The world of technology is constantly progressing…at a rate that seems to be getting faster by the minute. We’re all looking forward to seeing what the next few years bring us in terms of gadgets and the possibilities and experiences these would grant us…but have you ever stopped to think about how the immersive tech ball started rolling? The history of virtual reality is a rather interesting one, after all.
When did it start?
First of all, pinpointing the thing that kickstarted it all depends on how you define ‘virtual reality’. For the sake of this article, we’re going to use the definition given in the Oxford Dictionary:
Virtual reality: images created by a computer that appear to surround the person looking at them and seem almost realYou could be forgiven for thinking that VR only really started making waves in the 21st century, but the truth is that inventors have been tinkering with the idea for the past 50 years. Let’s take a look at some of the milestones made in the 20th century alone.
1935 – Pygmalion’s Spectacles
Unlike most technology, virtual reality as we know it didn’t start life as a single invention that had evolved overtime. The concept was born as a mere plot for a work of fiction in 1935…which is actually quite mind boggling for us to think about!
Science fiction author Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote Pygmalion’s Spectacles, a short story about a man meeting a professor who had just invented a pair of magical goggles.
“But listen—a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?”
1955 – the Sensorama
American cinematographer Morton Heilig filed a patent for what he believed would be “the cinema of the future”: the Sensorama. Credited as the world’s first multisensory media display, this device was a coin-operated cabinet that the user would sit at. It featured a stereoscopic display, surround sound, odour emitters and fans for giving the users a breeze. The chair the user sat on was also capable of moving and tilting for an extra sense of presence.
In 1962, Heilig built a prototype that screened a short film of a bike ride through New York, captured from a first-person perspective. As the user sat in the chair, they would be given the illusion of actually being on said bike, enriched by the wind blowing through their hair and all the ambience and aromas of the city.
Morton Heilig’s Sensorama (Interview).mov Unfortunately for Heilig, the Sensorama was a failure. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the sensory experience itself; it was just too ahead of its time to be a commercially viable product, given the costs of having to produce multimodal films for it.
1960s – the first head-mounted display
The 1960s was a pivotal decade for the world of immersive technology.
The Sword of Damocles
In 1968, computing pioneer Ivan Sutherland (inventor of the graphical user interface) teamed up with his student Bob Sproull to create a window into a rudimentary virtual world.
“The right way to think about computer graphics is that the screen is a window through which one looks into a virtual world. And the challenge is to make the world look real, sound real, feel real and interact realistically.”
Their solution was a device that consisted of a head-mounted display suspended from the ceiling, and a mechanical tracking system. The display showcased a simple wireframe 3D room that would update when the tracker detected user movement. Contrary to popular belief, the cool name “Sword of Damocles” actually referred to the tracking system, not the display itself.Many people cite this amazing apparatus as the world’s first head-mounted display, but there was actually one a bit before that…
The Telesphere Mask
In 1960, three years after the Sensorama, Morton Heilig went on to file a patent for the ‘Telesphere Mask’, a more portable headset made of aluminium. Described as “a telescopic television apparatus for individual use where the spectator is given a complete sensation of reality,” this set of goggles consisted of miniature television tubes and earphones, and could also be adjusted to the wearer’s liking.Sadly, like the Sensorama, the Telesphere Mask was just too ahead of its time. It didn’t catch on commercially and museums didn’t want to display it either, not even for free!
1977 – Aspen Movie Map
Cited as the world’s first hypermedia system, this electronic display took users on a virtual interactive tour through the Colorado town of Aspen where they could navigate streets, look inside selected buildings, and even change seasons. Think of it as like a precursor to the Google Maps Street View tool we all use today!
Developed at the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), the Aspen Movie Map was powered by a laserdisc player that had been hacked to access different parts of the data depending on user input, rather than play all media linearly like a standard media player.
1984 – VPL Research
Founded by Jason Lanier, VPL Research is regarded as one of the first-ever companies to both develop and sell virtual reality products. Some of their most notable products included:
- the DataGlove: a motion detector worn on the hand like a glove (as the name suggests).
- the EyePhone: not a smartphone, but an electronic head-mounted display complete with head tracking.
- the DataSuit: a body suit covered in motion detectors for tracking arm and leg movement, a bit like those motion capture suits worn in film production nowadays!
1991 – Virtuality
As the early 90s rolled around, the days of being able to use VR in your own home were still far away, but the technology started to emerge in public places.This is when the Virtuality Group came into the video arcade scene with a whole new line of gaming machines, powered by a stereoscopic headset and a motion-tracking joystick.
The units were also networked, allowing for multiplayer gaming. The Virtuality arcade machines weren’t quite the gamechanger they were hyped up to be: the hardware could only render about 30,000 polygons at 20 frames per second, making motion sickness inevitable.
1995 – Nintendo Virtual Boy
After ruling the home video game market with their NES, SNES and Gameboy consoles, Nintendo turned to virtual reality as inspiration for their next release. An early attempt at a portable immersive device, the Nintendo Virtual Boy console was shaped like a pair of ski goggles and worn on the player’s head. It had a stereoscopic red and black display that wasn’t actually too impressive to critics or users.
Unsurprisingly, the Virtual Boy didn’t live up to Nintendo’s sales expectations. Not even hefty price drops could speed things up, so it was discontinued after only one year of being in the market. What also didn’t help was the fact that it was surrounded by health concerns, and not just regarding the standard VR sickness side effects…some gaming magazines at the time even speculated that long-term use of the console could cause permanent brain damage!
Reading about how a lot of these inventions fell flat may feel disheartening, but the truth is, without these failures, we wouldn’t have today’s tech successes…no headsets, no motion tracking, no Google Street View, and no portals…Though the great game-changers of the tech industry inspire us, it’s actually the flops from which we really learn how to make things even greater. Is VR still struggling with similar market and technical troubles? Is there psychological barriers? Will headsets be the device that we choose to deliver VR through?