View Full Version : Retro Focus: Sega VR -To Obsecurity and Beyond

October 4th, 2006, 09:25 PM
Sega VR – To Obscurity and Beyond

In the early 1990’s the world knew what the next big thing in gaming was – or at least that thought they did – it was VR (Virtual Reality).

In Arcades and malls in America, both kids and adults stood in lines and paid $5 or more for a chance to pay a VR game. This experience involved standing on a platform, wearing a helmet that covered the eyes, and holding a joystick.

Whichever way the player looked, a new view would be displayed. This technique is simply know as “movement tracking,” and was thought to provide a total immersive experience to gamers. This was expected to revolutionize gaming and introduce it to adults who never before considered paying 25 cents on an arcade game, let alone $5 on a VR game.

In 1991 Sega announced their very own VR console know as the “Sega VR.” By this point, Sega had some experience with experimenting in the VR arcade world, and were determined to be the first company to bring VR home.

Due to other priority projects, the Sega VR was quietly progressing on the company’s R&D backburner. That is until rival Nintendo released the Virtual Boy – A far less advanced concept that featured only monochromic red vector-esque graphics, and no true VR game play; only pseudo-3D graphics.

The Sega VR console combined full color LCD screens and stereo sound. Weight was distrusted evenly, and the device was reported to be comfortable. Also, unlike the Virtual Boy, it was truly portable, not requiring a cumbersome tripod for enjoyable game play.

The never-to-be-released console made its final public appearance at the 1993 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada. Many gamers reported vastly underwhelming graphics, and even “cybersickness.” Despite these setbacks, the VR was heavily marketed and a 1994 launch date was announced along with four completed games that were advertized as pack-ins with the headset, in order to provide a jumpstart for the initial user base:

• Nuclear Rush: A simulation in which users pilot a hovercraft in a futuristic war.
• Iron Hammer: In this helicopter simulation, gamers pilot a flying gunship a la EA’s popular “Strike” series.
• Matrix Runner: This has noting to do with The Matrix, it was reported to be a “cyberpunk” adventure game inspired by Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher.
• Outlaw Racing: Road Rash meets Rock -n- Roll Racing in this vehicle racing/combat game.

“Nuclear Rush” is believed to be the game showcased in this promotional commercial which featured the Sega VR: http://www.retrojunk.com/details_commercial/2680/

What happened to the Sega VR?

In 1994 the project faded away quietly. At this point Sega has internal strife between their Japanese and US departments. Also, the VR was seen as a distraction to Sega’s next home console, which was being designed at the time, codenamed Saturn.

Due to limited resources, strategic planning, the complete and utter failure of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, underwhelming graphics and performance, as well as motion sickness, Sega was wise in not bringing this cliché console to the market.

Unfortunately, no ROMs or prototypes have ever surfaced. Most prototypes are thought to have been destroyed.

Please find images of the VR attached:

October 4th, 2006, 09:26 PM
Official Sega Press Release: 1993

Welcome to the Future

From the moment you strap on the headset, you know that your gaming life will never be the same again. The world you see through the twin eye-pieces of the virtual reality (VR) headset responds as if it were another world, one you can explore by moving around without leaving your chair. Turn your head to the left, and the scene changes accordingly, bringing a new part of the virtual world into view. The armored robot that you could only hear a moment ago is now directly in front of you, guns blazing.

You hit the fire button on the controller and your guns come to life, rockets weaving a deadly trajectory toward their mark. Wham! The robot is history. But there's no time to gloat. Dozens of others are waiting to take its place.

You are playing Nuclear Rush, the game that will be bundled with Sega VR, Sega's new virtual reality headset. With its stereo optics, full stereo sound and sophisticated head-tracking technology, Sega VR is sure to take you to The Next Level in gaming. In addition to Nuclear Rush, Sega is planning to release three more VR games to work with Sega VR.

Sega VR works by combining three technologies into one awesome experience. Let's take a closer look.

Stereophonic Sound

We have two ears for a reason, and it isn't because one ear in the middle of your face would look funny. With two ears, you can tell which direction a sound is coming from and so localize it in space. Suppose the sound of an explosion comes form your right. The sound wave traveling toward you will reach your right ear first, then continue on its journey to your left ear. Not only will your right ear hear the sound a split second earlier, but the sound will be slightly louder. Sega VR's built-in stereo headphones make use of the psychology of perception to recreate the three-dimensional world of sound. When you're wearing the Sega VR headset, you will be able to hear sounds from all directions, even those coming from above or below.

Stereo Vision

Your two eyes also help you localize an object in space. When your eyes focus on an object, each eye receives a slightly different image, a phenomenon scientists call binocular parallax. Binocular parallax is the basis of the technology behind 3-D movies, where polarizing lenses cause each eye to receive a slightly different image.

Likewise, 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.

Head Tracking

3-D glasses are convincing only if you keep your head still. If you have ever tried ducking to avoid a 3-D "object," you know that the illusion fails as soon as you move your head. This is because the 3-D effect is the same wherever you happen to be in the theater, so that moving your head left or right (or up or down) has little effect on the image. The boxing glove of the jet of water will still be coming straight toward you.

To make the virtual reality experience more true to life, Sega VR uses head-tracking technology to modify the image as you move your head. Turn your head to the left, and the scene changes accordingly, bringing another part of the virtual world into view. Tilt your head up, and you can see the mother ship gliding by overhead.

Sega's revolutionary technology works by monitoring head movement through special sensors embedded in the headset. To make sure the system responds rapidly, the sensors monitor head movement more than 100 times each second. Move your head, and the screen responds almost immediately.

The combination of stereo sound, stereo vision and head tracking can create the impression of a virtual world. And you won't be limited to just one virtual world -- with four different games under development, Sega VR will be your passport to alternate realities.

Welcome to the NEXT WORLD

Nuclear Rush

Welcome to the year 2032. Get ready for a cataclysmic trek into a post-nuclear gold rush, where low-level nuclear waste is bartered as an energy source. You are posing as a nuclear pirate, piloting a hovercraft through radioactive wastelands guarded by heavily armed robots and drones.

Iron Hammer

Pilot an armed skimmer gunship on a high-speed search-and-destroy mission in this game of interplanetary warfare. Skim over water, ice, grassy planes and rocky terrain through 30 levels of dusk-to-dawn alien combat zones.

Matrix Runner

Play an elite superhacker in this unique cyberspace voyage. You have to explore the dark, winding databanks of the Matrix to solve the mysterious disappearance of your colleagues, knowing that you might be the next victim. In your travels, you will collide with strange semi-humans and vulture-like beings.

Outlaw Racing

Take on 20 other cars in this crush of dirt-track combat. Crash and smash into walls and flip end-over-end in a mud-filled fight to the finish line. The stereo sound will engulf you in the roar of engines and the screeching of tearing metal as you speed for the flag.

October 4th, 2006, 10:31 PM
Another interesting Sega VR article:

Out-of-house experiences - virtual-reality video arcades
Omni, Dec, 1993 by Gregg Keizer

Some fun you just can't get at home. Some fun takes a pile of coins and a trip in the car.

That trip can be as short as a quick drive to the nearest mega-mall or as long as a cross-country quest in search of the wirehead's answer to an amusement park. No matter what the gas bill, the journey's worthwhile to electronic entertainment junkies, because stuff like this just ain't gonna make it into the home before your kids are grown and graduated.

Traditional video arcades are the easiest source for out-of-house entertainment. Though many of the best stand-up games eventually migrate to home videogame machines - check out Acclaim's Mortal Kombat for the Super Nintendo and Capcom's Street Fighter II Special Champion Edition for the Genesis - not all can shrink enough to fit inside a cartridge and your television screen. Nor do you get the steering wheels and cockpits of the arcade's sitdown racing games, satisfactory side-by-side play, or hydraulically controlled seating in front of your television set.

One of the best reasons to hit the mall is Virtua Racing, a multiplayer driving game created by Sega. Virtua Racing posts people at a long, counterlike panel where each player stares at a large display showing a windshield view. As you drive, your chair rocks and rolls, simulating the road's bumps and bruises. it may not be as dangerous as NASCAR, but this Formula One-style race is a hoot if only because you're head-to-head with real players, not computerized drones.

Another excuse to drop dollars at the arcade is Virtuality's Dactyl Nightmare, one of the few games that really relies on virtual-reality (VR) technology. After donning a VR helmet that tracks your head movement and shows you the game on its built-in goggles, you stand in a small enclosure to compete in a firefight with a just-as-goofy-looking opponent connected to your machine. You'll find Dactyl Nightmare in a few of the biggest arcades in cities like New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and Seattle. VR isn't cheap - Dactyl runs $4 to $5 for a four-minute run - but as a novelty, it's worth the bucks.

Even further removed from home entertainment are things like the Virtual World Entertainment Centers, which have recently multiplied beyond an original Chicago-based digital theme park. You crawl inside networked pods, close the hatch, and in the dim light of displays and dials, digitally duke it out. In Chicago, the Center sports two games: BattleTech, where you control a humanoid fighting machine in a weapons-happy tag-team competition, and Red Planet, a hover-craft racing game that takes place in the mining canals of Mars. It's expensive fun - $7 to $9 a pop - and as in Virtua Racing, the joy is in the chase of carbon-based opponents, not some silicon simpleton. Virtual World has big plans - a Center in the San Francisco Bay area is already open, another in San Diego should debut by the end of the year, and sites in New York City and Los Angeles are on the boards.

This trend toward smaller, localized amusement centers specializing in high-tech gadgets may run counter to the all-in-one approach, but it makes so much sense that other companies are joining in. Sega, for instance, wants to take its AS1 capsule - an eight-passenger combination theme-park ride and videogame - to the heartland by building as many as 50 miniature theme parks across the United States in the next few years. Players sit in the capsule, which, as in Virtua Racing, bucks like a bronco, and shoot at enemy spaceships.

Some of this technology will make it home, of course, at least in scaled-down fashion. Sega's Virtua Racing will appear on its Genesis videogame machine, sans the shaky seat. Virtual-reality-style gear will also trickle down to home entertainment; Sega's $200 headgear, Sega VR, should be on the shelves by the end of this year. And multiplayer games, long the domain of arcades, are available via two- and even four-player videogames, as well as through online entertainment from services such as the Sierra Network and Prodigy.

Even so, don't count on staying home all the time. Cutting-edge technology isn't cheap, and only by serving the masses can it turn a profit. Nor can the social aspects of entertainment be overlooked, for there's no way, in the family den, to mimic the crowded, friend-filled atmosphere of an arcade. The movie watched on the home VCR may show the same frames as one seen on the big screen, but there is a difference in the experience. Ditto with at-home and out-of-house electronic entertainment.

Sometimes - now and in the future - you've just gotta get outta the house.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Omni Publications International Ltd.

I guess they were wrong about that release date, eh?

Another excuse to drop dollars at the arcade is Virtuality's Dactyl Nightmare, one of the few games that really relies on virtual-reality (VR) technology. After donning a VR helmet that tracks your head movement and shows you the game on its built-in goggles, you stand in a small enclosure to compete in a firefight with a just-as-goofy-looking opponent connected to your machine. You'll find Dactyl Nightmare in a few of the biggest arcades in cities like New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, and Seattle. VR isn't cheap - Dactyl runs $4 to $5 for a four-minute run - but as a novelty, it's worth the bucks.

Fucking ghey! I always waited in line at Incredible Universe to play this, and they only let you play for 3 minutes at a time. It was dumb as hell, anyways.

October 5th, 2006, 10:07 PM
Interview with Sega VR engineer from sega-16.com

Sega-16: What how did you come to get involved with Ono Sendai, and what exactly was your role regarding the Sega VR helmet?

Bandit: FIrst, I am a systems engineer with about 30 years experience. I am also a science fiction fan (since the age of 7) and had read Neuromancer and its sequels. I had known Marc deGroot for several years, and we would chat on a regular basis. I had married and moved to Olympia WA for my wife - she was finishing a degree. I knew Marc (Pesce) was in San Francisco, and had worked for Jaron Lanier at VPL Research (the first company to sell VR equipment). We had many conversations on VR, and I had researched it on my own. Marc and Mike Donahue had gone up to Seattle for a VR conference or meeting at the UW HITLab. They stopped by our apartment to crash before driving south.

Well, I had sold some stock and I was a bit flush. I knew he had joined with Mark Pesce and Michael Donahue at Ono-Sendai. So, I took the Green Tortoise bus down to meet the guys, with thoughts of investing. In the first meeting, as we waved hands, shouted, chatted and generally talked VR, they looked at me and asked if I was interviewing. I asked if they were looking for folks. This ended up with me commuting on the Green Tortoise bus for a couple of months, then moving my family down to San Francisco.

Ono-Sendai was in the garage of the victorian at 332 6th street where Pesce, Donahue, and a couple of other folks lived. Marc and I had our own apartments, Rosey (office manager and artist) had a flat, and Dan (Art director) lived in the house. The hardware guy was Michael Perry, also renowned for his Forth83 implementation. Our goal was to create an entire VR system - HMD (head mounted display), software, everything. We made a number of prototypes, tearing video cams apart for the LCDs. I remember one night watching Michael Perry using Forth and a home-grown jig to determine the LCD parameters. It was a great feat of hacking.

I worked on a video game - basic shooter at tanks, limited field. I had something pretty good after 2 months, which included learning graphics. We put this in the headmount and used a joystick. Pesce took a forth board and a Radio Shack electronic compass and found the quadrature output. He then created a simple interface to it. This was the start of the Sega tracker. This was roughly Oct 1992. Donahue had setup a meeting with Sega to show the tracker. I built a foamcore box, with power and interface cable out of it, and we stuck the hacked up compass into it. We glued the edges and put Ono-Sendai stickers on them so we could detect intrusion. Pesce made a simple app on his powerbook to take the quad output and spin a ball/disk.

They (Sega) came back very happy - Sega liked us. We got some cash for a next-gen version. What I cannot remember is which of the units we left with Sega - the first or the next-gen. Sega had been talking to a couple of other groups for this project. It seems we were the only ones who could do what they needed (at the price point?) and even though we left the box with Sega, they could not figure out how we did it.

The tracking was the part Ono-Sendai was involved in, nothing else. I did most of the engineering (software, calibration, mechanical). Michael Perry did the hardware design.The next-gen was a simple PCB with driver hardware that attached to a NMI micro board running Forth. I called Radio Shack and was able to buy a bunch of compass coils for a couple of bucks each. We put the coil into a small project box and had ribbon cable running to the PCB/NMI electronics. I built a box out of plastic sheet, put a DB9 and power connector on one end, and sealed it up. I think this is the unit we let Sega play with.

We signed the contract with Sega shortly after that. I happened to be able to pick up the check - $250K if I remember right. The most money I had ever seen. I have a background in mission-critical systems. I had applied these techniques to my demo, and it never crashed during any demo. After a while of VR demos, the folks we were courting would deliberately try to crash the demo. They got pissed when they could not crash mine. The Japanese folks may have tried to crash it, but they never said anything about it. The only person I ever got to crash it was my then 2 year-old son.

We moved into the "office" Jan 1992 - above the "almost out of date" store in SOMA. (I cannot remember the name of the store, but it has a rainbow as logo. We were in the old corporate offices.) It was right by the 101 raised exit - we could see the Dolby Labs easily. WE started building gen 3. We had a yaw sensor - the compass is a fluxgate magnetometer. However, we needed a pitch/roll sensor. There is a phenomena with fluxgate magnetometers. If you point one at North, then tilt it, the numbers still point North. But if you point one 45° off north and tilt, the numbers tilt towards North or East/West ( I cannot remember the bias). You need to measure pitch/roll to compensate this effect. We found a guy who had a sensor, cheap. It was two concentric plastic spheres. The inner sphere is clear, and filled halfway with castor oil. The outer sphere is black, with holes drilled in it for IR LEDs and optotransistor. The first model had one IR LED and 4 optotransistors, and we switched this around, because LEDs have much better matching tolerances than optotransitors.

The project was canceled and we did not have a good backup plan.We had a friend who invested $200K (I invested $12K early on), but we chewed through that before Sega. Ono-Sendai failed for the two standard reasons: lack of money and people flaked. I gotta say, people flaked big time. deGroot rarely showed, Pesce was fired by Donahue just after we moved into real offices, Perry saw the signs and started looking for other ventures. This says nothing about our marketing guy, who I think was trying, the sales guys who could sell ice to eskimos, or the guy we hired for marketing before we learned he had just gotten out of jail for fraud. The upshot is Ono-Sendai was out of business by October, 1993.

Sega-16: What was your initial impression when you first heard about it?

Bandit: Cool - I thought it was great that a game company was willing to do it. I thought that this would really kick start the process, once enough units got out there and hackers started on it. Of course, certain tech info might just leak out to help the hackers :^) I also thought that this was it - we were on the road.

Sega-16: VR technology in the early 1990s wasn't really considered feasible for home consoles. When Sega contacted Ono Sendai about doing the VR helmet, did it seem like something that could actually have been brought to market in the manner that was proposed?

Bandit: We thought they could create the system, esp after the HMDs showed up. Also - my understanding is we contacted Sega first on the tracker. We knew Sega was up to something. However, I lived in the garage and was not privy to some of the machinations.

Sega-16: Had it been completed, do you think the VR helmet could have actually been as groundbreaking as Sega had hoped it would be?

Bandit: Oh, yes - the hackers would have a field day with it. Just look at the Power Glove. You have to remember that an HMD was $10K+ This would have put the tech within the reach of the average garage VR guy (like me). It was the hot tech. The garage VR folks needed this piece to really make it boom. Everything else was in place - crude, but there. HMD's were not, at least not in quantity.

October 5th, 2006, 10:07 PM

Sega-16: What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced while working on the project?

Bandit: We had problems with the hardware. Perry was not around much, and it had a fair amount of analog voodoo - stuff he is great at, but I am not. People flaked - I was often the only one working on it. I am not trying to come across as bitter. However, a startup demands the dedication of all members, not just one or two. The biggest problem was Sega management, from my perspective (not that ours was spectacular). His name was Mark Johnson Williams.

Sega-16: Did you ever get to see any of the games that were in development? If so, what were they like?

Bandit: No - we never got a look. We would use Ren and Stimpy tapes (the sound guy roomed with the producer) if we need an NTSC source. We took a flying game (Star Wars?) and use the sensor as a demo input device to control the game. We only used the yaw for side to side and pitch for up/down. I remember we also just used to roll/pitch for the control, as an example of different mappings.

Sega-16: Sega reportedly halted the project due to users "hurting themselves." Is this true? Was it really Sega's doing or were there other factors involved?

Bandit: Mark Johnson Williams allowed the project to get behind. We were also struggling, and I am not sure we could have hit the price point of $5. Maybe $10, but not $5. Realistically, we did not have enough resources (time, money) for this scale of product. We should have been in full production June of 1993, if not earlier. We were still doing development at that time. Christmas 1994 was more realistic - we could have made that. The HMDs were still the laser-cured polymer cases - and Kopin could not have made enough LCDs. (Pretty sure Kopin was the LCD provider.)

The resolution on the HMD was pretty crappy. There is no way it was realistic enough to fool folks. QVGA at best - 256x320 or something similar. There is a danger with HMDs: the IPD (inter-pupular distance) must be properly set. IOGlasses gets around this by having a really big aperture (sp). Sega had a thumbwheel to adjust the IPD. Here is the danger: if the IPD for the LCDs are wider than the user IPD, you force the user's eyes to look outward. This is the opposite of cross-eyed. This can really stress the weak muscles around the eyes, and can cause permanent damage in less than 30 minutes.

What I heard was the Sega lawyers brought up the liability issue on the eye damage. That is the reason I heard the project was canceled. Take it with whatever block of salt you want.

One issue was frame rate. From 4-12 HZ you are in the "barfogenic" region[1] (that is a real technical term). They needed to keep the frame rate up to at least 15 HZ, and you can see flicker. It can cause a bad headache. Another issue is lag - between turning your head and the scene shifts with you. If the lag is past a certain point, and it does not take much, you will lose it. The ears and eyes must be in sync, or the body thinks it is poisoned and ejects from the nearest orifices, the same effect as being drunk.

There is also the "simulator effect." Pilots who train in a simulator are not allowed to fly for a day or so, because there is enough differences between a simulator and reality to create a problem. I think they were concerned about kids walking into walls because you can in a VR. I did not consider this a problem, because kids are fairly quick on such things. What is a bigger problem is a driving game then driving for real just after - the reactions are different and the margin of error is much less :^)

Sega-16: It's been rumored that Sega wasn't exactly the best business partner to be involved with during the 16-bit era (as evidenced by its Nintendo-like licensing agreements to some 3rd party companies). Was this ever an issue while working on the VR helmet?

Bandit: Most of the machinations was not visible to me. I do think we should have had more money. Sega dropped us real quick.

Sega-16: Do you think there's still room for this type of technology in gaming today?

Bandit: Yes! Take the Xbox controller you pitch/roll - that is a form of this technology. IO Glasses are hanging in there - and gamers are one of their customer bases.

When lasers first came out, it took the better part of 20 years before applications really started to take off.
Realistically, it's been 15 years for VR (it was underground in the 80's). I can tell you the moment VR started as an industry. Not VPL - that was all military and hidden. It was the talk by Tom Furness at the Nebula Awards dinner in San Francisco in 1989 to all the science fiction writers - VR started being in stories within 18 months. (Yes, VR goes back decades in science fiction, but not the name. See Way Station by Clfford D. Simak) Neuromancer in 1980 started folks thinking about it, but even in the early '90s at Meckler you could get everybody, worldwide, in VR into one large room.

My estimate then was it would take 10-15 years to start getting a clue on what we could do with this stuff.
I think we are just starting to get a clue. Yes, there are maybe a dozen good apps, like phobia therapy, but this is the tip of the iceberg. The big shared worlds are a form of VR - esp the kind that you can explore and modify as you want. The avatars are still kind of crude, but they are getting very realistic.

October 6th, 2006, 10:20 AM
I think I remember reading about this thing in a Videogame Magazine, back then, but it's so hard to remember.

October 21st, 2006, 10:17 AM
Great thread!

It brings back lots of fuzzy memories.

I used an early VR device back in 1996. It was a far more expensive system than the Sega VR and still it was underwhelming to put it mildly. The biggest problem was the display technology. After putting on the helmet you get immersed in the "VR World" which looked very small, washed out, and pixely.

The head-tracking was the best part. Looking down and seeing polygon feet was pretty cool. But "walking" using a joystick wasn't.

I can see VR for vehicle based sims where controlling your movement with a controller makes more sense. And of course with better screen technology.

The problem still with the display technology is the field of view. Your eyes have a 180 degree field of view. When you're wearing VR you see a "screen" floating in front of you surrounded by black. It's virutal-something, but not Virtual Reality.

October 24th, 2006, 01:09 AM
I remember trying the Virtual Boy in some store, that thing was terrible. I'm sure they can have pretty decent VR gaming today, I guess the risks are not worth any potential rewards.