A brief history of wearable gaming

Because strapping interactive devices to your body in the name of entertainment is nothing new
The history of wearable gaming

Wearable gaming may be the talk of the tech world, thanks to the proliferation of amazing VR, but it's nothing new.

Since the advent of computing we've dreamed of finding new ways to interact with virtual worlds, and technological history is littered with devices which make conventional controllers look boring and cumbersome.

Essential reading: The best wearable devices from the movies

The problem, it seems, is that no one told companies that their weird gaming systems wouldn't work, and so we ended up with a great deal of flops, such as Nintendo's Power Glove and Sega's VR. But each of these has had a part to play in the current vibrant state of virtual and augmented reality, thanks to Sony Morpheus, Samsung Gear VR and of course Oculus Rift.

As the Apple Watch nears its release, we've rounded up eight of the most significant consumer devices in wearable gaming.

Casio GD8 (1984)

In the mid-80s, Japanese technology company Casio was at the top of its game. Its digital watches were selling like rubber-strapped hotcakes, and as a result it integrated them with lots of other types of technology: remote controls, calculators and FM transmitters. And, of course, the company added a game system. It merely consisted of a few liquid crystal display vehicles which lit up in an attempt to recreate the thrills of formula one racing on a screen an inch square. But it's a game you wore on your wrist, and as a result the first gaming wearable ever.

Nintendo Power Glove (1989)

Nintendo's Power Glove was, in fact, years ahead of its time. The five-fingered controller included a system of trackers which registered light emitted when optic fibres were stretched across the user's knuckles and joints. The result should have been one of the first truly immersive experiences in home gaming, but a distinct lack of decent games for the system resulted in it flopping like a jellyfish falling off a diving board. However, its legend lives on thanks to Nintendo co-funded film The Wizard.

Sega Lock On (1992)

Essentially glorified TV remote controls, laser tag systems became popular in the late 80s and early 90s because they allowed kids to shoot each other without the mess associated with paintballs or bullets. Sega's Lock On, the pinnacle of the form, came with a headset which received enemy shots, but its wearable innovation was a reflective visor which augmented the player's vision with their current score. Has Sega sued Google Glass yet?

Sega VR (1993)

Some 20 years ago we were in much the same situation that we're in now. The handful of people who'd tried virtual reality said it was amazing, while everyone else was waiting on tenter hooks for the release of a consumer-grade headset. Sega demonstrated such a device at 1993's Consumer Electronics Show, but it was never released. The company said it was because the device was “too realistic" and it could lead to people hurting themselves, but its low system specs make this explanation unlikely. It was probably just a bit rubbish.

Aura Interactor (1994)

Aura's Interactor brings a whole new meaning to “punchy bass." This wearable device consisted of a detuned subwoofer which the user strapped to their chest and plugged into their games console of choice. Whenever a low-pitched sound occurred in-game the Interactor would translate it into a shockwave to simulate a gunshot or a punch. It sounds like the ideal device for hitting the brown note.

Virtual Boy (1995)

Look up “gaming flop" in the dictionary and you'll find a picture of Nintendo's Virtual Boy. Riding on the coattails of the virtual reality fad, this cumbersome piece of hardware used multiple red LEDs and parallax techniques (think looking out of a train window) to create a sense of 3D. While it was poorly received and sold badly, it at least tried to introduce proper 3D gaming to the masses, and its controller was the first to feature double D-pads for navigating virtual worlds.

TrackIR (2001)

The first wearable on this list which is actually still available to buy, NaturalPoint TrackIR sits somewhere between conventional 3D gaming and full-blown virtual reality. The device is fairly simple – it connects to your computer via USB and uses a small infrared emitter attached to your headphones to read your head movements. These are translated to the in-game environment, so moving your head to the left in say, ARMA II, will also move the game's perspective. It's a bit of a niche product, but it's won fans in flight and racing sims.

Neural Impulse Actuator (2008)

A computer which can read your thoughts has long been a dream of science-fiction, and a number of gaming companies have tried to make it a reality – Atari tried it in 1984 with Mindlink, but test players complained of headaches and it was never produced. Perhaps the best take on the form was OCZ's Neural Impulse Actuator, which used three sensors to detect brain impulses and translated them into virtual trigger pulls and in-game jumps. It worked well enough, until you realised you could get better results from the device by wiggling your eyebrows rather than thinking really hard about shooting things.

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