From the 1995 made for TV B movie Evolver, check out their head mounted display of choice.
Who can remember doing all their 3D animation in MS-DOS? Back in the day, there was Gary Yost’s 3D-Studio (not Max!) licensed to and supported by AutoDesk. Now, who remembers creating stereoscopic animation with 3D Studio? VREX had a great little plugin that setup linked stereo cameras and let you render twice, once for left and again for right. Much fun on a 386!
In sorting through a carton of old BetaCam-SP tapes from the mid ’90s, I came across a non-so-cute animation I produced with the ever imaginative (and twisted) Steve Speer for Siggraph ’95. “UFO” (Upon Further Observation) defies categorization… so get out your red/cyan glasses and watch out for the a**l probe!
At Siggraph, UFO was shown in a bank of a dozen Virtual Research VR-4 helmets with shaker seats.
And for those of you nostalgic for the days of animating in MS-DOS….
Forte VFX1 was the most advanced, complex and expensive consumer VR system that appeared on the market during VR craze in mid-nineties. Introduced in 1995, VFX1 was in the shops all around the world in 1996.
System consisted of:
- Stereoscopic HMD “VFX1 headgear” with built-in 3DOF head-tracker from Honeywell, 45 degree diagonal FOV optics with plastic lenses, 180k resolution LCD screens from Kopin, integrated high-quality stereo headphones from AKG, and microphone;
- Rugged gyro-joystick “Cyberpuck” with built-in 2DOF tracker and 3 programmable buttons (there was reported that not all VFX1 systems were sold with Cyberpuck);
- To make this all stuff work – system’s “VIP” card need to be installed into ISA slot of the host PC. VIP card worked in pair with PC’s video-card connected via VESA bus to provide stereoscopic imagery on both screens of the HMD. VIP card also processed all the tracking data, and redirect sound to headphones. It also introduces Access Bus hub.
VFX1 was one on the first VR systems that were sold in former USSR countries. It was very pricy for common consumers here (with starting price in Moscow – 1495 USD), but nevertheless exported VFX1 systems were sold in big quantities. Many years after I was lucky enough to get my hands on such complete exported package, originally sold in Moscow, it have additional Russian manual not included in traditional US version.
Let’s take a close look on VFX1 packaging arrangement. VFX1 was packaged in relatively small box (38x33x34 centimeters), with bunch of colorful pictures and a lot of self-advertisement, but its Virtual Reality isn’t it? Here, take a look.
My box was damaged a little – plastic handle was broken, so for transportation purposes box were glued with scotch tape.
Buy a VR system and get free CD-ROM! Hell yeah, funny today but in 1995 this message had sense.
- VFX1 helmet
- Detachable strap to helmet adjustments for smaller head sizes
- Helmet data-cable
- Cyberpuck (gyroscopic game controller) with Access Bus connector
- VIP ISA board
- VESA cable (for video-card attachment)
- Audio cables with simple jack’s for headphones and microphone
- Floppy disc with drivers
- “Free CD-ROM!” with game demos
- User manuals English and Russian versions
VFX1 helmet was somehow bulky but well designed and well balanced; nowadays many VR enthusiasts put modern HMD internals in VFX1 shell for comfortable fit. Personally I prefer modern glasses-like design, but I admit – VFX1 sit’s pretty comfortable on my head.
VFX1 helmet had “smart visor” that can be opened to allow user to look at the outside world, while not taking off whole helmet. This visor working pretty similar to VPL EyePhone visor which were used in “Lawnmower man” movie.
Visors optics are adjustable, you can change IPD and focal distance for each eye independently. There are no knobs or something to change IPD, you need to gently move oculars along the internal rails manually. Also rubber eyepieces on the oculars are easily detachable.
Glass optics upgrade was available for additional price, unfortunately nearly impossible to found improved VFX1 oculars today. Insides of the helmet covered with detachable soft foam glued-over with fabric.
Is gyroscopic joystick, hold in mid-air, designed to play VR games while standing on foot, absolutely great with Quake. It have 2DOF tracker (Pitch and Roll), and 3 programmable buttons. Pretty neat accessory, too bad it utilizes Access Bus connector and it’s impossible to use it on modern PC’s without being re-wired.
Among other accessories that can be found in package – is helmet head-strap, 2.5 meters VFX1 data cable, original Forte floppy disk with drivers, and user manuals. VFX1 data cable is actually standard RS-232 26 pin Male-Female cable, which is very flexible. Nowadays it’s very hard to find such cables as spare part, even in specialized cable shops.
This particular cable marked with Forte logo, and had two warning flags:
“Do not use the VFX1 for more than for 15 minutes at a time (take frequent breaks) make sure the volume is turned down before putting on the VFX1 refer to manual for additional information”
Pretty good ad for a 1500 bucks device isn’t it? I suppose this was one of the show stoppers for VFX1, who will spare so much money on the gaming device that you can’t use more than 15 minutes at a time? But, it was good and pretty functional limitation for gaming arcades, where people play for short periods of time.
VIP board and cable connections
As mentioned earlier VIP board need to be connected to ISA slot, provides Access Bus hub, processes tracking data from head tracker and from cyberpuck. Through VESA connector it provides video signal to helmet. Access Bus was actually a predecessor to more useful standard – USB, it also provided possibility to connect many devices through the hubs (and through each-others), make hot connections on already working system (yep, that was a big step forward in RS232 COM era). However Access Bus didn’t stayed long, and I know only one device that uses it – it’s Cyberpuck.
In my system VIP card is connected via VESA to S3 Trio, it’s the most powerful video-card that provided proper VESA signal, compatible with VFX1. I found mentions from VFX1 users that proper VESA was also on Voodoo Banshee 3D accelerators, but I didn’t have this card and can’t test this.
Cyberpuck can be connected to VFX1 helmet or directly to VIP card. I prefer HMD connector because it allows playing on foot.
Turning the system on
We examined particular components of VFX1 system, and now let’s connect them together and take a look on the visor’s imagery.
VFX1 works in Windows only in 640 x 480 x 256 colors mode. Actual LCD’s (789×230 color elements) can provide wider range of colors, but utilizing VESA for transferring image to HMD – limit’s it to 256 color palette. But, this palette isn’t fixed, it’s optimized, this means that it holds any color from true-color palette, as long as palette length itself no longer than 256 colors. My VFX1 unit was used frequently in the past, but LCD’s are still bright and colors are vivid.
I’ve tried to take a few shot’s of what can be seen through VFX1 optics, it is much sharper and with fewer distortions in reality than on these photos. But anyway take a look on the desktop and on a few game-shots from Quake, Descent, and Heretic. These games are my favorites for VFX1, especially Quake1 which gives great immersive feeling even today. By the way VFX1 do not utilize depixelation filters (in contra verse to many professional HMD’s at the time), so black-spacers between pixels are clearly seen.
For stereoscopy, VFX1 supported two formats of input video – line sequential, and horizontal stereo-pair. While for running VFX1 in stereo-pair mode you need to use proper software, you can set VFX1 to force line sequential mode in windows configuration software, or use command line “VFX1.COM +t” to turn it on in DOS.
Crysis stereoscopic screenshot in line-sequential mode, suitable for viewing through VFX1
VFX1 have drivers compatible with DOS, Windows 95 and Windows 98. I’ve installed VFX1 in Windows 98 SE system, and it works there without issues. After hardware installation, you need to properly configure VFX1 software to make it work. When installing software, you’ve instructed to set IRQ settings according to DIP switches positions on VIP board. You can also check tracking for HMD and Cyberpuck. Personally I’ve liked VFX1 DOS software more for its fancy graphical 3D look, but Windows version of VFX1 configurator work pretty the same.
One of the features that I liked in VFX1 better than in its “grandson” –VR920, that tracking need to be calibrated only once, software calibrate magnetometers automatically you only need to choose your geographical region. After calibration – VFX1 tracking worked perfectly for me, and there’s no need in further recalibration.
To make game to support all VFX1 features you need to have proper game patch, in rare cases game have built-in VFX1 support (like Descent, System Shock or ZAR). In all other cases you can use VRMouse – native VFX1 mouse emulator, which emulates mouse and key presses for trackers and buttons of Cyberpuck.
VFX1 had many benefits in its release time. Other consumer VR systems at that time provide fewer features; all of them were without any sort of game-controller that allow you to play standing on foot, sometimes with lack of good head-tracking (like “CyberMaxx”) and stereoscopy support (like “Philips Scuba”). Only “I/O Glasses” had both 2DOF tracker and stereoscopy, but it lacked in game support at the moment of release and had inferior picture quality. Besides VFX1 had biggest FOV among other consumer HMD’s.
Overall VFX1 offered immersive experience and wide support of currently available games at the time. Stylish, comfortable and well balanced HMD design received positive critics and very soon in many countries VFX1 helmet was associated to Virtual Reality itself.
However, VFX1 had list of fatal design flaws caused by its early production – this includes ISA interface VIP board, utilization of VESA which limited it to 256 colors palette, and Access Bus which pretty soon was out of the game in favor to USB.
To overcome some of the flaws, Forte released “Linkbox”, which allow VFX1 connection to regular VGA outputs, but linkboxes were made in very small quantities, and nearly impossible to find nowadays. Also linkbox provided to VFX1 only video signal, without tracking, which make it pretty useless. Rumored full-feature linkbox were never created.
Linkbox photo by Kevin Mellot
As possible schema to run VFX1 on modern systems – is to use old host PC with VIP card installed, provide video signal to it through video capture card (some old TV tuner), and using Forte VFX1 SDK (which is available) to program VRPN drivers to get tracking info via network.
Instead of conclusion – followers VFX-3D, VR920, and…
After releasing VFX1, Forte was renamed to IIS, and in 1998 they released VFX3D – successor to VFX1. Fully copied external helmet design, VFX3D get rid of ISA VIP card, instead it had control box, with regular VGA connection to PC. Instead of using Access Bus to carry tracking data – VFX3D sent tracking data via COM port, which became obsolete nowadays too. VFX3D doubled the resolution of VFX1 (360k subpixels instead of 180k), had better color reproduction, but had much lesser FOV (35 degree instead of 45 in VFX1) and fixed optics. VFX3D also lacked Cyberpuck, which is on my opinion – a step back. Even with overall better characteristics and compatibility, VFX3D were sold in lesser quantities.
Years later IIS changed name to Icuiti, and focused on manufacturing compact video-glasses. However they designed a new gaming HMD, which working title was X-Viewer, afterwards changed to VR920. Before releasing VR920 in 2007 company changed its name again to Vuzix.
Vuzix VR920 – almost tripled resolution of VFX3D (now it’s 920k subpixels, which is true 640×480 resolution), and completely changed its visual design to look like slim futuristic glasses which you can put in a pocket. VR920 have built-in 3DOF head-tracker, and can be connected to VGA or DVI with included adaptor. It supports input resolutions up to 1024 x 768, and drives power, audio, microphone, tracker, and stereo sync-signal via USB. VR920 have no control box, which make it pretty possible to use as mobile HMD for small PC’s or Netbooks. Latest software update for VR920 enables all its functions on Windows7 64bit OS.
Currently Vuzix focused on multi-purpose Wrap series of portable video-glasses which lacks head-tracking for VR gaming. Wrap 6DOF head-tracking module is announced but yet not produced by company.
1995 brought us the V6 head mounted display from Virtual Research, the successor to the excellent design of the VR-4. The V6 doubled the overall resolution while retaining the great optics, field of view, comfort, and ease of use originally found in the VR-4. In addition to improved image quality, the V6 refined many of the mechanical elements pioneered in the VR-4, greatly simplifying these mechanical elements. The VR-4 had quite a number of circuit boards inside the helmet, but the control box could have been built completely from Radio Shack components. The V6 moved almost all the electronics into the control box, leaving the helmet with a minimum of electronics.
The V6 manufacturing process did not require any expensive tooling, such as injection molds. The plastic parts are either thermoformed or milled in a machine shop. The metal parts are either stock or machine shop fabricated. Great for short and medium run products! The VR-4 used extremely thin thermoform plastic for light blocks and circuit board mounts. This plastic tended to crack and break off over time. The V6 totally eliminates this thin plastic and uses sheet metal (anodized aluminum) and milled plastic instead.
The V6 was followed shortly by the V8, again doubling the resolution. The V6 and V8 share the same control box, power supply, and mechanical components. The V8 adds a small fan inside the helmet shell to cool the electronics and LCDs. The displays and driving electronics are from Epson.
Specs in the brochure…
Jeremy Oliver advises how to purchase LCD displays for your next homebrew VR helmet. (Hint: take all your optics to Montgomery Wards and try every TV and camcorder on the shelf!)
Jeremy’s less than successful experience with Radio Shack suggests a big thumbs down, but what did I know; my first DIY leveraged their Pocketvision-27 (still wondering about models 1-26?)
And now I’ll turn the podium over to Jeremy:
Dear Dreamer and Garage VR Enthusiasts:
DO NOT USE LCDs from the Sega GameGear and/or the Atari Lynx. They are not NTSC compatible. The GameGear can be made NTSC compatible with the TV tuner that is an accessory sold separatedly but you will find that you are paying more than for most pocket LCD TVs in the market. Besides if you went ahead and use a pair of Sega GameGear as viewers for a HMD, I am sure that you will be displease by the coarse resolution. The Atari Lynx has more res than the GameGear but it is still inadequate for VR immersion.
Using a pair of VictorMaxx Stuntmaster would work but the resolution is even worse.
DO NOT BUY LCDs from Radio Shack. I am sorry that if some of you would disagree with me on this but I am talking from experience. One of my first HMD was built from hi-res 3.3″ LCDs I hacked from some pocket TVs I bought from Radio Shack and now it doesn’t work because I can’t find replacement parts that only Radio Shack sold. I lost about $170 because some small surface mounted diodes and transistors were damaged by my novice soldering skills.
I then lost $30 to long distance phone calls pursuing these parts all over America and even Japan. I could have easily fixed my damaged TV sets if only Radio Shack was cooperative of giving me the neccessary information I would have needed to make my own power supply to run the LCDs. This information I seeked was just the values of a handful of crucial surface mounted devices. Now Radio Shack does not have 85% of the parts I would have needed if the damage was worse. That is why I say don’t buy from Radio Shack.
STICK WITH THE MAJOR BRANDS like Sony, Casio, JVC, Sharp, etc. They manufacture their own products and you have a better chance finding parts from them down the road when you may need them (the backlight for example).
HOW TO PICK LCDs:
Go to your local elctronics stores and check out anything with LCDs (e.g. pocket TVs, camcorders, and even laptops). Really examine these LCDs if you don’t care what others think take your optics with you. I would stand in Montgomery Wards really eyeballing the LCD TVs and camcorders with my assortment of fresnel, arcrylic, glass lenses.
Once you make your list, get in contact with as many technicians/TV repairmen you can who are knowledgeable of LCD products. Ask them what is the complexity of disassembling these LCD products from their housing and modifying them to lightweight and still functional. Then ask if they have the service manuals to these LCD products in their shops so that you can hopefully see them for yourself.
Service manuals that have many illustrations and schematics will save you alot time, money, and heartaches. DO NOT BUY any LCDs without looking at its service manual. This will give you an idea how to strategically disassemble/modify the LCD product for HMD use. Also try to milk the technician for as much information as possible, I learn more about electronics and video technologies from all the technicians I have met that reading a good book. They probably can probably give you some better ideas too
Now call the manufacturers for prices of the LCDs, all neccessary parts to give it a composite video signal, and the servie manual. Try to find out how many years these parts will be available. I highly advise that you don’t buy soon to be discontinued products because of the uncertainty of available parts.
Once you decide what LCD to use make sure you want to go along and build a HMD because no matter what you still going to spend some money and invest alot of your time putting it together into a decent working HMD. Really think it over
If you decide to do it…I am with you every step of the way. If you have any questions just e-mail me. I even have some circuits that you can put together that will enhance the performance of your HMD.
I forgot to discuss the use of VGA LCDs as viewers for HMD….well you probably have an idea what I was going to say. If any of you want me to go into that possiblity, feel free to e-mail with that your request. I pretty sure that I have pissed of some of you with this large byte letter…..I just hope that it was very helpful to some.
Jeremy Oliver email@example.com
From: “Frank J. Oliver ” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Re: TECH: Sega Game Gear LCDs
Date: Mon, 25 Sep 1995 20:00:21 -0500
Organization: The University of Texas at San Antonio
From 1991 to 1996 W Industries Virtuality systems defined the image of VR in the location based entertainment arena. Here in the US, Horizon Entertainment was their sole distributor. W Industries was remarkably innovative with their use of technology, but their “innovations” in finances were not so successful. Arcade operators had a difficult time breaking even; motivated by their IPO, W extended credit to these operators to bolster their sales figures; and by 1996 W was in receivership leaving stockholders and vendors less than whole.
However… Virtuality, first using an Amiga platform and later a 486 PC, achieved a remarkable quality of game play for those early years. This collection of videos will give you a flavor. Thanks go out to Fronzel who generously compiled many of these. Watch! (more…)
Taken from Mike Bevan’s excellent VR News, this compendium of upcoming trade shows and conferences relating to Virtual Reality gives a clue to where the real money is: Conferences! Mike lists 30 shows for the 11 month period, April ’95 through Feb. ’96, something like 3 per month, from Hangzhou to Lisbon. As a potential exhibitor, I soon took to heart the fourth great lie (served up by show management): “Its a marketing opportunity…”
So… enjoy your trip around the world with the 1995/1996 Event Calendar.