Thursday, December 3, 2020

How Video Game Historians Resurrected Sega’s Lost VR Headset

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In 1993, Sega made a Power Rangers-esque VR headset that the company hoped would bring VR to the masses. “It takes us into the future,” said MTV’s Alan Hunter on stage at that summer’s Consumer Electronics Show. “The future, of course, being virtual reality.” On a highlight reel behind him, a guy wearing a Sega VR shoots down space objects with a controller. “Just a game? No way!”

Sega never released the headset. It was discontinued shortly after the trade show, and then it vanished. Not even the video game archivists over at the Video Game History Foundation could track one down. But as of today, Sega VR lives. Like digital-age necromancers, Video Game History Foundation director Frank Cifaldi and head of digital conservation Rich Whitehouse resurrected Sega VR, emulating it along with the Sega VR game Nuclear Rush on a modern Vive VR headset. “I can’t think of too many instances where anyone’s replicated a piece of hardware virtually without actually having access to it,” says Cifaldi.

By the early ’90s, the infinite promise of virtual reality had gone something close to mainstream. In 1984, computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier founded the first VR startup, VPL Research Inc. It sold VR goggles and gloves. At the time, he thought VR would be “a cross between cinema, jazz, and programming,” he writes in his 2017 memoir Dawn of the New Everything. That same year, William Gibson wrote about junkies “jacked-in” to the “consensual hallucination” of virtual reality technology in his seminal novel Neuromancer. It took a little time before the games industry grabbed hold of the technology. In 1991, a company called Virtuality began manufacturing human-sized VR gaming cockpits with robot shoot-em-ups and simulation games that would eventually populate malls across the US. By 1993, VR was on the cover of Popular Science magazine.

Sega wanted to democratize VR, to bring it into the living room at a family-friendly price. What it came up with resembles an Oculus Quest by way of a classic Nickelodeon ad: a red-streaked plastic visor that wraps around the head. Foamy, circular headphones cover each ear. Inside, it has two LCD screens. (“Full color screens for stereoptic vision,” reads a screen in the CES presentation.) In 1993, Japanese firm Ono-Sendai created a key piece of the Sega VR puzzle when it patented a cheap orientation sensor, which determined a player’s angular orientation and momentum relative to the Earth’s magnetic field and gravitational field. Sega licensed it. According to the Video Game History Foundation, the tech could be manufactured for one dollar, which allowed Sega to hit its price target of $200—ten dollars more than the Sega Genesis console it ran off.

Sega trotted its VR helmet around at trade shows and garnished it with marketing materials. But then, suddenly, it pulled the plug. Citing an overdose of immersion, according to Whitehouse, the company claimed that “the experience was so realistic and immersive that it posed a high risk of injury from players moving around while using it.” Whitehouse doubts that; a research firm at the time warned of sickness, headaches, and dizziness in younger users.

How did the team of preservationists bring Sega VR back from the dead? Emulation. Games are software. If the tools used to run it are updated or obsolete, the games can break, or just vanish. The Video Game History Foundation has a special interest in preserving video game source code, which Cifaldi describes as “one of the most volatile and important things to be documenting.”

The Sega VR project is different, though. The goal isn’t only to get an old game working; it’s to use details about that game to deduce how the long-lost headset it belonged to worked as well. Two relics for the price of one.

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