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Official Article

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality was a buzzword throughout the 90s that no one really knew how to describe. It brought to our minds visions of multi-colored 3-D environments, traveling through “Cyberspace” and more technological computer jargon we didn’t understand. As a result it got applied to all sorts of toys, movies and video games with reckless abandon. So let’s plug-in and explore the world of Virtual Reality in the 90s. (Note: while writing this article, Jamiroquai's song "Virtual Insanity" was running through my mind on a constant loop. Feel free to click here and crank it up in the background as your reading, to enhance your experience.)

I’m willing to bet that many people’s earliest concept of virtual reality came from the Holodeck on Star Trek: the Next Generation. It was basically a room that projected a holographic environment and sentient characters based on a person’s desired adventure. Captain Picard and the crew always seemed to choose Sherlock Holmes or Noir style detective stories that resulted in real danger when the programs malfunctioned. This is the most pure form of Virtual Reality in my mind, yet how VR really came to represent itself in the 20th century was very different.

When I think of how Virtual Reality took shape in my lifetime, the most influential concept of this theoretical technology was presented in the Aerosmith music video for the song, “Amazing”. You remember this one, right? It featured Alicia Silverstone as the digitally created dream girl of a computer hacker (that’s what we would have called him back then) who goes through a wild ride in his computer.

After taking video of himself and stealing footage of Alicia from the Cryin’ video, the kid outfits himself with a massive goggle/helmet apparatus and Power Glove to insert himself into a world where people were perpetually making out on motorcycles and you could re-program your snobby crush to be totally into you with the click of a mouse. Technology and testosterone, what a combo.

VR Goggles were the iconic image of the Virtual Reality revolution. It was this concept and design which convinced us that to fully immerse ourselves in a new world, we needed clunky plastic strapped to our heads with TV screens 6 inches from our eyes. They actually sold these things at mall kiosks for a while and my older brother picked up a few for himself. Booting up your 486 computer to play Doom with these things on sounds cool right? You’re envisioning a scenario where every time you turn your head to shoot a demon alien the camera moves with you.

More accurately it was like having the static PC monitor follow you around wherever you turned. It was the exact opposite of the advice our parents always gave us about sitting too close to the TV. I’m almost certain that my brief exposure to VR goggles in 1992 are the reason I have to wear glasses now and can’t see 2 feet in front of my face without them.

Bringing Virtual Reality to the big screen was a somewhat laughable affair during this period, handled in many different ways. For example, in The Lawnmower Man starring future 007, Pierce Brosnan a scientist plugs a mentally deficient gardener named Jobe into his Virtual Reality Gyroscope contraption, exposing the simpleton to a world of information that turns him into a super-genius-cyber-god.

The real draw of the film was the 3-D computer graphics on display in the trailer. Once inside the virtual world, we were confronted with wild dystopian landscapes, liquid metal people in passionate embrace and one seriously freaky Jobe with a habit for getting too close to the camera. When I thought of virtual reality around this period, it was really just another name for computer animated images, since CGI had yet to become a common term.

For example, when Starfox hit the Super Nintendo with its shaded geometric shapes arranged into the form of spaceships I thought it was the most realistic looking video game I had ever seen. At school I was telling my friends all about the Virtual Reality space battles I was experiencing in my living room on a regular basis and couldn’t believe how far Nintendo had come thanks to the heavily advertised Super FX chip inside the rectangular grey cartridge.

At the arcades in 1993, Virtua Fighter was using the term in their title to attract us into feeding quarters to the machine. It sounds ridiculous now, but the blocky 3-D characters seemed so futuristic and hi-tec compared to the 2-D look of Street Fighter II or even the flat, semi live action of Mortal Kombat. It’s amazing how just one year later in 1994, Tekken blew them all away with smooth, realistic character designs for their tough guys and battlin’ babes.

Virtual Boy was the crimson-tinted misstep from Nintendo in 1996 that put the nail in the coffin of the Virtual Reality craze. Desperate to stay one step ahead of Sega and Playstation, Nintendo pushed this awkward set of goggles on a tripod at us, promising an immersive 3-D experience like no other. Well, I guess video games with side effects including eye strain, neck pain and nausea is original, just not what anybody was really asking for. After the disappointment of Virtual Boy, I think we all became a little cynical about modern-day technology trying to deliver futuristic experiences.

What’s funny is that 20 years later we ultimately do live in a virtual reality world. It may not be as conscious a choice to “plug in” and wear a giant headset apparatus, but we literally have one foot in reality and the other in a digital online space at all times with our various devices. Everybody creates new identities, has screen names and avatars all over the internet. You might say RetroDaze itself is a virtual reality where we can relive our childhoods over and over again. So congratulations, you made it to the future we all imagined as kids and now you want to go back to the past.  (What is wrong with us?)

So that's my take on the VR boom, what was your experience with Virtual Reality? Did you ever have a satisfying experience?


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Vaporman87 Posted on Apr 06, 2016 at 04:08 PM

This captures the whole Virtual Reality craze SOOO well. It is indeed laughable to think back on what we considered to be "virtual reality" in those early days. I never really experienced anything, even still today, that I could consider to be authentic virtual reality.

But we are certainly getting closer than ever. What with Google and many other tech companies presenting their futurewares that will produce images from the gear on your face that "adhere" to the surfaces around you, and so forth. We could be fast approaching the style of virtual reality that we thought we would get from films like Lawnmower Man. Time will tell.

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