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Seeing Red — Virtual Boy: The bizarre rise and quick fall of Nintendos enigmatic red console How Nintendo took a gamble on a new kind of gaming experience in the ’90s.

Benj Edwards and Jose Zagal – May 15, 2024 11:00 am UTC EnlargeBenj Edwards reader comments 86 Ars Technica AI Reporter and tech historian Benj Edwards has co-written a book on the Virtual Boy with Dr. Jose Zagal. In this exclusive excerpt, Benj and Jose take you back to Nintendo of the early ’90s, where a unique 3D display technology captured the imagination of legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi and set the stage for a daring, if ultimately ill-fated, foray into the world of stereoscopic gaming.

Seeing Red: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy is now available for purchase in print and ebook formats.

A full list of references can be found in the book.

Nearly 30 years after the launch of the Virtual Boy, not much is publicly known about how, exactly, Nintendo came to be interested in developing what would ultimately become its ill-fated console. Was Nintendo committed to VR as a future for video games and looking for technological solutions that made business sense? Or was the Virtual Boy primarily the result of Nintendo going off script and seizing a unique, and possibly risky, opportunity that presented itself? The answer is probably a little bit of both.

As it turns out, the Virtual Boy was not an anomaly in Nintendos history with video game platforms. Rather, it was the result of a deliberate strategy that was consistent with Nintendos way of doing things and informed by its lead creator Gunpei Yokois design philosophy. Dabbling in virtual reality? Enlarge / A 1995 Japanese ad for the Nintendo Virtual Boy.Nintendo

The late 1980s and 1990s were a heady time for virtual reality, and, when it came to generating public interest, Japan was arguably leading the charge. In May 1991, Hattori Katsuras Jink? genjitsukan no sekai (The world of the feeling of artificial reality) was published. It was the first best-selling general audience book on VR, beating Howard Rheingolds watershed Virtual Reality by a few months. Japan is also where VR was first repackaged as a consumer technology and, by 1991, it had more VR systems than anywhere else in the world.

However, VR was neither presented nor perceived in the same way in Japan as it was in the United States. First, while VR research in the United States was largely developed and driven by military interests, in Japan, it came out of a telecommunications context. Second, in the mid-1990s at least, Japanese VR research had an engineering emphasis rather than computer science like in the United States. Thus, the Japanese publics perception of VR was shaped by the additional availability, via public demonstrations for example, of VR devices and experiences different from those shown elsewhere. These devices and experiences were characterized in the United States as cool gadgets and strange experiments but would, perhaps taken together, provide alternative highlights of VRs potential as a medium. Advertisement Enlarge / You’re reading an excerpt of Seeing Red: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy by Jose Zagal and Benj Edwards.MIT Press

Prior to the release of the Virtual Boy, Nintendo designers and engineers expressed at least some interest in virtual reality. For example, when interviewed by Satoru Iwata about the development of the Nintendos autostereoscopic handheld Nintendo 3DS, Shigeru Miyamoto commented, To start at the beginning, at the time [just before the creation of the Virtual Boy], I was interested in virtual reality, and was one of the staff that went on and on about how we should do something with 3D goggles. I didnt exactly twist his arm, but I would talk with Yokoi-san about how [3D] goggles would be interesting.

However, not much is known outside of Nintendo if this interest led to in-house experiments or the development of prototype virtual reality systems. Some reports, mostly secondhand, do exist that there was some research taking place. For example, while researching an article about the Virtual Boy for FastCompany, Benj Edwards interviewed Takefumi Makino, the biographer of Gunpei Yokoi and a friend of Yokois for a period near Yokois death in 1997. According to Makino, Nintendo experimented with virtual reality prior to creating the Virtual Boy, but it found the experience unsatisfactory. Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 Next → reader comments 86 Benj Edwards Benj Edwards is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. In his free time, he writes and records music, collects vintage computers, and enjoys nature. He lives in Raleigh, NC. Advertisement Channel Ars Technica ← Previous story Next story → Related Stories Today on Ars

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