long-term.
The designers of the Virtual Boy chose the latter option; to have the device
take its own weight. However, they decided on a floor mounting system, with
an integral tripod that could not be removed. This extended down from the base4
of the system as two slightly splayed legs that bent backwards, creating a steady
Unfortunately they were not adjustable, so you had a unit on a ten inch tripod
on the floor. In order to use it yup you have guessed it you have
to lay on your stomach with your head lifted, and press your eyes to the back
of the unit. Not the most comfortable of positions, especially if you possess
So far, things are not looking up for the device, but they get a little worse
still. It is a stereoscopic device, true stereoscopy rather than the anaglyph
stereoscopy of 3D films. If it had worked at the time, this was the true selling
point and made the system as unique and ground breaking then, as the Wii has
been today. Each eye had a separate LCD screen, and was fed a slightly different
version of the image. So, it felt natural, and truly the same as natural vision.
At least that was the theory.
It is a sound theory, and does work in practice; well, it works so long as
you use a full colour palette and a high refresh rate. The Virtual Boy had neither.
What it did offer as a colour palette was: red. You could have red for everything,
or you could have black. That was it.
Power on for that pixel? Bright laser red.
Power off for that pixel? Black, with occasional after-images.
That was the entire colour range the Virtual Boy was capable of. The reason
of course being that red drains the least battery power of the entire colour
spectrum yes, it was battery, there are unlikely to be power points in
the middle of the floor. So, you had wireframe outline graphics in pure red,
or you had meaningless blobs of red moving about the screen.
Needless to say, this was not good for the eyes.
In addition to that, the refresh rate could use a little work. Refresh rate
of course referring to the frequency per second that the display is updated.
If a display has a refresh of 5 frames per second, it means the entire screen
is redrawn, line by line, five times in that second. As refresh rates get higher,
so flickering is reduced, and the image appears more and more natural to the
eye. As it appears more natural, so eye strain due to catching the flickers
and redraws is reduced.
Most countries these days have legal limits on the lowest display refresh rate
in the workplace. 60 is frequently the minimum, the point at which most eyes
can't see the redraws. That's 60 updates per second. At around a 72hz refresh
rate 72 times per second the display gets as good as it is going
to get, and even the best eyes will struggle to pick out any flicker.
The Virtual Boy maintained a refresh rate of 50Hz for each eye. Quite high,
but not high enough that there won't be flicker, and in a particularly active
gaming session you will notice some jerkiness of movement for fast movements
because of the refresh rate.
So, it is slightly jerky, in neon red and black, and there is no trace of the
outside world at all. Oh and one other thing. There was no focus on the system,
so if you needed glasses to correct your sight, you were out of luck
not enough room for them inside the interface, and it won't seal properly. Contact
lenses, or play in blurry red and black.
So, you are laying on your stomach, on the cold floor, slightly jerky neon
red wireframes dancing in darkness before your eyes, with your elbows stretched
out to either side of you, pressing the device to your head, fingers wrapped
around the separate control pad, to play a game.
Nope, no reason it failed to sell more than 770,000 consoles during it's entire
lifetime, comes to mind. Neither does any reason for the rabid number of complaints
about eye strain, headaches, and flat out nausea the method of interface coupled
with the slapdash graphics capabilities and slight jerkiness of movement caused.
The Virtual Boy was launched in Japan where it sold only 140,000 units, and
in the US where the rest were sold. It did not make it to a European launch
before being canned. Thirty three games were released for the console, 19 in
Japan and 14 in the US, before it was officially scrapped. More were in the
production pipeline, but the console was a failure.
The Virtual Boy was actually a great idea for an immersive interface and full
visual VR for gamers that could have changed the face of gaming if only
it had not used the cheapest and nastiest components the company could get away
with. All the basic science was sound, and is still used today, in considerably
As it is, it unfortunately remains a poster child for derision against VR technologies,
as people who used one, remember just how bad it truly was.