Sega’s early nineties foray into virtual reality was a fascinating failure.
With the Occulus Rift already making its way to its Kickstarter backers and Sony’s Playstation VR on the horizon, virtual reality is becoming…well, a reality. This technology has a long pre-history, with Sega’s efforts to make a console virtual reality machine in the early nineties standing out as an ambitious early attempt.
The latest examples of VR are promising and have a wide variety of potential uses. This success has been a long time coming, however. As far back as 1991, Sega of America had their hearts set on creating a commercially viable virtual reality machine for the home gaming market.
Sega of America had never been higher, financially or creatively. Under the leadership of Tom Kalinske, CEO from 1990 to 1996, the company had launched an offensive on America’s videogames market. Sega managed to gain on Nintendo. The Genesis (known as the Mega Drive in Australia and Japan) helped the company pull a forty-five percent share of the American console market.
Underpinning this success was an aggressive and innovative marketing strategy that branded Sega as the more progressive, mature, and adult-oriented company. As part of this strategy, Sega birthed the ‘street date’ for a game’s release with ‘Sonic 2sday’ on 24 November 1994. The strategy also involved working on a plethora of new products. Some of Sega’s innovations from this time include the Sega CD and the proposed Sega Channel, which would have allowed players to download games through their cable TV connection.
Virtual reality had become something of a fascination in the early nineties. This carried over to the controversial first issue of Hyper, which speculated about the possibilities of the technology for sex games. In this context, Sega’s R&D department began work on the Sega VR.
Sega first announced that they were working on a virtual reality peripheral in 1991. The Sega VR was first intended to ship in 1993 for $200 USD. It would include a copy of the arcade port Virtua Racing as a pack-in.
Sega showed off the prototype headset at early 1993 at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and followed this up with a demonstration at the Summer CES. At the latter event, MTV’s Alan Hunter enthusiastically introduced the headset “that takes us into the future, the future of course being virtual reality, something that’s been talked about by other people, but produced by Sega.” In a video featuring a demonstration of the new product’s graphics, Sega promised users “total immersion” and a “360 degree gaming experience.”
The Sega VR featured dual LCD screens accompanied by stereo headphones. With internal sensors that monitored the user’s head movements, the headset could show everything in the direction that they faced. The project had four games in development. These included Nuclear Rush, Iron Hammer, Matrix Runner, and Outlaw Racing. None of these titles were ever publicly exhibited.
While much of this sounds very impressive, the home version of the Sega VR was never released because it gave users motion sickness. As Tom Kalinske told Hyper in an interview, “We had great hopes for it in the nineties but the technology wasn’t there, plus almost everyone got sick from immersing.”
Sega were far from alone in experiencing the early failure of virtual reality. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy faltered after its 1995 release and led to creator Gunpei Yukoi leaving Nintendo. The Victor Maxx, a low-resolution machine compatible with the Super Nintendo also met with low sales. Of course, these failures in home VR have been eclipsed by the recent developments in the technology and Kalinske told Hyper that he was “very happy” with the present state of VR.
“Good VR for games, education, and other entertainment is finally here,” he said.
Despite leaving Sega in 1996, Kalinske remains an active part of the gaming industry. He works as a board member for a variety of educational technology firms including LF, GEL, Cambium Learning, and Genyius. He is also Chairman of Gazillion Games, which is responsible for free to play online titles including Marvel Heroes. According to Kalinske, there are “more to come”.
Sega VR was an ambitious failure; a machine ahead of its time whose concept of virtual reality in console gaming is only now becoming feasible, more than twenty years after it was first announced.