The PlayStation 4, Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) claims, is the first videogame console it’s made that is capable of running virtual reality (VR) software. Similarly, its predecessor, PlayStation 3, was touted as its first system capable of 3D. Both of these statements are largely true; SCE’s newest hardware seems to be just about capable of meeting VR’s high demands and the PlayStation 3 was the first console to make a good (albeit unsuccessful) push for 3D titles. But, dig a little deeper into the history of one of the biggest names in the industry, and you’ll find that it was neither the PlayStation 3 nor PlayStation 4 that first dabbled with the technology. It was in fact a significantly less powerful machine, the PSP.
Perhaps SCE’s most controversial system, the PSP marked the company’s first expedition into the dedicated portable market, and also marked the first time that many of the industry’s biggest franchises could fit in your pocket. One of those series was a spin-off of the ever-popular Metal Gear Solid franchise known as Metal Gear Ac!d. This turn-based card battling title put an unusual spin on the series’ celebrated stealth action with mixed results. It’s sequel, Metal Gear Ac!d 2, refined the formula and brightened up its visuals, but it also brought about another first for SCE and the PlayStation brand; a 3D head-mounted display (HMD).
Essentially, PSP had its own Google Cardboard – long before the tech giant had invented its mobile HMD – named Solid Eye or Tobidacid. Those that played the title will know that the former name lived on in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots as the futuristic eye patch that Solid Snake wore, doubling as a pair of binoculars among other things. The original version of Solid Eye was decidedly more low key. Every copy of Metal Gear Ac!d 2 came with two small pieces of black cardboard, one of which could be propped up to house the PSP inside, with two lenses to view its screen through. The other piece could also be slotted inside, dividing the system’s screen into two.
It’s concept that’s very commonly used in VR today, albeit without head-tracking. Heading into the title’s option’s menu, players could switch on an option to display content side-by-side on-screen. Viewed through the Solid Eye’s lenses, these images would merge together to create a single 3D picture. The entirety of Metal Gear Ac!d 2’s single-player campaign could be played this way, with the title warning players as to when it would momentarily revert back to a single-screen sequence with the message ‘SOLID OFF’. It was possible to peer into the HMD and see Solid Snake himself popping out from the birds-eye view. The slow, turn-based combat just about accommodated the crude HMD, though anything faster in pace would have undoubtedly causes issues.
But Metal Gear Ac!d’s campaign wasn’t all that could be viewed through Solid Eye. Players could also unlock cutscenes from celebrated PlayStation 2 hit, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, to view in 3D. Sequences such as Naked Snake’s dramatic halo jump or his encounters with The Boss came to life through the viewer. There was also a trailer for the then-upcoming Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and, rather controversially, a selection of videos featuring models. Players could even turn on the rerelease, Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, take images using the in-game camera and then send them over to the PSP for viewing with Solid Eye. This was a treasure trove of 3D Metal Gear content.
The kit had its fair share of problems that kept it from being little more than a novel gimmick. The most glaring issue was that it couldn’t be used for more than 10 minutes or so without the user racking up quite a headache. That’s not ideal for a 20+ hour RPG. But the build quality was sturdy, so much so that fans still have their kits intact some 10 years on and, as a free pack-in, it was a welcome alternative to playing the PSP in a more traditional way. It’s something of a shame that the Metal Gear Ac!d series didn’t live on to provide more 3D experiences.
Ultimately the Solid Eye is nothing more than a footnote on the path to true VR. But what an interesting little footnote it is; a precursor to many of the mobile HMDs used with smartphones today and the first look at PlayStation’s 3D, VR-heavy future. The VR-less Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain releases next week and has already been praised by critics. The series’ future beyond this point is uncertain but, hopefully, a real Solid Eye VR experience could one day happen.