The Nintendo Virtual Boy: Hype Can Kill

March 9, 2021


Virtual reality. It seems not long ago that this was the tech buzzword of the last decade.

In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion. Sony invested millions in Playstation VR and re-platformed top-selling games solely for the release in 2016. VR headsets were bundled with new phones and content producers, and educational platforms hurriedly created content. National Geographic even made a VR film in space. 

Moreover, in 2017, stock investments in virtual reality grew by almost 80%!

Nevertheless, virtual reality support has seemed to become stagnate in the last few years, and the technology seems stuck in Early Adopter Neverland. Tech writers have grown skeptical and even pessimistic that this may be yet another hype bubble ready to burst. Perhaps, this time it is growing pains, but even to get to this point, there have been many past failures and a lot of overhype.

You see, this is not the first time the consumers of the tech community found themselves immersed in overwhelming hype for virtual reality.

Just like most tech trends, it seems the love affair with VR burns bright (and flickers out just as quickly) about once a decade.

Since 1968, when Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull created and developed the first VR headset, Damocles, we have seen a few resurgences of our cultural obsession with Virtual Reality. 

And the most nostalgic one for me? The Nintendo Virtual Boy.

The Nintendo Virtual Boy

“It will transport game players into a virtual utopia with sights and sounds unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.” — Hiroshi Yamauchi

In the journey to becoming a household name Nintendo was coming off the successes of the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Super NES. It was developing the trust and affection of a nation of video game lovers by the early 1990s.

Touted to be the “first virtual reality system developed and produced for the mass market,” the Virtual Boy was a creation of Gunpei Yokoi and a technology company from Massachusetts.

When they announced the Virtual Boy, releasing in the summer of 1995, they began a $25 million advertising campaign to show off this innovation.

The Virtual Boy indeed looked futuristic for the time and had a monochrome display of only black and red graphics. The battery-powered gaming console was a 32-bit stand-alone tabletop system. It used stereoscopic 3D and parallax to give the illusion of depth in the video game.

 …And required folx to hunch down while sitting to look into the goggle-like tripod system.

Today that might not sound like the height of virtual reality. However, in 1995, that did not stop consumers from wanting to believe it was. Words like immersion and phrases like “private universe” from a trusted brand can gather some curiosity and perhaps even unwarranted hope and fandom.

Nevertheless, only one year after release in North America, they ceased all development and retail ability with an underwhelming 770,000 units ever sold. (Compare this to the 33 million Nintendo 64 units sold worldwide.) The product the world was pining for in 1994 was a commercial failure and the worse selling game console in the history of Nintendo by 1996.

Why did the Virtual Boy fail?

The price point certainly didn’t help. At almost $200 it was hardly a convenient purchase. Some critics attribute the Virtual Boy’s demise to lack of a variety of playable games and a dizzying gaming experience. Product Designers are left scratching their heads at the choice of it’s binoculars-on-a-stand contraption and the use of only red and black colors.

But it could also be hype.

And maybe our obsession with the myth of virtual reality. You know the one that says we can be “transported to a virtual utopia?”

I think it’s both.

The same audience that Oculus, HTC Vive, and Playstation VR produce their products for is the same that Yokoi saw emerging in the early 1990’s. And this audience, has been the same since the dawn of this myth of virtual reality. Each step we take technologically we wait on bated breath that this can be “the one.” Each company girds up their loins in attempt to pull Excalibur from the stone and be the rightful heir to keys of the virtual reality kingdom.

And every time one of these companies fail, we judge them harshly.

Hype is a leading killer among new technologies and the products that contend to harness them.

Yes, the product design on the Virtual Boy seemed to have no market research or educated thought put into it.

Yes, the lack of games, especially one without a well-defined operating system with multiplayer ability, could have affected sales.

But you can’t argue that as inventive, creative and unique as this system was, it was overhyped and underwhelming. And the Virtual Boy was judged just as harshly as some skeptics are judging VR now.

We need to be open to invention and take things in stride. But we also need to be aware of our own excitement and tech anxiety. Maybe 2019 will be the year we finally get to that “virtual utopia,” or maybe, we might just be waiting around for someone to finally pull that sword from that stupid rock.

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