Going into last week’s GDC 2015, we knew VR would be a big deal. We knew we’d see the latest VR headsets, controllers, games, and software, but we didn’t expect to see Nintendo’s 1995 Virtual Boy headset, nor the cheeseburger-themed man toting it around the expo floor.

The moment we spotted him we knew we had to talk to him. It isn’t every day that you see a Virtual Boy, Nintendo’s famously failed gaming headset, nor one wielded by someone like Michael “Burgin” Borel, a man clearly dedicated to… whatever it was that he was doing on the GDC show floor (we learned later that he’s actually quite the artist).

We found Borel standing in line for what would be his first time trying the Oculus Rift.

Michael “Burgin” Borel. Photo credit: Official GDC.

Five pound Virtual Boy in hand, he was dressed head to toe in cheeseburger-themed fatigues. No expense was spared. Cheeseburger hat: check. Cheeseburger glasses: check. Cheeseburger shirt: check. Sweatshirt, watch, pants, socks, and shoes. Check, check, check, check, and check. We weren’t brave enough to inquire, but I’d put my money on cheeseburger undergarments as well. His attention to cheeseburger detail was matched by his well spokenness and his enthusiasm for the headset in his hand.

Borel was curiosity in human form. “Why is this cheeseburger man toting a Virtual Boy on the GDC floor?” We had to know. So we asked him.

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The answer we got back was something along the lines of ‘Just spreading the word of the greatest headset ever made’. And while we took this and further accolades of the failed 1995 system as sarcasm, Borel never broke character. A man truly dedicated to his craft.

So we asked him to share with the world his thoughts on Virtual Boy compared to its newfangled competitors. Take it away, Burgin’.

Burger Mirror rsMichael Borel is an artist, juggler, burgermancer, and more. He curates and shares a growing collection of classic and obscure video games. Originally hailing from Austin, Texas, he can now be spotted exploring the streets of San Francisco, sowing creative chaos wherever he goes.

Joining Oculus on the immersive frontier, Sony and Valve were showing off their own VR headsets at GDC 2015, but they are late to the game. VR technology was perfected in 1995 with the release of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy.

park photo (large)
Trust me, this is totally rad.

Fully Portable Experience

Unlike newer devices, which must be tethered to a separate computer or latch on to a smartphone, the Virtual Boy is a self-contained and truly portable system. Weighing a sleek 5 pounds and requiring a mere 6 AA batteries, the Virtual Boy provides 4 unadulterated hours of on-the-go VR goodness. What’s the point of having a VR headset if you can’t show it off to your friends at the park?

Mario Clash Screenshot 1

Two Awesome Colors: Red and Black

Who wants millions of colors when you only need two? The dichromatic Virtual Boy perfects VR by distilling the experience down to the most necessary of colors: blood red and abyssal black.

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red alarm warning

It’s Safe to Use… Mostly

The Virtual Boy’s automatic pause feature literally pauses the game every ten minutes, thereby preventing eye-straining injuries that will surely become commonplace with the adoption of newer VR devices.

You Can Buy It Right Now

nintendo virtual boy hmd 1995Another day, another vague idea of when devices like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive will finally launch. Nintendo had the decency to already release the Virtual Boy, which can easily be found today on eBay or in your cousin’s attic. With an extensive library of 22 (!) complete games, you’ll have countless hours of fun while you wait for flashier headsets to hit the market. So what are you waiting for?

Closing the Rift

I spent most of my time at GDC showcasing the Virtual Boy, but I took a break to give the Oculus Rift a try. The headset itself was light and comfortable, allowing me to fully test out this suspicious “headtracking” technology I keep hearing about.

In several of the demos I was greeted with realistic graphics, but the environments felt too big or too small. Even the slightest imbalance in this regard was a bit jarring, and marred an otherwise immersive experience. Indeed, creating an accurate sense of scale may be one of the tougher challenges upcoming developers will face (besides beating the Virtual Boy, of course).

Other demos eschewed realism, presenting me with tiny cartoonish realms floating in blank space. I could physically ‘lean in’, peering closer at the miniature events unfolding, and the effect was like examining a living diorama in action.

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Oculus saved the best for last: a close encounter with a T. Rex in a museum (thankfully Ben Stiller did not show up). I looked up in awe, I flinched, I crouched, and I spun around to watch the beast slink off into the shadows. The headtracking capabilities were at their best here, and I must grudgingly concede that this is one category in which the Rift beats the Virtual Boy.

Ultimately I was fairly impressed, but uninterested in purchasing my own… until I found out it could emulate Virtual Boy games. I’ll take one in red and black, please!

Additional reporting by Scott Hayden.

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  • mellott124

    I love how Virtual boy is always hailed as a failure. It sold 770,000 units. While considered a failure to Nintendo, can any HMD company claim numbers close to that?

    If anyone knows of any HMD that sold more units, I’d like to hear about it for my own education.

    • Ben Lang

      A fine point, though none of the ‘new era’ VR headsets have launched as consumer products yet. Gear VR is the closest to it, though it went out with very little marketing; the full consumer push for Gear VR will come with Samsung’s next product cycle.

  • spark

    The most amazing thing about the Nintendo Virtual Boy is that it could have been fully implemented on a Cathode Ray Tube with shutter glasses. (Note Vectrex pioneered cathode ray tube consoles in 1982)

    This is in accordance with Virtual Boys inventor Gunpei Yokoi whose philosophy was of using “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology”. It would have been successful.

    Ironically, the red europium phosphors in a colour CRT produce the best 3D with shutter glasses available. No ghosting whatsoever – its amazing. But this seems to have slipped by everyone and represents a lost opportunity at the time. What could have been for both Vectrex or Virtual Boy….

    • William Wallace

      Vectrex had a stereo 3D glasses solution, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=imhbTB8AXKs The first consumer device of its kind unless anyone can update me with better info.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lym8eHdQ1yM&t=189 Here is Nathan Barnatt, in 2009, as Kieth Apicary, in his first use of his virtual boy character. Kevin williams and myself talked to Nathan many months ago and his agent, about getting him to come to either CES or GDC and wear his virtual boy outfit, and do his falling down shtick, I offered to pay Nathan a very large fee. He said he was banned from a lot of places like CES, E3, etc because of past shenanigans, even with Kevin Williams mighty influence, it seemed it would be too much to get Nathan in. Thanks for this article Ben.

  • Jacob Pederson

    Maybe the NX will turn out to be Virtual Boy 2? A guy can dream can’t he?

  • Sean Concannon OculusOptician

    Virtual Boy emulator for the Oculus DK1/DK2 can be found here: https://code.google.com/p/vbjin-ovr/ V2 works with DK2.
    Not sure why Nintendo made the poor decision to choose eye burning red as the primary color back in the day. Fortunately the emulator supports greyscale, that combined with an actual head mount instead of that Quasimodo stand, make for a surprisingly acceptable experience.

    • Jacob Pederson

      Yea, I agree 100%, still one of the best uses for DK1, right behind Lunar Flight. I recommend Mario Tennis, Red Alert, Wario Land, and Vertical Force. Playing games actually designed for very low resolution displays is a welcome relief on DK1. Don’t forget to try some of the homebrew stuff also, There is a very passable version of Mario Kart for VB. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wE-0kocNNIw

  • spark

    These links demonstrate how a Cathode Ray Tube display can be used to generate high quality 3D images in red monochrome. Such as proposed for the Vectrex or Virtual Boy Consoles.

    The RGB to Red Greyscale adapter circuit:


    Resulting Images and discussion here at MTBS3D: