Discover more from PC ZONE LIVES
The exciting world of virtual reality videogaming*
*according to PC Zone, circa FHM
In the autumn of 1994, a boisterous American PR man thrust his way into the Zone basement on Bolsover Street. Clutched in his hands was a large box; nestled inside was the future of gaming.
The box contained an early production model of a VR headset. The story itself is probably apocryphal - it appeared in Zone a couple of years after the event - but it gives a flavour of the Wild West atmosphere in PC gaming tech at the time.
In 1994 there were no mass market 3D accelerator cards. It wasn't obvious that the future of PC gaming - all gaming - would boil down to 'more polygons - but faster!'. In this context perhaps VR was the next big thing. After all, various flavours of VR had been cropping up in pop culture for decades - surely the future of gaming was virtual?
Of course contemporary PCs came nowhere close to matching fictional depictions of fully realised virtual worlds; but there were competing strands of development that might point the way. Doom had chainsawed into the world just in time for Christmas 1993 and set a new standard for realism and immersion in PC gaming (no, really). More crucially, Doom was cool - Doom was fashionable - Doom was something you wanted to play, talk about and show off to your mates. Doom wasn't even in proper 3d, using clever tricks to convince the player there was depth and height, but it was fast, and the screen bobbed as you walked. In a 2020 interview Charlie Brooker noted of an Alpha build seen in the Zone office: to contemporary eyes "it looked real".
If Doom showed the way for immersion in 1993, perhaps the 'interactive movie' boom was indicative of what visuals would look like in the VR future. The 7th Guest - a haunted house themed adventure that mixed live action clips with pre-rendered backgrounds - wasn't the first interactive movie, but it was certainly the splashiest. Lathered with a big budget, it came with a whiff of controversy and a '15' rating from the BBFC. The first-person perspective drew you into the action, the violence and horror themes indicated that this wasn't kids’ stuff - this was ‘quality’ entertainment for proper grown-ups. It was also terrible to play - slow, clunky and cliched - but nothing that came on so many CDs could be wholly bad, right?
Perhaps then VR in 1994 wasn't as crazy an idea as it first appears. Doom had created a believable world in a puny 320x200 resolution, CD-ROMs could hold a staggering amount of data and the futuristic Pentium processor was starting to appear at more mainstream friendly price points. Surely Doom in VR would be a slam dunk - the next generation of CD-ROM stored, Pentium powered, high budget ‘Dooms’ would be a perfect match for the new VR tech.
We kick off in April (Issue 13) with a recruiting ad in the Bulletin for 'Knightmare', a then popular children’s TV game show. For kids of the 70s and 80s, Knightmare was one of our formative introductions to what VR could mean. Players were plonked into a virtual world and sent on a Hobbit-like quest to retrieve The Important Thing from The Bad Place. Ironically this ground-breaking use of CGI and green screen was forced on the show’s producers by an incredibly tight budget. It was far from realistic, but it was very compelling and felt like 'The Future'.
June (Issue 15) brings another Bulletin piece, this time trailing the VictorMaxx CyberMaxx (yup) VR goggles. Due for release in September, and boasting 'depixelization technology' , this revolutionary gadget would plug directly into your VGA port for instant VR action. If this sounds too good to be true, it absolutely was.
September (Issue 18) rolls around and the Cybermaxx remains resolutely unreleased - but this is a bumper month for picking VR shrapnel out of the Bulletin section. Heralding the age of headsets that may “change the games industry forever”, we get a trail for Forte's confidently named 'VFX1', a brief mention of the 'Astounding 2001 VR Video Visor' (a product that is never mentioned again) and, most bizarrely, a large box-out on the 'Aura Interactor Vest'; a wearable tech that promises to pummel the victim with sonic punches every time they get shot in Doom. Although the Aura sounds (and indeed is) both pointless and awful, it was one of the most successful 'VR' products of the 90s and 00s (an admittedly low bar) and can still be found on Amazon today.
Finally we reach October (Issue 19) and the focus issue for the second episode of the podcast - Phil's overview of impending VR tech. Before we reach Phil though, there is one more piece on VR in the monthly Bulletin. Optimistically titled 'VR a reality for Christmas' this modest box-out once again trails the 'VFX1' headset. Costing £650, it will launch in November and support Doom right out of the box - One of these things turned out to be almost true.
And so onwards into Phil's VR feature - and it is an honest and reliable summation of the state of VR to this point. VR has suffered from a "yawning gap between real life and fiction" he writes "all flash and bravado up front" with "very little technology" to back it up. He treads a fine line between realism and hope (and, naturally, a desire not to piss off too many vendors). "VR is now on the backburner as far as the mainstream is concerned" he notes; the right tech could change that but, crucially, "needs to be affordable".
Phil covers four pieces of tech: the CyberMaxx, the VFX1, the 'Interactor Vest' and the truly weird 'Logitech Cyberman' - which looks like a pair of well-armed breasts. Of the two helmets, the CyberMaxx looks like a better bet. Armed with a “high resolution”, modular design for easy upgrading and, most importantly, a sub £400 retail price, this could be the product that brings VR gaming into the home. The overall tone is cautious though and the ending downbeat. VR could well end up being a “blind alley” with “no mass market appeal”. Bullfrog is updating Magic Carpet to work with VR and ID have suggested some support in future titles, but these are scraps at best. In the podcast Phil notes that the tone of the piece was informed by things that were "not current selling products, but prospective products", the "tech wasn't there" and was woefully "underpowered". Although he isn’t quite so blunt in print, it is clear to the reader that this might be great, but the tech is not there yet.
The following issue (20) brings a competition to win a CyberMaxx headset (the RRP has quietly leapt by £100 since the previous issue) and coins the wonderful phrase 'virtual nookie simulators' - though I doubt even those could have saved the CyberMaxx.
December (Issue 21) brings the year to a close with another VR competition - this one offering a VFX1 headset courtesy of 'Future Zone' - opening with the doom scented words: “There can be no doubt that VR is THE hot property for 1995”. Of course this is essentially ad-copy - but I think most Zone readers of the time would have expressed surprise that there was no doubt. Ironically it would turn out that 'Future Zone' was a much hotter property than VR in 1995, finding itself bought out, merged and rebranded as 'Electronics Boutique' (remember them?) by the end of the year.
The year of VR opened ominously, with the January issue of Zone (22) carrying nothing at all on the subject. This changed in the next issue with a head-to-head review of the two main competitors - the Forte VFX1 and CyberMaxx. Oddly both headsets receive respectable scores (74% for the Forte, 66% for the CyberMaxx) despite the body of the review having almost nothing good to say about them. Praise is reserved for the ‘Cyberpuck’ controller bundled with the Forte which, despite looking like a terribly disappointing dildo, was both practical and functional. The same cannot be said for the headsets themselves. The CyberMaxx sounds particularly dire - it comes bundled with System Shock which “actually looks pretty terrible” being “very dark” with “unreadable text” - selecting key commands is “nigh on impossible”. The reviewer lists all these concerns and concludes, gloomily, “but that's VR for you”. In the end “neither of them” is recommended - but the review concludes with a slightly upbeat note that maybe the next versions will be cheaper and better.
And so ends the story of VR in Zone.
Well, almost - but the next issue brings the first whiff of what will actually capture the mainstream this year. “A new Graphics Standard?” coyly asks a headline in the Bulletin of Issue 24. The article is about the forthcoming ‘3D accelerator board’ from Creative Labs. Living here in our comfortable future world it seems almost unbelievable that there was a time when the GPU wasn’t the single most important component in any gaming system. Up until this point the vast majority of tech talk in Zone had been focused on CPUs and peripherals - the future was Pentiums and CD-ROM drives. Games were more power hungry, and that power came from the CPU. But the rise of the PlayStation had a profound impact on how PC gamers saw their machines. Sure, a PlayStation couldn’t handle Civilization 2 or Elite 2 - complex, multi-faceted games for grown-ups… but it could chuck zillions of awesome polygons onto the screen at once in Wipeout - something your sad, grey old PC sitting on its lonely desk could only dream of.
VR bubbled up sporadically in subsequent issues. Issue 26 carried a piece trailing the ‘i-glasses’ from Virtual i.O, promising graphics which were ‘very impressive indeed’ and priced at less than £200. Unsurprisingly the promised ‘review next issue’ never materialised. Issue 27 carried a small box-out on the VFX1 claiming Forte had upped the resolution and “made it even better” (come on Zone - you’re better than this). Issue 31 had yet another side bar on the Forte. The resolution has been upped again, the price had come down to £700 and, most crucially, it was about to actually go on sale in the UK (yep - it’s October in the Year of VR and the most lauded headset still hasn’t shipped yet).
And so we reached November 1995, Issue 32, and another review of the Forte VFX1. This time the review has two scores. 85% and a ‘Recommended’ award if you have £600 to fritter on tat, 40% if you don’t. The VFX1 is “hefty, very well made, sexy” and “loads better than anything else we’ve seen” - but when everything else you’ve seen is garbage, that's lukewarm praise indeed. The review delves into usability this time, noting that turning around in a shooter requires actually moving your body, which wraps the cable around the player, forcing them to spin like a top to untangle. Many games are technically supported, but very few provide a true stereo image that the helmet requires to do its job well. Descent is one, but of course your processor is doing double work creating two images at once, so performance takes a mighty dip.
The VFX1 returns once more in the following issue (33), making it onto the Christmas gift buyers guide (Zone, by this point, knows no shame). The same issue also has a competition to win a VFX1 - which we can only assume is the review copy being given away.
Before we leave 1995, it's worth taking a look at some of the games that came out that year. Or rather, it's worth taking a look at their names. If VR headsets were something that existed largely theoretically, games that had ‘Actua’ or ‘Virtua’ or ‘Virtual’ existed numerously and tediously. There appears to be an almost direct correlation between the scope of the game and its ability to live up to its quasi-VR billing. Virtual Pool, Virtua Chess and Actua Soccer know exactly what they are doing, stick to their brief, and earn their VR sobriquet (Virtual Pool does a decent job of simulating a room with a pool table in it, but disappointingly doesn’t immerse you in plush velvet and fag ends). On the other end of the scale, games like Cyberbykes: Shadow Racer VR (in which you are a titular CyberByker who must ride their armed motorcycle to save the world from the WTO) are so utterly appalling that the only explanation for their awfulness must be that they were designed to be used with a primitive VR helmet and somehow the plug on that was pulled at the last minute when those helmets failed to sell. Reviewing the game in Issue 31, Charlie Brooker worries that the game looks so awful it may have “broken something forever” inside his PC.
And so, the year of VR ends. A few disappointing pieces of tech, a handful of games with ‘VR’ in the name and not much else.
By 1996 it was clear the direction that PC hardware was going to take. Issue 35 carried a loving three-page spread from David "uberfragmeister" McCandless and David Mathieson covering the simmering 'format war' brewing between Creative (of SoundBlaster fame), Matrox (dredge that name from your memory) and Trident (the fuck?). At the time it appeared there would be competing hardware standards, each offering different features and publisher support. But buried within the article are references to 'APIs', ‘Windows 95’ and something called “Direct3D'' from Microsoft. Happily the clunking fist of Gates would force standardisation on the manufacturers within a year, to the delight of consumers everywhere. The format war that nobody wanted failed to happen and 3d accelerator cards sold by the shovel load.
In Issue 37 a piece in Bulletin heralds the arrival of the 'PowerVR chipset' from Videologic. This was purely a 3d accelerator chip, but it is interesting to note that the term 'VR' still carried some pulling power, even if it was being applied to tech that had already killed off interest in VR headsets. By Issue 42 the Playstation-isation of the PC reached its logical conclusion, with a piece on how to turn your PC from a box on a desk in a spare room, into the focal point of your living room. The tech still wasn't quite there, and I don't think the authors of the article expected anyone to chuck away their TV and VCR for a monitor with side mounted speakers, but the message was clear: your shiny Pentium, with dedicated graphics board and CD-ROM drive, was more than a match for the PlayStation. The gaming PC, as we know it today, had arrived.
Oh yes - there was sod all about VR in the magazine. Nothing.
VR had one last hurrah in the 90s - thanks to the troublingly named 'CyberBoy', reviewed in Issue 48. Clocking in with an impressive score of 89% these active shutter glasses weren't 'VR' as we would understand it, but were probably the most sensible way to enhance your gaming experience if you already had a decent processor, 3d accelerator and sound card. But the review made clear these were only "worth shelling out for if you haven't got something more life-enhancing” to spend your money on. This might be the best compromise between visuals and 'VR' you would find in 1997, but they were hardly essential.
Later in the year issue 51 carried a damning repudiation of VR tech to that point. "The graphics are absolutely dire" and "the resolution is disgustingly low", if this is ”reality...give us all a ticket back to fantasy land". The VFX1 was "the best of a bad lot" but, like all the others "has disappeared without a trace". The article ends on a hopeful note, citing the 'CyberBoy' as a "worthy alternative" to VR - although the conclusion that DirectX might have saved VR through standardisation sounds like wishful thinking. A standard driver architecture definitely helped 3d acceleration enter the mainstream - but it would have done nothing to improve the low fidelity headsets on offer.
VR disappeared from the Zone radar for more than a decade until a piece in the Christmas 2009 issue (214) on the rise of 3d gaming. Focusing on Nvidia’s forthcoming 3d Vision tech (nope - me neither) we’re enthusiastically led through a world where “3d in the home will be led by gamers”. It is worth noting that we’re talking about 3d rather than VR in the strictest sense here. Active shutter glasses that work seamlessly with your existing monitor and GPU setup are the order of the day, with the 3d overlay coming from glasses and drivers rather than a headset mounted display. Throughout the article there is a great deal of excitement about how 3d improves immersion - some improbable assertions that 3d actually makes textures look better and, naturally, a comparison to the difference between seeing a picture of a ‘pretty girl’ and then ‘seeing her in completely lifelike 3d’. Outside of subscribers to ‘Enthusiastic Masturbator’ magazine though, it is again hard to see who this tech is really aimed at. Like the VR of the 90s it’s not clear whose gaming experience will be markedly improved by the tech. Nvidia 3d enjoyed some developer and, unsurprisingly, a lot of driver support for a couple of years but this appears to have started to dry up in 2011 and is long forgotten now.
Of course today we know better. What were those rubes in the 90s thinking - with their 14.4k modems and laughable CRT screens! Even their telly wasn't 24 hour - the jerks. VR? What were they thinking?
And yet, VR today still isn't quite there. It has the resolution now, sure and the bulky cabling has gone away. But it still isn't clear quite what VR is for and the 'killer app' is yet to appear.
There may be an uncomfortable reality that VRs really shines in unsexy genres. Simulators are the obvious market - Microsoft Flight Simulator enjoyed a popular renaissance during 2020 (no doubt helped by the fact that most of us couldn't fly anywhere in real life) - and any game that involves sitting down and looking around a bit (Forza, Train Simulator) should work well with the tech. On the other hand, games like Hitman 3 work appallingly badly in VR - turning Agent 47 from the world's coolest assassin into a blundering maniac who leaves his hapless victims embedded upside down in the furniture. If VR were an essential component of Fortnite or GTA Online, the landscape would look very different, but it isn’t and so VR remains either an untapped resource or a curious sideshow - your call.
So what would a contemporary PC Zone make of the state of VR now? 90s Zone would be falling over itself to take a gander at the new tech, spurred on by zestful exuberance and acerbic anarchy. David McCandless would be devastated by the lack of Deathmatch in Half Life Alyx, but Paul Presley would be inseparable from his Microsoft Flight Sim world and Charlie Brooker would be miserably pounding the streets of Cyberpunk 2077 cloaking his childlike delight behind a veil of scatological misery.
2000s Zone would take a more considered view, producing a think piece from Rhianna Pratchett on VR in RPGs, a NeverQuest where Steve Hill smashes his fist into a wall whilst lost in a loot dungeon and maybe even a Looking Back article on how Zone had covered VR over the years.
PC Zone trod a very tight path through VR. It approached the possibility of VR with enthusiasm, sure, but overall gave an honest summation of the shortcomings whilst holding out the possibility that future iterations of the tech could be better. Of course it was also a magazine that needed to pay the bills and fill the pages - so the PR pieces dutifully went into Bulletin, the competition pages talked up the brilliance of the dodgy tech that could be won, but ultimately the editorial was pretty sound.
Ultimately the processing power simply wasn't there for VR to be anything other than a low-res mess in the 90s. But, considering that the minimum requirements for the VFX1 helmet were a 386 and just 20kb of memory to load the drivers, it is remarkable that these headsets worked at all. They may have been crap - but they were a genuine attempt to deliver a new kind of experience to gamers and what’s wrong with that?