There was a time when people were calling home virtual reality the wave of the future. Now most people just call it goofy and expensive. Here are 7 virtual reality technologies that didn't work, and never will.
In what may be considered the first case of virtual reality reaching beyond its own limitations, Morton Heilig unveiled the Sensorama in 1962. It was a large box that enclosed the viewer's head and displayed a stereoscopic 3D movie. The seat tilted and the box unleashed wind and smells. And all of this was accomplished mechanically.
It was a costly venture, and beyond the prototype, Heilig was forced to stop development on the Sensorama. His failure then became the model for future virtual reality failures. The device was cool, but it was also large, expensive, and awkward.
There are too many examples of this particular item to pick just one. It seemed for years that hard-to-wear headsets were a prerequisite for any virtual reality technology. The earliest virtual reality headsets looked like a giant television strapped to someone's face. The technology has advanced since then, with smaller and more economical displays, but the headsets of the past made virtual reality nothing more than a passing, gawky novelty.
Nintendo Virtual Boy
The continuing pathway to the holy grail of devices marketed for home virtual reality gaming is littered with failures. One of the more reviled, more abject of these failures came from an otherwise reliable company. I'm referring to Nintendo's Virtual Boy.
Nintendo's foray into the virtual reality world promised a few things it couldn't deliver. It promised true 3D graphics on a portable console. What it delivered was a red-tinged, blurry, semi-3D picture and a clunky headset that needed a stand to operate. Games came with the option of automatically pausing every 15 minutes for a break, which sounds more like a difficult shift at work than a fun afternoon of virtual reality gaming.
The Virtual Reality Glove
Speaking of Nintendo, it seems every time the company digs into the virtual reality market, they miscalculate. You may remember the Power Glove from such cinema classics as The Wizard. The Power Glove recreated the motions of a user wearing it on screen, but the motion tracking was imprecise and the glove was clunky. The company sold about 100,000 of the gloves in the U.S. Compare that with a more successful technology descended from the Power Glove, the Wii; Nintendo has sold over 13 million of those so far.
That didn't stop other companies from trying to market similar technologies, though. The P5 glove for PC gaming required specially designed games and therefore never caught on and the CyberGlove proved too expensive for home use. As a result, the era of virtual reality gloves quietly ended.
Turning more to the tech side, VRML was billed as a 3-D alternative to HTML. The idea was that users could interact freely with 3-D worlds on the internet, described by text and interpreted by modeling software. VRML's creators envisioned virtual spaces where people could wander in and chat with each other. The reality was closer to slow-loading, blocky graphic snippets, hardly worth the dial-up bandwidth needed at the time. In time, Second Life would crop up, and while it wasn't as customizable and programmable as VRML, it did offer a similar experience, but with better graphics.
Beyond the display, control, and coding problems of virtual reality, there's still the problem of mobility. When you virtually move forward, you also move forward in the real world, so designers had to find a way of allowing people to walk around while staying in place.
The most common solution is the omnidirectional treadmill. This device does exactly what it sounds like it would do: it lets users move in any direction on a treadmill. It's a good idea in theory, and as early as 1997 working prototypes were created. But these treadmills are also very expensive and very large. It's hard to imagine cramming something like the device pictured here into your living room.
Enter the Virtusphere. Users strap on their VR gear and enter a large translucent sphere. The experience is something like a large stationary hamster ball: as an individual wanders about, the ball freely rotates to allow the user to wander around in the virtual world. While the device clearly does what it claims to do, the average home user seems hesitant to play their games trapped inside something that looks like it just popped out of the water and is trying to bring you back to a prison village.
There have, of course, been pretty big advances in virtual reality technology since these failures, but now that the technology has caught up with the vision, it seems like people have bigger visions. Technologies like internet and personal computers survived their awkward teenage years. Virtual reality didn't.
(omnidirectional treadmill photo by David Carmein 2007)