In the early 1990s, the first golden age for Virtual Reality, there were a ton of different technology companies that attempted to cash in on the hype. The Virtuality arcade machine were probably the biggest success story of that era, until everything collapsed. Nintendo has a rather experimental time with VR until something actually needed to come out, and when the Virtual Boy was released, it was considered one of the biggest flops of the era.
But at least the Virtual Boy came out, which means by definition it is better than Sega’s ultimately cancelled foray into Virtual Reality.
Sega, then one of the biggest game companies in the world and riding high off of the success of their Mega Drive (Genesis to American readers), planned and teased over several years the release of a virtual reality headset. They pushed it big, releasing special, sometimes ridiculous accessories that would be compatible, and rode the wave of Virtual Reality interest up until a very suspicious cancellation, the first of a stream of bad decisions that would ultimately lead to the company closing its hardware division and becoming the tiny shell of its former self that it is today.
SegaScope 3-D Glasses
Sega VR wasn’t Sega’s first attempt at providing a rudimentary 3D experience. In 1987, Sega released the SegaScope 3-D Glasses (known simply as the Sega 3-D Glasses in other regions). It retailed for a whopping £40 and was only compatible with one version of the Master System and eight games, all of which were modified Sega Master System games with added 3D modes.
It didn’t sell very well, using very loud shuttered glasses on top of being rather expensive and not terribly well supported. Ultimately the hardware was discontinued, and the revised Sega Master System lacked the expansion slot needed to even connect the glasses. The idea was dropped, but not forgotten.
An IDEO Forms at Sega
Sega VR was first announced in 1991, as a project that Sega was working on that would just happen to catch the wave of VR-fever that swept the world. Virtuality, the first virtual reality arcade machines ever released, was announced in November 1990, and a lot of companies scrambled to announce or work on similar technology. Nintendo’s VR32 was being worked on in conjunction with Reflection Technology around this time as well, and as such, Sega began work on conceptualising what they thought would be the future of VR. They hired design house IDEO (who would go on to design the Viewmaster VR) to create a design, with the brief asking for the design to be similar to the VISOR from Star Trek, the Next Generation. It was intended to be space age.
The first design concepts came back and were delightfully silver, matching the brief and looking pretty good, especially compared to the rather bulky HMDs available today. Even the final revision to the design, with its black plastic design evidently more inspired by the car from Knight Rider looked pretty good, and by most accounts it was fairly comfortable to wear, at least physically.
It had fairly good specifications as well for the time, with sophisticated head tracking, binocular parallex graphics and built in stereo headphones. All of this was to be available for $200 as an add on for Sega’s Mega Drive, which would have made it the second of three prospective hardware add ons for the system, sandwiched between the Sega Mega CD and the much later Sega Mega Drive 32X.
It was finally unveiled at the Winter CES show in January 1993, with plans to release with four games:
There is tragically very little information on Sega VR’s line up, so here are the games known to have been planned and what information exists on them:
Nuclear Rush – The main game highlighted at the CES shows and one of only two games that footage exists for. It was a pseudo 3D game where you drive a futuristic hovercraft and blow up enemies. It can be played with a D-Pad, and indeed the head-tracking as far as can be seen through some incredibly grainy video is the same kind of 8 way digital input, although at least able to detect intensity, so wilder swings of the head are at least detected.
Iron Hammer – A similar story to Nuclear Rush, a parallax pseudo-3D shooter which can be described as Nuclear Rush but you can move up and down.
Outlaw Racing – Almost nothing is known about this, although from the description in Sega Visions, it sounds like an anything-goes dirt-track racing game. Given the claim of twenty racers on track at a time, this is likely to be more like 2D parallax racing game Power Drift than a fully 3D game like Virtua Racing or Stunt Race FX. Of the four games this sounds like by far the biggest technical challenge for the humble Mega Drive, which is probably the reason why no footage or even a single screenshot has emerged of it.
Matrix Runner – Precious little is known about this game, with a grand total of one screenshot found, it was described as a cyberpunk 3D game taking place in cyberspace and featuring polygonal 3D graphics. Its plot, a murder mystery that is solved by entering cyberspace, is similar to the also-cancelled Free Runner, as well as the otherwise completely unrelated Take 2 Interactive adventure game Ripper, both involving detectives that work in cyberspace. Despite there being no footage and one incredibly grainy screenshot, as it didn’t involve being in a vehicle it is probably the most potentially interesting of the whole Sega VR library.
Finally, although certainly not least, there were plans to port the pioneering arcade game Virtua Racing to the Sega VR, a game that did eventually see a release on the Mega Drive. The fact it required a very expensive extra chip to even run on the aging Mega Drive hardware is telling as to the capabilities of the system for 3D, something we will get to when discussing the lack of release.
The Sega Activator
Sega had a clear passion about VR at the time, and while the intended way to play the system was with the head tracking and a controller (similar to the Oculus Rift before the release of the Oculus Touch), there was a special controller released that was meant to provide some form of motion tracking, the Activator. It has to be seen to be believed.
Developed for Sega by Interactive Light, inspired by the Light Harp musical instrument skilfully demonstrated by Sega at the 1993 Winter CES Show, the Sega Activator was an octagonal full-body controller that could interpret movements, making it a pioneer in bringing motion controls to the home. It was marketed as a martial arts simulator, letting the player translate their moves directly into the game, and many adverts involved replicating roundhouse kicks in games like Eternal Champions and Mortal Kombat II, two of the four “Activated” games which had special controls designed with the Activator in mind.
All of this was complete rubbish, as was the add-on. The hardware consisted of eight infrared beams which could in theory broken at two different heights to produce “low” and “high” movement. In practice this meant that each beam represented a button on the 3 button Mega Drive. This basically made the Activator a giant standard controller. Despite claims it would make fighting games more realistic, it was laughably ill-suited to playing fighting games, with slow reaction times for the beams, no actual feedback from actions rather than high or low (which wasn’t taken advantage of by default anyway) and the inability to use more than one button at once otherwise neither would register, making combos literally impossible. Despite the very 90’s marketing which showed one player destroying the other by doing a martial arts show in the octagon, it was incredibly cumbersome to use.
Add to that the inability to work if your ceiling isn’t completely straight (or heaven forbid had a ceiling fan), and an $80 initial asking price, and it is no surprise that the Activator was a complete failure.
All was not lost with the concept however, as a modified version of the hardware designed for arcades would be more successfully employed with the deluxe version of Dragon Ball Z V.R.V.S. Extra sensors were fitted to the Activator and as a result it recognised a greater range of movements more effectively, which makes it one of the earliest successful motion control arcade games, at least in Japan.
Sega VR in a prototype form was unveiled at the Winter CES show in 1993, and it was pushed in a big way as part of their US marketing strategy at the time, scheduled for release that December in North America. It was shown to a select audience, who reportedly weren’t entirely impressed by the system.
After this, the system’s development was quietly halted and finally cancelled in 1994. Sega claimed rather hilariously that the reason it was cancelled was because it was so immersive, so realistic that players would inadvertently move around and hurt themselves while playing the headset.
Spend 10 seconds playing Hard Drivin’ or any polygonal 3D game that wasn’t Virtua Racing and it is clear this probably isn’t true. 3D does not so much move on the Mega Drive as lurch almost uncontrollably. A frame rate in the double digits is something to be worshipped, and many of the worst games for the system were overly ambitious 3D affairs, with the MD’s port of massively successful driving simulator Hard Drivin’ and prototype 3D first person shooter Corporation being amongst the worst games of all time.
Conceiving of a system that by design needed to be primarily 3D, with graphics close to your eyes and relying on relatively good frame rates to avoid lag issues using the Mega Drive’s capabilities sounds like a recipe for disaster. Contemporary reviews of journalists and others who tried it complained of blurry screens and lurching movement which led to the onset of motion sickness. Apparently up to 40% of people who used it at CES felt some level of motion sickness afterwards. Although that said, that might have also been a result of the incredibly 90s advertising videos running during the demonstrations.
There is also reports that the Stanford Research Institute, on testing the prototype warning Sega that their headset was a “health hazard” if used for long periods of time. The risk of making a product primarily aimed at children that might blind them probably meant that cancelling the unit was a safe bet.
That was all she wrote for Sega VR right? It was a prototype that just vanished, surely? So why talk about it? Well part of it is that it didn’t just disappear. The other is that the lack of release of the much-hyped Sega VR home unit has some far reaching consequences, for both Sega and virtual reality as a whole.
Sega VR-1 and Net Merc
Sega was not entirely done with the VR project, with 1994 seeing the release of two more attempts at using the Sega VR technology in arcades in order to compete with the all-conquering Virtuality. The first was the gigantic VR-1 machines. Essentially these were multiplayer, larger scale versions of the existing AS-1 motion simulators. Players would put on the headset and feel the car jostle and move along to an interactive film. The ability to look around the action, more impressive graphics along with much more accurate head tracking meant that the system was a bit more impressive. Because of its sheer size however it was limited to larger Sega World buildings. It isn’t sure what software was made for it, although it is unlikely Michael Jackson in Scramble Training, a game released in 1993 for the AS-1 and just as quickly recalled, made the cut.
Then there is the strange case of Dennou Senki Net Merc (Computer Fighting Machine Net Merc), another Sega VR machine, designed for 1 player light gun games. Designed by a small team in AM3 with the help of two artists from Virtuality and originally known as TecWar before William Shatner’s lawyers got involved, the NetMerc was intended to be a scaled down version of the VR-1, using Sega’s first 3D arcade board, the Model 1. It initially looked fairly impressive at the 1994 Amusement Machine Show, but the texture mapped Sega Model 2 machines were already out by then, and by 1995 had been upgraded again. Compared to Sega Rally Championship, which was also unveiled at the 1995 AMS, its flat shaded look was downright primitive and with even Virtuality struggling at this point, the Net Merc’s days were very numbered. It is believed that only 70 units were actually made when all was said and done, making it a very rare machine and a costly error for Sega.
There were also rumours that VR compatibility was to be added to Sega’s follow up console, the Sega Saturn, but ultimately it didn’t happen. Sega would never release a home VR system, and stopped producing home machines completely by 2001. Why did things collapse so quickly? Amazingly, the Sega VR does have a portion of the blame.
Far Reaching Implications
In one sense, it was good that the Sega VR wasn’t ever released. Sega already had a problem with having way too many product lines on the market at once. Incredibly, Sega had a whopping seven video game lines by the end of 1994 (Sega Master System, Game Gear, Mega Drive, Mega CD, 32X, the educational tool Pico and the Saturn in Japan), three of which were centred around the Mega Drive alone. Adding another line, incompatible yet interdependent on other bits of kit was going to only confuse potential buyers even more.
On the other hand, the damage had been done simply by announcing it. Sega VR was planned from before the release of Sega’s first add-on, the Sega Mega CD, and around the same time as the announcement of the game that was to be Sega’s biggest franchise, Sonic the Hedgehog.
Not releasing it, particularly with the rather dubious “it’s too realistic” excuse eroded a lot of trust in Sega, which would only be compounded by an entire year filled with bad decisions, where Sega went from the market leader to a company spiralling out of control, a spiral Sega would never recover from.
The Sega Mega Drive 32X (known to most these days as simply 32X), another Mega Drive add-on, was announced in June 1994 and released that November. However people were already aware that the more powerful Sega Saturn was on the horizon (and even already released in Japan) and ultimately people avoided the expensive and fairly underwhelming add-on. Given that a functional (though inferior) version of the 32X’s flagship title Virtua Racing was available on the standard Mega Drive, this, seemed to trap the 32X in an unfortunate and fatal middle ground.
Things would only get worse for Sega. The Saturn, their next console, was released four months early to try and leapfrog the Sony Playstation and get an advantage. The result was an unmitigated disaster; the campaign did the exact opposite of its intention to get an advantage and force Sony’s hand. Sony stuck to their September release date and almost immediately outsold the Saturn, and indeed every other console of that generation.
Sega would release one final console in 1999, the much adored Dreamcast, however the writing was on the wall for the company, and they would never release a console after this. They have become exclusively an arcade machine and software developer since, shrinking into a shell of their former dominance.
What Could Have Been?
Would releasing Sega VR have changed that? Probably not too much. However, had the VR been combined with another underappreciated add-on in the 32X, and the system may have actually been able to provide a good enough VR experience to justify the vast R&D costs that went into both. This would have meant a $200 launch would be basically impossible, but it would have justified the existence of both pieces of kit.
The 32X was far more capable of rendering 3D, with an excellent port of Virtua Racing and Star Wars Arcade proving the potential for flat shaded polygon graphics, as well as arcade perfect versions of Space Harrier, After Burner and an excellent if rushed port of the smash hit FPS Doom. This is three potential types of 3D that Sega VR would have used to provide their graphical effects, and given the rush to market the 32X was possibly capable of a lot more. In any case, it would have had enough power to match the competing (and also unreleased) Atari Jaguar VR, a device made with the help of Virtuality and surprisingly capable given the hardware.
It would almost certainly not have happened, given that Sega VR and 32X were made by different parts of a company that was infamous for internal squabbles and secrecy. There is also the issue that the cost of the add on, if it was just the two RRPs combined would come to $370, laughably close to the cost of the impending Sega Saturn, although it would have the interest of Virtual Reality to generate potential interest and sales.
Legacy of Sega VR
It was a rough road for Sega’s VR prospects, with tragically very little to show from it, other than a number of prototypes and the “Virtua” line of games, which ultimately just meant the games had polygonal 3D graphics. Even that has largely disappeared; the last full “Virtua” game was the excellent Virtua Fighter 5 in 2006, with various versions being released over the following 8 years.
It isn’t a completely wasted legacy however. Sega’s VR ambitions worked to make people take what could have been immediately dismissed as a novelty fad into something people took seriously as the future of interactive entertainment. Ultimately that period of VR was ultimately dismissed as a fad, and the concept of Virtual Reality itself almost went with it, but perhaps with the revival of Virtual Reality proving the concept not only can work but has a lot to offer the technology world, maybe previous failures like Virtuality, Sega VR and indeed even the Virtual Boy can be re-evaluated as the pioneering and courageous efforts they undoubtedly were.