While the dismal commercial performance of the Wii U has made headlines recently, it's a long way from being Nintendo's most famous failure - that unwelcome accolade falls to the Virtual Boy, which sold around 770,000 units globally back in the '90s. The console is blamed not only for ending Gunpei Yokoi's tenure with Nintendo but also for poisoning public opinion on virtual reality. However, a recently-published and in-depth investigative piece by freelance journalist Benji Edwards reveals that many of the assumptions surrounding this flawed platform are false - and that its history is perhaps more interesting that many other consoles.
The story of the Virtual Boy began not in Japan, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Around 1985 an engineer named Allen Becker came up with the idea of using LEDs to create a head-mounted personal display. Dubbed a Scanned Linear Array (SLA), the device was cheap, easy to mass-produce and had multiple applications; Becker saw it as a means of viewing information when both hands were needed to do other work. For example, doctors could use it to check vital signs or scans during surgery.
In 1986, Becker formed Reflection Technology, Inc and the device was given a fancy new name: Private Eye. Predating the likes of Google Glass by many years, the technology was shown off at various trade shows but no progress was made on turning it into a viable, selling product - until the virtual reality boom happened.
The public's interest in VR during the early '90s gave Private Eye credibility, but the team was fighting against problems that even modern VR headsets can't solve. A tank demo was created to showcase the gaming potential of the tech, as Benjamin Wells - Reflection's Chief Scientist - recalls:
The whole point of the tank demo was to demonstrate head tracking. As you turned your head to the right, what you saw moved by a corresponding amount. If memory serves me, we were always on the 'too slow' side of the vomit point. I don't recall anybody literally throwing up in the office, but I think we were lucky.
Meetings were held with Mattel, Hasbro and even Sega, but never went to the next stage. Former Sega president Tom Kalinske had more than one problem with the device:
A big issue was kids got sick, threw up, or fell over when using this. We couldn't take that chance.
As I recall, our problem with it was it was just one color. We were already promoting Game Gear in all colors.
Not willing to give up on gaming as a possible application for Private Eye, Reflection's VP of Sales and Marketing Steve Lipsey teamed up with Jack Plimpton to visit Nintendo's Japanese headquarters in 1991. Plimpton had made sure that Gunpei Yokoi was aware of the concept, and thankfully it appealed to Yokoi's desire to use existing, mature and cheap technology in new and interesting ways.
Wells visited Nintendo to give a demonstration of the tank demo, and found the engineer who sat with him to be incredibly enthusiastic. He later discovered that the employee was Yokoi himself:
He fell in love with the technology. He pushed it. He said, 'There's a great product here.'
Yokoi was aware of the limitations of using LEDs, but found the idea of an immersive, darkened environment appealing. He wrote at the time:
The standard way to create 3D images is by using liquid crystals. However, because liquid crystals require backlighting, even in complete darkness, a couple of percentage points of the light seeps out.
The idea was to have it be in total darkness, so you would not feel the frame of the screen.
Yokoi's desire to find a new way to play was also influenced by his growing concern that the gaming industry was becoming too focused on visuals:
I have my doubts as to Nintendo's future if it continues pursuing video games in the same way as before. What should be done to once again engross Famicom and Super Famicom players? If the TV screen medium has reached the limits of its potential, isn't 3D the only option?
Having convinced one of Nintendo's most important staffers, Reflection had to present its product to Nintendo's board of directors - including president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Lipsey travelled to Kyoto to gave his demonstration and Plimpton duly translated. Towards the end of the talk, Lipsey recalls that a dull thud was heard coming from the direction of Yamauchi:
His head fell on his hand, on the table, and he's sound asleep. Everybody else was just sitting there, nobody does anything.
Feeling that the presentation was a waste of time, Lipsey was afterwards reassured by the more savvy Plimpton, who told him:
In Japanese business, that was the senior guy sending the message to his underlings that they could proceed. They didn't need him to be involved anymore—the project is a go!
The green light was given, and Reflection finally had an outlet for its technology. However, almost from the start the project was hit with a series of setbacks. The idea of wearable goggles was dropped early on due to the fact that the 32-bit CPU inside the machine produced high radio emissions near the user's head, and the safety of EMF radiation on the brain was still unknown at the time. A metal plate had to be fitted around the chip, making the unit too heavy to be contained within a pair of goggles. A shoulder-mounted unit was also considered but abandoned due to fears that a child could potentially fall down stairs using the device or have it smashed into their face if involved in a traffic accident. The tabletop form factor we know today was therefore decided upon.
Around this time, even Yokoi himself began to have doubts about the project. Takefumi Makino - who helped Yokoi write his 1997 autobiography Gunpei Yokoi Game Pavilion - recalls:
From what I heard, there were a lot of skeptical opinions raised during the development process. Even Mr. Yokoi admitted that he himself felt uneasy during development. He described it as a kind of 'hiri-hiri' feeling. This is an onomatopoeia that only exists in Japanese, but think about it as the sort of feeling you would get when being cooked slowly over a frying pan.
By this point the system was known as the Virtual Boy, an obvious attempt to cash-in on the success of Yokoi's Game Boy console. Nintendo decided to seek medical advice on whether or not the Virtual Boy's unique display could cause health issues, enlisting Dr. Eli Peli of the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston to study the product. It was found that the device was largely harmless, but children whose optic system had not yet fully developed could potentially develop lazy eye if the two displays were misaligned. To counter this, Reflection encased the console in plastic along with a steel frame, removing any chance of the displays being shifted out of alignment.
Yokoi himself was of the opinion that the console was actually beneficial for your eyes:
Far from being bad for your eyes, the Virtual Boy was in fact pretty good for them. But we didn't have time to properly present these findings, and so we gave up trying to include them with the product.
However, thanks to the incredibly strict Japanese Product Liability Act - due to come into effect on July 1st, 1995 - Nintendo was compelled to add health warnings to Virtual Boy packaging listing of the potential risks involved with using the system. While previous gaming consoles had warnings about not playing for too long, this was much more extreme, and most certainly impacted the Virtual Boy's viability in the eyes of concerned parents.
The problems continued to stack up. As Shigeru Miyamoto was busy working on the Nintendo 64, the Virtual Boy failed to benefit from games created with his direct input. In fact, Yokoi wrote at the time that he was told to avoid using Nintendo's biggest IP on his new console:
At first, I had a large list of titles like "Mario Clash," but I was told not to release that kind of stuff. I guess it was an issue of disagreement on how to present the product. For me, it was a perfect game for our target users, but within the company, a lot of people strongly felt that the Virtual Boy would only appeal to a certain crowd of die-hard players.
Upon release, the Virtual Boy flopped badly, only selling 140,000 units in Japan. In North America it fared a little better but was heavily discounted and eventually removed from sale.
Now we come to one of gaming's most infamous footnotes. It is often claimed that the Virtual Boy's demise is what caused Yokoi to leave Nintendo; that he was essentially forced from the company in disgrace. This narrative has been backed up in the past by comments from former Nintendo of America president Howard Lincoln. However, according to Makino, Yokoi had made his mind up about leaving the firm well before the Virtual Boy arrived:
Yokoi's plan was to have the Virtual Boy become a hit, then to help build up Nintendo's main products into three categories: consoles, mobiles, and wearables. Then, he wanted to leave the company.
Yokoi intended to retire from Nintendo at 50 and set up his own company where he would have a greater degree of control over what he worked on. The Virtual Boy threw a spanner in the works as it was such an interesting project that he was willing to delay his retirement in order to work on it. After its failure, he decided to stay on board and create the Game Boy Pocket, a well-recieved hardware refresh of the wildly successful Game Boy. With that done, he handed in his resignation on August 16th, 1996 - 31 years after he joined the firm. Assumptions were made that he left because of the Virtual Boy, and Makino states that such claims "troubled" Yokoi, as they were based on "misunderstandings".
Yokoi would establish Koto Laboratory after leaving Nintendo and work with Bandai on the WonderSwan console. In 1997 he was tragically killed in a traffic accident, aged 56.
As for Reflection Technology - the company which started it all - the story didn't end well. The failure of the Virtual Boy hit the company hard, and its other product - the FaxView - also flopped at retail. The firm was apparently working on a full-colour version of its technology around 1997, but ran out of cash before it could bring the device to market. Al Becker moved onto other ventures, but sadly passed away on October 14th, 2001, aged 53.
It adds another level of tragedy to the already grim Virtual Boy story to know that the two leading figures involved in its inception are now dead. It's a massively misunderstood console that shows just how willing Nintendo is to take risks when so many of its rivals are content to simply recycle existing ideas.
The full feature over at Fast Company is well worth a read, even if the site does run annoying auto-playing videos.