The Dreamcast's Visual Memory Unit (or VMU to its friends) was one of the most appealing elements of a fantastic home console, and one that wasn't perhaps exploited to its full potential.
Like Sony's PocketStation, which was released around the same time, the VMU was a half memory card, half portable gaming platform. It not only held all of your beloved save data but also allowed you to play mini-games on the go. To top it all off, it also acted as a second screen during gameplay, something the Wii U would build on many years later (to somewhat unconvincing effect, you might argue).
Despite offering such a wide range of functions, the VMU had some serious drawbacks. The internal battery died far too quickly, and while it was cheap and easy to replace, many Dreamcast owners never bothered and had to endure the horrendous 'beep' every time they switched the console on – a beep that was designed to get you to pop a fresh power cell in.
The screen wasn't illuminated, either, which made it hard to see during gameplay. Finally, the VMU's storage capacity was quite small, which meant that anyone with a reasonably large collection of games would have to invest in several of them in order to keep all of their save data (or buy a third-party one with more space, but these lacked the all-important LCD screen).
Thankfully, 24 years later, DreamMods' Chris Diaoglou is offering the solution: a new and improved VMU for the modern era.
Diaoglou – the man behind the DreamConn Bluetooth controller – outlines the following enhancements:
- New monochrome LCD with backlight : Switchable from the user if desired, for battery saving
- Higher screen resolution: the user will be able to select between original (48x32), or 2x scaled (96x64)
- micro SD storage : with the use of an SD card, the user will have almost infinite space to store all virtual VMUs. This refers to either VMUs with normal save data, or VMUs with mini-games. They can be organized into folders (i.e. per game) or just put everything in the root of the SD. The current VMU file to be used will be selected from the VM2 menu. If the selected VMU file contains a mini-game, then it can be played - like with an original VMU.
- Internal storage of 1x VMU : In case that an SD card is not used, the VM2 will still be operational with its internal storage of 1x 128Kb space. In case an SD card is used, then both storages will be available to the user. Again, the current VMU page (or file) to be used will be selected from the VM2 menu.
- Embedded High-capacity LiPo battery : This will replace the 2x coin-batteries and provide longer operation time
- External charging : The VM2 will charge either from its micro-USB connector, or from the controller while playing
- PC connectivity : The VM2 will be able to connect to a PC from its micro-USB
- Memory management : Connecting to a PC and using a custom GUI, the user will be able to backup/restore the internal (1x) storage. In case a micro SD card is used, then it will be simply managed from any OS explorer for copying/moving/organizing its contents and files. All files will be in the format of a full VMU dumb (.bin, .vmu) - compatible with almost all existing software and emulators (i.e. VMU Explorer, ReDream, etc.).
- Original cap reproduction : The VM2 will come with our favorite(!) original protective cap
- Beeper support : The user will have the option to enable/disable the original audio beeping
- Battery connector: The VM2 will make use of common JST battery connector for easily remove & replace
- DreamEye support: VM2-GUI feature to extract DreamEye camera photos from save files and store as JPEG
- Language support: The user will be able to select between English(US) and Japanese(JP) language
Speaking to Dreamcast Junkyard, Diaoglou explained what he hoped to achieve with the project:
The VM2 aims at being a total reproduction of the original - the connector, outer shell, electronics, everything will be manufactured from scratch. For this reason, and depending on the community interest, I plan to start a campaign so I can raise the funds to put it into production.
This means no cheap 3D printing or anything - everything will be made with quality injection molds, etc. and this is the main reason that a campaign is needed.
Also, instead of the initial plan of 4x VMUs (main) plus 50+ minigame (additional) memory, I implemented the integration of a microSD card slot. This will allow for literally infinite space and virtual VMUs / minigames.
The user will be able to create/copy/restore VMU files, either at the root of the SD, or organized in folders (i.e. per game). In addition, in case that a user doesn't want to use a microSD card, the VM2 will also support a default 1x(or 3x)VMU internal memory; and the selection of the current VMU file/memory to use, will be selected from the VM2 user menu.
There's no fixed release date as such, but Diaoglou predicts a price point of around the $100 mark. Are you interested? Let us know with a comment.