The Red and Black legacy of the Virtual Boy

Image Is Public DomainThe innovative minds at Nintendo launched the Switch on 2nd March 2017. The aim and indeed the marketing is that it’s both a pretty powerful handheld console that docks into a charging station and becomes a full games console. Like many Nintendo systems the aim is not necessarily to bring people the latest and most powerful technology but to use existing and relatively cheap technology but in new ways to revolutionise how people play games.

It’s as much a staple of Nintendo’s way of doing things as their iconic characters and creative game designers. In this case, the credit for this mindset goes to the late Gunpei Yokoi, Nintendo’s legendary creative visionary, who along with producing some of the biggest successes in this history of video games, also designed the Virtual Boy.

So with rumours abounding of a Switch VR headset and Mario Kart VR heading to arcades, it is timely to look back at the last time Nintendo looked at Virtual Reality, the philosophy that challenged it, the politics that ruined it and the legacy of Nintendo’s most brilliant mind following it, as well as how it changed the fortunes of Virtual Reality itself.

Gunpei Yokoi – Nintendo’s Transforming Mind

Gunpei Yokoi was one of a small number of long standing Nintendo employees who started working for the company while they were just a small company making hanafuda playing cards. In 1965, Yokoi was hired fairly fresh out of Doshisha University and his electronics degree was first put to work maintaining the assembly line machines printing the cards out en-masse.

One day, during his spare time, he built an extending hand, which company president Hiroshi Yamauchi noticed and promptly ordered him to develop as a full product. The ensuing Ultra Hand went on to sell over a million units and promptly saved Nintendo from financial peril caused by some rather questionable attempts to diversify. Seriously, at one point Nintendo invested in pack rice.

Yokoi would go on to invent several products that would continue to save Nintendo during its bumpy transition from small card company to the biggest game developer in the world. This included the Game and Watch, a series of portable LCD games that became Nintendo’s biggest early success story, and the Game Boy, which through several iterations became one of the most successful video game systems in history despite always facing technically superior competition. He also created the cross shaped “D-Pad”, a design which has since become the standard for pretty much every video game controller made since.

He also is credited with supporting a young game developer by the name of Shigeru Miyamoto, who replaced Nintendo’s relatively unsuccessful Radar Scope game with a more creative game using the same technology: Donkey Kong. Yokoi’s influence and positive effect on Nintendo is huge and farther reaching than one would expect, and as such he has become a legendary figure.

Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology

Yokoi‘s development philosophy, widely parroted by many of the employees that worked under him, was known as “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology” (Kareta Gijutsu no Suihei Shiko). Yokoi described it as taking advantage of technologies that are mature, well known and affordable (the “withered” technology) and using them in radical ways. Yokoi believed that the key to all entertainment technology was not in being the most advanced but in being the most fun, and has been the dominating philosophy at Nintendo even 20 years after his departure.

One place in which this philosophy had never been applied at Nintendo was Virtual Reality, with the complication being that virtual reality of any kind had not matured enough for there to be any withered technology of which to experiment and create something new. Until they found inspiration from an unlikely source.

Reflection Technology and the Private Eye

Reflection Technology Incorporated were a company in Massachusetts who since 1985 had been hard at work creating a way of creating affordable eyepiece display technology, using Scanned Linear Array technology. The basic idea came from engineer Allen Becker. The theory behind a scanned linear array is that rather than a regular liquid crystal display, which uses a large number of individual crystals to create a full image, a scanned linear array has a single line of light emitting diodes which change incredibly quickly and along with a series of quickly vibrating mirrors send a full image into the eye.

RTI, believing the technology had a future as an alternative to expensive LCD screens, created a prototype known as the Private Eye, which looked like a somewhat crude version of Google Glass. A headstrap mounted a rather small display which could display either red or black images. The reason for this was simply a matter of cost; LEDs were prohibitively expensive at the time, and the only LEDs that could be bought for an affordable price were red ones, since they were used in digital scanners of the era. This was seen as fine in the short term, as LED prices would reduce and any final product would surely never use a red and black display. Right?

After trying and ultimately failing to sell the Private Eye as an early Google Glass screen, the next step came completely by accident. RTI were aware of the pioneering work in virtual reality around this time, with various prototypes being worked on, from the gigantic “Flight Helmet” to VPL’s EyePhone and even early prototypes of W Technology’s Virtuality machines. The connecting element to all three was a staggering price. The early adoption cost of Virtual Reality in the late 1980s could easily run to over £20,000, which makes the cost of a high end SteamVR rig seem like Google Cardboard by comparison.

What Reflection had found is that by wearing two Private Eye devices, a much more affordable stereoscopic 3D effect could be created and therefore a more RTI’s original prototype for this was seriously to fit two private eyes to a welding mask and add some form of head tracking functionality to create a virtual reality headset prototype. This could provide a 3D head tracking experience with wireframes, in red and black, and along with a 3D tank game reminiscent of Atari’s Battlezone, set off to game and toy manufacturers to sell their low cost alternative.

The results didn’t go well. Sega disliked the lack of colour and raised concerns that it could cause headaches and nausea. Mattel and Hasbro initially seemed interested but ultimately didn’t find a use for the technology. At this point it looked like a dead end, until a chance meeting with Nintendo brought Reflection’s technology to Gunpei Yokoi’s attention. He adored everything about the Private Eye idea and what it represented. With that, VR32 was born, and it could not have come at a more important time for Yokoi, Reflection or Nintendo.

Gunpei Yokoi’s Last Stand

During this time, Yokoi was head of Nintendo R&D1, one of Nintendo’s three competing Research and Development teams, and was feeling increasingly disillusioned with the changing video game business at Nintendo. At this point, Yokoi was feeling increasingly that the video game business was focusing too much on a technology arms race rather than looking how to innovate or entertain in new ways, which was what Yokoi valued most about the games industry.

Nintendo’s own Super Nintendo, as well as competitor Sega’s Mega Drive were engaged in a bitter console war, lording technical advantages in every media platform they could and finding every advantage they could. From add-ons to expensive extra hardware chips to adopting every new technological advance they could, Nintendo and Sega tried everything, including early 3D graphics, CD-ROM technology and indeed Virtual Reality in order to get the edge. Yokoi was unhappy with the lack of focus on fun, and was even considering retirement at age 50, right up until the Private Eye came along.

For Gunpei, this was exactly the kind of technology he was after: a low cost, low power but unique system that could provide a completely new experience. Much like the calculator you can play became the Game and Watch, Yokoi envisaged a set of goggles that could be used to play games while you walk around. Nintendo bought exclusivity rights to the technology for use in video games, $10 million was invested and “Dragon Project was go.

Yokoi was incredibly dedicated to the VR32. He saw it as possibly the greatest legacy he would leave as a designer, ultimately developing it with Nintendo R&D1 for nearly four years.

During that time however, so much would change and indeed go wrong that the Virtual Boy was probably doomed from the start.

Nintendo R&D and Ultra Problems

The original mandate of the Virtual Boy, and how the console was pitched, was based on it being a portable system. Yokoi’s original plan was essentially a head mounted display, much like various portable HMDs on the market now, and indeed not too dissimilar to the Nintendo Famicom 3D system, an expansion to Nintendo’s Famicom that allowed for 3D to be added to games using the then-popular active shutter system. It led to massive headaches and was a colossal failure, never being released outside of Japan. The few games that supported it were converted to the much cheaper (and still headache inducing) anaglyph 3D method, most notably racing game Rad Racer.

The problem here however was Nintendo’s lawyers: along with the lack of sight which was always going to be a problem with a portable head mounted display, Nintendo was worried about the radio waves emanating from the 32-Bit NEC processor. The fear of liability would lead to hefty metal shielding being added to the Virtual Boy’s design, making it too heavy to be used as a head mounted display. While scrambling for a solution, a temporary fix was found by sticking the goggles onto some form of shoulder support. Nintendo’s lawyers feared liability in the case of an accident that caused the heavier unit to injure a user. Nightmare scenarios included falling down the stairs or a child being in the back of a car playing the Virtual Boy when it gets into an accident.

There was no way around it: VR32 became a pair of goggles stood on a table out of product liability concerns and not really having enough time and support to change that. On the plus side, with no movement from the player, there was less worry about VR concerns like head tracking or locomotion. The bad side is that this was no longer really a portable system, but because of how much was invested in the custom chips, there was no way to take advantage of the fact it was no longer portable. So the result was a bulky tabletop battery powered device not powerful enough to justify the fact you can’t use it on the move.

The worst was yet to come. There is a common myth that the Virtual Boy can damage eyesight, particularly in children. This was something commonly sensationalised in media stories about the system.  Nintendo hired Dr Eli Peri as in independent advisor on the effects of the Virtual Boy on human eyes. Dr Peri’s research is covered by a Non-Disclosure Agreement, but the conclusion that was drawn was that the Virtual Boy was ultimately harmless to eyesight with the exception of one warning: Children under 7 could possibly develop lazy eye if the mirrors used to reflect the scanned linear array were not aligned vertically properly. Something that was fixed in the final release by just making the device tough and heavy.

Ultimately Yokoi et al ran out of time to properly present these findings and Nintendo’s lawyers stepped in adding all manner of warnings to the Virtual Boy. There was a stack of warning pamphlets included in the box and several prominent warnings on the front, warning that only people over 7 years old should play the system. In Japan however, things were a lot worse. A new law, The Product Liability Act, was signed into law in July 1994 and was set to come into effect at the start of July 1995. The loose interpretation of the law basically meant that any accident, injury or harm that came from using the product that wasn’t warned about in the supplementary materials was the responsibility of the product manufacturer. This is the sort of legislation that leads to warnings such as “This Superman Cape does not enable the wearer to fly” among other seemingly useless warnings. For something like Virtual Boy, a hornet’s nest of product dangers as it is, this meant page after page of warnings which only made the system look more dangerous than it was.

Nintendo also wavered over its support of the Virtual Boy; whilst they publicly declared it their “fourth system” (after the NES, the Game Boy and the SNES) and put a huge marketing campaign behind it, behind closed doors the Virtual Boy was basically ignored. The focus was on Nintendo’s ultimately cancelled CD projects, the Super FX Processor, and their next home console in a major collaboration with Silicon Graphics: the Nintendo Ultra 64. Nintendo’s main game development aces were hard at work preparing either late era Super Nintendo games or the first batch of games for the Ultra 64.

This meant that for the most part Yokoi was left to his own devices, to slowly tweak and work on his baby. This was the case right up until it was clear that R&D3’s Ultra 64 was going to be more delayed than expected. All of a sudden Nintendo had a year’s gap between the launch of their new console and its 32-Bit adversaries. All of a sudden, the pet project needed to come out, and fast.

Press Reaction

Speculation of “VR32” had run rampant for years, particularly in the wake of Sega’s well publicised but ultimately cancelled Sega VR project, and Atari’s collaboration with Virtuality with the Jaguar VR. Virtual reality had become the new frontier for gaming, buoyed by Virtuality’s success and an appetite for all things cyberpunk in the media at large. Early optimism waned around the time of the revelation that it would be a table top that only displayed black and red.

Previews were somewhat lukewarm, with a number of reviewers being perturbed by the red and black colour scheme, the confused tabletop setup for a portable system and the lack of head tracking and other elements that even by 1995 were considered necessary for a virtual reality system. That said, there was a mix of tension and cautious optimism; before release there weren’t any particularly strong negative opinions about the system.

This has more to do with Yokoi’s involvement than the system itself; people had talked down the Nintendo Famicom/NES and Yokoi’s Nintendo Game Boy, both of which went on to be massive successes and incredibly influential. Neither system was especially powerful nor impressive, and early expectations that assumed they would falter in the market proved to be completely wrong.

Yokoi was publically more confident, stating that he believed the console would sell three million units. He also rebuked criticisms about the lack of colours in classically Yokoi fashion:

“Red uses less battery and red is easy to recognise. That is why red is used for traffic lights”

For Yokoi, his stake on it was fighting what felt like a losing battle against the growing technological arms race that was the video game industry. If the Virtual Boy proved to be a success, it would prove correct his constant assertion that video game companies have foolishly neglected innovation and fun in favour of a hardcore push for greater power. But given the downscaled nature of the project and a rapid push for launch, as well as a lot of negative hyperbolic press claiming it could damage eyes, it would be an increasingly uphill struggle.

The Launch, and Disastrous Japanese Release

The Virtual Boy, after its announcement at Tokyo’s Shoshinkai trade show in November 1994, a major appearance at the Winter CES show in early 1995 and a lot of evasiveness about the games being released for the system, was released in Japan on 21 July, 1995.  It sold for ¥15,000, with a launch line up consisting of Mario’s Tennis, Red Alarm, Teleroboxer and Galactic Pinball.

Bizarrely enough considering the value of Nintendo’s intellectual property, Nintendo downplayed the appearances of their signature characters on the system. Mario made two appearances, in a tennis game and a simplistic arcade game, Mario Clash, and neither were mentioned at trade shows or in advertising, in order to build up interest for the character’s first “actual” 3D appearance, a year away by this point.

Even more strangely, Galactic Pinball, a fairly good looking but ultimately bare bones pinball game, was selected as the flagship title. Hindsight suggests the more technically impressive Teleroboxer and Red Alarm, which offered an experience that looked a bit closer to virtual reality, could have helped to showcase the system a little better. Reflection Technologies and Allen Becker agreed, being dismayed that their technology’s biggest showcase had gone from a head-tracking 3D tank combat system to a faux-3D pinball machine simulator.

The Virtual Boy was a disaster in Japan pretty much immediately. Few people wanted one, others were put off by the compendium of warnings and there was a distinct lack of a killer app to really sell systems. Japanese players weren’t going to be won over by Galactic Pinball. When the dust settled, only 18 games were sold in Japan and a total of 140,000 units were sold before Nintendo mercifully ended the experiment before the end of 1995.

The False Dawn in America

In North America, the tale was slightly less cataclysmic. Released on 16th August and containing Mario’s Tennis as a pack-in title, the Virtual Boy did sell slightly better. It was helped by Nintendo’s most unique advertising campaign, which tried to capture the uniqueness and evolution of the 3D graphics while also barely showing them. They also had a cross-promotional effort with now-defunct video rental shop Blockbuster, where for $10 you could rent a Virtual Boy and try it out. This may have backfired, as the limitations of the system were easier to see than the potential.

The system used a 32-Bit processor, however the convention of the era was that bit-width equated to power, and a “32-Bit” system in the eyes of the public needed to be on a par with the upcoming Sega Saturn and Sony Playstation consoles. As a portable system running from batteries with already limited processing power that also had to power two screens, competing with the latest home consoles was never going to happen. Nintendo of America kept slashing the price, eventually selling the system for $99 in a final hope that it would catch on as a Viewmaster-style novelty. It wouldn’t, and the Virtual Boy was quietly discontinued in North America too in March 1996. The system would never be released in Europe and in total only 22 games were ever released.

Death and Legacy

The consequences of the Virtual Boy were surprisingly devastating, and go beyond the actual money lost.

For Nintendo, while they lost millions on the Virtual Boy, they weren’t exactly broken up by it. Their focus during the Virtual Boy’s life was completely on their fifth console, which by the end of the Virtual Boy’s life became known as the Nintendo 64. Also, the 16-Bit Super Nintendo was still incredibly successful during the early 32-Bit era and the Game Boy line pretty much never stopped being a success during this time. The Virtual Boy experiment was in the end just a blip on a successful period for Nintendo, albeit one which would see their once complete dominance of the video game market erode away in the wake of the rise of Sony.

Things were much less rosy for Nintendo’s partner, Reflection Technologies. With Nintendo striking nothing but gold with its hardware releases up to this point, Becker and RTI bet the company on the success of the Virtual Boy, releasing only one other product (A portable fax reader). After the Virtual Boy was discontinued, the company was devastated and ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 1997, with an attempt to make a full colour version of the Private Eye ending up being unfinished. Becker himself moved on and worked on a venture providing water purification machines for developing countries before tragically dying in his home on 14 October, 2001. He was 53.

Virtual Reality itself was a tragic casualty from this venture. The Virtual Boy’s short, painful life marked the point that the Virtual Reality bubble dramatically burst. Already straining from the notable failures of Sega and Atari to get a device to market, as well as Virtuality’s increasingly futile struggles to keep afloat as the demands of the audience proved impossible, Virtual Reality as an entertainment business hit the wall. By 1997, the market was reduced to almost nothing, with education, training and some very niche applications being the only market. Virtual Reality would lay dormant for nearly 15 years before the rise of Oculus, Google, Sony and Valve brought VR back to the mainstream.

The biggest personal tragedy however, would be Yokoi himself, the creator of the Virtual Boy. There is a measure of misinterpretation regarding Yokoi’s ultimate departure. The story at the time was that Yokoi’s departure was related to the failure of the Virtual Boy and he was blamed directly for its failure. The gaming press believed this was the story and even Howard Lincoln, the president of Nintendo of America at the time, would make the same assertion.

The truth, as best as can be ascertained is that Gunpei Yokoi always planned to leave Nintendo on the completion of the VR32 project, with the hope that his final product would leave a major imprint on the world of gaming, the same way the Game Boy had. Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo would never censure nor blame Yokoi for its failure, but the nature of Japanese corporate culture is that the overseer of a major failure would hold himself culpable. Yokoi ultimately postponed his retirement one more time to make sure his legacy would not have been to create a massive flop. The result of his work was a smaller, revised model of the Game Boy, which became the Game Boy Pocket and sold in huge numbers, much like the original Game Boy had.

After this, Yokoi finally left Nintendo on August 15, 1996 and formed a new company, Koto Laboratories. While he always had good relations with Nintendo, his final product, a monochromatic handheld console called the Bandai Wonderswan, was intended to compete directly with the Game Boy, although it would only be released in Japan. It was a wonderful, quirky and quintessentially Yokoi system that sadly never managed to escape the colossal shadow of the Game Boy.

On 4 October 1997, Gunpei Yokoi would drive on the Hokuruku Expressway when he accidentally rear-ended a truck. As the two men left the car to inspect the damage and swap insurance details, Yokoi would be hit by two cars driving past the accident. He died aged 56.

The fact the Virtual Boy’s cancellation, Yokoi’s departure and his untimely death would come so close to each other connected the three things in people’s minds, to the point that some people blame the Virtual Boy itself for Yokoi’s death. The theories go from a bit of exaggeration to outright fantastical conspiracy theories regarding Yakuza hit jobs, but it reflected how much the man meant to the world of video gaming.

Conclusion – What Went Wrong? And Did Anything Go Right?

The Virtual Boy is a fascinating device and among the most interesting and ambitious from a company that made its fortunes in interesting and ambitious devices. Despite its complete flop there are a lot of things to learn and glean from it, and things that can be taken on board next time Nintendo try their hands at a HMD.

It is often questioned whether the Virtual Boy is a Virtual Reality device at all, given that it lacks motion sensing, head mounting and more than one colour. By an incredibly loose definition, it is. Using our own definition, the Virtual Boy is a game system that could generate “three dimensional computer generated environments which can be explored and interacted with by a person.” The issue is less about matching criteria but how the Virtual Boy immerses the user. The answer, sadly is not very well, and as a result it left potential customers underwhelmed.

The Virtual Boy was a mess of contrasting and conflicting aims, which is in part why the system failed to provide effective VR. Yokoi’s ambition to provide a head tracking HMD was thwarted by legal concerns at one arm of Nintendo, but at the same time, he could not upgrade the hardware to make it competitive with other home consoles because of the money that had been poured in to the custom silicon used to make the console. The system had all the limitations and none of the advantages, and trying to sell such a console was destined to end badly.

The biggest positive is that it did not end the era of “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology”. Yokoi’s core philosophy later became Nintendo’s, in particular with consoles such as the DS, the Wii, the Wii U, to a degree the 3DS and the Switch. All of these consoles were designed with less high end technology in mind and would innovate and provide the most fun games possible to remain competitive. As a result, the DS and Wii in particular would be massive successes, and sell more units than more powerful competitive hardware.

As a result, Nintendo, despite making one of the biggest failures in Virtual Reality, ended up pioneering many of the technologies that would become standard issue in Virtual Reality. Motion tracking and controls, while attempted crudely before Nintendo’s efforts would reach an audience of hundreds of millions with the release of the Wii.

Could the Virtual Boy Have Ever Been a Success?

Could the Virtual Boy have worked? In the form it was released in, absolutely not. The design, with its headset on a stand, a controller dangling from the headset, looked as rushed as it was, and there was no comfortable way of playing games on it. Even if the threat of eye damage was overblown, there were near universal complaints about headaches and eye strain. That being said, some of the proposed ideas for the Virtual Boy are certainly fascinating. Would a Virtual Boy HMD given enough time or even a powerful tabletop home console Virtual Boy been more of a success? Possibly, but the hardware was only a third of the story, with a lack of support from Nintendo and the resulting lack of games not helping.

Speaking of games, while there was a scramble at Nintendo to get software ready for the N64, the Virtual Boy was left on its own, and as such it struggled to get any kind of developer support. Major designers like Takashi Tezuka and Nintendo’s star designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, were busy working on what was seen as the real next big console, although they at least had Metroid co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto. As such, most of the games made were by Nintendo’s B-Team, primarily at Nintendo R&D1, and while a talented team, the lack of time and resources meant the system lacked a major title that would make it a must buy. The system even at its most impressive came off as a gimmick and its unique selling points were at best shallowly used and at worst were counter-productive.

What Lessons have Nintendo Learned?

Nintendo may have learned the right lessons from the Virtual Boy. They never stopped innovating, and even did a lot of work with 3D technologies and ideas that would perfectly suit VR. The Nintendo Gamecube had support for a 3D LCD at its launch in 2001, but didn’t take advantage of it as the technology to make autostereoscopic (3D without glasses) LCD screens was incredibly complicated and prohibitively expensive. There were even experiments with the Game Boy Advance SP but the poor resolution of the screen made 3D a non-starter.

If there is a happy ending to the Virtual Boy story, it probably comes from the two current products Nintendo sell. The Nintendo 3DS, released in 2011 appears in many ways to be a Virtual Boy done right. While it doesn’t have the headset. It does have a high quality 3D screen usable without glasses or goggles, and even has head tracking (well, console tracking, but the way you play the games you need to tilt your head to actually see the thing). It also has augmented reality and other elements of mixed reality. After a bit of a stuttering launch in which there were only a few games, none of which truly took advantage of the 3DS’s strengths, the system found its feet, found some system selling games and went on to sell over 60 million copies. Could perseverance and aggressive game development have saved the Virtual Boy as well? Probably not, and with the looming Nintendo 64, it’s a moot point.

Interestingly enough, while the Virtual Boy is in some respects a hybrid between a portable system and a home console, a hybrid approach is being deliberately taken with Nintendo’s newest console, the Switch. The console can be used either as a portable device using the built in screen or be docked into a base unit which allows games to seamlessly play the games on a television. It looks surprisingly versatile and early reception is that despite being underpowered and having a rather small line-up of games at launch, the focus on innovation appears to have paid off. It helps when you have a system seller right out of the box in the latest highly anticipated and largely adored instalment in the Legend of Zelda series.

Postscript – Nintendo Switch VR?

As a postscript to the story of the most misunderstood video game console ever, Nintendo appear to have a serious interest in Virtual Reality again. Twenty years have passed and the video game landscape is vastly different. The dream of affordable virtual reality has been reached, sort of, with the likes of Google Cardboard bringing virtual reality to the masses that have a relatively powerful mobile phone. At the same time, Virtual Reality at a scale, detail and quality that was unthinkable when Yokoi was working is available at a price. The Switch would fit very well as a middle ground, between a world of cheap 360 video apps and a power-hungry world where even the mighty Playstation 4’s VR is considered relatively lightweight.

Ultimately, speculation aside, this is a story of one of the greatest innovators in video games, his philosophy at odds with the changing tides, and the tragic yet utterly fascinating result. The Virtual Boy will always need to be discussed when talking about the history of VR, and the unique circumstances of its development and demise will always be linked to the man and the company he worked with for 31 years.

And is that really such a bad thing?


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