Virtuality – A New Reality of Promise, Two Decades Too Soon

Dr Jonathan Walden Discussing Virtuality in 1994. Image Credit: Virtuality Group

In the history of Virtual Reality, there are a few people, companies and concepts that are considered vital to its existence. VPL Research, creators of the Dataglove, Datasuit and one of the earliest Head Mounted Displays are one of the most important names in the evolution of virtual reality technology and establishing design traits and philosophies that to this day are seen in action.

However, if you want to see how Virtual Reality has evolved and may well evolve again as a business, there is no better place to look than the story of Virtuality.

Virtuality were a company that caught the Virtual Reality wave right at the start of its commercial popularity, only to disappear when the VR technology bubble burst and people lost faith in the virtual reality dream. Perhaps no company sums up the massive highs and catastrophic pitfalls in Virtual Reality as Virtuality and the fortunes of its creator, Dr Jonathan Waldern.

The Beginning

Originally forming in a garage in Leicester, W Industries was formed by Dr Jonathan Waldern, one of the earliest pioneers of VR research in the mid-1980s. Dr Waldern’s first prototypes were made in 1986 while he was still a PhD student at the nearby Loughborough University of Technology. The technology, while relying on the in-vogue but somewhat primitive active shutter system (a system which literally had a plastic screen that would shutter over each eye in a way that created the illusion of 3D as well as a very loud clattering noise) and involved dragging a television around, did generate a lot of interest, most notably getting a feature in BBC’s Tomorrow’s World which further raised awareness in Waldern and his virtual spaces.

What this didn’t raise was cash nor capital. Companies were wary of investing in what was to prove to be significantly expensive technology. Because of this Waldern initially struggled until the company won an award for “best emerging technology” in 1989 with its prototype sit down arcade machine, which would eventually become the Virtuality SD1000. With a £20,000 prize and a more vital £1 Million in investment from a large leisure firm, the charismatic Dr Waldern at the helm and a tidal wave of interest generated from the discoveries in Silicon Valley at companies such as VPL Research, the time was right for W Industries to break out and become Virtuality.

Few realised quite what a break out it would become.

Virtuality’s Sit-down Unit. Image Credit: Virtuality Group

The Game Changer

In November 1990, at London’s Alexandra Palace, the Computer Graphics ’90 exhibition was staged. Alexandra Palace, the birthplace of television in the United Kingdom, the home of many major events and most importantly, the launch pad for another great British innovation, Sinclair’s C5 electric tricycle. Unlike Sir Clive however, Virtuality’s product, the original 1000 SU, caught the British technology world somewhat off guard by actually working.

Commercial VR headsets technically existed by this point and you could actually buy a headset of your own. Almost nobody did, given that the eye wateringly huge prices make the HTC Vive Pro’s pricing look like Google Cardboard by comparison. VPL’s first mass-market product was based on its motion-sensitive Dataglove, which was simplified and cheapified and ultimately became Mattel’s “so bad” Power Glove, but you could also buy their EyePhone (No, not that one) headset for just over $9,000.

The Virtuality cost actually significantly more than that, with a single “pod” unit costing £25,000, and powered essentially by a beefed up Commodore Amiga 3000, 1990’s most powerful computer. Originally, the focus was business and commercial applications, owing to the prohibitive price. The first units were sold to British Telecom to use as part of their experiments into telepresence which sadly never amounted to much (Imagine the concept of VR phone calls in 1991!). Ford launched their Ford Galaxy people carrier using Virtuality (a significant upgrade from their pastel PC Ford Simulator line of PC software catalogues), and many other companies also rushed in, seeing the potential for everything from immersive advertising on show floors to virtual stock exchanges.

Virtuality’s Stand-Up Unit. Image Credit: Virtuality Group

Riding the VRcade wave

Inevitably however, the interest in VR was such that it would not be long before Virtuality would move into the Arcade market. The timing for this probably could not have been more perfect, as 1991 was one of the biggest years the amusement arcades would ever see, and two models of the 1000 series would be released in arcades: the stand-up 1000CS and the slightly cheaper sit-down cabinet 1000SD.

“Slightly cheaper” is a term used under strong advisement, of course, as compared to the usual price of between £2000 and £10,000 for a contemporary arcade machine (£10,000 giving an arcade operator the very expensive and very sophisticated for the time driving simulator Hard Drivin’), Virtuality cost between £20,000 and £30,000 per pod.

That is before the added expense of having to pay for an attendant to help people in and out of the machine, hook up the Visette Head Mounted Display, and deal with the mass of confusion as people struggled to get to grips with the controller, a six degrees of freedom device which looks like an ancient ancestor to the HTC Vive’s controllers. This cost trickled down to the potential player too, with a per-play cost of up to four pounds for just three minutes of game time.

All of this being said, it was a novelty, and as an experience, it was a success and managed to do some rather impressive things given the very limited hardware. The head tracking was generally considered to be superb, the protective ring surrounding the player also worked as a magnetic field allowing surprising accuracy for the time, which was also true for the controller, an early example of a successful motion controller in an arcade environment.

While the library was limited in size, there were a few particularly interesting games. VTOL, a surprisingly sophisticated flight simulator was the kind of experience that was tailor-made for the three minutes you received wearing the Visette, allowing a level of freedom and control reminiscent of more recent VR-enabled flight simulators. Other major games that were fondly remembered included the standout showcase destruction derby racer Total Destruction and stand up 360-degree rail shooter Grid Busters.

The biggest success however was the early first-person shooter Dactyl Nightmare, which along with Midi Maze may well have been the first deathmatch first person shooter ever, pre-dating Doom by two years. In total, 9 games were made for the unit, all bespoke and made from scratch for the unit.

1990’s Power with 2020s Ambition

That isn’t to say there weren’t limitations and some huge problems with the units. The first and most basic issue is that despite being powered by one of the most powerful consumer PCs of the era, the Amiga 3000 with all its custom chips and two graphics accelerator cards, Virtuality simply wasn’t powerful enough. At best the hardware could render up to 30,000 polygons at up to 20 frames a second. In other words, it couldn’t render a whole lot, very slowly.

If it wasn’t for the relatively good for the time head tracking it would be better known as a stomach pump than a game system, given that research done in the decades since Virtuality suggests 60 frames per second is barely considered enough for smooth Virtual Reality. That added to the joystick-based locomotion even in the stand-up unit meant that simulation sickness was a nigh-inevitable consequence of putting the Visette on. Your stomach would be lucky to last the three minutes.

That said, at its peak, Virtuality was worth over £90 million, was the top player in the arcade virtual reality business with no other company ever getting close. They also helped to spark the imagination and interest in virtual reality which would end up being their undoing.

A Virtuality 2000 SD Unit being Set Up Image Credit: Virtuality Group

The Home Virtual Reality Gold Rush and Virtuality’s Collaborations

It is a bit of a chicken-or-egg question as to whether Virtuality’s success led to other major technology companies trying to cash in or whether they were one participant of many in a VR arms race, but what was clear was that Virtual Reality was the incredibly lucrative future of technology, and there was a rush of companies that wanted to cash in, and an equally huge rush of cancellations, technological hurdles and broken promises left in the wake of the VR boom.

These included Sega’s heavily hyped but aborted “Sega VR”, the Nintendo Virtual Boy (one of the few that actually came out), Victormaxx’s multi-platform efforts and later on, Forte’s VFX-1. All of these systems were promising a wild and imaginative vision, and Virtuality was providing a pioneering look into this new frontier. Virtuality even helped Sega with their NetMerc arcade project and helped progress the technology to the point that it was a shame it was cancelled abruptly.

However, Virtuality’s closest home VR collaboration was with Atari Corporation in an attempt to bring virtual reality to their ill-fated Jaguar console. Jaguar VR, a relatively sleek unit with its red accents used Infrared for the head tracking, which led to all sorts of issues with any movement that caused the player to look away from the screen, as well as a very specific range in which the system would work. Pair that with low-resolution graphics and performance issues and unhappy Atari executives asked the Leicester team to go back and redesign the system.

By the time they put together a much improved, refined and most importantly blue-accented unit, Atari had cancelled the Jaguar console completely and owner Jack Tramiel had sold Atari Corp to Hasbro. This killed the project and made the entire home VR experiment an expensive waste of money, right at the time they couldn’t afford it.

Technology Marches On, Virtuality Stands Still

During these experiments into taking Virtuality’s technology home, the technology, gaming and indeed Virtual Reality worlds had all changed in ways that did not help them in the slightest.

Computer technology had increased by leaps and bounds through the early 90s, with increasingly powerful PC compatible hardware putting an end to the Amiga family of computers, with Commodore going spectacularly bankrupt on 29th April 1994. As such, Virtuality’s next system line, the 2000 CS and SD, opted for an Intel 486DX33 processor with a custom graphics card (around this time, Intel Pentium processors with twice the power and better suitability for 3D graphics accelerator cards were on the market) and basically had to start from scratch with game development.

The use of a PC platform, while now the standard for consoles and the arcades was something that left the new Virtuality underperforming compared to the more technically impressive relatively bespoke Sega Model 2 and Namco System 22 while still costing more per unit than either of them. This was even before the poor attendant’s wages were paid. There was also the looming threat of 32-bit home video game consoles that could provide an immersive enough experience without requiring the complex equipment Virtual Reality requires. Why spend a small fortune on an unrealised potential when you could get an immersive, enjoyable experience for significantly less thanks to good game design?

That said, there were some much better games this time around, including a distant ancestor to the frenetic party game Rocket League by the name of Buggy Ball which finally took advantage of the head tracking capabilities of the Visette. There was even versions of classic arcade games that took advantage of the potential of VR, with Missile Command and especially Pac-Man translating surprisingly well into immersive experiences.

Wanting the impossible

Unfortunately, what the public wanted from Virtual Reality was much more than 3D ports of decade-old Arcade games. What the public wanted, in fact, was the impossible.

On March 6, 1992, New Line Cinema released The Lawnmower Man. Allegedly based on a Stephen King short story, the original story about gardeners who worship Greek gods was turned into a film where Pierce Brosnan and his incredibly suspect Russian accent accidentally turns Jeff Fahey into a genius who learns Latin in two hours and has telekinetic superpowers because Hollywood doesn’t really know how video games, Virtual Reality, intelligence or reality works.

What it provided though was a paradigm-shaping look for virtual reality; their vision of virtual reality as a fluorescent neon scape filled with shimmering avatars, Tron-inspired bodysuits and control systems that involved bizarre gyroscopes. This mentality was borrowed from the burgeoning cyberpunk subculture that was reaching its peak around this time. That was what people expected from VR, and it was impossible to provide outside of the advanced CGI workstations that created the effects for the film. It is ironic of course that much of the film’s VR concepts and props were in fact inspired by Virtuality, since it harmed its ability to appeal as either a look to the future or as a novelty.

Death of Virtuality

By 1994 Virtuality was becoming increasingly squeezed out of the gaming market. On one end Virtuality had lost its technological advantage, and on the other it had lost its appeal as a look into future technology. It is to Dr Waldern’s credit that they did not immediately disappear as a result, providing business and training hardware and software, which actually could have had the potential to become games in themselves. These included escaping an oil rig that was exploding, as well as an operating theatre to test surgical skills. These kept the floundering company alive while it desperately jumped from collaboration to collaboration in order to keep the dream alive.

One last major collaboration was “Project Elysium” in collaboration with IBM. The Big Blue worked with Waldern in adapting the Visette and controller into a business VR solution, primarily designed with architecture in mind, with a device that pre-empted the take-up of motion controllers on PC by at least a decade.

This kept Virtuality afloat until 1997, where a combination of factors, including the lack of novelty with Virtuality, the sunk costs from the Jaguar VR project, the declining fortunes of arcades in general and the lack of public interest in Virtual Reality by that point led Waldern’s company to hit the wall, filling for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on February 11 1997. While Virtuality’s brand and machines would be bounced from Cybermind to Arcadian Virtual Reality and finally to Virtuousity Systems, where the systems were available to rent as an expensive retro novelty, Dr Waldern moved on to ultimately more ambitious territory.

Dr Waldern after Virtuality

Dr Waldern never really moved away from Virtual Reality. He founded Retinal Displays in 1997, which would produce a head-mounted display suspiciously reminiscent of the Jaguar VR, licensed to Japanese toy manufacturer Takara and rechristened the Dynovisor. Slightly improved versions were also licensed to Phillips to make the Scuba Visor. Neither unit made much of an impact and both were marketed more as television goggles than virtual reality headsets, something like Sony’s Glasstron line. Likely a smart move whilst VR licked its wounds.

Jonathan’s next foray into technology was DigiLens Inc. The Sunnyvale based company is a leader in diffractive optical waveguide technology and in January 2017 raised $22 million dollars in capital to create augmented reality displays no thicker than a glasses lens. The technology has already been earmarked for use in BMW cars, and has seen use in the aerospace and military industries.

Dr Waldern’s influence and effect on VR began before Virtuality and continues to this day. His original primitive Virtual Reality devices were pioneering machines with a value and effect similar to VPL in the United States, and with Virtuality came a form of virtual reality that can directly trace itself to modern devices. Compare for example the stand-up Virtuality units to the HTC Vive, with its 6-degrees-of-freedom motion controller setup and advanced head tracking and positional tracking systems. Virtuality pioneered these technologies in a mass market context and it leaves you to wonder what Virtuality could have become had it slowly iterated in the 20 years between Virtuality’s bankruptcy and now.

Legacy

The legacy of Dr Waldern’s pioneering company has two major lessons to learn: one from its stratospheric climb and one from its tragic fall.

Virtuality had speed on its side and could provide a decent enough rudimentary experience to justify a cost that was massive at the time (about £10 for a single 3-5 minute game in 2018 money), at least at first. The system must be credited for how completely they captured the imagination of the public with what was even at the time a fairly mid-range computer. The VR experiences themselves were somewhat underrated at the time for just how ambitious they were, and probably needed a business model that allowed for more time to adjust to a completely new experience as opposed to being kicked out in 3-5 minutes.

There is of course Dr Waldern’s ability to sell the system as well. A charismatic, dashing young face of the business world, he had the eloquence and vision that so many in emerging technology fields lack. He got people on board with a vision, and his continued success in augmented and virtual reality technology is both not a surprise and well deserved. To this day he endures as a respected figure of VR’s past and has regularly talked Virtuality and the state of VR in general.

The fall of Virtuality is a cautionary tale for any pioneers in emerging technology fields, not just virtual reality. Working exclusively in VR in its very early stages meant that they had to do a lot of work at the lowest of ground levels to get a bearable VR experience on hardware that these days would be considered laughably primitive. The games were difficult to get into and learn due to having to learn a completely new set of controls in 3-5 minutes. Three minutes wasn’t enough to even figure out where you were, how to turn your head and control everything, and yet once you did there was little content there to encourage repeated play. The first impression for a lot of people was that the technology was undercooked and the experience was filled with issues that in 2018 are still being fixed.

Looking at the system in hindsight, the experiences it was able to provide with relatively standard and underpowered hardware were impressive. They were years ahead of their time, with Dactyl Nightmare representing the kind of fully 3D experience that wouldn’t be seen for five years in terms of fully 3D shooters, 15 in terms of motion control and over 20 in terms of Virtual Reality. It is even more impressive quite how influential its design, controller and design focus has had on contemporary VR devices, particularly the Oculus Rift, which also launched as much on the back of a youthful charismatic pitch and a game-changing experience.

Being relatively impressive in hindsight was never going to be enough in the arcades, especially given the speed in which gaming evolved during that time. It was the very definition of a hard sell.

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Virtuality – A New Reality of Promise, Two Decades Too Soon

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Virtual Reality

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