Virtual Boy

virtual boy

The Virtual Boy was a video game console developed and manufactured by Nintendo. It was the first video game console that was supposed to be capable of displaying ‘true 3D graphics’ out of the box. Whereas most video games use monocular cues to achieve the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional screen, The Virtual Boy creates an illusion of depth through the effect known as parallax.

In a manner similar to using a head-mounted display, the user looks into an eyepiece made of neoprene on the front of the machine, and then an eyeglass-style projector allows viewing of the monochromatic (in this case, red) image. It was released in 1995 in Japan and North America at a price of around US$180. It met with a lukewarm reception that was unaffected by continued price drops. Nintendo discontinued it the following year.

The Virtual Boy system uses a pair of 1×224 linear arrays (one per eye) and rapidly scans the array across the eye’s field of view using flat oscillating mirrors. These mirrors vibrate back and forth at a very high speed, thus the mechanical humming noise from inside the unit. Each Virtual Boy game cartridge has a yes/no option to automatically pause every 15–30 minutes so that the player may take a break.

The Virtual Boy is iconic for its monochromatic use of red LED pixels; they were used due to being the least expensive, the lowest drain on batteries, and for being the most striking color to see. During development, a color LCD was experimented with but was found to cause users to see double instead of creating the illusion of depth. In addition, LCDs at the time had low refresh rates, and were often blurry. They also consumed more power than LEDs.

The Virtual Boy, which uses an oscillating mirror to transform a single line of pixels into a full field of pixels, requires high-performance LEDs in order to function properly. Because each pixel is only in use for a tiny fraction of a second, high peak brightness is needed to make the virtual display bright and comfortable for the user to view. The two-screen system demanded a fast refresh rate, unlike the original Game Boy which had blurry motion, so using an LCD was not an option.

The Virtual Boy, being a system with heavy emphasis on three-dimensional movement, needed a controller that could operate along a Z axis. The Virtual Boy’s controller was an attempt to implement dual digital ‘D-pads’ to control elements in the aforementioned 3D environment.

The Virtual Boy was designed by Gunpei Yokoi, the general manager of Nintendo’s Research and Development 1 division, and the inventor of the Game & Watch and Game Boy handheld consoles. While more powerful and seemingly higher graphics, the Virtual Boy was not intended to replace the Game Boy in Nintendo’s product line, as use of the system requires a steady surface and completely blocks the player’s peripheral vision. Yokoi never actually intended for the console to be released in its present form. However, Nintendo pushed the Virtual Boy to market so that it could focus development resources on the Nintendo 64. The commercial demise of the Virtual Boy led to Yokoi being driven from Nintendo.

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