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. 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 public’s reluctance to take a risk accepting a radically different 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 at a flat, distant screen.
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 Gumpei Yokoi (Kent 513).
Gumpei Yokoi: The King of Portable Consoles
Starting off overseeing the assembly line machines that made playing cards 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.
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 videogames 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 gaming before, stereoscopic vision.
The Virtual Boy: In Utero
The Virtual Boy was at once a technological leap and a step backwards.
The Tech of the Virtual Boy: 2 becomes1
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).
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 both due to 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 graphicsgive 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. I also wish to explain that 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.
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). The more Yokoi tinkered with the device, the less high tech it became (in fact, upon its release it was compared to a Viewmaster than 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 users 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 the genuine desire for Yokoi 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 rectangular 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.
- Arthur,Charles. Virtual reality headsets to be given the hard sell. The Independent. London (UK): Jan 14, 1996. pg. 10
- Electronic Gaming Monthly
- Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon--The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World
- Pollack, Andrew. “Gunpei Yokoi, Chief Designer Of Game Boy, Is Dead at 56;Obituary (Obit)” New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Oct 9, 1997. pg. D.22
- Japanese advertisement for Virtual Boy http://www.pockett.net/jeu_video/Virtual%20Boy/Dossier/Virtual%20Boy%20Jap. jpg
- Yokoi et al. STEREOSCOPIC IMAGE DISPLAY DEVICE AND STORAGE DEVICE USED THEREWITH. Nintendo Co., Ltd., assignee. Patent 5,682,171. 1997
- Wolf, Mark J. P. "Inventing Space: Toward a Taxonomy of On- and Off-Screen Space in Video Games." Film Quarterly Vol. 51 (1997): 11-23.