Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

The following is an edited extract from the book Curious Video Game Machines by Lewis Packwood, which explores the stories behind rare and unusual consoles, computers and coin-ops. In this chapter, Lewis focuses on the history of the 1990s company Virtuality, which pioneered virtual reality arcade machines in the early 1990s.

We pick up the story after Lewis has run through some early VR experiments, such as the EyePhone headset created by former Atari employee Jarion Lanier, and now we focus on four graduates in late-eighties Leicester…

Jonathan Waldern had been researching a PhD in VR at Loughborough University, and had come up with a device nicknamed the Roaming Caterpillar, which was featured in an episode of the popular BBC science programme Tomorrow’s World in the mid-1980s. The odd-looking device consisted of a black and white television on wheels, connected to a computer by a trailing set of wires sheathed in a rubber concertina. A sonic positioning system consisting of a set of microphones and speakers allowed the caterpillar to work out where it was, and as presenter Maggie Philbin wheeled the cumbersome device around a room, the screen was able to show wireframe objects positioned in the otherwise empty space.

In October 1987, Waldern formed W Industries (which was renamed Virtuality in 1990) along with software specialist Al Humrich, mathematician Terry Rowley and engineer Richard Holmes. The four had been discussing the possibilities of VR for some time, and they finally decided to put their money where their collective mouths were: Rowley, Holmes and Humrich put in £2,500 each, while Waldern stumped up considerably more, taking the majority stake in the newly formed company. "The only other VR system in existence that we were aware of was Jaron Lanier’s set-up, which was very much a laboratory prototype," says Holmes, who had become friends with Waldern while studying for a master’s in industrial design at Leicester Polytechnic. "Our goal was to take virtual reality and build a business out of it, so that it would be sustainable."

Virtuality units on display at the Retro Computer Museum, Leicester — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

Interestingly, gaming wasn’t part of that business plan, at least at first. "Virtuality was never founded on the basis of being a computer games company," says Holmes. "I don’t think we ever really saw ourselves as a computer games company, because we had many different sides of the business. But having designed the first commercial virtual reality system we could mass produce, it was the only large market, so we were forced to go down that route."

Holmes credits the individual expertise of the team members with making it possible to get Virtuality off the ground: "It’s a complex piece of technology, and there’s not many people that are capable of actually engineering a VR system on their own." Waldern drew on his PhD research to design the computer architecture, while Humrich got to work on the software and Rowley supplied the algorithms to make real-time 3D worlds possible. Holmes drew on his engineering experience from Rolls-Royce and industrial design experience from Leicester-based consultancy firm Jones Garrard to draw up plans for the headsets and VR ‘pods’, machining and vacuum-forming parts himself to keep costs down. Between them, they had all the necessary skills. "We didn’t need to go and use expensive outsourced software designers to do stuff," says Holmes. "We did it all ourselves."

Problem solving

However, getting to the stage where they had a viable commercial product took a lot of hard work, and a considerable amount of trial and error. The first prototype VR headset they came up with was an unwieldy-looking thing, counterbalanced on a crane arm protruding from the top of the helmet, which helped to take the neck-snapping weight of the headset. Holmes stripped out the optical sensors from computer mice to form the rudimentary tracking system, and used 3-inch LCD screens sourced from Epson for the display.

In the early days, the four founders worked in their homes and garages, and they were hampered by the rudimentary technology of the time. They picked up the most advanced commercially available machines they could, including the newly launched Amiga 2000, but the real-time 3D worlds they wanted to create were a far cry from the simplistic 2D representations that were common in the 1980s.

"Bear in mind," says Holmes, "3D computer graphics really existed only on £1 million military computers, so most of the people that had a really deep understanding of generating complex real-time 3D graphics were working in the military arena." Luckily, W Industries had Terry Rowley on the team, who had previously worked on 3D terrain generation at the defence firm Marconi. "So one of the very first things that we produced was a flight simulator," says Holmes. "Terry made an algorithm that automatically generates and renders terrain within certain parameters: so the computer would automatically build the hills, colour it and shape it, and then you’d fly over it."

After more than two years of solid work – by which point, Holmes says, "we were getting pretty tired and broke" – the prototype unit was advanced enough to attract some much-needed investment. The Southampton-based company Leading Leisure bought a 75% stake in W Industries in 1989, providing around £1 million towards development, and allowing the fledgling firm to move into permanent offices.

Such investment from a leisure firm came as a surprise: "We thought we might get interest from British Aerospace," says Holmes, as defence firms were the leading experimenters in VR at the time. The deal also came with a caveat. Leading Leisure owned a subsidiary called Super X Ltd, which made simulator machines, whereby a group of people would pile into a cramped cabin to watch a first-person film of, say, a roller coaster or jet flight, while the cabin bucked around to simulate G forces.

The firm wanted W Industries to develop an interactive, two-person version of the ride where the movement could be controlled using a joystick, which meant the team had to divide their time between working on VR and on the simulator. "We got side-tracked," says Holmes, "but unwittingly it gave us an understanding of designing games."

The Leading Leisure deal didn’t last long, however. In 1990, financial difficulties prompted the Southampton company to sell off parts of its business, and the newly renamed Virtuality was jointly purchased by the company behind Wembley Stadium and the venture capital firm Apax Partners. Around a year or so later, Apax Partners would buy out the Wembley stake.

Head-Tracking Troubles

Finding the necessary components to create a VR system at an affordable price was no easy task. "We had to really seek things out, and invariably drive down the prices from those companies so they were viable for us to use," says Holmes. "[The companies that were] making elements that could go into a VR system were used to the military market, and used to being able to sell a tracking system, for instance, for £10,000."

A US firm called Polhemus made a spatial positioning system that worked via electromagnetic coils and induction, but the system – which worked using AC current – was incredibly expensive. Luckily, there was an alternative, says Holmes. "Some of the guys that worked for that company discovered that they could circumvent Polhemus’s patent by using a DC system. They were called Ascension, and they came out with a much lower cost tracking system."

The downside of Ascension’s technology, which cost around £1,000, was that it had a much shorter range than the Polhemus system: it could only track objects at a distance of around 2ft, compared with the 10–12ft range of Polhemus’s AC-based technology. But the team realised that 2ft would be enough if the user was sitting down rather than walking around. "If you looked at our sit-down product," says Holmes, "you’d see it’s got a roll bar on it – and you’d think, why do you want a roll bar, the thing doesn’t have wheels, it’s highly unlikely to tip over. Well, the roll bar contained the tracking transmitter, and the helmet had the receiver. So the closer you got the person’s head to the transmitter, the better the signal, and the more reliable the set-up."

The team worked on the sit-down version first because it was the easiest to design, but they also wanted to create a stand-up version with a handheld ‘Space Joystick’ that was tracked separately from the headset (or the ‘Visette’ as the team called it). Dual tracking wasn’t possible with the Ascension system, so W Industries was forced to use Polhemus’s more expensive technology for the stand-up unit – although eventually they were able to take advantage of economies of scale. "We fairly quickly became one of the best customers by volume for these products," says Holmes, enabling the company to negotiate a generous discount. Further savings were made by buying the circuit boards on their own rather than as complete units, and then making the cables in house. "We spent a fair bit of time developing lightweight, reliable, fairly small cables," says Holmes.

One drawback with using an electromagnetic tracking system was interference caused by metal objects in the surrounding area. As such, the Virtuality units are mostly made from lightweight glass-reinforced plastic (fibreglass) with the bare minimum of metal components, and all cables had to be carefully shielded. A trickier issue was safety. "We had this big problem to solve of how do we stop people falling over or hurting themselves?" says Holmes. The solution came in the form of a ring that users lifted up to enter the machine and then lowered around them. "When the ring came down, it gave you support, and it gave you an immediate feeling of security," says Holmes. "And it worked really, really well."

An intractable problem, and one that is still being grappled with in VR today, was how to stop users feeling vulnerable when shutting themselves off from the real world. "I think a lot of women do not like wearing a headset when they’re in a public situation," says Holmes. "Particularly with the sit-down [unit], if they’ve got a short skirt or something. We actually had to provide a blanket for them to pull over."

Circus of Publicity

The novelty of the technology meant they had no problem in attracting publicity. "We were on first-name terms with the people in Tomorrow’s World," says Holmes. "They were always coming up to see what we were doing." An in-development version of the stand-up unit was finally demonstrated to the public at a computer graphics exhibition at London’s Alexandra Palace in November 1990, then, in May 1991, the commercial version of the sit-down unit was launched at Wembley Stadium, running a jump-jet flight simulator game called VTOL. "We managed to get on News at Ten, which I think I’ve still got the videos of," says Holmes.

He also remembers personally demonstrating a developmental version of Virtuality’s tech to Prince Albert of Monaco at the Imagina conference in Monte Carlo in early 1991. But his fondest memory was demonstrating the Virtuality units a year or two later at Florida’s IAAPA Expo, the world’s largest trade show for the amusement parks and attractions industry. Virtuality had partnered with the Edison Brothers retail chain to distribute their products in the United States, since the firm owned several leisure facilities, including the Dave & Buster’s arcade chain. Demonstration pods were shipped over to the Edison Brothers HQ in St Louis, Missouri, and the firm kitted out two trucks emblazoned with the Virtuality livery to transport the machines over to the expo in Florida. But there was a problem.

The internals of a Virtuality unit — Image: Damien McFerran / Time Extension

"We booked late because we weren’t sure we’d be ready," says Holmes. "But of course shows like that get pre-booked probably a year in advance, and the only spaces they could offer us were outside in the car park. So we took one of the biggest gambles of our lives, and we went for it on the basis that if it pissed it down with rain, we’d just have to cope." He made some covers for the machines in case of a downpour, and the team reasoned that if the heavens opened, they could demo the Ascension-based sit-down units inside the trucks – but the Polhemus-based stand-up units, with their wider electromagnetic field, wouldn’t function in the trucks’ metal interior because of interference.

Thankfully, the weather stayed dry, and Holmes says he had "one of the most amazing weeks of my life – because we blew everyone away". The team had managed to work out how to network the stand-up pods together just a few days before the show, which marked the debut of the four-player shooting game Dactyl Nightmare. One of the best-loved VR games of the era, it tasked players with hunting each other across a multi-level arena while a malevolent pterodactyl hovered overhead, threatening to pounce on the unwary. "The Americans took to this like you wouldn’t believe," enthuses Holmes. "They were completely wowed."

This is an edited extract from the book Curious Video Game Machines by Lewis Packwood, published by White Owl, an imprint of Pen and Sword. You can order Curious Video Game Machines direct from Pen and Sword in the UK, or from Casemate in the US, as well as from Amazon and all good bookshops.

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