Virtual reality has evolved from science fiction to one of the most entertaining and educational platforms available. But the ascension of virtual realities hasn’t been as quick as many believe; there have been decades of labour-intensive research and development projects behind contemporary VR systems. While the pursuit of computer-generated, immersive worlds has been significantly accelerated in the past decade or two, centuries of innovation have paved the way for modern systems.
With virtual reality reaching mass consumer adoption, more money will flow towards innovating and improving the technologies behind them.
To fully understand where the technology trend is leading, it’s helpful to look at the progress that’s been made up to this point. Understanding the history of virtual reality provides an appreciation for the art and science that’s gone into its rise and identifies opportunities to further develop the technology. From panoramic paintings, to early-stage flight simulators, to the gaming industry, and finally to the wide range of practical uses it has today, virtual reality has come a long way and will continue to amass even more valuable applications.
A Brief History of Virtual Reality
The pioneers of virtual reality understood that it would one day be possible to see and feel worlds around us that weren’t physically there. They understood that the mind is a powerful tool that, given the right sensory input, could give users an extreme emotional response that overpowers perception of their environment. But how did it all start, and how has it evolved to become the cutting-edge platform that’s becoming mainstream today?
In the nineteenth century, prior to the conceptualization of virtual reality, artwork was the only way people could envision people, places, or things that were not unfolding in real-time in front of them. Artists progressed from smaller works to 360-degree murals (or panoramic paintings) that were intended to fill the viewer’s entire field of vision, making them feel present at some historical event or scene.
The scientific building blocks for virtual reality started forming in 1838 when Charles Wheatstone’s research demonstrated that the brain processes two-dimensional images from each eye into a three-dimensional object. Viewing two side-by-side stereoscopic images or photos through a stereoscope gave the user a sense of depth and immersion.
Created in 1929 and patented in 1931, the “Link Trainer” became the first commercial flight simulator. Entirely electromechanical, it contained a motor-controlled rudder and steering column that modified pitch and roll. Another small device created the feeling of turbulence-like disturbances. This revolutionary training aid was sold to the United States military and during World War II, over 500,000 pilots used the system to develop better flight skills.
Published in 1935, Pygmalion’s Spectacles was the first-ever science fiction work that contained the idea of eye goggles that let the wearer view, smell, taste, and touch a virtual world. This vision of the future kick-started the technological progression of innovations that would enable virtual reality as we know it today.
Patented in 1939, the popular View-Master stereoscope was originally used for “virtual tourism.” By this time, colour film could be used for small high-quality images and it enabled viewers to feel more immersed within the pictures. Most picture reels contained seven images and 14 slides; each image was viewed through the left and right eyes independently, helping achieve the 3D perspective that was so novel at the time. This design principle is still used today in Google’s Cardboard VR model and other low-budget VR goggles.
By the mid-1950s cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama, an arcade-style theatre cabinet that stimulated all the senses, not just sight and sound. Later patented in 1962, the machine featured stereo speakers, a stereoscopic 3D display, fans, smell generators, and a vibrating chair. The Sensorama was intended to fully immerse users in films that the machine was programmed to show; Heilig himself shot, produced, and edited six short films for the device, including Motorcycle, Belly Dancer, Dune Buggy, Helicopter, A Date with Sabina, and I’m a Coca Cola Bottle!
Heilig is also credited for the first model of head-mounted display (HMD) which is used widely for virtual reality today. In 1960, he patented the Telesphere Mask; while it did not use motion tracking to make films interactive, it provided stereoscopic 3D and wide vision with stereo sound. This made for the most immersive virtual experience available at the time.
The 1960s featured multiple virtual reality innovators aside from Heilig. In 1961, two engineers developed the first precursor to modern interactive HMDs – the Headsight. Developed for military purposes, the Headsight incorporated a video screen for each eye and a magnetic motion tracking system, which was linked to a closed-circuit camera. While it lacked the integration of computer and image generation, it provided immersive remote viewing of dangerous situations and helped save lives.
Then in 1968, Ivan Sutherland and his student, Bob Sproull, created the first HMD that was connected to a computer and not a camera. The Sword of Damocles was too heavy for any user to comfortably wear and was suspended from the ceiling, hence its name, which refers to a massive sword that hung above Damocles’ throne in Greek literature. The user needed to be strapped into the device and its computer-generated graphics were primitive wireframe rooms and objects. While not ideal, the design represented a great start towards the virtual reality systems that are used today.
By 1969 the term “artificial reality” was created by computer artist Myron Kruegere, who developed computer-generated environments that responded to the people in it. He created several projects, each incrementally better and more immersive than the last. By the time he developed VIDEOPLACE technology, users could communicate with each other in a responsive computer-generated environment while being miles apart in real life.
Computer-generated environments became less of a focus for the next decade and in 1978, the first version of Google’s Street View became available. Developed by MIT and DARPA, the Aspen Movie Map used photographs taken from a car driving through Aspen, Colorado, giving the user an interactive first-person journey around the city. While there was no HMD component to the project, it enabled first-person interactivity and allowed users (regardless of physical location) to feel like they were in another place and had control over how they existed within it.
Although VR innovator Thomas Furness started working on an advanced flight simulator in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1980s when it was ready for use. As opposed to the simple 1930s “Link Trainer” that preceded Furness’ invention, the “Super Cockpit” as it was called had significantly more functionalities and supported computer-generated 3D maps for enhanced performance. In addition to the much-improved visual display, the training cockpit allowed trainee pilots to control an aircraft using gestures, speech, and even eye movements. The multi-million-dollar project provided considerable advancements to simulator and virtual reality technology.
Modern VR took a giant leap forward in 1987 when Jaron Lanier, founder of the Visual Programming Lab (VPL), began using and making the term “virtual reality” more commonplace. With a vision for how the technology could reshape our world, Lanier and a team of developers greatly expanded the field of virtual reality haptics, or the devices one could use to manipulate virtual reality. This included the Dataglove (glove-based haptic control) and the EyePhone (head-mounted display). They were the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves, although the price point for these innovations made them out of reach for most consumers.
In 1991, virtual reality became more integrated with video games, although the technology was still far from consumer-based home models. The Virtuality Group launched a range of arcade games and machines that were intended for individual and group play. These massive machines represented a significant investment for any who purchased them (typically arcades and entertainment centres) but offered VR access to the masses who could finally participate in virtual realities.
Two years later, gaming company Sega changed the VR world when it announced a VR headset for its Sega Genesis console. Although technical development difficulties prevented it from ever launching, the wrap-around prototype glasses had head tracking, stereo sound, and LCD screens in the visor – a big step forward from anything that was offered to the consumer market at the time. It was expected to retail for $200 upon its launch, which was an affordable price point for many hardcore gamers ready to take their experience to the next level.
Nintendo was the next company to attempt a virtual reality gaming console that was affordable to the masses. The Nintendo Virtual Boy, a portable 3D gaming console, was launched in 1995 and retailed for $180, but failed to meet consumer expectations and ultimately failed despite price drops. The lack of colour graphics, lack of software support, and difficult/uncomfortable use made it an undesirable product and it was discontinued in 1996, one year after its launch.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, most VR development focused on commercial and institutional uses, mainly as a training aid. Research indicated that virtual reality could be used as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trials were performed to evaluate the technology’s use for other applications. This marked a dark time for consumer markets as there was little or no progress on bringing VR to home-based users.
This changed in 2010 when Palmer Luckey, an 18-year-old entrepreneur, created the first Oculus Rift headset prototype. It featured an advanced 90-degree field of vision and relied on a computer’s processing power to deliver images. In 2012, Luckey launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift which raised $2.4 million. Then in 2014, Facebook bought the Oculus VR company for $2 billion. This was a defining moment in VR’s history because of the high sell price, the implied value it would hold, and the understanding that a company like Facebook could invest significantly in research and development.
Other international tech companies were soon to release their own virtual reality-based products. While relatively simple in design and performance, Google’s Cardboard product made VR an extremely affordable for consumers that own a Google phone. Companies like Samsung have taken this concept further with products such as the Galaxy Gear, which is mass produced and contains “smart” features like gesture control.
By 2016, hundreds of companies (~230) were developing VR products. Most of the headsets had dynamic binaural audio, but haptic interfaces were underdeveloped which made interacting in the virtual environment still fairly limited. In 2016, HTC released its HTC VIVE SteamVR headset, which was the first commercial release of a headset with sensor-based tracking that allowed users to move freely in a space.
In 2017 and 2018, all the major tech companies had staked out a portion of the virtual reality market and were contributing significant R&D budgets towards developing technologies that would advance VR. At the 2018 F8 Facebook Developer Conference, Oculus demonstrated a new headset prototype, the Half Dome, which has an unprecedented 140-degree field of vision. Haptic systems are being developed at an incredible pace to keep up with HMDs but have not been widely released and adopted by consumers.
Learn More About Virtual Reality and Other Emerging ICT Trends
Today, with significant excitement about virtual reality from consumers, companies are developing VR products as quickly as possible. The next few years will likely hold some of the biggest advancements in virtual reality than ever seen before, enabling its seamless integration in people’s lives. Staying ahead of the market and innovating at record pace will become the objective of all businesses competing for VR market share, which is exciting news for consumers across the world.
To learn more about opportunities to innovate and contribute to the virtual reality sector, download the Virtual Reality Development Trends white paper.