Nintendo’s 1990s VR Failure – A Lesson for Facebook
Facebook’s virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift, started shipping on Monday, March 28, 2016. But it may face a hard time while it tries to convince mass amounts of US customers to try it out. Last time about 21 years ago, a large multinational company tried to bring virtual reality technology to the gaming world but it failed.
Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console promised gaming in the virtual reality technology to the world in the 1990s and failed to deliver such an experience. There is no official confirmation from Nintendo as to how many Virtual Boy consoles it sold since its launching in 1995, but reports say that fewer than 800,000 of the motion sickness inducing units shipped before the product was removed from the market. According to Nintendo, the consoles manufactured before and after Virtual Boy, the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, both of them sold about 30 times more than Virtual Boy.
Back then, Nintendo was as much of a popular name as Facebook is today. The company had its core area of expertise in the video games but its characters appeared in TV shows, cartoons, movies, and just about every piece of merchandise and clothing you can think of. Nintendo followed up with two more smash hits: the Super Nintendo and the Game Boy after energizing the market of video games with its 1985 Nintendo Entertainment System.
Gunpei Yokoi, creator of Game Boy, wrote in his book in 1997, Gunpei Yokoi Game Pavilion, “What should be done to once again engross Famicom and Super Famicom [the Japanese term for the NES and SNES] players?” He further wrote, “If the TV screen medium has reached the limits of its potential, isn’t 3D the only option?”
Then the Virtual Boy came in the gaming world.
Nintendo marketed its new 3D gaming console in the 1990s to attract young gamers in cyberpunk style. This new system was priced $180, about double the launch price of the Game Boy and a little less than the Nintendo’s 2D home consoles.
The Virtual Boy was even advertised on the cover of Nintendo Power, the Nintendo Company’s magazine, with a 1990s circulation of around 2 million pieces. But the Virtual Boy failed to gain traction. One reason was that it used the name “Boy” for its new console, which is used for portable Game Boy, but the Virtual Boy was not really portable. The console sat on small legs, which meant you needed a table and chair to play with it. Further, it sat at an uncomfortable height that couldn’t really be adjusted.
The games were not really in virtual reality in Virtual Boy. They were basically red lines stacked on top of one another that could be viewed through a viewfinder. Due to these red lines, playing the Virtual Boy caused headaches and motion sickness.
Nintendo executives have joked that the project of Virtual Boy disturbed them. Wired reported that one year after its release, you could buy games at a reduced-rate of $10 and the system for just $30.
Oculus founder Palmer Luckey on a question and answer session on Reddit in January 2016 said that he didn’t consider the Virtual Boy as a real VR device, and that it possibly created a negative public perception of virtual reality: “A real shame, too, because the association of the Virtual Boy with VR hurt the industry in the long run.”
If you are watching the movie Dope, then probably 2016 will end up looking like 1995. Virtual reality systems of today such as Oculus Rift, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and HTC’s Vive are a world away from Nintendo’s basic consoles of 1990s. Virtual reality technology has shown a great improvement in the last two decades and the virtual reality content being published feels immersive, impressive and most importantly fun. But there is still a high barrier of price to cross right now. Virtual reality systems require machines worth a thousand dollars or more and the headsets themselves cost more than $500.
The initial reviews of the Oculus Rift seem to be overall positive, but Facebook and others that are experimenting in the field of virtual reality need to show that they are selling something worth buying that won’t make them feel sick and is more than jamming their heads in an odd box for hours. This may prove hard to sell until the average person can actually try out a virtual reality headset into a store.
Oculus and Facebook CEOs Brendan Iribe and Mark Zuckerberg hosted a live video recently walking through the Rift and what is in the store for this year. Zuckerberg said that Facebook aims to get involved “for the long term” in this project.
They also explained that, while video games may get your attention just for a few months, social connections will urge people to come back to virtual reality. Referring to the conversations he’d had with the Oculus headset users in different places, Iribe said: “It feels like a physical memory like you’re there in a physical space. It’s incredible.”
This is the experience that the Virtual Boy wasn’t able to create, but now is really being created with devices such as the Oculus Rift.