Virtual reality: Then and now - why it won't fail this time

The tech, games, controllers and inspiration making up Parts 1 and 2 of the VR story
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Everyone knows that virtual reality, otherwise known as the next big thing, has been hyped before. Tech companies launched VR headsets, developers made games, gamers tried on crazy controllers for size. We've done this.

Take a look back with us at the first wave of VR in the 1980s and early 90s Before Oculus and how things have changed since them. This time the gamechanging technology really will stick. Here's why.

The gear



From Nintendo's ill-fated Virtual Boy to Sega VR, the first consumer-focused VR headsets didn't actually look too dissimilar to what we've ended up with now. Sure this retro tech looked bigger and bulkier than an Oculus Rift or a Sony Project Morpheus - which is understandable - but the obviously necessary headset form factor is where the similarities end.


These headsets were wired with low res displays and big names like 1995's rushed Virtual Boy didn't have any kind of head-tracking tech to add to the immersion (though Virtuality's Visette had magnetic tracking). It only displayed red and black colours, not full colour, and a hyped multiplayer cable never materialised. Even worse, its oscillating mirror 3D graphics set up caused eye strain and even damage - it was discontinued in 1996 after just 20 games were made for the console. Oh dear.

Elsewhere, there were some high profile experiments in VR outside the home from Virtuality with VR arcade games and the CAVEs, a system using visuals projected onto all the walls of a room and 3D glasses. Neither took off.


Enter Oculus. Since a prototype Oculus Rift was first unveiled to the world at E3 2012, we've seen VR headset efforts from Sony, Samsung, Google, HTC and Vive. We've had to be patient to see the first viable but VR is now big business again. Why? Well, thanks to the small matter of the smartphone revolution everything from hi-res display tech to processing power has improved and been miniaturised.

Read this: How does VR actually work?

Powerful PCs and consoles can run games with beautiful graphics at low latency and tracking tech has never been in better shape, whether it's accelerometers, gyroscopes, infrared cameras, lasers, you name it. Put one of these 2015 headsets on and you know you're not looking at real people and landscapes but you'll still gasp as your brain figures it out.

The games



Old school VR games like Dactyl Nightmare, Legend Quest and Buggy Ball were viewed on 276 x 372 screens and powered by an Amiga 3000. So it's no wonder they looked like this - not very immersively realistic.

1991's Dactyl Nightmare had grenades, crossbows and giant pterodactyls and could be played as a shoot'em up or in catch the flag mode. It even got a sequel, Race for The Eggs, in 1994. Still, for all its blockiness, at the time gamers reported getting swept up in the fantasy world and forgetting it wasn't real - the ultimate goal of VR.



Titles like Rigs: Mechanized Combat League for Project Morpheus, EVE: Valkyrie and Alien: Isolation combine complex - if snackable - gameplay with killer graphics and careful consideration of VR as a platform. It's not all big budget games though with smaller titles such as VR Karts relying on cheerful, colourful worlds and simple gameplay to entertain users of mobile VR headsets such as Samsung's Gear VR and Google Cardboard. It's not all FPS either, horror is a surprisingly effective fit as are puzzle games.

Read this: The best VR games to look forward to in 2015

Early VR focused on gaming but until the controls problem is worked out - more on that in a second - VR 'experiences' have also been popular. Virtual tourism includes visits to everywhere from Greek ruins to helicopter rides over New York to side of the stage at huge gigs.

The controls



D-pad controllers, telepresence robots, connected gloves, back in the heady days of late 80s and early 90s VR, there were no rules about how we would control our new rules. Mattel's Power Glove was actually a periphery for the NES - based on VPL's Dataglove which was designed for VR, it was packed with tech. The bulky glove controller detected the pitch, yaw and roll of a user's hand movements as well as finger flexes using fibre optic sensors. It also used ultrasonic transmitters in the glove which were tracked by receivers placed around the TV monitor.

Super Glove Ball, a 3D puzzler, and Bad Street Bawler, a beat'em up, were released for the NES specifically for use with the Power Glove. Sadly the gaming accessory was criticised as being both inaccurate and difficult for gamers to use and only 100,000 were sold in the US. What now?



Xbox controllers, motion sensors, treadmills, in the heady days of this second wave of VR experimentation, there are still no rules. All we know is that when we're in VR, we look down at our hands and expect at the very least to be able to use them. Moving around is a bonus.


The best VR experience we've had so far was our demo on HTC's Vive with Valve's Lighthouse tracking system which places two sensors around the room to track your head, hands and position. With two prototype handheld controllers, similar to Oculus Touch and with buttons and triggers, it allows movement around the room and precise hand gestures, represented almost instantly in the virtual world. Duck your head to avoid a shark, pick up a chef's knife, lean in closer to view a tiny RPG battle. The Virtuix Omni treadmill is a bit of a tech curio, still, but allows the feeling of movement if physical space is limited and FOVE's eye-tracking adds another dimension to both controls and realistically blurred environments.

The culture



Inspiration for VR goes much further back than the 80s and 90s - think Aldous Huxley's Feelies in Brave New World - but there's no doubt it was hella trendy 20-30 years ago. 1992's The Lawnmower Man gave us an idea of the messed-up stuff that can happen if you start meddling with someone's ideas of reality.


Before that, Tron (the 1982 original) got everyone real excited about going inside a videogame world and even Bart Simpson preferred VR gardening to the real thing. The inspiration was there and moviegoers and gamers' imaginations were well and truly hooked, the tech just wasn't quite ready yet.



It's not so fashionable to make movies about VR anymore - there's plenty of books, films and games dealing with alternate realities but not many of them involving strapping and plugging ourselves in. It's just not as shocking and exciting as it was in the 80s.

Still, there are plenty of tie-ins with big movie and game franchises happening with promo VR experiences and animation studios getting ready to create feature length cinematic pieces for VR. Nothing is safe from the future - a Ghost In The Shell remake will have VR tie-ins, Bjork is making VR music videos, and there's even a hack that lets you watch the Simpsons from their famous couch.


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