At that time, the most popular laptop computers included low-res displays, which rendered blocky monochrome graphics in hues of murky greenish-gray–if they did graphics at all.
That makes the Virtual Boy worth examining in more detail, especially since its negative baggage typically obscures the story of its creation.
It’s an intriguing tale about entrepreneurship, invention, East-West cultural relations, and the price of relentless invention. In 1985, when Nintendo had not yet conquered North America with its Nintendo Entertainment System, an engineer named Allen Becker came up with a clever idea.
It was a risky, innovative gamble for Nintendo that didn’t pay off, leaving many to wonder why it existed in the first place.
According to some reports, the Virtual Boy sold roughly 770,000 units worldwide during its brief life span–and only 140,000 units in its native Japan.
Sometimes these bets succeed splendidly (Wii, Nintendo DS), and sometimes they don’t (Wii U).
But the ones that don’t pay off are just as fascinating as the ones that do.It used a single line of 500 light sensitive diodes to sweep across a page, line by line, in a manner that could later be reconstructed into a two-dimensional digital image by a computer.With this technique brewing in his mind, Becker conceived of a display that consisted of a single line array of LEDs that could optically “print” a persistent image onto a person’s retina by changing the pattern of lights that lit up while sweeping across a given area.Neil Golden and Lipsey worked up sales literature that described scenarios like doctors checking vital signs or MRI scans with the Private Eye during surgery, and aircraft technicians referencing technical manuals as they lay on their backs, hands clutching greasy tools.Seeking someone to license the technology, Golden and Lipsey traveled the world, making calls and visiting companies to give live demonstrations of the new display.With no defense coming from Nintendo, who swept it under the rug long ago, the Virtual Boy has become video game history’s favorite whipping boy.