In a little known science fiction novel called Pygmalion’s Spectacles (1935), the main character wears a pair of goggles that transport him to another world. This world (mostly unrecognisable to his own) stimulates his senses and shows him holographic moving images. It must have felt like the effects of some strange intoxicant, or a fever dream.
Today, many consider this the birth of VR technology. The author of the novel, Stanley Weinbaum, could only grasp at the vast possibilities that his goggles would create. We don’t need to tell you what the technology has achieved today (but we do have a blog for that!).
And yet, its story is still being told. VR tech is growing (along with vast VR accessory ranges).
Created by cinematographer Morton Heilig, the Sensorama was a large booth that could fit up to four people at a time. It stimulated all the senses with full colour 3D video, audio, vibration, smell, and it could create atmospheric effects (like extreme weather). It was Heilig’s view that he had created the ‘cinema of the future’ and that people for the first time would be able to immerse themselves into their films.
Just two years later, Morton Heilig created the world’s first head-mounted display (HMD) to use alongside the Sensorama, called the Telesphere Mask. It’s at this stage that his explorations in virtual reality first resemble the technology we know today. His HMD provided stereoscopic 3D images with wide vision and stereo sound. Unfortunately, motion tracking was a long way off yet for the Telesphere Mask (motion tracking technology would come a year later with Comeau and Bryan, two Philco Corporation engineers).
Computer scientist Ivan Sutherland presents his vision of how virtual reality should be impossible to differentiate from the real world. Up until 1965, all previous manifestations had largely been for novelty purposes. Sutherland’s work paved the way for VR today. The world replicated through the HMD would be just like our own, and it would enable the user to interact with objects within the virtual reality. Sutherland’s work is considered the blueprint for modern virtual reality.
1966 sees the US Air Force take notice of various applications of VR technology. Military engineer Thomas Furness creates the first flight simulator with features derived from (and inspired by) VR technology. Before 1966, standard flight simulators received military funding. Through Furness’ success, burgeoning VR technology received funding and, most importantly, recognition.
Ivan Sutherland claims another headline in VR history as, alongside student Bob Sproull, he creates the world’s first virtual reality HMD. Called The Sword of Damocles, the HMD connected to a computer rather than a camera and, while quite primitive, the user’s perspective changed with the movement of their head (groundbreaking, for the time). However, The Sword of Damocles would remain within laboratory conditions because it was simply too large and heavy to comfortably wear – it had to be suspended from the ceiling!
In 1972, American power giants General Electric Corporation (GE) built a computerised flight simulator, featuring a 180-degree field of vision using three screens that surrounded the cockpit. VR technology is no longer confined to the small communities of science and engineering; it has proven its military applications and, with GE, its applications in industry and the modern workplace.
American computer artist Myron Krueger gave the world Videoplace, an artificial reality laboratory and, for as early as 1975, his ideas for Videoplace are indistinguishable to VR today. Videoplace surrounded its users with an artificial reality which responded to their movements and actions (without the need for goggles). Krueger did this using projectors, video cameras, and on-screen silhouettes. In testament to Krueger’s contribution to VR, Videoplace is now on permanent display at the State Museum of Natural History, Connecticut.
Developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Aspen Movie Map was a revolutionary program that allowed users to virtually explore the city of Aspen, Colorado. Basically an embryonic form of Google Street View! It was actually created using photographs from a car driving through the city, so it’s perhaps closer to Google Street View than we give it credit for.
For the first time, a HMD is fitted with VR capabilities (for military application). The aerospace manufacturers McDonnell-Douglas Corporation fitted a head tracker onto their HMDs which followed U.S pilot’s eye movements.
The first ever company to sell VR goggles and gloves is launched in 1985, and it is called VPL Research, Inc. Founded by Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman, VPL were quick off the mark in launching their VR company (considering the technology was so young). The company developed a range of impressive VR equipment.
Jaron Lanier of VPL Research, Inc popularised the term ‘virtual reality’. Elsewhere, British Aerospace develops a Virtual Cockpit with computer-generated 3D maps, infrared and radar technology and even speech recognition. Across the world, military technology is getting more advanced.
Crystal River Engineering is founded in 1989 after a Scott Foster receives a contract from NASA to develop parts of the Virtual Environment Workstation Project (VIEW). This was used as a VR training simulator for astronauts. Two years later, NASA scientist Antonio Medina would design a VR system to drive the Mars robot rovers from Earth in a simulated, real-time ‘test run’.
In 1991, The Virtuality Group launches Virtuality. Users can now sit in arcade-style chairs and play in a 3D gaming world. This is the first, mass produced VR entertainment system and, soon, SEGA would be lured into the VR market – within a couple of years the company launched its VR headset (due to the success of RoboCop the headset looked like a pair of visors!)
Numerous video game companies announced VR releases in the years 1994 and 1995. Firstly, SEGA released their VR-1 (a motion simulator arcade game) while VictorMaxx dropped a VR headset called CyberMaxx. In 1995, Nintendo launched the Virtual Boy console for 3D video games and it was actually the first portable console to display 3D graphics. Unfortunately for Nintendo, Virtual Boy was a commercial failure due to the lack of colour graphics and software support.
A landmark year for virtual reality in terms of its non-gaming applications. Experts from Georgia Tech and Emory University used VR to recreate combat scenarios for veterans receiving exposure therapy for post-war PTSD, which came to be known as ‘Virtual Vietnam’.
The general public is first exposed to virtual reality through its appearances in various films and TV shows. 1999 saw the release of Existenz, a sci-fi thriller directed by David Cronenberg wherein the lead characters are hooked up to devices that simulate reality. The same year also gave us The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne (a landmark film inspired by VR and the exploration of alternate realities). Earlier, in 1995, Virtuosity was released with Russell Crowe in the lead role – in the film, a serial killer, who exists only in virtual reality, comes to life in the real world.
In the television world, VR made appearances on shows as diverse as Murder She Wrote and Mad About You (a show featuring American comedian Brad Garrett, a central character in the hit show Everybody Loves Raymond).
18-year-old entrepreneur Palmer Luckey created the first prototype of the now famous headset Oculus Rift in 2010. Featuring an unprecedented 90-degree field of vision, Luckey’s developments reinvigorated a VR industry that, it could be said, had become tired and complacent.
The VR industry gains rapid momentum as Facebook puts down $2 billion dollars to purchase Luckey’s company (a company that had formed only four years ago). Elsewhere, Sony announced that they were working on a VR headset for the PS4, Google released the Cardboard, and Samsung announced the Samsung Gear VR (allowing users to use their Samsung Galaxy smartphones as the viewer). A remarkable year for VR, 2014.
Creating footage that struck a chord with the world over, BBC used VR technology to create a 360-degree video of a Syrian migrant camp. We got a glimpse into the living conditions of some of the most dangerous places on earth, all thanks to VR. Elsewhere, U.S media company RYOT exhibited a VR film about solitary confinement in U.S prisons.
2016 saw HTC release their VIVE StreamVR system. The first commercially released headset to be fitted with sensor-based tracking, the VIVE was an enormous success for what was HTC’s first foray into VR.
Following the successes of the Oculus and HTC systems, companies including Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft announced that they are working on VR systems. The race is on…
In 2018, the possibilities for VR really began to open up. Whether it’s being used to create immersive gaming experience or it’s helping to treat PTSD, there are vast applications. The constant advancements of smartphone technology will certainly facilitate the growth of VR.