Sega's rise at the beginning of the 1990's, largely spurred by success of the Mega Drive (Genesis) console, prompted them to invest heavily in the creation of new hardware. One of the many R&D projects announced by Sega was Sega VR, a virtual reality headset, first announced in 1991. The display provided internal LCD screens, stereo headphones, and sensors capable of detecting inertia, which allowed the device to track head movements.
Initially planned for release in 1994 with several games developed specifically for the headset, the Sega VR was shown at consumer electronics shows in 1993.
Main article: Sega VR-1
In 1994, the technology was utilized for the Sega VR-1 motion simulator arcade attraction (see here), which was available at SegaWorld arcades. It was able to, fairly accurately, track head movement, and featured 3D polygon graphics in stereoscopic 3D. It was a large networked attraction designed for multiple players, like Galaxian 3 (1990).
A more scaled-down arcade version, Dennoo Senki Net Merc, was demonstrated at Japan's 1995 AOU (Amusement Operators Union) show, and it used the Sega Model 1 board to produce the game's 3D graphics. The game was not so well-received, with the flat-shaded graphics being compared unfavourably to the Sega Model 2's textured-filtered graphics (see here).
Development on the Mega Drive device was halted, however, with Sega claiming the experience was so real that most users would actually end up hurting themselves. Some, however, since speculated that it was more likely that the technology inflicted problems common to head-mounted virtual reality displays, such as neck pain, nausea, disorientation, or headaches.
The following games were known to be in development for the Mega Drive's Sega VR headset:
- Nuclear Rush: A simulation in which users pilot a hovercraft in a futuristic war.
- Iron Hammer: In this helicopter simulation, gamers pilot a flying gunship a la EA’s popular “Strike” series.
- Matrix Runner: Not to be confused with The Matrix franchise, Matrix Runner was reported to be a polygon-based 3D cyberpunk adventure game inspired by Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher, and was about entering a cyberspace called the Matrix to solve a murder mystery.
- Outlaw Racing: Road Rash meets Rock -n- Roll Racing in this vehicle racing/combat game.
- Virtua Racing: A port of this hit arcade racer was planned for the Sega VR (Electronic Gaming Monthly, Video Game Preview Guide, 1993).
Sega later went on to develop another similar VR device for the Sega Saturn. However, after its announcement in 1995, it was not heard from again.
Due to the interest in virtual reality technology at the time, Sega's development of the headset sparked a flurry of activity, along similar lines, among the company's competitors in the early-mid-1990's, but no other completed device had ever sold well.
Sega's chief competitor, Nintendo, would go on to release the ill-fated Virtual Boy in 1995, in an attempt to beat Sega's anticipated VR device to the market. Nintendo's table-top device brought discomfort after extended play, and lacked certain features of the Sega VR (such as colour 3D graphics and head-tracking). The Virtual Boy is regarded as one of Nintendo's worst commercial failures, and is considered to be partly responsible for the eventual demise of VR technology later in the 1990's.
The concept of head-tracking VR would not be be revisited again until the rise of motion controls in the 21st century. In 2012, Sega's concept of a head-tracking VR headset was eventually revived by the Oculus Rift. Its developer Oculus VR mentioned Sega's headset as an influence that they wanted to improve on. In turn, the Oculus Rift has inspired similar VR devices from Sony (Project Morpheus), Valve, and Microsoft, in 2014, sparking a revival of VR technology, which eventually led to Facebook's $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR in an attempt to introduce this technology to a wider audience beyond gaming.