VR Skeptic: 1994

Here is a blast from the past: a letter I wrote to some friends back in 1994 about my very first VR experience.

VR enjoyed a brief spin as the next big thing that year. Jaron Lanier had been featured in the second issue of Wired magazine and virtual reality arcades began to appear in the hipper shopping malls. In short, it was as hyped and inevitable then as it is again today.

So with any further ado, here is my unedited account of what virtual reality was like in 1994:

A view of the Dactyl Nightmare playing field

A view of the Dactyl Nightmare playing field

 

For my birthday last weekend, Janine, Betsy, Tom and I tried an interesting experiment: a virtual reality arcade in San Francisco called Cyber Mind.

It was a pleasant enough little boutique, not overrun by pimply-faced hoards as I had expected. They had a total of ten machines, two sit-down, one-person flight simulator contraptions, and two sets of four networked platforms. We chose to play one of the four-person games called Dactyl Nightmare.

I stepped up on a sleek-looking platform and an attendant lowered a railing over my head so that I would not wander off while my mind was in other worlds. I then strapped on a belt with more equipment and cables and donned a six pound Darth-Vader-on-steroids helmet. The attendant placed a gun in my hand.

When they pulled the switch I found myself standing on a little chessboard floating in space. There were a total of four such platforms with stairs leading down to a larger chessboard, all decorated by arches and columns. I could look in any direction and if I held out my arm I could see a computer-generated rendition of my arm flailing around, holding a gun. If I pushed the thumb switch on top of the gun I began to walk in whatever direction I was looking in.

I began bumping into columns and stumbling down stairs. It wasn’t long before I saw Janine, Betsy, and Tom also stumbling around, walking with an odd gait, and pointing guns at me. The game, as old as childhood itself, was to get them before they could get me. Usually, by the time I could get my bearings and take careful aim, someone else (usually Betsy) had sneaked up behind me and blasted me into computer-generated smithereens. After a few seconds, I reformed and rejoined the hunt.

This happy situation was somewhat complicated by a large green Pterodactyl with the bad habit of swooping down and carrying off anyone who kept firing their guns into the ground (which was usually where I tended to fire). If you were true of heart and steady of aim you could blast the creature just before it’s claws sunk in. I managed this once, but the other three or four times I was carried HIGH above the little chessboard world and unceremoniously dropped.

After a quick six minutes it was all over. The total cost was $20 for the four of us, about a dollar per person per minute. I found the graphics interesting but not compelling and resolved to come back in a few years when the technology had improved.

I was not dizzy or disoriented during the game itself, but I emerged from my helmet slightly seasick, especially after the second round. This feeling persisted for the rest of the day. But it was a worthy experiment. Twenty dollars and a dizzy day: a small price to pay for my first glimpse at virtual reality.

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