Today, virtual reality gaming is taking off at a good pace with PC, mobile, and PlayStation headsets helping grow the market and provide gamers with deeper, more immersive experiences than any previous generation. But it has been a long time getting here, as Chris Knight explains in this look at the history of VR games.

Early Virtual Reality Gaming

Virtual reality has been around since the sixties as a concept, with some early hardware designs not far off what we use today, even if the silicon and screen technology were prehistoric. Evans and Sutherland were among the early innovators, providing the first modern simulators for the US military, using digital projectors and pioneering 3D graphics work.

A Look at the History of Evans & Sutherland.

E&S also provided gaming hardware companies with their tech for texturing and 3D polygons, helping boost gaming. Since then, developers have been trying to push it in to the consumer space.

The lack of consumer-grade processing power and heavy screen technology, however, has made for a long and painful journey. VR first came to consumer attention in arcades in the late-1980s.

One of the first efforts was a Harrier jump-jet flight simulator called VTOL by VR gaming pioneer Virtuality. Running on some exotic hardware (a TMS 34020 graphic processor with TMS 34082 co-processor) in a big grey sit-down unit, people queued for ages to try it out.

People get into a large arcade-style virtual reality experience during the early 1990s

Once the heavy helmet came down, there were some simple green hills for ground, simple buildings, a plain blue sky, and jarring motion whenever they looked around the screen. While it hinted at the future, it was less than thrilling, but it was a start.

VR Comes to the PC and Console Masses

By 1992, a Forte VFX1 booth at a London trade show demonstrated that things looked better, as the early fake-3D and then real-3D PC games came to life. By 1995 you could buy this bulky thing, as PC video technology took off, for around $700. Some cutting-edge gamers picked up on it, but things were still far from consumer-friendly.

Around the same time, Nintendo released Virtual Boy. Surely the mighty Japanese firm could do VR, right? Apparently not, as a rush to launch and the relatively small company’s focus on the upcoming Nintendo 64 meant a chance to mix cheery pixels and 3D was limited to a series of red-tinged screens, lack of interactivity, hindered by poor tech that was overpriced and badly marketed.

A Nintendo Virtual Boy and Controller
The early history of VR games would be incomplete without a mention of the failure of the Nintendo’s Virtual Boy (Code Name: VR32).

Unsurprisingly, it was a mess and failed, but Nintendo kept with the idea and eventually rolled out the 3DS to add some depth to its gaming epics like Mario Kart and Monster Hunter. Key was the ability to switch it off, which says something about how VR needed careful handling.

VR Ready for Prime Time

Over 20 years later, the second coming of VR is faring rather better. The original driver was the Kickstarter crowd-funded Oculus Rift headset, using the monstrous power of modern PC graphics cards to keep the lag down and the visuals popping.

Oculus Rift CV1
The Oculus Rift: The history of VR games would never be the same.

Since then, Samsung and others have crafted VR solutions for their mobile devices, while Sony finally did console gaming right with the PlayStation VR. This combined effort plus the ease of setup thanks to modern, flexible drivers and lightweight LCD screens pumping out HD graphics means VR is finally ready for the big show!

Article by Chris Knight
August 2018

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