As I arrive at the Virtuality booth at Play Expo Blackpool, things aren’t going too well. The booth has just opened, and the first members of the public to arrive are having a go on Dactyl Nightmare, one of the earliest VR games. But the viewing screen shows that the game world in the right-hand VR pod is being tilted at a crazy angle.
This piece originally appeared on 23 May 2016, on Kotaku UK.
The machine is one of two stand-up Virtuality 1000 VR coin-ops restored by Simon Marston, an enthusiastic VR collector from Leicester. One of the machines Simon has restored is owned by the Retro Computer Museum, where it is on display along with various retro consoles, computers and arcade machines.
Only around 350 of these machines were ever made, and Simon thinks that these two are the only working examples left in the entire world. If one really is kaput, I could be witnessing the last ever two-player game of Dactyl Nightmare.
Simon looks at the customer in the stricken VR pod with concern. “I’m afraid he’s not getting the full experience.” He gestures to a curtain behind the booth. “I think there’s some sort of metal gantry up there. I think it might be interfering with the magnets.”
Magnets? I ask Simon what on earth magnets have to do with VR, and he patiently explains how this vintage Virtuality 1000 series actually works. It’s one of the first generation of VR systems, dating from 1991, and it consists of a massive metal and fibreglass platform featuring a ring that encircles the player. In addition to the VR headset, called a Visette, the player dons a hefty waistbelt — essentially a bumbag with wires trailing out of it that link the headset and gun controller to the machine’s processors. A magnetic transmitter in the ring creates a 3D magnetic field that the player stands within, and receivers in the controller and Visette are used to work out what direction the player is looking and where they’re pointing the gun. It’s an ingenious solution to motion tracking from a time when the Wii was but a twinkle in Nintendo’s eye.
I’m here to have a go on this now-ancient VR technology to see how it compares to the latest VR systems — and whether first-generation VR machines like this deserve the “gimmick” label that some have attached to them.
But right now, it’s looking dicey as to whether I’ll be able to play on the machine at all.
Simon has lifted up the floor of the VR pod and is poking around in its innards, a worried look on his face. “Basically I’m wiggling connections and just hoping,” he says with a frown. He had to take the machine apart to get it out of his garage and transport it up to Blackpool from Leicester, and he’s concerned that the journey may have damaged the sensitive components. “They don’t travel well,” he says.
Simon pokes around in the depths of the Virtuality machine.
Simon is collecting signatures from W Industries employees.
Now it’s my turn. I duck under the ring as Simon raises it for me, and he hands me the ‘bumbag’ to put on. Then he passes me the two-button gun controller, explaining the controls for Dactyl Nightmare as he does so, before finally clicking the VR helmet into place over my noggin. It’s noticeably heavier than the latest-generation VR systems at about 3.5kg, compared with about half a kilogram for the Oculus Rift. There’s a definite sense of inertia as I turn my head and the helmet wants to drag it further around. But despite this, it’s surprisingly comfortable.
I’m impressed with the motion tracking, too. As I turn my head to examine the chunky polygon world of Dactyl Nightmare, the machine faithfully updates my point of view, and I can wave the gun around in front of my face. Not bad for an old Amiga. Still, I can’t help but notice the edges of the goggles in my peripheral vision, and the sound effects coming from the headset’s earphones are noticeably hissy — a glitch caused by a short that Simon didn’t have time to fix before the show.
Your correspondent braves the world of 1990s VR.
Things get off to a bad start as the computer player lands a hit and my character explodes into giblets. Then the pterodactyl dives in and drops my character from height, dismembering him into meaty chunks once again. Shooting is tricky, as the gun fires in an arc and you can only fire once every two seconds, so you have to position the controller carefully. But by this point I have the controls figured out, and I’ve completely forgotten about the world outside. I adjust my aim and fire — the computer player explodes in a satisfying shower of meat.
Nineties VR chic.
I’m impressed. My expectations of this ancient VR system were set low, but the tracking was spot on, and I was quickly drawn into the VR world. You can imagine how mind-melting the experience must have been back in 1991. At 20 fps, the frame rate is far below what you could expect on a modern VR system, but this was cutting edge back in the 1990s. The CPU runs at 30 MHz, and the GPU at 40 MHz — about the same as the original PlayStation. But the PS1 came out a good four years after the Virtuality 1000 series.
David Prowse (Darth Vader!) has a go on Simon’s Virtuality machine at Play Manchester 2014.
I speak to another couple after they finish a two-player game. Greg, 24, has only played on the Virtual Boy before, so this was his first true VR experience. “I thought it was pretty good,” he says. “Considering it’s so basic, I can’t imagine what Oculus Rift will be like.”
His partner Zoe, 21, goes one further. “I’ve had a go on Oculus Rift, but this is much better because you use your whole body.” This is an illusion of course — the machine just tracks the controller and helmet, not your whole body — but the Virtuality’s motion controller certainly gives it an advantage over Oculus Rift. (Until the Rift’s Touch Controllers are released later this year, at any rate.)
A CRT monitor shows what the player is seeing.
These machines were certainly top-end pieces of equipment back in their day. A stand-up Virtuality pod cost around £30,000 just to manufacture in the 1990s, and they sold for a lot more, with the games costing between £5000 ($10,166) and £10,000 ($20,333) — a sobering thought if you think the Oculus Rift is expensive. Because of this high price — and the fact that arcades had to pay for an attendant for each machine to help players put on and take off the headset — it cost up to around £4 ($8) per go in the early 1990s (Simon says he was lucky that his local arcade only charged £2 [$4]). This was a high entry price considering that other arcade games were just 50p ($1) a go at the time, and the cost contributed to the early demise of VR 1.0.
Simon Marston, Virtuality megafan.
It looks like time might be running out for these pioneering VR systems. But Simon is determined to maintain their legacy: “I will never give up on keeping them going!”