Virtual reality headsets to be given the hard sell

Charles Arthur reports on a new threat to family life
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IF you thought that television was a force killing conversation and family life, you ain't seen nothing yet. This year families and especially children in the UK and US will be the targets of an intensive marketing campaign to bring virtual reality - specifically, headsets - into the living room. The result: public viewing will be transformed into a private universe.

Even people within the electronics industry admit they are worried about the possible health effects of staring at tiny screens for hours at a time, although they also know that the long-term effects could take years to show up.

Already one company, Virtual i-o, offers a headset that plugs into personal computers, TVs and videos. It uses twin-liquid crystal display (LCD) colour screens, mounted inches away from the eyes, with headphone-type speakers for the ears.

However, John Smith, sales manager of the UK company that imports the headsets, says: "We recommend that people with epilepsy don't use them - it's common sense. And certainly some people find that the first time they use them, after they take them off they don't know where they are for 10 minutes."

Meanwhile, Atari, the US home computer company, and Virtuality, a Leicester- based maker of virtual reality arcade games, are both understood to be working separately on headsets for the home, which are likely to be launched this year. And the Japanese games giant Nintendo has been selling its weirdly-named "Virtual Boy" VR headset in the US and Japan since last summer, though that only plugs into Nintendo machines.

At the enormous Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, Sony gave demonstrations of a VR headset to interested buyers, while Virtual i-o's stand was packed for demonstrations of its technology to retailers.

"People in the industry can see the potential that these headsets offer," says Smith, who works for Amiga Technologies in Maindenhead. "They can see we'll be able to use them for all sorts of things in the home and at work, such as surfing the Internet."

The basic version of the headset costs $599 in the US - but pounds 599 in the UK. "We need the price to come down for it to be a home commodity," says Smith. "We sold about a thousand last Christmas, but we're really going to increase the marketing in 1996. The suggested price will be about pounds 299. Ideally it would be pounds 199, but the problem is the cost of the LCD screens themselves. They're the really high-cost items at the moment."

But though manufacturing volume is sure to lower costs in time, the effects on users' eyes and ability to adjust back to the world outside their headset is less sure.

Last year Atari , the computer company, was working with Virtuality on a VR headset, but has since taken the work on alone. However, Daryl Still, the UK marketing manager at Atari, says: "It's a very, very difficult area to develop products in. The trouble is not the hardware. It's because our parent company is American, and the US is the most litigious country in the world.

"If someone stubs their toe while wearing one of our headsets they might sue us for millions. And the question of the effect on your eyes is still open. So while the money people might be screaming for us to release the product on the market, the legal people will be saying that it has to be spot-on healthwise before we do anything. It has to be ground-breaking but not neck-breaking."

VR headsets are part of a coordinated effort by makers of hi-fi, TVs and computers to turn living rooms into "home theatres" where high-quality pictures and sound will entertain the family - or certain bits of it.