A look back at the doomed virtual reality boom of the 90s

This article is taken from our virtual reality issue, which you can buy here. Header image by Shane Jessup


In the early 1990s, countless arcades and movie theaters were populated with hulking virtual reality pods. When you were buying your ticket for an afternoon screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Wayne’s World, you’d witness a lone individual standing in one of these circular pods, wearing a gigantic yellow-and-black headset, turning around aimlessly while pointing a plastic gun/phaser into the middle distance. It looked ridiculous; it also looked like fun.

Stepping into the pod, though, shattered any illusions. Each plastic pod encircled you, but left limited room for movement. As you strapped on the headset, which was twice the size of your head and just as heavy and unbalanced, you could feel the other players that had come before you, their sucrose-laden sweat working its way into your pores. Blasted onto your eyes was a 3D world of prehistory or fantasy—a potentially riveting experience if not for the lingering smell of popcorn and the somewhat audible fizz of carbonated soda dispensers in the background. Three minutes later you stumbled out of the pod, an attendant wearily guiding your now vertigo-ravaged body away from the machine, praying that your vomit would subdue itself until you rounded the corner to Cinema #8.

The company that would position itself as the vanguard of the VR charge into arcades was Virtuality, founded by Jonathan Waldern, a Ph.D. graduate from the Loughborough University of Technology. VR technology and its implications for the world of gaming had long been discussed, but it wasn’t until the late ’80s and early ’90s that public interest and popular culture took hold of the VR narrative and made its infiltration into arcades—and perhaps homes—a viable option. Films like Tron and, ten years later, The Lawnmower Man, suggested that all-encompassing digital worlds that users could interact with weren’t far away.

Virtuality’s first steps were with the 1000 series, which consisted of both sit-down and stand-up options, and started rolling into arcades in 1991. Depending on the game, you either competed against other players or were transported into a world on your own. The initial draw of these pods was not, and would never really be, the games; the units were not being promoted based on graphics, storytelling, or any other factors that commonly urged people to play videogames. Rather, it was the unit itself. In many ways, Virtuality relied on performance, the hulking pods themselves part of a spectacle that hoped to capture the attention of moviegoers and arcade patrons.

By 1994, though, Virtuality—and the popularity of VR pods in general—was crashing, with the company and the rights to the entertainment machines having been sold numerous times throughout the ’90s. In the three years since the pods were introduced, Virtuality had shaped the future of VR gaming while subsequently demolishing it through a thorough misunderstanding of what consumers expect from their gaming experiences; the flashy gear could only temporarily mask a set of harsh realities.

Perhaps they were doomed from the beginning. Economically, the pods couldn’t compete with the other machines in the arcade. Whereas players were accustomed to popping quarters in to machines and playing until they ran out of lives, Virtuality games like Dactyl Nightmare or Legend Quest, where you sluggishly walked around a 3D castle or wooded area while dinosaurs or skeletons attacked you in stuttering, choppy animations, typically cost anywhere from three to five dollars to play and only lasted about three minutes. It was good economics for the arcade owners, who were eager to have players in and out of the pods to make up for the high cost of the unit and the attendant needed it. But players were quickly turned off.

Perhaps they were doomed from the beginning. 

Added to that was the fact that it was nearly impossible to become accustomed to the complexity of the controls and the unfamiliar 3D worlds of these games in such a short amount of time. These weren’t simple button-mashing fighter games. Instead, they promoted what was (for the time) an uncommon sense of open-world exploration—hardly a recipe for success in arcades, where systems are designed for immediate sensory impact, not prolonged investment. Even if the player began to feel comfortable with the game and the gear after forking out dollar after dollar, the reward was minimal. This was five years before Mario 64 sussed out how players could move through 3D worlds, after all. That Dactyl Nightmare sported a garish yellow-green-red color scheme did not help matters.

The market potential of Virtuality’s VR pods largely depended on first impressions, then, and the units simply failed to deliver. More than anything, it would seem that the precipitous decline of VR in arcades in the mid-’90s, with Virtuality as the prime example, was a case of the technology being unable to keep pace with creative vision. At the time, pop culture depicted VR as a glorious vision of the future, but the rudimentary technology had no way of realizing this. Virtuality made a simple mistake that plagues so many tech businesses: they tried to mask underwhelming performance with flashy gear.

It was games, after all, that they needed—videogames that could actualize the technology’s potential. The company had some very minor successes in the mid-’90s; Buggy Ball saw players taking control of an SUV/truck/police car/bulldozer and competing against other players to knock a ball out of a bowl-shaped arena for points, while Total Recoil was a fairly successful partnership with Winchester, using compressed air power in its gun to add a little kick to its point-and-shoot gaming. These, though, proved to be too little too late; the ’90s VR arcade boom had already gone bust.