Virtual Boy: The strange rise and rapid fall of Nintendo’s mysterious red console

Ars Technica AI reporter and technology historian Benj Edwards co-authored a book about the Virtual Boy with Dr. Jose Zagal. In this exclusive excerpt, Benj and Jose take you back to Nintendo in the early 1990s, where unique 3D rendering technology captured the imagination of legendary designer Gunpei Yokoi and paved the way for a bold, if ultimately ill-fated, foray into the world of stereoscopic gaming.

Seeing Red: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy He is Now available for purchase In print and e-book formats.

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

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

As it turns out, the Virtual Boy wasn’t an anomaly in Nintendo’s history with video game consoles. Rather, it was the result of a deliberate strategy that was consistent with Nintendo’s way of doing things and based on the design philosophy of its main creator, Junpei Yokoi.

Delving into virtual reality?

A 1995 Japanese advertisement for the Nintendo Virtual Boy.
Zoom in / A 1995 Japanese advertisement for the Nintendo Virtual Boy.

Nintendo

The late 1980s and 1990s were a great time for VR, and when it came to generating public interest, Japan was arguably leading the charge. In May 1991, Hattori Katsura Ginko Genjutsukan no Sekai (The world of artificial reality) has been published. It was the first best-selling general audience book on virtual reality, beating Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Reality by a few months. Japan is also “the place where VR was first repackaged as a consumer technology,” and by 1991, it had more VR systems than anywhere else in the world.

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However, VR was not introduced or 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 from a telecommunications context. Second, at least in the mid-1990s, the focus of Japanese VR research was on engineering rather than computer science as in the United States. Thus, the Japanese public’s perception of VR has been shaped by the additional availability, for example through public demonstrations, of VR devices and experiences different from those offered elsewhere. These devices and experiments have been described in the United States as “cool gadgets” and “weird experiments,” but when taken together they may provide alternative vantage points to the potential of VR as a medium.

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Zoom in / You are reading an excerpt from Seeing Red: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy Written by José Zagal and Benj Edwards.

Prior to the release of the Virtual Boy, Nintendo designers and engineers expressed at least some interest in virtual reality. For example, when Satoru Iwata gave an interview about the development of the self-stereoscopic Nintendo 3DS, Shigeru Miyamoto commented: “Let’s start from the beginning, at that time [just before the creation of the Virtual Boy], I was interested in virtual reality, and I was one of the employees who repeatedly talked about how to do something with 3D glasses. I didn’t exactly twist his arm, but I’ll talk to Yokoi-san about how to do it [3D] “The glasses would be interesting.”

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However, little is known outside of Nintendo whether this interest has led to internal experiments or development of prototypes for VR systems. There are some reports, most of them second-hand, indicating that some research has been done. For example, while researching an article about the Virtual Boy for FastCompany, Benj Edwards interviewed Takefumi Makino, Gunpei Yokoi’s biographer and Yokoi’s friend around the time of Yokoi’s death in 1997. According to Makino, Nintendo experimented with virtual reality before creating the Virtual Boy, but I found the experience unsatisfactory.

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