Vir­tual Boy

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The Vir­tual Boy wasn’t Nin­tendo’s idea, at least not orig­i­nally.

In 1990, Mas­sachusetts based Re­flec­tion Tech­nolo­gie de­vel­oped a stereo­scopic 3D dis­play and be­gan look­ing for a part­ner to turn it into a mar­ketable prod­uct. Bar­bie-maker Mat­tel was the first to de­cline, fol­lowed soon there­after by Sega, whose ex­ec­u­tives – abortive VR project still fresh in mind – wor­ried that the monochro­matic, lowres­o­lu­tion dis­play would cause headaches and mo­tion sick­ness. Re­flec­tion then ap­proached Nin­tendo.

Gumpei Yokoi was in­trigued. Hav­ing found enor­mous suc­cess with his Game & Watch and Game Boy de­signs, Yokoi was look­ing for the next big in­no­va­tion that would ce­ment Nin­tendo's po­si­tion at the top of an in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­place. He fig­ured Vir­tual Re­al­ity was just the ticket, and – un­de­terred by the tech­nol­ogy’s ob­vi­ous lim­i­ta­tions – be­gan work­ing on a pro­to­type of the Vir­tual Boy in 1991.

De­vel­op­ment was long and dif­fi­cult. Re­garded as some­thing of a bas­tard child by Nin­tendo’s higher ups, the Vir­tual Boy project did not re­ceive as much fund­ing and man­power as the com­pany’s other projects, with res­i­dent au­teur Shigeru Miyamoto con­sumed with what would even­tu­ally be­come the N64.

To keep the unit af­ford­able, Yokoi opted to keep Re­flec­tion’s monochro­matic red dis­play, but ditched the head-track­ing out of con­cern it would cause (even more) mo­tion sick­ness. In­stead, gog­gles were mounted on a heavy bi­pod de­signed to be placed on a flat sur­face. A con­troller not un­like the N64 pad was plugged into the gog­gles and pow­ered the en­tire unit with six AAAs housed in a de­tach­able bat­tery pack.

By 1995 the Vir­tual Boy had be­gun to take shape, but was not – in Yokoi's opin­ion – any­where close to a com­plete prod­uct, ready for mar­ket. Nin­tendo man­age­ment dis­agreed, re­leas­ing the Vir­tual Boy in Ja­pan on July 21 for 15,000 yen. A month later it was re­leased in the US for $180 USD. Bossman Hiroshi Ya­mauchi con­fi­dently pre­dicted it would shift 3 mil­lion units in its first year.

Not even close. Word quickly spread that early adopters were com­plain­ing of nau­sea and headaches. Nin­tendo was com­pelled to ad­mit that the de­vice could cause per­ma­nent eye dam­age in chil­dren un­der seven. Ev­ery fif­teen min­utes the unit would re­mind you to take a break to avoid hurt­ing your­self. The launch line-up was abysmal, with only four thor­oughly unin­spir­ing games avail­able: Mario’s Ten­nis, Red Alarm, Teler­oboxer, and Galac­tic Pin­ball. These would be joined by ten more ti­tles over the course of the Vir­tual Boy’s life­time, only one of which – Vir­tual Boy Wario Land – ap­proaches playa­bil­ity.

And so in De­cem­ber 1995, a mere six months after its de­but, the Vir­tual

Boy was qui­etly dis­con­tin­ued, sell­ing a to­tal of only 770,000 units world­wide. Gumpei Yokoi – who didn’t want to re­lease it in the first place – was forced to leave Nin­tendo un­der a cloud of shame. He was killed in a traf­fic ac­ci­dent two years later.

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