From films like The Lawnmower Man to Virtuosity — and all the Johnny Mnemonics in between — pop culture really made it feel like we were just one breakthrough away from plugging into virtual reality back in the 1990s. The actual technology available, however, proved otherwise.
But if video game company Sega had its way all those decades ago, we all might’ve been rocking a sci-fi headset a full 25 years or so before modern-day players like Oculus and PlayStation VR started bringing virtual reality closer to the mainstream. The technology may have still been a long way off, but that didn’t stop companies like Sega from grasping for that ethereal virtual world all those years back.
Riding high on the breakthrough success of the Genesis, Sega was keen to take its love of never-ending accessories and add-ons into the realm of virtual reality. They also wanted to do it at an affordable price point, teasing the VR rig would retail for a mere $200. Was it way too ambitious way too early? No doubt. Did it turn out to be little more than vaporware, only shown off at a handful of trade shows and conventions in private demos? Well, yeah.
But did it also actually kind of work? Indeed, it did.
Back in 1991, Sega was looking to leverage the Genesis’ success and position the hit 16-bit console as the at-home solution to the virtual reality problem we didn’t know we had. SEGA of America spearheaded the project. SEGA’s American and Japanese divisions often pursued parallel projects, with Sega of Japan developing the expensive VR-1 rig that was used as a centerpiece showcase at SegaWorld locations in the late 1990s and early-2000s. But at its core the bare bones of the Sega VR tech weren’t all that different from the ideas that power modern-day virtual headsets, just with a few rudimentary tweaks.
The key piece of tech that made the Sega VR possible came from a relatively small company called One-Sendai, which pitched a much cheaper solution to the head-tracking problem that is critical to making virtual reality actually feel virtual. According to Design News, the One-Sendai tech Sega licensed utilized an azimuthal sensor that responded to the Earth’s magnetic field to determine orientation. A photodetector with a small sphere filled with liquid and gas was monitored with LED and light sensors, tracking the intensity of the LED light as it hit the sphere, which would change as the sphere was tilted.
That tech was cheap to produce and, at a basic level, functioned conceptually well enough to read the movement of a user’s head to adjust the image on the two internal LED screens, creating the illusion of 3D movement. Compared to modern virtual reality tech, which is a mix of cameras and sensors mounted within the headset, the Sega VR solution was low-cost, elegant and almost good enough — at least for the 16-bit era.
Sega developed its VR rig from 1991 until 1993, and the peripheral started showing up for private demos at trade shows, including the Consumer Electronics Show, that same year, with the company laying out plans for a 1994 wide release that would never come. The Sega VR also showed up in plenty of video game magazines and marketing material at the time.
Early reporting at the time noted the system was… well, pretty much what you’d expect from a $200 virtual reality rig from the early 1990s. Demo users said it was sluggish to use, and it became fairly notorious for making anyone who used it for even a short amount of time nauseous and motion sick. That’s a problem for modern VR tech, too, of course — but imagine all that with muddier graphics, a chunkier headset and a whole lot more lag. It doesn’t exactly make for a great user experience.
Sega quietly pulled the plug on the project around 1994, noting at the time they were worried about users injuring themselves during use because the immersion was so realistic. This remains an issue for modern-day VR tech, as anyone who has accidentally punched a wall or tripped over a couch while playing Oculus can attest. In hindsight, it’s fairly clear that was a face-saving bit of PR spin, as the project was simply hampered by the technology of the era and wasn’t really viable for a wide release.
Though the project never made it to market, history does show us some of what Sega was cooking up with its VR strategy. Modern virtual reality tech is largely used for gaming and spectating media, and Sega seemed to be on the same track at the time. The company reportedly had five games in development for the Sega VR when it was axed: a helicopter simulation, a sci-fi game about piloting a hovercraft, a cyberpunk adventure, and two racing games (including a planned port of arcade hit Virtua Racing).
But thankfully, the Sega VR wasn’t completely lost to the pixelated sands of time. Some long-lost code from one of the Sega VR games, the post-apocalyptic title Nuclear Rush, surfaced in 2020 and was reassembled and preserved by the Video Game History Foundation. The team painstakingly emulated a Sega VR to get the game code running on modern HTC Vive hardware (very cool!). It also provides a taste of how the game may have played, albeit with some of the latency issues ironed out a bit thanks to the Vive’s processing power.
It’s worth noting, oddly enough, there is a mid-1990s alternate reality in the world of Spike Lee where the Sega VR actually hit store shelves. Lee’s 1995 crime drama Clockers was shot while the project was still in development and featured a demo unit of the Sega VR with the character Tyrone playing a fictional game akin to Grand Theft Auto. Had the peripheral released, it’d have been a wise bit of viral marketing. In hindsight, it remains just a confusing what-if bit of tech fiction.
The Sega VR was basic, to be sure, but it remains a testament to the creativity and resolve of a 90s-era R&D team thinking outside the box to try and bring an idea to life, using nothing more than some off-the-shelf components and the processing power that brought us Contra: Hard Corps and Toejam and Earl. As companies like Meta, Microsoft and Sony aim to leverage the modern-day equivalent of this tech to build an entirely new world in the metaverse, long-lost projects like the Sega VR are a crucial window into how the ideas around it have evolved — or not — in the decades since.
Virtual reality is something we’ve been chasing ever since we could cram a few screens into a big piece of headgear all those decades ago. The promise of games, worlds, work and another life beyond those flickering screens and complicated head-tracking kit hasn’t changed. Sega actually pulling it off just proved to be a few decades early.