Microsoft's Kinect is currently the talk of the town. With its full-body, no-controller input, people are finding that for the first time they can play a video game without needing a controller. Those people obviously weren't around in 1993.
If they had been, they'd know that Kinect is actually the second attempt from a major video game manufacturer at selling a full-body, motion-sensing peripheral. The first came from Sega, and was released in 1993.
It was called the Sega Activator. And it was a piece of shit.
Sure, the commercials and marketing push (whose mainstream focus echoes that of Kinect's nearly two decades later) made the "revolutionary" control setup appear to be something out of a science fiction movie. All the user had to do was lay a bunch of plastic pieces on the ground, click them together and, as the ads promised, when you'd kick in real life, you'd kick in a video game.
Thing is, the commercials were lying. Users quickly found that instead of being able to accurately replicate body movements, the Sega Activator was instead only using infared to read your body movements as a giant controller. Move forwards and your Genesis (or Mega Drive) would simply interpret it as a push "up" on a d-pad, not any special kind of action.
Disappointing! Not nearly as disappointing, though, as the fact that even taking this into account, the thing still didn't work properly. The infared beams shooting out from each of the "pieces" were notoriously unreliable, prone to either missing body movements entirely or being confused by things like mirrors, low-hanging lights or ceiling fans.
Poorly-marketed and poorly-implemented, it's almost as if the Sega Activator wasn't originally designed as a gaming peripheral at all...
Which, of course, it wasn't. It actually began life as the "Light Harp", demoed by its creator Assaf Gurner above (at Sega's booth at the 1993 Consumer Electronics show), a musical instrument that's only purpose was to make its user look like they were suffering from a muscle disorder.
A purpose that applied to anyone trying to play video games on the Activator as well.
OK, so it wasn't all bad. The one good thing the Activator had going for it was that, as it was simply replicating the actions of a d-pad, it worked with pretty much every Genesis/Mega Drive game on the market. No segregation of the market, no need for console owners to go out and buy a whole new library of games just for the new peripheral.
That's it for the good news though. Everything else? Bad. No, worse than bad. Terrible. It cost between $80-150 over its brief lifespan, which in 1993 dollars was a fortune, so couple that with the fact it didn't really work and it's little surprise nobody bought it. It was quickly and quietly taken off the market.
All we're left with, then, are memories. One more instance where Sega fans can say "Sega did this first!", one more instance where everyone else can say "and it was a disaster", and one more day where we get to share this footage of film critic Roger Ebert trying the Activator out.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.