Argonaut Software is a name that long-time Nintendo fans will be intimately familiar with; the UK-based firm worked with Nintendo on its Super FX chip, the cartridge-based hardware that made titles like Star Fox, Stunt Race FX and Yoshi's Island possible. However, Argonaut's interest in tech didn't end there; the company – driven by its visionary founder, Jez San – would continue to divide its focus between software and hardware for most of its existence (it was in the running to supply the chip for the PlayStation 2, for example).
Over the years, several unreleased Argonaut projects have come to light, one of which was mentioned in a Eurogamer interview with San back in 2013. The Super Visor was to be a revolutionary Virtual Reality headset that could have kicked off VR gaming 20 years before the Oculus Rift arrived on the scene. Last year, San spoke about it a little more to UK newspaper Metro, but we wanted to get the full story on this remarkable piece of kit – and recently, we were lucky enough to sit down with San in his London office for a chat about the past.
After Super FX, Nintendo wanted to do another hardware project with us; we said 'we want to do a VR machine', which we were very into at the time, and they said 'great, we’ll do a VR machine'. So we started designing the Super Visor
"We had a joint venture company with Nintendo called A/N Software Inc, which stood for Argonaut/Nintendo," he recalls. "It was run by Nintendo. They had 51%, we had 49%, and the patents for the MARIO (Mathematical, Argonaut, Rotation, & Input/Output) chip – or the Super FX chip, as it was called – were held in this joint venture company. After Super FX, Nintendo wanted to do another hardware project with us; we said 'we want to do a VR machine', which we were very into at the time, and they said 'great, we’ll do a VR machine'. So we started designing the Super Visor."
San's team at Argonaut was keenly following the latest developments in Virtual Reality, an area of tech which had gained notoriety in the early '90s thanks to the efforts of UK firm Virtuality – which made some of the first 'location-based' VR units – and movies such as The Lawnmower Man and Disclosure. While Hollywood was getting somewhat carried away with the possibilities of VR, Argonaut was having to work with the best the tech world could offer at the time – crude by today's standards, perhaps, but still pretty impressive in an era when the SNES and Mega Drive were still the dominant home consoles.
"We designed a very cool 3D graphics chip for it," San explains. "We started researching motion tracking and had a system that worked. Nintendo had introduced us to Texas Instruments, who had this novel concept of what, at the time, was called the DMD – Digital Mirror Display – but has since become DLP, which stands for Digital Light Processing. Instead of using liquid crystal pixels, the chip had little mirrors and the angle of mirrors can be altered. The chip had the full image on it; it was like half an inch big, and it had a full 320 by 200 pixels on it. You shined lights on it – like red, green and blue lights – and you waggled the mirrors in software, and you'd get a display. We were going to use this display for the VR headset, and they had just invented this technology. It wasn’t publicly known, so we were non-disclosed by Texas Instruments, and it would have been very cool."
A 320x200 pixel display might not sound particularly impressive in 2019, when we have headsets capable of achieving resolution levels many times higher, but in the early '90s, it would have been close to the resolution that consoles were outputting to our TV sets. The concept seemed sound, and with Argonaut's 3D chip doing the heavy-lifting, the project could have made a real splash – however, one of Nintendo's most esteemed employees had other ideas.
"Little did we know that Mr Yokoi had a side project with this company in America that had a red display," San continues. Gunpei Yokoi was the man who had risen from lowly factory-line engineer to the creator of the Game Boy and Game & Watch lines; his ideas had made Nintendo millions and he had a considerable amount of clout within the Kyoto firm. The 'red display' project would, of course, become the Virtual Boy, a costly failure and one of the few missteps Yokoi made during his otherwise glittering career.
Mr Yokoi nixed our Super Visor project when it was almost finished and went ahead with the Virtual Boy – which I call the Virtual Dog! It was just an excuse so it could use that display that he liked, even though the technology was awful
Irrespective of Yokoi's other successful ventures, the Virtual Boy was clearly technically inferior to the Super Visor project. "It only could do red and couldn’t do full colour, and it worked in a different way," laments San. "It had a spinning mirror, and it basically wiped the picture onto your eye, waggling only one line of pixels and then scanning it across your eye. But it was cheap. And then Mr Yokoi nixed our Super Visor project when it was almost finished and went ahead with the Virtual Boy – which I call the Virtual Dog! It was just an excuse so it could use that display that he liked, even though the technology was awful; the 3D was terrible and it had no motion tracking. It was attached to the table. You had to put your face into it. It was just the most stupid idea."
Much has been written about the Virtual Boy's route to market, and how, when it failed, much of the blame fell on Yokoi's shoulders (he was famously made to demonstrate the system to the public on the show floor at a Japanese exhibition) and he would leave Nintendo under a cloud not long afterwards, before sadly dying in a roadside accident in 1997. His opinion counted for a lot prior to the launch of the Virtual Boy, however, and even those who supported the Super Visor project from within Nintendo were ignored.
"I think that many of the people in Nintendo would have gone with our approach, and would have followed through with having a proper, real VR headset that you could move your head around," says San. "But Mr Yokoi thought otherwise. He was very high up; he was the head of Nintendo R&D1. Still, I'm not bitter; working so closely with Nintendo was an honour, a privilege and an amazing opportunity to be at our most creative working for a company that appreciated our tech and innovation."
Nintendo funded Argonaut's work on the Super Visor to the tune of a million dollars, a figure that San today admits was too low. "It was cheap for designing hardware, but that was a lot of money for us because we were a small team. But we under-priced ourselves. We should have charged ten million dollars, then we would have had the budget to really smash it. We had a prototype. We had cool stuff working. We had motion tracking." Had Nintendo actually sunk more money into the project, it might have been less inclined to cancel it in favour of the Virtual Boy – but that's something we'll naturally never know for sure.
While the cancellation of the Super Visor was a blow to Argonaut, it remained invested in the world of VR thanks to the efforts of toy company Hasbro, which was trying to make inroads into the video game arena around this time. "Hasbro had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to Sarnoff Labs, which is a prestigious high-tech company," says San. "Sarnoff Labs used to be called Bell Laboratories; it was the original telephone company in America, and David Sarnoff Research Centre is the place connected to Princeton University – a really top place, and Hasbro hired them to build a VR games console; they had tried a bunch of things and failed."
Hasbro had the fear that they'd spent hundreds of millions designing a console, but it will cost many more hundreds of millions to launch it and market it, and then have to go head to head with Sony and Sega
Hasbro's entire VR venture was in danger of being culled before San and his team at Argonaut became involved. "They couldn’t get the 3D graphics chip cheap enough, they couldn’t get the microprocessor cheap enough, and they were about to can it," comments San. "I was friends with someone high up in that project, Sandy Schneider, and I told her we could design it. We over-promised, as usual, and said ‘oh yeah, we’re designing this microprocessor called the ARC – Argonaut RISC Core – and we could use three of those. We could use one for the 3D, one for the game and one for the sound’ – we called it MatriArc, because there was three of them. They jumped at it."
None of the tech Argonaut had worked on for the Super Visor was carried over, but the team had learnt a lot during that project. "We just started again with the same team which had a lot more experience and was a lot wiser," says San. "But they gave us an extremely unrealistic deadline. They were signing it up for us in June and we had to deliver it in September – it was impossible to design 3D chips and microprocessors that fast. But we signed onto it because we were stupidly naïve and thought ‘we can do this impossible. We can design a microprocessor and a 3D graphics chip in three months’. But we delivered it. The prototype worked and it was all good. And then Hasbro had the fear that they'd spent hundreds of millions designing a console, but it will cost many more hundreds of millions to launch it and market it, and then have to go head to head with Sony and Nintendo. Did they have the stomach for that? And they didn’t, so they canned it."
With two high-profile cancellations coming in quick succession, you could have forgiven Argonaut for losing heart. However, in San's eyes, there might be an argument for saying that VR in the '90s was clearly ahead of its time – and even in the modern era, some people still don't feel totally comfortable using a headset. "There is always that stigma," he explains. "And also, there’s still the risk that people will sue you when they do stupid things – fall down the stairs or put their hand in a fire – while their eyes are covered by your device." San even hints that this could be part of the reason why Nintendo got cold feet in the '90s. "Product liability laws have burned Nintendo in the past, and many others. McDonald's got sued when someone spilt coffee on their lap, and so they had to put ‘caution: coffee is hot’ on the cups. So maybe that's part of the reason Nintendo shied away from creating a headset which allowed people to be able to move around. There will be class-action suits for people hurting themselves while wearing VR and AR gear. It’s inevitable. So that’s probably been a drag onto the products’ success – even though the VR products are very good now."