Retro VR — a brief review of some 1990s HMDs

With all the excitement about the return of virtual reality, the new Occulus Rift HMD and Google Glass, I thought it might be fun to take a snarky trip down HMD memory lane.


This is NASA virtual reality pioneer Scott Fisher (IIRC) wearing an early experimental “face sucker” HMD. Also he’s a mime.




VPL Cyberface “face sucker” HMD. Aren’t you glad I didn’t put a picture of Jaron Lanier here?




The Head Shoe. Officially known as a “Flight Helmet” we dubbed this device the “head shoe” as it was about as comfortable as putting a shoe on your head. In our first demo for Intel we were implementing voice input control of a virtual agent and the “echoes” inside the helmet actually interfered with voice recognition performance.






Cybermind was a virtual reality entertainment company based in San Francisco that operated a VR arcade in Embaracdero Center San Francisco and one other location which I forget. They used branded versions of the British VR pioneer Virtuality’s HMD and other top end gear.

They also famously held a huge “VR rave” in July 1994 that I attended along with early transhumanists, virtual reality researchers, and various other weirdos and partiers. Attendees included former H+ editor R.U. Sirius and Timothy Leary and the event featured networked VR games and a 150 foot virtual reality projection screen displaying impressive stereoscopic underwater footage and some topless girl dancing.

The Cybermind company also held the rather silly “first virtual reality wedding” that attracted some press attention at the time. Cybermind was supposedly funded by two trust fund kids and later went out of business. Shocking I know.



The most hated of all the HMDs we owned was the VFX. This device actually hurt you when you wore it. Pure evil.






The horror, the horror. While we are on the subject of terrifying HMDs, Nintendo really should have used this horrifying low res all red display to create gore-horror VR games but they didn’t.





I forget what this thing was called, put it had a very wide field of view and special optics and was hi resolution even by current display standards. I think it cost as much as a used Ferrari. It was more comfortable than it looks because of the use of counterbalancing weights and some thought into how the device sat on your head.

Note however this device notoriously caused the worst cases of “HMD hair” actually leaving a visible line across your head after use. Also this unit is a bit too large for the woman shown here. Where are her ears? 🙂




The i-glasses compare favorably in overall design to the current crop of eyewear including Google Glass I think and I own a set of these, but there are some missing parts. These are quite comfortable and the see through “mirror shades” mode allowed for development of both VR and AR applications. If they had ever shipped the the hi resolution version it would have been HOT.

However, to really know the story behind this device you must read the book The Visionary Position. Nuff said.

6 Responses

  1. simon says:

    I have a VR machine in my garage. I also have another one I`m building AND I also have 5 more kits coming!

    I am picking up a second full machine this week, so I hope to have a 2 player set-up soon – the first time in almost 2 decades I think!

  2. Nicholas says:

    I dont think VR devices will ever catch on in the mainstream. Mostly because using them blocks out real world sights and sounds. People dont like being blind and deaf, having no capability of simply glancing at their surroundings in the real world.

  3. “History best viewed from a distance”!

    Quite amazing to see a selection of images from the heyday of VR.

    We have also comprised a HMD list from my recent experience –

    How many of you would like to read an authoritative book on the history and current VR race?

  4. Fascenating stuff.
    The Nintendo VR….. thing ….. was truly awful indeed!

    Back in the mid 90’s there was a fantastic VR gaming center (for the time) in Chicago. There was also a Battletech Firestorm pod center right across the hall. The VR was so so, but I LOVED the Battletech center.

    All gone now, of course.

  1. January 25, 2014

    […] Peter With all the excitement about the return of virtual reality, the new Occulus Rift HMD and Google […]

  2. July 31, 2014

    […] Retro VR — a brief review of some 1990s HMDs […]

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