With Oculus Rift making Pierce Brosnan's Lawnmower Man nightmares ever more likely, it can be fascinating glancing back at the many (many) failed attempts at getting such a long-trumpeted tech advance properly off the ground. Now a new British-made book on Sega's Mega Drive era has unearthed some rarely seen sketches of what the world's then-premier gaming firm had planned for virtual reality.
Announced as a Thing It Was Doing in 1991, Sega's VR headset was being worked up in these sketches in 1992, slap bang in the middle of the Mega Drive's pomp and when Sega was trying to leverage its hardware with add-ons all over the shop, from Mega CDs to 32Xs. For the headset gig, the Japanese gaming firm drafted in Californian design and innovation firm IDEO.
IDEO, who went on to design the Saturn controller after this project was shelved, were given the design reference of Star Trek: The Next Generation's Geordi La Forge, which explains this silver-coloured first draft…
The look was heavily inspired by 1951 sci-fi flick The Day The Earth Stood Still, too, but by the time hopeful drawings had to become actual wearable devices, Sega's familial black plastic was entering the design equation and the concept became as in the image up top. They were LCD screens in the visor and stereo headphones on the ears, while there were also "inertial sensors" apparently to track your head movements.
An official press release apparently teased: "Sega VR will create the impression that you are exploring an alternate reality. As your eyes shift focus from one object to the next, the binocular parallax constantly changes to give you the impression of a three-dimensional world."
By the time it was ready to launch at 1993's CES, Sega VR had gone "full RoboCop"…
There are few details of what it was actually like to use. Well, MTV's Alan Hunter (no, us neither, we had to look it up) pulls an old bloke out of the audience in the incredibly terrible CES launch video below to confirm it doesn't hurt to wear, which we guess is something. Less so the knock-off Seinfeld theme music…
Only four games were known to be in development, three vehicle simulators (car, helicopter, hovercraft) and, more intriguingly, a “cyberpunk” adventure game called Matrix Runner about a super hacker inside the, erm, matrix. Six years before Neo did his stuff, it was reportedly inspired by Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher.
But Sega VR quietly went away. Whispers of it re-emerging on the ill-fated Saturn never amounted to anything (although that's perhaps why every other game had to have the word "Virtua" in the title), it instead ending up in those VR-1 motion simulators you used to see taking up whole corners of Sega World.
Rather hilariously, according to Ken Horowitz's great piece on this intriguing VR jaunt, Sega shelved its headset because it thought it was too realistic, with officials concerned that people could hurt themselves when immersed – which, you could argue, we're seeing play out a bit with the Rift. A company of Sega's size at that time clearly couldn't take the risk – that and the technology clearly not being ready yet, going from the graphics demos, of course.
Aside from fascinating VR sketches, the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis Collected Works is also full of tech blueprints, pixel art and an arresting array of paper stocks. It was Kickstarted to the tune of £98,725 at the end of last year and is finally available for £35 to non-backers in hardback to dominate coffee tables.
Image Credit: IDEO for Sega