PRODUCT REVIEW: Back from virtual death

Remember virtual reality?

You're not alone. The phrase crossed many a lip in its heyday.

But like a much-hyped first-round draft pick gone bust, virtual reality never quite lived up to its potential. Then again, from the 1980s through the mid-1990s, there wasn't anything the seemingly limitless, groundbreaking technology wasn't capable of affecting.

From magazine and newspaper covers to video arcades and shopping malls to TV shows and movie screens, virtual reality's oversize goggles and gloves were going to change the way we communicated, lived our lives and even fought wars.

The reality, though, was that consumers mostly rubbed elbows with the technology at arcades and malls, where curiosity seekers were strapped into simulators that allowed them to walk on a distant planet, fly a plane or engage in a digital duel.

Some 15 to 20 years later, virtual reality is virtually nonexistent in the minds of most consumers. Most modern-day applications of the technology have much less to do with gaming and more to do with the medical field, where researchers use the technology to pioneer cutting-edge surgery and therapies.

Even the term "virtual reality" has lost some of its original bite, now meant more as a description of the online social communities (real and imaginary) the Net has fostered, such as MySpace and Second Life.


Not everyone has given up on the dream of virtual-reality gaming (there are actually a few products still on the market) -- least of all the executives at 3001AD, who recently introduced the first wireless, 3-D virtual-reality helmet, the Trimersion.

It's a blast from the fairly recent past with a purpose: luring a new generation of video-game devotees to a once white-hot trend that became ice cold.

The Trimersion attempts to drop players neck-deep in their favorite first-person shooters, or titles that focus on gunplay. The device is compatible with many of the gaming consoles on the market: Sony's PlayStation and PlayStation 2, Nintendo's GameCube and Microsoft's Xbox, as well as any PC. (The helmet is not compatible with the next-generation consoles: the PS3, Wii or Xbox 360.)

The verdict?

Virtually addictive or worthless, depending on your point of view. If nothing else, the Trimersion provides another glimpse at the potential of virtual reality. When used correctly, the device -- which comes with a gun attachment -- could enhance some gamers' experience.


For example, with a moody, atmospheric title such as "F.E.A.R." (playable on the PC and most consoles), the helmet imparts a slightly claustrophobic feel and may more urgently transmit the game's tension and white-knuckle moments. With the helmet giving both pupils a full-screen eyeful, the Trimersion offers the feeling of being in the middle of the action. Stereo headphones pump in the surround sound, completing the experience.

While the technology is intriguing, its limitations are evident. The Trimersion's big drawback is that it's a one-trick pony: It doesn't work with titles that don't require a gamer to pack heat. So everyone who plays "Madden," "Grand Turismo" or "The Sims" is plain out of luck.

Moreover, the device, which weighs more than a pound, is not particularly comfortable to wear. It will give you the appearance of Michael Douglas in "Disclosure," a mixture of futuristic and goofy. The device is wireless, so you are able to amble about freely with little worry of tripping. There is a bit of a "Terminator 2" feel to the whole affair, as your screens flicker occasionally from interference cast off by other wireless devices.

(After nearly two decades, you would think they would get this technology to work a tad better.)


Using the helmet takes some getting accustomed to, as you will have to hold the gun accessory unnaturally with both hands and learn to navigate any of a game's onscreen menus using the buttons on the device. But the headset does have an intuitive feel. It's not "Star Trek's" holodeck ± where you can live out whole adventures at your whim -- but it does feel as if you are closer to the action. Plus, the Trimersion is the only wireless VR helmet game in town.

Who's going to plunk down $400 on decades-old technology?

Who knows? Many gamers will probably find the price tag way out of their budgets. But that probably won't stop 3001AD and others from trying to reach into the past to create unique gaming experiences for today's audiences -- as evidenced by the popularity of the re-releases of a wave of video games from the 1980s and 1990s.

So, maybe what's old will be new again -- at least to a new generation of gamers.


Trimersion Virtual-Reality Helmet

WHAT: Creates 3-D experience for players of first-person shooter video games

PLATFORMS: PCs, Sony's PlayStation, Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's GameCube (not next-generation consoles, such as the PS3, Xbox 360 or Wii)

HOW IT WORKS: Plugs into your gaming console or computer and wirelessly transmits game images to the helmet; game controls are used via buttons on a gun accessory

Cost: $395