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The Virtual Arena

The Virtual Arena: Exploring Cyber Space – Virtuality

We look back at the 90s VR pioneer, Virtuality.

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams. In his latest Virtual Arena column – continuing the marking of a year of anniversaries in the scene – we look at the UK VR company that defined the first amusement phase of VR – Virtuality.

Virtuality

Following on from the marking of anniversaries in the first phase of VR and immersive technology adoption with our feature on the Sensorama – and we jump to the third phase of VR development in the 1990s. At this time, VR moved from the workbench and the simulator centre, and into the amusement landscape. A period that cemented the concept of VR as an entertainment medium and paved the way for the sector we see today.

The late 1980s saw a flourish of innovation and technological advancements coming from English academia, and one such was the Loughborough University of Technology, where a talented entrepreneur was experimenting with spatial viewing systems. This individual was named Dr. Jonathan Walden – and his experimentation was gaining recognition. He would go on to create an unwieldy demonstration system, (nicknamed the ‘Caterpillar’), and win a £20,000 award for “Best Emerging Technology” that would go to fund the company’s dreams to take VR from the laboratory and workbench, and into the mainstream.

Virtuality Caterpillar
The ‘Caterpillar’ demonstrator. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

This funding would be part of the investment that would allow Dr. Walden through his previously formed company W. Industries to drive their commercial ambitions. An operation that would partner with a leisure entertainment company to create a VR platform that could be deployed into the amusement sector. And so, after much development, and major false starts, 1991 would see the launch of the ‘Virtuality 1000CS’ (Cyber Space – Stand-Up), and the ‘Virtuality 1000SD’ (Sit-Down) – released to much fanfare in a big launch event. The newly named Virtuality would go on to place themselves on the London Stock market, ambitions high about controlling the cyber-space.

Virtuality
The launch event for the new VR hardware. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library
Virtuality 1000CS
The Virtuality 1000CS. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library
Virtuality 1000SD
The Virtuality 1000SD Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

The innovation was clear in the concept – though the applications had a lot to answer for. Based on computing power initially supplied by the Commodore Amiga 3000 motherboard. The technology proved temperamental and unwieldy, the Visette-1 head-mounted display, using LCD displays was a shoebox of a design, and as well as being heavy was less than robust to the needs of amusement.

Virtuality
Exploded view of the Visette-1 headset. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

Also, the pace of game development seemed wanting. The company’s first CS game had been ‘Dactyl Nightmare’ based on a demonstrator created for a television show. And while it would find some popularity in its novel multi-player configuration, the other games created for the SD platforms were far less popular. The innovation for multi-player would even see the creation of a fantasy four-player game called ‘Legend Quest’ that would be housed in its own short-lived locations.

Virtuality sunk its investment into lavish self-promotion and marketing, supported by break-neck research and development. The technology jumped in leaps and bounds, and soon they were ready to launch their next iteration of the concept. Late 1993 would see the release of the ‘2000SU’ and ‘2000SD’ platforms – greatly reduced in physical size and greatly advanced in computer performance (now depending on the Intel 486 DX-33 processor).

Virtuality 2000SU & SD
The Virtualaity 2000SU and 2000SD. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

The new Visette-2 boasted better performance and a greatly reduced form factor – with performance that would not be surpassed till the release of the Oculus DK2 some 22-years later.

Virtuality Visette-2
Exploded view of the Visette-2 headset. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

But still, the games would fail to strike gold. Most of the Virtuality hardware was living off the novelty of the VR experience rather than a compelling game platform that would draw repeat visitation. The company looked towards finding a muse or winning formula that would offset the high price of their hardware and plicate their investors. Fanciful partnerships with sales agents in the States, to try and generate orders and placate Virtuality’s investors – seeing the company’s value collapsing from its heyday of being worth £90m.

In 1993, Virtuality would surprise the industry and sign a strategic joint venture to develop virtual reality hardware and software, with Japanese amusement giant SEGA Enterprises. The purported £3m collaboration was to develop VR amusement and attraction hardware based on the joint development and Virtuality’s Visette patents. With SEGA ambitiously projecting sales annually of some 2,000 VR units. The first fruits of this partnership would see the development by AM3 of ‘SEGA-Net Merc’ (‘Dennou Senki Net Merc’) – a poorly executed technology demonstrator.

Virtuality SEGA-Net Merc
The SEGA-Net Merc. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

This would be followed by the full release of the joint VR headset developed by the partners, with the SEGA ‘Mega Visor Display’ (MVD), in 1994. That would be fielded on the first VR ride attraction, the ‘VR-1’. Rolled out across several SEGA ATP (Amusement Theme Park) sites including JOYPOLIS and SEGA-World.

Virtuality - Mega Visor Display
Diagram of the Mega Visor Display (MVD) headset. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

This VR headset platform would be superseded by the hype-driven ambitions of SEGA America to create a consumer VR headset. Interest in the real SEGA Japan MVD would be side-lined by the ignominious collapse of the fictitious US consumer prototype. Thus, marking the start of the implosion in VR interest.   

SEGA Mega Visor
The SEGA Mega Visor. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

For Virtuality the company was in dire straits, unable to capture a winning formula that would enable high quantity sales, and address the technical issues raised by new versions of their hardware. Haemorrhaging capital, the company would rush to release the third iteration of their amusement hardware, with the ‘3000SU’ – powered by an Intel Pentium. Desperately attempting to address complaints and lacklustre reception to their games. Even in 1996, jumping into an ill-fated partnership to license ‘PAC-MAN’ from NAMCO, creating an abortive first-person perspective interpretation of the classic arcade maze game in VR.

Virtuality 3000SU
The Virtuality 3000SU. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

But nothing could stop the downhill trajectory, the company wildly pivoting from one business initiative to another, trying to salvage some market share, and leverage their investment. Going on to partner with Philips Electronics, Takara, and Atari Corporation, to create some of the first consumer versions of VR technology. Examples include the aborted Atari ‘Jaguar VR’, or Philips ‘Scuba Virtual Immersion Visor’ that would be released but failed to enthuse. Virtuality wildly pivoting to partner with IBM, to create a workstation variant of their amusement hardware for the commercial sector.

Virtuality Scuba Visor
The leaflet for the Scuba Visor. Image credit: KWP – Archive Library

For Virtuality the end was near. Too many failed partnerships, too many promises broken, and agreements with sales agents that failed to deliver. While at the same time those machines that were in circulation were prone to mechanical failure, and growing player indifference as the growth in console gaming and the apathy of the amusement trade took hold. VR was unable to live by novelty alone. Eventually, the investors would have enough, unable to live on hype alone, Virtuality would be wound up in 1997 – its assets sold, and the name would vanish into the shadows. But the legacy would live on.

For many in the 1990s, their first taste of VR came from these machines in the arcades, and that first taste had started a hunger. Over 20-years-later, others would go on to borrow heavily from Virtuality’s innovation and the path they had carved. Though many would be less able to learn from the painful lessons the company endured.

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