On a crisp fall evening in 1991, an excited crowd packed into London’s Wembley Stadium, the storied venue that had previously hosted the 1966 World Cup final and 1985’s Live Aid concert. That was in the past. This night, about 2,000 people gathered to stare directly into the future.
Inside the cavernous stadium stood a line of a dozen large, gray pods. From the outside, it looked like dystopian science fiction: people in pods, their heads sealed in helmets. Inside, though, they were flying in a cutting-edge virtual reality flight simulator that networked all the players into a single, computer-generated world. The launch event celebrated the first time the public could buy all-inclusive VR. People played all night. Orders were taken then and there.
Behind the scenes, the team that’d built the machines, an upstart British company called Virtuality, struggled to hold things together. They’d never attempted to link that many systems together; Virtuality’s engineers were literally writing code on the spot, hoping everything wouldn’t crash and burn. The result—chunky graphics and simple gameplay—would seem primitive today, but in 1991, it was a revelation.