As I arrive at the Virtuality booth at Play Expo Blackpool, things aren’t going too well. The booth has just opened, and the first members of the public to arrive are having a go on Dactyl Nightmare, one of the earliest VR games. But the viewing screen shows that the game world in the right-hand VR pod is being tilted at a crazy angle.
The machine is one of two stand-up Virtuality 1000 VR coin-ops restored by Simon Marston, an enthusiastic VR collector from Leicester. One of the machines Simon has restored is owned by the Retro Computer Museum, where it is on display along with various retro consoles, computers and arcade machines.
Only around 350 of these machines were ever made, and Simon thinks that these two are the only working examples left in the entire world. If one really is kaput, I could be witnessing the last ever two-player game of Dactyl Nightmare.
Simon looks at the customer in the stricken VR pod with concern. “I’m afraid he’s not getting the full experience.” He gestures to a curtain behind the booth. “I think there’s some sort of metal gantry up there. I think it might be interfering with the magnets.”
Magnets? I ask Simon what on earth magnets have to do with VR, and he patiently explains how this vintage Virtuality 1000 series actually works. It’s one of the first generation of VR systems, dating from 1991, and it consists of a massive metal and fibreglass platform featuring a ring that encircles the player. In addition to the VR headset, called a Visette, the player dons a hefty waistbelt – essentially a bumbag with wires trailing out of it that link the headset and gun controller to the machine’s processors. A magnetic transmitter in the ring creates a 3D magnetic field that the player stands within, and receivers in the controller and Visette are used to work out what direction the player is looking and where they’re pointing the gun. It’s an ingenious solution to motion tracking from a time when the Wii was but a twinkle in Nintendo’s eye.
I’m here to have a go on this now-ancient VR technology to see how it compares to the latest VR systems – and whether first-generation VR machines like this deserve the “gimmick” label that some have attached to them.
But right now, it’s looking dicey as to whether I’ll be able to play on the machine at all.
Simon has lifted up the floor of the VR pod and is poking around in its innards, a worried look on his face. “Basically I’m wiggling connections and just hoping,” he says with a frown. He had to take the machine apart to get it out of his garage and transport it up to Blackpool from Leicester, and he’s concerned that the journey may have damaged the sensitive components. “They don’t travel well,” he says.
The guts of the machine consists of an Amiga 3000, Commodore’s high-end 32-bit workstation from 1990. (Later Virtuality models ditched the Amiga in favour of a 486 PC.) The wooden underside of the footplate is covered in signatures – Simon explains that he has met various members of W Industries, the company that designed the Virtuality arcade machines, and asked them to sign their creation. “I’ve met more than 12 people who worked at Virtuality, or had something to do with the creation of the machines, from games testers to the company founder and directors. I’ve made quite good friends of a few of the guys too!” The board is currently half covered, but he hopes to fill up the whole thing with signatures someday - and his passion for first-gen VR is infectious.
After a few reboots, and after moving the machine away from the possible interference, things are looking promising. A grin fills Simon’s face as he wiggles the VR helmet around to show that the game world is now back on the straight and level. “Success!”
Now it’s my turn. I duck under the ring as Simon raises it for me, and he hands me the ‘bumbag’ to put on. Then he passes me the two-button gun controller, explaining the controls for Dactyl Nightmare as he does so, before finally clicking the VR helmet into place over my noggin. It’s noticeably heavier than the latest-generation VR systems at about 3.5 kilograms, compared with about half a kilogram for the Oculus Rift. There’s a definite sense of inertia as I turn my head and the helmet wants to drag it further around. But despite this, it’s surprisingly comfortable.
I’m impressed with the motion tracking, too. As I turn my head to examine the chunky polygon world of Dactyl Nightmare, the machine faithfully updates my point of view, and I can wave the gun around in front of my face. Not bad for an old Amiga. Still, I can’t help but notice the edges of the goggles in my peripheral vision, and the sound effects coming from the headset’s earphones are noticeably hissy – a glitch caused by a short that Simon didn’t have time to fix before the show.
Once the game gets going though, I’m thoroughly immersed. The objective in Dactyl Nightmare is to hunt down and shoot the other player in a small arena consisting of five floating platforms. But in addition to avoiding the other player’s shots, you have to look out for a pterodactyl that circles overhead and occasionally swoops down to lift unsuspecting players into the air.
Things get off to a bad start as the computer player lands a hit and my character explodes into giblets. Then the pterodactyl dives in and drops my character from height, dismembering him into meaty chunks once again. Shooting is tricky, as the gun fires in an arc and you can only fire once every two seconds, so you have to position the controller carefully. But by this point I have the controls figured out, and I’ve completely forgotten about the world outside. I adjust my aim and fire – the computer player explodes in a satisfying shower of meat.
At around this point the immersion is broken a little as I realise that the cables have become wrapped around my legs – a familiar problem for owners of the HTC Vive. I’m dimly aware of Simon yelling to “turn around” to unentangle myself. Then my two and a half minutes are up, and it’s time to emerge back into the real world.
I’m impressed. My expectations of this ancient VR system were set low, but the tracking was spot on, and I was quickly drawn into the VR world. You can imagine how mind-melting the experience must have been back in 1991. At 20 fps, the frame rate is far below what you could expect on a modern VR system, but this was cutting edge back in the 1990s. The CPU runs at 30 MHz, and the GPU at 40 MHz – about the same as the original PlayStation. But the PS1 came out a good four years after the Virtuality 1000 series.
I’m itching to have another go, but a queue is already building. I spot a young chap literally bouncing up and down with excitement as he waits. His name is Sam, he’s 14 years old, and he’s never played on a VR machine before, although he’s seen videos of Virtuality machines on YouTube. “I think this is going to be awesome,” he says, grinning.
I speak to another couple after they finish a two-player game. Greg, 24, has only played on the Virtual Boy before, so this was his first true VR experience. “I thought it was pretty good,” he says. “Considering it’s so basic, I can’t imagine what Oculus Rift will be like.”
His partner Zoe, 21, goes one further. “I’ve had a go on Oculus Rift, but this is much better because you use your whole body.” This is an illusion of course – the machine just tracks the controller and helmet, not your whole body – but the Virtuality’s motion controller certainly gives it an advantage over Oculus Rift. (Until the Rift’s Touch Controllers are released later this year, at any rate.)
Simon agrees that the old Virtuality machines still hold up well against the VR systems of today. “The Virtuality tracking is far superior to anything VR for the home that’s upcoming. I can say this confidently as Oculus Rift developers have even agreed after trying my VR – and the fact that the tracking system in the Virtuality machines cost about £6,000!”
These machines were certainly top-end pieces of equipment back in their day. A stand-up Virtuality pod cost around £30,000 just to manufacture in the 1990s, and they sold for a lot more, with the games costing between £5,000 and £10,000 – a sobering thought if you think the Oculus Rift is expensive. Because of this high price – and the fact that arcades had to pay for an attendant for each machine to help players put on and take off the headset – it cost up to around £4 per go in the early 1990s (Simon says he was lucky that his local arcade only charged £2). This was a high entry price considering that other arcade games were just 50p a go at the time, and the cost contributed to the early demise of VR 1.0.
I check back on Simon at the end of the day to see how things have gone. The booth has been constantly busy, but unfortunately the problems with the right-hand VR pod have persisted. “I had to reboot it about 20 times today,” he laments. Simon thinks he knows what the problem is – but the bad news is that he can’t fix it. The circuit board that controls the tracking is bent, probably where someone stood on it at some point in the past. The only option is to replace it, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to track down the parts for these rare machines. Simon knows of four non-functional 1000 series pods in the Canary Islands that he could use for spare parts, but importing them will be prohibitively expensive – not to mention the fact that he’s run out of room in his garage to store them.
It looks like time might be running out for these pioneering VR systems. But Simon is determined to maintain their legacy: “I will never give up on keeping them going!”