In 1993, Sega made a Power Rangers-esque VR headset that the company hoped would bring VR to the masses. “It takes us into the future,” said MTV’s Alan Hunter on stage at that summer’s Consumer Electronics Show. “The future, of course, being virtual reality.” On a highlight reel behind him, a guy wearing a Sega VR shoots down space objects with a controller. “Just a game? No way!”
Sega never released the headset. It was discontinued shortly after the trade show, and then it vanished. Not even the video game archivists over at the Video Game History Foundation could track one down. But as of today, Sega VR lives. Like digital-age necromancers, Video Game History Foundation director Frank Cifaldi and head of digital conservation Rich Whitehouse resurrected Sega VR, emulating it along with the Sega VR game Nuclear Rush on a modern Vive VR headset. “I can’t think of too many instances where anyone’s replicated a piece of hardware virtually without actually having access to it,” says Cifaldi.
By the early ’90s, the infinite promise of virtual reality had gone something close to mainstream. In 1984, computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier founded the first VR startup, VPL Research Inc. It sold VR goggles and gloves. At the time, he thought VR would be “a cross between cinema, jazz, and programming,” he writes in his 2017 memoir Dawn of the New Everything. That same year, William Gibson wrote about junkies “jacked-in” to the “consensual hallucination” of virtual reality technology in his seminal novel Neuromancer. It took a little time before the games industry grabbed hold of the technology. In 1991, a company called Virtuality began manufacturing human-sized VR gaming cockpits with robot shoot-em-ups and simulation games that would eventually populate malls across the US. By 1993, VR was on the cover of Popular Science magazine.
Sega wanted to democratize VR, to bring it into the living room at a family-friendly price. What it came up with resembles an Oculus Quest by way of a classic Nickelodeon ad: a red-streaked plastic visor that wraps around the head. Foamy, circular headphones cover each ear. Inside, it has two LCD screens. (“Full color screens for stereoptic vision,” reads a screen in the CES presentation.) In 1993, a company called Ono-Sendai created a key piece of the Sega VR puzzle when it patented a cheap orientation sensor, which determined a player’s angular orientation and momentum relative to the Earth’s magnetic field and gravitational field. Sega licensed it. According to the Video Game History Foundation, the tech could be manufactured for one dollar, which allowed Sega to hit its price target of $200—ten dollars more than the Sega Genesis console it ran off.
Sega trotted its VR helmet around at trade shows and garnished it with marketing materials. But then, suddenly, it pulled the plug. Citing an overdose of immersion, according to Whitehouse, the company claimed that “the experience was so realistic and immersive that it posed a high risk of injury from players moving around while using it.” Whitehouse doubts that; a research firm at the time warned of sickness, headaches, and dizziness in younger users.
How did the team of preservationists bring Sega VR back from the dead? Emulation. Games are software. If the tools used to run it are updated or obsolete, the games can break, or just vanish. The Video Game History Foundation has a special interest in preserving video game source code, which Cifaldi describes as “one of the most volatile and important things to be documenting.”
The Sega VR project is different, though. The goal isn’t only to get an old game working; it’s to use details about that game to deduce how the long-lost headset it belonged to worked as well. Two relics for the price of one.
Whitehouse has been playing emulated games since the ’90s, when he discovered he could run NES classics like Contra on his PC. For the last 10 years, he’s been diving head first into obscure source code, reverse-engineering the software environment necessary to run lost games. Earlier this year, one of the developers for a Sega VR title, a hovercraft game called Nuclear Rush, ripped the game’s source code off an old CD-ROM. He sent it to Whitehouse through a fellow game preservationist.
“When you first get source code, you have to figure out how the original developers build the source code into the game. You don’t always have the tools necessary to do that,” says Whitehouse. “We kind of had to scrape things together.”
In this case, the Nuclear Rush source code contained hints at how the game was intended to interact with the Sega VR. Whitehouse followed those breadcrumbs, believing they might lead to a way to emulate the headset itself on an emulated Sega Genesis. Pieces were missing, though. From another Sega game on the CD-ROM, Monster Hunter—no relation to Capcom’s—Hurley studied and repurposed chunks of code. “I took about a day to hunt down these tools, to hammer them together and build this game into what, hopefully, resembles the form the developers built it into,” he says. Whitehouse was eventually greeted by Nuclear Rush’s beep-boop music and title screen. Then, the words: “Checking for head tracker.”
This was the game’s intro:
ELECTRICITY IS IN DEMAND,
BUT THE FOSSIL FUELS ARE GONE.
YOUR MISSION: ACQUIRE RADIO-ACTIVE FUEL…
BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY.
AN INFORMER, KNOWN ONLY AS THE CARETAKER,
TELLS YOU OF SECRET ZONES FULL OF THE WASTE
OF OLD-STYLE REACTORS.
“It’s that same magic feeling I felt when I first saw an NES game running on my computer,” says Whitehouse. “Once it comes together, there’s nothing else really like that.”
Whitehouse simulated a player’s head movements with the right joystick of an Xbox 360 controller hooked up to his PC, and eventually ported the emulation software to his HTC Vive VR headset. Nuclear Winter was running at 15 frames per second; modern VR games hit 100 fps.
“My first thought was, ‘This is going to feel terrible. I hope I don’t throw up,’” says Whitehouse. But surprisingly, he says, it was quite playable. As he sought out nuclear waste from his virtual hovercraft, the Vive HR camera tracked his head in a full 360 degrees. “I can see how the experience could have been significantly more miserable on real hardware than our recreation,” says Whitehouse. “We have the advantage of much snappier, smoother, more responsive head tracking.”
“The magic of emulation is that we can trick a device into thinking it’s a different device,” says Cifaldi. “The Vive we’re using to emulate Sega VR—we have made that thing a Sega VR. We turned the Vive into something nobody’s seen in 20 years. It’s a magic trick. It’s trickery.”
In a blog post documenting the technical details of the project, Whitehouse has shared an emulator for the Sega Genesis with Sega VR support and the source code for Nuclear Rush. In October, The Video Game History Foundation announced their dedicated source code documentation process. So far, they’ve already restored lost sections of 1990 PC classic The Secret of Monkey Island using original source material. But resurrecting the phantom of a lost hardware hits a little differently.
“It shows the sustainability of the idea,” says Cifaldi. “We’re going back 30 years of people trying to bring VR into the living room as a low-cost consumer experience. This demonstrates how long we’ve been trying to do this and how long that notion has survived in the imagination of hardware developers.”
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