Video Game Firsts: The First Virtual Reality Console - Nintendo's Virtual Boy - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Video Game Firsts: The First Virtual Reality Console - Nintendo's Virtual Boy

Geek Dave is virtually a boy.

On July 21st 1995, Nintendo released in Japan what was described as the world's first "portable" video game console capable of displaying "true 3D graphics" out of the box. "A 3D Game for a 3D world" read the marketing for its August 14th North American release. Player's would be "totally immerse[d] into their own private universe".

Yet this revolutionary console would go down in history as Nintendo's biggest flop.

The Virtual Boy was a console on a thin stand with an eyepiece on one side which, when looked through, would display red colors and blue colors in either eye. This made a deep 3D image, a more primitive version of today’s 3D cinema experiences.

Originally designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the general manager of Nintendo's Research & Development team and the inventor of the Game & Watch and Game Boy handheld consoles, Yokoi saw the Virtual Boy as a unique technology that competitors would find difficult to emulate. The trouble was, though, that Nintendo themselves found it difficult to produce the machine at a price that would not be prohibitively expensive.

Yokoi' struggled to turn his vision into an affordable console. Searching for low-cost hardware components, Yokoi opted for red LEDs because they were the cheapest (although in their marketing Nintendo's official reasoning for the red LED's was nothing to do with price, rather that a colour display caused "jumpy images in tests" - both reasons are no doubt true), but this meant that all 22 of the games made for the Virtual Boy were in red. And red only.

The Virtual Boy was difficult to use and widely considered to be a risk to people’s eyes. Many early test reviewers complained of painful and frustrating physiological symptoms when playing the console. Several prominent scientists concluded that the long-term side effects could be more serious, and articles published in magazines speculated that using "the Virtual Boy could cause sickness, flashbacks, and even permanent brain damage". I'm guessing that's not the kind of review Nintendo would be putting on the box!

Nintendo hoped to sell 2.5 million units within the first quarter, but in Japan the Virtual Boy was discontinued after just 5 months of its release. The US version held on slightly longer, making it to a whole 7 months in production, but even with a $25 million advertising campaign and a 'try before you buy' promotion through Blockbuster, where a Virtual Boy could be rented for $10 with a coupon for $10 off the console included, demand for the Virtual Boy didn't gain any traction. In fact, that campaign was credited with quickening its demise as players could see just how bad the Virtual Boy was without having to spend $179.95 to do so.

Nintendo, quite wisely, decided against launching its "revolutionary" stereoscopic 3D console into any other markets, and despite multiple price drops, with the unsold units offered for $50 or less within a year of its release, only 770,000 units were sold in total worldwide. The company laid the blame for the machine's faults directly on its creator, Gunpei Yokoi, who quietly retired (although, again, the official word on this was that Yokoi's retirement was "absolutely coincidental", just like the cost effective red LEDs no doubt).

Nintendo's Virtual Boy then was a brave first try at virtual reality in the 'comfort' of your own home, a brilliant concept but a glorious failure all the same.

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