With virtual reality making a resurgence in the past few years with companies like Sony, Oculus, and HTC leading the modern wave of headsets, it's only natural to take a look back to the 1990s when VR first tried to break out in a major way. While Nintendo's failed Virtual Boy wasn't exactly true VR, it did gain a reputation for being something unique, special, and painful on the eyes. In this vintage article from Benj Edwards we can explore the genesis of the hardware from a little company aiming to create private PC displays all the way to Nintendo's big gamble. Fun fact: Sega checked out the prototype hardware and passed on it for safety and marketing reasons.
“A big issue was kids got sick, threw up, or fell over when using this,” remembers Tom Kalinske, the former president of Sega of America, which encountered the Private Eye while reviewing potential VR technology in the early 1990s. “We couldn’t take that chance.” But that wasn’t the only downside Sega saw. “As I recall, our problem with it was it was just one color,” says Kalinske. “We were already promoting Game Gear in all colors.”
Nintendo later faced similar safety issues and was afraid of kids playing Virtual Boy in the backseat of cars getting into wrecks which would shove all of the hardware's plastic and glass into a child's face at point blank range. That's a reasonable fear! Design limitations and compromises continued to chip away at what Virtual Boy could have been until eventually it became the product that we know and love. At least, I love mine. I bought a used VB off of eBay in 2003 before the big retro push drove up the prices on all things related to the system as well as a decent library of games. I keep it stored safely in a large wooden Super Mario trunk and take it out sometimes to bewilder friends and family with it. People who weren't paying attention to Virtual Boy in 1995 are always surprised when I set it up and tell them to stick their face into the viewing area. Whether that's a good kind of surprise or a bad kind of surprise is left to your imagination.