The social history of “Virtual reality” in Australia in the 90’s: the rapid rise and fall of public opinion between 1990-1997

“As human beings in the 90’s we are catapulted headlong into a brave new world which at times seems decidedly stupid” – Woroni, 21 February 1997

Trawling through Australian newspapers, the first reference I can find of the term “virtual reality” in relation to videogames is in a 1990 issue of the Canberra Times, in an article titled “Fantasy Made Real”.  In big bold text the pull quote in the middle of the article reads “It Will Be Possible To Enter Great Synthesised Universes”.  It was a time of lofty goals and even loftier expectations, but with virtual reality firmly back on people’s radars, I set out to get my head around the origins and quarter of a century genesis of what Oculus and PlayStation VR are seeking to popularise.  And after reading dozens upon dozens of articles, and trying to track where popular media thought virtual reality in video games was heading, here is a brief and abridged timeline of sentiment toward virtual reality in the Australian mainstream print media in the 1990s.

The futurist, (Nolan Bushnell), 29 April 1990

It wasn’t long before virtual reality was being touted as the next big thing, and technology pioneer and businessman Nolan Bushnell, was at the forefront of the VR evangelist movement.

“We can walk through historic reconstructions of 1066 London, with all the sights, smells and side streets. It’s like that old Freshman philosophy where everybody used to say ‘Yeah, reality is just a vivid dream’ — it’s creating that dream anew. In three years it’ll be right out on the market,in five years it’ll be rampant.”

If that raises alarm bells for you now, well in 1990 the response was no different. In response to the article that contained the above quote, “Fantasy Made Real”, a reader of the Canberra Times wrote in their concerns about the implications on perception of the real world to the editor:

“…[if] even “a kid from the ghetto”…[had] access to “all recordable knowledge…after you’ve been basking in the ministrations of the Triple-Breasted Whore from Eroticon VI for five minutes or more – and what ghetto kid could afford more? Doubtless the ghetto will look even worse than it did five minutes before.”

The Lawnmower Man effect, 1992

It wasn’t long until Hollywood was hot on the tail of the narrative potential of the social impacts of virtual reality, and while Lawnmower Man wasn’t a great film, it was a great segue into broader social conversation about virtual reality.  The Canberra Times dubbed the film “virtual virtual reality”, saying that:

“We are witnessing the development of a new industry based on deceiving the brain. By the end of the decade, virtual reality will be invading our homes, just as the personal computer did in the early 1980s.  The Lawnmower Man, a film based on the Stephen King short story of the same name is…[a] preview of the ersatz experiences that will be available to us all in the early years of the new millennium.”

 If it’s any indication of how people viewed the ‘virtual reality’ revolution, a television programme on ABC on Sunday May 30 1993 dealing with virtual reality was titled, “Cyberpunk” and carriers the description “examination of virtual reality computers”.  There is no doubt that, while many people feared the worst, the societal changes that people thought virtual reality would bring about were Blade-Runner in scale.

The business, (Seamus Morley) 1 February 1993

The early days of virtual reality was far from all fun and games, and by 1 February 1993, there was plenty of chatter about the humanity-advancing potential for virtual reality.  “Virtual Reality is no mere game, it’s serious business”, an article in the Canberra Times posits as it urges how important virtual reality is to the future of mankind, recounting the experience of a “space walk” VR demo.   This is a pervasive theme in the early days of the technology’s presence in the mainstream press, and while video games are a framing device in many occasions, in most cases articles returned from searching for “Virtual Reality” and “VR” make reference to far more practical uses of the technology.

“We don’t want to hype this stuff up and set expectations at too high a level…[but] getting the thoughts out of my brain directly onto computer. This stuff is the future”  

Midweek Magazine (The Canberra Times), 13 May 1992. Accessed via National library of Australia
Midweek Magazine (The Canberra Times), 13 May 1992,  National library of Australia

…and games, 1993

But it wasn’t long before the talk of advancing humanity was put on the back burner -at least in the mainstream sense – and talk of its applications in the games industry jumped right back into the spotlight.  An article on SEGA’s arcade game G-LOC describes the exhilaration of the game, almost pitched as the ‘end of the non-VR era’, Written almost as a “one we prepared earlier” eulogy for traditional arcade games:

“The realism and excitement of most of these games can’t be faulted and with Virtual Reality just around the corner who knows how advanced they will get in the next few years.”

Mere months later the virtual reality hype had hit in earnest and on 12 May 1992 the first ‘Virtual Reality Cafe’ opened its doors with “Dactyl Nightmare” the main attraction.  “This Is Close To The Real Thing” the headline in the Canberra Times read the following day, eschewing the years of research and application of virtual reality technology in science and industry for a thoroughly video-game focused perspective:

“This is what virtual reality is all about— flooding the primary senses, sight and hearing, to trick the brain. And it is typical that the technology has hit the games arcade long before the scientific laboratory.”

The favourable and sensational coverage of the cafe’s main event continued throughout May 1993, echoing the death knell sentiment of ‘traditional’ video games from other articles:

“Put away your old video games, your joysticks and even your Power Gloves, their time is over — a brave new world of entertainment has arrived in Canberra.  Yes, it’s time to stop looking at the screens of arcade games and take the mind boggling step through the perspex to be inside one yourself.”

Months later in August 1993, all eyes were still on that virtual reality café in Canberrra, and the hopes and dreams that VR brought with it were still firmly in the sights of the mainstream media:

VR is an experience to which words do little justice. Imagine be ing able to’play a game of hide and seek in a recreated medieval castle,  complete with ghosts and ghouls, where your opponent is just as imaginary as the walls, floors or monster population. Or try to grasp the concept of being able to play against an opponent you have never met in person, because they live in Finland. International Cyber sports, via optic fibres and VR technology, may be the future of armchair sport.

Had this manifested itself, the term e-sports would carry a very, very different meaning.  It’d be c-sports for starters.

The blame game and alarmism, 1993

Just as we blame convergence for the systematic commercial failure of many of our traditional media content providers – broadcast free-to-air television in particular – virtual reality was one of the go-to reasons the media blamed for collapses of entertainment institutions.  One of those was the closure of the Starlight Drive-In in Canberra, which screened its final film on 30 May 1993, after which an obituary was published:

“Time had caught up with the Starlight, its continuing existence an anachronism in the age of the video, Walkman and virtual reality.”

The mainstream media seemed to think virtual reality was here to stay, and sentiment was overwhelmingly positive, something that’s hard to reconcile with what we know about the life and times of virtual reality as a consumer product.  Strangely both have since largely passed on in the form they were in at the time.

But the concerns around virtual reality, similar to that of games, remained a consistent theme in the early 1990’s.  As the aforementioned Canberra Times reader observed way back in 1990, there were broader social issues at stake.  Fuelled in some part by the then recent release of Night Trap, in an article  titled Danger of Real Life Violence Emerging from Video Game Fantasy appearing in the paper on 4 July 1993, the issue of the real world becoming foreign was again raised:

Broader issues leave this observer at least as uneasy…will it provide the temporary relief of healthy catharsis, or the permanent refuge of illusion, and, in the end, alienation from others and from their waking self?

A month before, at the second national conference on violence, then Governor-General Bill Hayden made comment on violence in society, with particular mention of “virtual reality”:

It is hard to believe that some of these films do not desensitise the viewer to violence, to say nothing of those interactive computer games — if that is the word — that engage young players in “virtual reality” contests of the most degrading and violent sort.  Are we in fact becoming a more violent society?  I suspect the answer to that is generally “no”…contemporary Australia is not a violent place… “

At a time where concerns over video game violence were at fever pitch, and thoughts turned to how virtual reality may exacerbate the perceived problems, the views of the Australian Governor-General were particularly progressive.

Virtual reality is DOOMed, 1994

We see early in 1994 the definition of ‘virtual reality’ – specifically in reference to video games – start to blur.  Following the release of DOOM in late December 1993, the print media begins its razor sharp focus that would later be at the centre of controversy.  In an article published in on 14 February 1994 titled Doomed to play a killer of a game, numerous references are made to it as “…virtual reality style of play”.  By December 1994, an exhibition was held at the National Gallery of Australia dealing with the subject of living in the 90’s titled Virtual Reality, with DOOM being amongst the exhibits.  Already by 1994 virtual reality had begun to move on, and the expectations were being tempered by the media, who had already started to speak of it in a somewhat mocking tone.  On the matter of the economy and the official cash rate, on 29 June 1994 a journalist wrote of the “gamesters”:

“Government,Opposition, media, financial markets, and private commentators —are playing a virtualreality game.  Imagine them all turning up at the amusement parlour, strapping on their headsets and handles, walloping each other in the imaginary battle on their screens…”

It took three years, and already popular opinion and anticipation for the impact Virtual Reality would have on society, was beginning to wane.  Even consumer sentiment was down, with a report on 23 July 1994 reporting on a survey that found only 20 per cent of American consumers were “…prospective subscribers for emerging technologies such as…virtual reality”.

So diluted had the term  become, that I even found a reference a year later in 1995 to “virtual reality” in terms of a phone sex line:

“VIRTUAL reality on your phone, live erotic chat, casual affairs, computer matching.”

By 1995 virtual reality was merely a shadow of, perhaps a world away from what it was touted to be in the early 90’s.

Backing away from virtual reality, 1994

What begun in the middle of 1994, continued throughout the year, and by December the limitations of virtual reality were beginning to shine through the mainstream.  In the article Something To Remember covering the then troubled Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the then Director of the cultural institution Brendon Kelson, rejected the use of virtual reality technology in the gallery:

“The strength of museums is in their collections…when people can actually go to a book or computer and get a superb image of the Mona Lisa, why is it that they still want to go to the Lourve…?  Because it’s the experience, the communion, the contact that they have with the real object.”

Public opinion was becoming similarly sceptical, and in a letter to the paper (although I suspect it’s satire), someone recalled trying a virtual reality headset for the first time:

“I tried one of those new virtual reality headsets, and it was just like being at work when you have had 10 schooners for lunch”

Industry moves away from VR, 1995

With video games forging ahead without it, with potential users losing interest, and with public interest waning rapidly, the last nail in the coffin for that first wave of virtual reality was for the engineers themselves to abandon it.  The first evidence of this begins to appear during the middle of 1995, when in an article prominently featuring Silicon Graphics, the admission is made that:

“virtual reality with head sets is proving too clumsy and restrictive. Instead high quality virtual reality graphics running at 30 frames a second will be more likely to display on monitors in future.”

Throughout the mid-to-late 90’s, the incidence of the word “virtual reality” in its now-common use drops off.

A “decidedly stupid” brave new world, the end… 1997

By 1997 virtual reality had all but dropped off.  But in place of sincere discussion and aspirational propositions, came mockery of the highest-order.  My favourite quote comes from an Australian National University newspaper, Woroni, which writes on virtual reality:

Could it be that ‘leisure’ is just a euphemism for ‘sitting on your arse doing bugger all? When we do invent new technology, we generally use it to increase our existing vices.  How long can it be before virtual prostitution, virtual gambling and virtual Celine Dion invade our leisure hours?  How long before fumbling teenagers on universal back seats assure their worried partners, ‘It’s okay baby, I’m wearing a virtual condom.’

And so after seven years of pontification and (at times self) gratification, the 1990’s virtual reality experiment had come to a grinding halt, culminating in a less than flattering observation about the human condition.  It may not have happened in the 90’s, but the one thing perhaps that first Canberra Times article in April 1990 did get right is  that “…”Virtual Reality“, a revolutionary technology that, it is confidently predicted, will change the face of the 21st century“, because 25 years on and we’re still no closer to those entering those great synthesis universes.  Perhaps if Nolan Bushnell’s assertion that “…In 30 to 50 years’ time you simply won’t be able to tell the difference” between reality and its virtual counterpart is true, perhaps we’ve thus far dodged a bullet.  But who knows what this next wave of virtual reality will bring, and whether it will be the ‘game changer’ people expect it, like its predecessor, to be. But given the same clumsy and restrictive physical nature of VR, it is entirely possible that history will indeed repeat itself.

Image: National Library of Australia
Image: Australian National University ‘Woroni’, 21 February 1997, National Library of Australia

[Author’s note: While I searched all Australian newspapers, most of my search yielded Canberra Times articles, which may indicate flaws in my search methodologies.  I plan on continuing this research so if I can rectify the narrow sample I will seek to do so.]


References:

1990 ‘SUNDAY MAGAZINE Fantasy made real.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 29 April, p. 17, viewed 11 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article122103958

1992 ‘MIDWEEK MAGAZINE Throw out the TV, it’s time for virtual reality.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 13 May, p. 22, viewed 6 October, 2015,

1993 ‘No snickers please, virtual reality is serious business.’,The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 1 February, p. 16, viewed 1 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126973178

1993 ‘Take your seat for action.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 14 February, p. 1 Section: Junior Times, viewed 24 October, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126976054

1993 ‘This is close to the real thing.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 13 May, p. 26, viewed 29 October, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126988385

1993 ‘Junior Times.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 16 May, p. 35, viewed 6 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126989016

1993 ‘Lacklustre passion pit driven out by time.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 31 May, p. 3, viewed 4 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126992102

1993 ‘Danger of real-life violence emerging from video game fantasy.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 4 July, p. 10, viewed 12 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127237025

1993 ‘VIOLENCE CONFERENCE.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 16 June, p. 11, viewed 12 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127233180

1994 ‘Doomed to play a killer of a game.’, The Canberra Times(ACT : 1926 – 1995), 14 February, p. 18, viewed 05 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article134301950

1994 ‘Lee’s lust for art a virtual reality.’, The Canberra Times(ACT : 1926 – 1995), 10 December, p. 3, viewed 12 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127259607

1994 ‘Market turmoil results from gamesters’ play.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 29 June, p. 19, viewed 12 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article118174868

1994 ‘FEATURES.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 3 December, p. 51, viewed 12 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127258194

1995 ‘Writing readers writes.’, The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995), 15 May, p. 23, viewed 12 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article130550671

1995 ‘Computers & Communications.’, The Canberra Times(ACT : 1926 – 1995), 17 July, p. 16, viewed 12 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article128287875

1997 ‘footnotes.’, Woroni (Canberra, ACT : 1950 – 2007), 21 February, p. 43, viewed 12 November, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article140142715


2 Comments

  1. Great read and very interesting to see the relationship between discussion of Virtual Reality then and nowadays.

    Although I do believe Virtual Reality and Augmented reality nowadays has become way more applicable in several sectors. History will not repeat itself for those sectors. Maybe it will for gaming, but it will not for surgery training programs, millitary training, movies and VR documentaries for example.

    I’ve seem examples, where doctors enter the body in VR and can “travel” along with medicines, to see how it works inside the body, while a vooce over explains what’s happening. Besides this being immersive, it is an experience that you remember much better compared to looking at a screen.

    It’s just an example that I believe shows us that Virtual Reality will have a huge impact on certain business sectors and might be called a “Revolution” for training and education purposes.

    1. thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes, the deeper I fell into the research, the more the practical applications became apparent. Strangely though, the same themes emerged in the mid 90’s, with engineering and medical/pharmaceutical being the common themes.

      Around education and training, the theme that was recurrent was “having all the information available to everyone” – which oddly a parallel can be draw to the internet for. In fact many of the very early mentions of virtual reality have their closest modern counterpart in the internet!

      It is a fascinating area anyway, and something I’ll certainly be doing more research into.

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