The virtual reality (VR) industry has come a long way since Morton Heilig’s Sensorama (1962) VR machine. In fact, it wasn’t until the Oculus Rift was released in 2012 that gamers first saw VR’s potential in gaming realized. What many don’t know, however, was that SEGA planned to drop something big in 1991. Nobody knew much about it… until today.
SEGA VR headset
In 1991, SEGA tasked its development team to create what would have been the first portable consumer VR headset. This was during the time when a “buzz” surrounded VR, particularly for its use in video gaming. For example, in 1990, Jonathan Waldern unveiled a VR arcade machine called Virtuality. Meanwhile, Bob Sproull created the first VR game in 1986 called The Sword of Damocles on his own hardware.
The original SEGA VR was supposed to be an accessory to the Mega Drive console (known as SEGA Genesis in the West). It was close to completion, too, with four games already announced for the device. However, they had to cancel its release. This was because the then SEGA president Tom Kalinske told consumers that the device made many testers sick with headaches and dizziness.
VR motion sickness
Of course, even with the tweaks done with the Oculus Rift, VR motion sickness is a problem. In fact, more than 50% of VR users today report experiencing motion sickness. VR motion sickness is caused by conflicting signals from the brain to the eyes. After all, you’re in a “moving” environment while completely stationary. The SEGA VR users had this worse. Since technology back then wasn’t so advanced, the accessory’s stereoscopic images only exhibited 15Hz refresh rates, which is way below today’s standard of 72Hz. The objects moved slowly and unnaturally, further disorienting the user.
Nobody in the company or its affiliated agencies knew exactly what happened to the SEGA VR after that, just that all the blueprints and concepts for it were scrapped. However, the modern SEGA team still had an old CD-ROM of Nuclear Rush, which was meant to be one of four games that supported SEGA VR, and used this as a starting point in their journey to uncover the mystery of the lost SEGA VR.
SEGA VR project
The goal of the SEGA VR project (2020) isn’t to make a new accessory—it’s to discover how the original SEGA VR worked. The modern SEGA team ripped Nuclear Rush’s source code and sought the guidance of Rich Whitehouse, the Video Game History Foundation’s head of digital conservation. With Video Game History Foundation director Frank Cifaldi’s help, they were able to resurrect Nuclear Rush on a Vive VR headset.
“When you first get source code, you have to figure out how the original developers build the source code into the game,” Whitehouse said when first introducing the development process for Nuclear Rush’s revival. Fortunately, the source code contained hints at how it was intended to run on the SEGA VR. It wasn’t much, but it was enough for Whitehouse and Cifaldi to speculate on how the device worked.
It took a lot of brainstorming and repurposed chunks of data from Monster Hunter’s source code (the one SEGA released on the Saturn) to complete the game.
“My first thought was: ‘This is going to feel terrible. I hope I don’t throw up,’” shared Whitehouse. After all, that was why the SEGA VR never saw the light of day. But surprisingly, it was playable. Today’s PCBs are much more advanced, with components and conductors all contained in one mechanical structure. Circuit boards can be auto-routed, allowing developers to create more complex mechanisms to make VR headsets emulate a more realistic environment.
“We have the advantage of much snappier, smoother, more responsive head tracking,” Whitehouse continued “[But] I can see how the experience could have been significantly more miserable on real hardware than our recreation.”
We are still very much in the dark about what SEGA and the Video Game History Foundation will do after this demonstration, but it’s a great way to show how early developers honed their craft. We treat VR as something new and revolutionary when it has actually been in the gaming industry for a very long time. The progress was just limited by the technology available at the time.
If you’re interested in exploring VR technology today, here’s our post on the new Oculus Quest.