Hollywood Flashback: How Virtual Reality Flopped 30 Years Ago

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In 1989, two demonstrators showed off the “EyePhone,” an early version of VR.

Three decades before Oculus introduced its $599 Rift VR headset, VPL Research founder Jaron Lanier attempted to sell the industry on a head-mounted display unit called the "EyePhone."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Facebook-owned Oculus has begun taking preorders for its Rift virtual reality headset ($599 — not including the high-end PC you need to make it work), kicking off what some are calling "The Year of VR." But Hollywood had its first encounter with the immersive tech more than three decades ago.

Universal was a leader in the field because Steven Spielberg persuaded wunderkind VPL Research founder Jaron Lanier — widely considered the "Father of Virtual Reality" — to give then-MCA Universal chairman Lew Wasserman a demonstration. Lanier came to L.A. in 1987 with his $250,000 Reality on Wheels VR unit — the head-mounted display was referred to as an "EyePhone" — that he showed to Disney and Universal. (Spielberg advised him not to sign with Disney, Lanier recalls, because "the mouse has teeth.")

At the time, VR had a reputation for causing motion sickness — and 1983's Jaws 3-D, an MCA Universal release, had brought some audiences close to that. The first thing Wasserman said to Lanier was, "Kid, are people going to throw up in this thing?"

When told that the problem had been reduced to one-in-1,000 experiences, Wasserman didn't seem too concerned. In 1991, the studio developed a theme park attraction with Lanier in which groups of players would participate in a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style adventure. Universal's then-technology management president Jim Fiedler was quoted in THR as saying, "It's nonviolent, but people can be terminated." (The project never opened to the public.)

Consumer VR proved too expensive and clunky to take off then, but it's now common in theme park rides, from Disney's Mission: Space to Universal's The Simpsons Ride. "The really amazing thing about virtual reality is not just the thrills; it's more like a spiritual channel through technology to perceive ourselves more clearly," says Lanier, now 55. "If you're in virtual reality, your body changes, everything in the world changes. And yet you're still there. So what is that thing that is still there?"

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