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VWN VR Interface Overviews: Nintendo Virtual Boy
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VR Interfaces: Nintendo Virtual Boy

Overview

Overview of Nintendo Virtual Boy
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 for consoles.

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 of ligaments.

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 use it?

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 surface.

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 a bosom.

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.

Conclusions

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 better hardware.

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.


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