Sega VR: The Virtual Reality Headset That Never Was
Virtual reality gaming has taken off in recent years with platforms like the PlayStation VR and Oculus Quest gaining popularity, but VR’s first iterations can be traced all the way back to the early 1990s. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console, released in 1995, was the first of its kind to be attempted by a major video game company, but it was ultimately a commercial failure. Prior to the Virtual Boy‘s release, however, there were reports of another VR headset on the horizon: the Sega VR.
Even though the Sega VR headset never got to see the light of day, several features and technical specifications for the product were touted in the years leading up to its quietly canceled release.
A New Direction With Virtually Limitless Possibilities
Following the massive success of the Genesis console, Sega set out to capitalize on its momentum by diving into the burgeoning territory of virtual reality. At the time, media buzz surrounding virtual reality was at an all-time high and its potential applications in the world of gaming seemed limitless.
The company first unveiled its plans for a Sega VR headset in 1991 and even put the prototype on display at 1993’s Winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The CES showcase highlighted the headset’s impressively accurate head-tracking technology and revealed that it would be released later that year for a mere $200.
Several magazines covered the event, and news of the upcoming Sega VR headset spread, building consumer anticipation for the product to tremendous highs. It seemed as though Sega was poised to take the VR gaming scene by storm and take its place as the industry leader.
But as time went on after the presentation, Sega’s silence surrounding the upcoming headset became deafening. No new details were released apart from an eventual delay to 1994 that turned into a behind-the-scenes cancellation of the product altogether.
So what went wrong? In a word, the problem was ambition.
Too Much, Too Soon
Even though the Sega Genesis console was considered a video game powerhouse by the standards of the day, it turned out that the console still didn’t have the necessary power to successfully run a VR headset the way the company envisioned. Graphically, the Sega VR games were subpar. This was made all the more evident by the success of the arcade alternative, Virtuality.
The Virtuality gaming machines of the early 1990s were able to deliver on the promise of immersive, 360-degree gameplay in a way that made Sega’s prototype pale in comparison. In hindsight, this was to be fully expected. The Virtuality machines were built from the ground up for that specific purpose and cost a hefty $70,000.
But even with the Virtuality competition, there was still the chance of Sega’s VR headset finding success in the home market with its much more manageable price tag of $200. This low price point looked to be possible due to Sega’s partnering with electronics company Ono-Sendai in order to create the Sega VR.
Ono-Sendai already had a headset of their own in the works when Sega started looking into them, and the company claimed that they could produce the then-$50,000 tracking technology for only $1. Their head-tracking technology patent stated that they could achieve this by using an azimuthal sensor, essentially a small liquid-and-gas-filled ball, in conjunction with a photodetector system and LED sensors. These systems worked together to determine the wearer’s head tilt by measuring how much LED light was able to pass through the azimuthal sensor when the headset was moved. This, combined with the sensor’s ability to read the planet’s magnetic field in order to figure out the user’s orientation, successfully created the Sega VR gameplay the company hoped for.
Unfortunately, as life-saving as Ono-Sendai’s technology seemed to be for the headset, it turns out that it still wasn’t enough. When the company was finally able to get the Sega VR headset up and running the way they wanted, testers didn’t react well to the new experience. Reports were filled with instances of children experiencing headaches and nausea, and continued use was deemed a health risk by several research institutions. This is an issue that many of today’s VR users still experience.
In 1994, Sega decided to cancel the project.
Getting an Extra Life
The Sega VR headset may have never officially come out, but you can still play one of its games today thanks to Dylan Mansfield of Gaming Alexandria and Richard Whitehouse of the Video Game History Foundation.
In 2020, Mansfield reached out to the co-founder of Futurescape Productions, Kenneth Hurley, and was able to get his hands on a CD-ROM of the Sega VR game the company developed in 1994, called Nuclear Rush. The source code for the action title was still complete, and Mansfield and Whitehouse were able to successfully emulate the game using an HTC Vive Cosmos. You can learn all about how they were able to make this a reality and try it out for yourself by reading Whitehouse’s write-up on the Video Game History Foundation website.