V-Rtifacts

VR Companies

Business from the virtual side.

W Industries – In the Beginning…

Chris Hand from Leicester Polytechnic offers a delightful history of W Industries, the company who brought us the various Virtuality VR game systems. His history begins in the early 80’s and takes us only to early October of 1991, not long after the commercial introduction of Virtuality’s Series 1000 Amiga based systems.

The excerpts below offer a taste of the VR buzz in 1991, but take the time to read the entire history!

A video clip from an early 80’s episode of the BBC TV programme “Tomorrow’s World” showed some of the early work of Dr Waldern.  The “Roaming Caterpillar” (as it was known) was shown being used by presenter Maggie Philbin to examine a virtual room.  The display was a large B/W monitor with handles on each side, supported by a flexible arm on castors covered by a concertina of rubber (the “caterpillar”). The image displayed was a wire-frame view of the “contents” of the (actually empty) room. The location of the monitor was sensed by 3 fixed speakers emitting audible clicks in a fixed sequence, with the time taken to reach microphones being used to calculate the distance.  It was also possible to detect the position of the user’s fingers by wearing tubes on them, with microphones and wires attached to a control unit. By pinching her fingers together in the right place, the presenter picked up the receiver of a virtual telephone and left it suspended in space.

Their second HMD, another tethered system, was known as the “giraffe”. This featured mechanical 2D head-tracking.

The fourth device to be built was much slimmer, featuring a magnetic head-tracker and twin LCD screens. It is of interest to note that the head-mounted part of the device allowed for adjustment of inter-occular spacing. At the time it was thought that the correct adjustment of this distance to suit each viewer would be vital to the stereoscopic effect. Mr Rowley pointed out that it was later found not to be so important, as long as the exit pupil of the optics was made large enough.

In November 1990 the “Stand-Up” unit was launched at the Computer Graphics 90 exhibition staged at London’s Alexandra Palace. At the same time the parent company went into liquidation, but fortunately W Industries had been sold just prior to this to another company, which also owns the Wembley Stadium in London.

The Games That Would Be King

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…)

Back In The USSR

VFX-3D Head Mounted Display

USA and other western world faced consumer-focused Virtual Reality boom in late 80s and early 90s, accurately when USSR is fall apart. VR came to big industrial cities of post USSR later in 1995 – 1998, when VR hype slowly begin to fall down in USA. That was in a few years after IBM-compatible PC’s settled down in Russia, Ukraine and other countries. PC’s are finally moved aside ZX Spectrum platform which was most popular home computer in late eighties and early nineties here.

ELSA Revelator shutter-glasses

Consumer VR started with ELSA Revelator shutter glasses, Forte VFX-1, and i-Glasses HMD’s (which are still can be found from time to time in private geek collections).

These devices had much higher price here than in USA (with more than two-times higher cost), multiply this with poor level of life in after-perestroyka times, and it’s became obvious that only reach geeks were able to buy such stuff for home use, other soviet-born hackers and cyberpunks only dreamed about VR, not to mention other peoples. (more…)

The City and the Stars – VR a Billion Years From Now!

Back when VR really had some cred, the Diaspar Virtual Reality Network hopped on the bandwagon. Imagine, if you will, a dial-up service with a feature list, every item containing the phrase “will be”, as in this feature will be available… but when? Yes, its somewhat ironic that the network is named “Diaspar”, as this is Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a city some one billion years in the future, as in: “Diaspar will be a great city for hype-meisters…”

Arthur C. Clarke’s Tale of One Billion Years Into the Future

OK, to be fair, Diaspar did promise some sort of shared virtual worlds (based on Rend386 and your dial-up connection), but that trebled the per hour cost of the service. And yes, they had an online store where you could buy a VictorMaxx StuntMaster HMD (we’re getting closer to the hype now!), but its not clear how the helmet ties into their future interactive offerings. Pricing is shown below, or click on it to see the entire product slick.

Virtual Boy – Another Perspective…

I don’t really agree with the Virtual Boy being VR’s “nail in the coffin”. I think it was just one of many crappy products. Maybe it could have saved the VR hype for a while if it was a big success, but as it is it’s just one of the many VR obscurities that simply didn’t sell.

Actually when you look back over a 15 year distance it is quite irritating that it was such a failure – after all Nintendo always had big successes with technically disappointing hardware – after the SNES, Nintendo constantly produced low tech consoles – not crap but low tech. With Super Nintendo they were technically “on par” (or at least close) with SEGA’s Genesis. With the original Game Boy they started the actual “wonder” – offering the console with the least attractive hardware at the best price and selling millions of them as the games are simply fun. This worked well with the game boy – although even for 1989 the tech was devastatingly poor, it sold like sliced bread. SEGA released the Game Gear one year later which had a much higher resolution full color screen, faster processor and better sound (If you can call the game boy’s beeping even sound) and sold worse. They pulled the same over and over with later consoles, I don’t even wanna go into detail.

PT-01 – A Rare Breed Gains Five Stars (If You Keep It On the Shelf!)

Ah well, a review of the PT-01 from Optics 1 … Back in the days it was ridiculous expensive, like most of the VR stuff. The pros are that it is very light and optimized for mobile use, i love that it comes with a belt clip and can be driven by a common battery. The cons are that it uses quite cheap plastic and that the case is just “stick together” and it will easily fall apart. Why they didn’t even use a screw or so to fix it properly together is beyond my understanding.

Another flaw is quite obvious – the sunshield which was obviously invented AFTER they started production as it looks like they cut off the visor of a baseball cap and clipped it to the device. They quite obviously realized that it’s not very immersive as they originally planned it. The sunshield is made of fabric and never stays in shape, it looks a bit like something you’d make yourself, not like it belongs to the device. Another terrible drawback is that it only accepts an A/V input. Yeah sure, it matches the device – no headtracker, no VGA input – a portable personal TV screen, w00t! I mean back in the days of VR who bought such stuff? People who were like “i wanna use it to watch TV” or Computer geeks like us? As a VR helmet it fails and for a TV replacement on the go its also not that handy as it lacks a receiver and see-through feature, so you definitely would not use it unless seated. No wonder it’s so rare, i couldn’t imagine anyone who’d really need or want it. More of a collectors piece. Also there was a stereoscopic version which had 2 AV input boxes. I must admit although i have seen this on several devices i never got how you use it “on the go”. Did they expect one to have 2 synchronized VCR on your belt? I always wondered why home devices came like this as i never found a way to get any use of having 2 AV signals.

PT-01_Manual

OK so far for the PT-01. Collectors Value: 5 stars (For the rarity, brand and original price tag), usability 1 Star (add a second star if you dont have a TV set and intend to only watch videos on it anyways).