The History of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a concept that still seems pretty popular in regards to technology. It’s something that we have thought about for a while, something that we have tested and dreamed of. It’s a place of wonder and excitement, a better world that we can create and be invested in. But let’s discuss the history of virtual reality, which is a little longer than one might expect, depending on how you think of it.

Virtual What?

So what is virtual reality? According to Webster Dictionary, virtual reality is defined as “an artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli (such as sights and sounds) provided by a computer and in which one’s actions partially determine what happens in the environment.” In this definition, virtual reality is more of a place and less of a thing. But according to some sources, virtual reality can take form in more than just a place that you experience.

Early days

Some researchers suggest that panoramic paintings are an early attempt at virtual reality, because they try to suggest and place things as far as the eye can see. They create a visual illusion, something that we can see and try to depict ourselves in, something that we can get lost in. 360º paintings try to fill our field of vision and show us a particular scene as we follow it around. It might not be virtual, but in terms of placing us in an artificial environment, a full 360º mural certainly does the job.

Charles Wheatstone’s research in 1838 proved that the brain can process two side-by-side images to create one, adding field and depth to our vision. This may be basic and more practical photography, but using two images taken at slightly different angles can add depth when they are seen overtop each other. It’s another smaller way to attempt reality, to add that third dimension (in our brains and eyes) to these two dimensional pictures. Eventually, nearly one hundred years later, this technology and research led to the “View-Master” which was used for “virtual tourism”.

Morton Heilig developed a machine called the Sensorama, which was patented in 1952. It was basically a cabinet theater that provoked all of the senses, not just sight and sound, to get the viewer fully immersed into the movie. Heilig also made a few films specifically for the device, all of which he did the production work for.

A few years later the very first head mounted display was created, just in 1960. It was not interactive and did not have any motion tracking, however. We would still have to wait some time for any of that to come into play. This headset just used the senses of sight and sound, as it projected a stereoscopic 3D image and stereo sound and was called the Telesphere Mask.

The next invention was in 1961 and was called the Headsight (pictured left). It had two video screens, one for each eye, and used a magnetic tracking system so that when you turned your head, the screens would reflect what you would see to naturally looking around the space. It was originally made for the military so that they could remotely view dangerous situations in the area. This invention was definitely a step in the right direction, but virtual reality, a term that wasn’t even being used yet, still had a ways to go.

In 1965, Ivan Sutherland wrote a paper called The Ultimate Display. In it, he describes concepts and ideas that would later be blueprints for how people go about virtual reality. These concepts/ideas include computer software for augmented reality, a HMD (head mounted display) displaying an interactive and realistic reality, and being able to keep up with it in real time. Here’s a quote from his paper, in fact:

“The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.” – Ivan Sutherland

Other games and projects would follow this, but the term virtual reality isn’t coined until about 1987, just 31 years ago. It was (apparently) coined by Jaron Lainer, who founded the visual programming lab or VPL. This company was the first to generate and sell virtual reality gear, which was interactive and for people to use. It wasn’t just a project or a game, but a piece of technology that people could use to be interactive with another, alternative and augmented reality.

Growing Fascination

Virtual reality was now spreading to the public eye. In the 90’s there are interactive video games that make it into arcades, the movie The Lawnmower Man, and video game companies are now taking the knowledge and making products of their own to sell to consumers. It is becoming more widespread, more known and even popular. Today, these original concepts and ideas have grown way more than one might have thought. It is becoming more accessible and affordable, with the help of computer and mobile technologies. Companies are performing and delivering more products, more updates that astound us each and every day. It is becoming so normal, we don’t even think about it. And how wonderful (and perhaps slightly jarring) is that? That we live in a world where virtual and augmented reality is no longer a silly pipe dream, but an actual reality?

No matter what you might think, every single advance in technology has lead to this, and it will only improve as time goes on.

Keep on listening and keep on creating,
Contributing Writer

The Franklin Institute:
Virtual Reality Society:
The Ultimate Display by Ivan Sutherland:
Webster’s Dictionary:

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