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The History of Virtual Reality: Full Immersion And Other Milestones

If you told someone fifty years ago that we will have a device that you can put on your head, and it will instantly transport you to an entirely different world, they’d call you a madman. Virtual reality has been a part of science fiction books and movies for a long time, but it’s a dream no more. There’s a wide range of virtual reality headsets available at any price point.

It’s easy to take this incredible technology for granted. After all, the stunning devices that we can buy nowadays didn’t just magically appear on the shelves one day. Rather, they spent decades of development and tireless research to get where they are now.

Before we take a full-on plunge into the metaverse, it’s worth taking a look at the history of virtual reality and recollecting the journey from vague descriptions in utopian novels to the easily available consumer products we have now.

What is Virtual Reality: The Definition

Defining virtual reality seems pretty easy at first glance. Most people, when hearing this term, would immediately think of Oculus Rift, Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, or other headsets. However, upon closer inspection, the lines start to get blurred.

After all, with these devices, you can play games or visit the metaverse. There’s no doubt about them being virtual reality as they are completely simulated environments with no connection to the real world. But you can also watch 360° videos, live streams, and VR experiences, even though they are not simulated. They are merely a reconstruction of real-life events, so do they count as a ‘virtual reality’?

By that virtue, should we include any video game world under this umbrella? They most certainly are ‘virtual’, and they are a different ‘reality’ from our own. That may be technically correct, but most people wouldn’t agree with this assessment. After all, VR games are a separate subsection of the gaming industry, and it includes experiences that are specifically tailored to head-mounted displays, rather than the regular computer monitors, TVs, phone screens, and other output devices.

So, before we go through the history of virtual reality, we need to define what virtual reality is. The popular definition, as seen on Wikipedia, would define VR as a simulation aimed to recreate an experience that’s either similar or completely different from the real world. However, in popular culture, this term is specifically used to describe immersive media that you can experience via head-mounted displays (or HMD for short).

It’s distinct from augmented reality. Whereas VR devices aim to completely replace your real-life surroundings with a virtual environment, augmented reality introduces simulated objects or information into the real world. Instead of virtual reality HMDs that completely envelop your vision, AR devices such as Microsoft HoloLens overlay the simulated elements over the real-life environment.

All these factors need to be considered before we answer the question of who created VR and when. After all, a lot of separate inventions had to come together to create virtual reality as we know it.

Early Years of VR

Humanity has always been searching for escapism from the real world, whether it’s via art, literature, substances, or other ways. Magicians and illusionists have gathered crowds since ancient times, proving that the desire to experience something that looks convincingly real but doesn’t actually exist is not a recent phenomenon. For instance, the word ‘virtual’ in the modern definition was used as early as the 15th century.

“Seeing is believing,” said Thomas Fuller, a 17th-century clergyman, “but the feeling is the truth.” It’s evident that to fool our minds into believing that fake images are real, the first sense to conquer is our vision.

For example, the kaleidoscope, which is a device that distorts the image with various mirrors and other elements, was invented by David Brewster in the early 19th century. While nowadays they are perceived as nothing more than children’s toys, it was an incredible invention at the time, and it cannot be ignored as an important milestone when talking about head-mounted entertainment devices.

The 1930s

Humanity’s imagination has always written checks that the state of existing technology cannot cash. In 1935, Stanley G. Weinbaum published a science fiction story called Pygmalion’s Spectacles. It describes goggles that can simulate sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. Instead of merely watching a movie, you could be the main character and speak to other inhabitants of that world.

This description sounds awfully similar to playing a modern video game in VR. This concept was groundbreaking at the time, but the technology to build such a device wasn’t there yet in the 1930s. We had to wait 80 years for Weinbaum’s vision to finally take shape, but each invention along the way brought us closer to the Oculus Rift.

The 1950s

One of the most important steps in the development of VR was taken by Morton Heilig in the fifties. Being an avid cinematographer himself, he experimented with all the human senses and our perception by creating the Sensorama Simulator. It was a massive arcade-style cabinet that promised to make you feel like you were inside the movie.

He first described Sensorama in his 1955 essay Cinema of the Future and patented it in 1962. The device had a stereoscopic screen and stereo speakers, which is a great start. But Sensorama went a step further, with smell generators, a vibrating chair, and even a fan for that light breeze of wind in your hair.

Heilig made six movies for the device, but the most well-known one is simply called Motorcycle. As the name suggests, it lets the viewer experience a bike ride through the streets of New York. Imagine feeling the wind in your hair and the rumble of the engine through your chair, in addition to smelling all the scents that downtown NYC could offer.

Other Sensorama movies also included Helicopter, Dune Buggy, I’m a Coca-Cola Bottle, A Date with Sabina, and, curiously, Belly Dancer. Could we consider this the first adult VR video?

Morton Heilig was a true VR pioneer, and his next invention was the first head-mounted display. It was called Telesphere Mask, and he patented it in 1960. While it lacks the interactivity and motion-tracking capabilities of modern HMDs, this device was an incredible achievement for the time, and it’s probably the oldest VR headset that we know of.

The 1960s

The swinging sixties didn’t just bring a wave of rock’n’roll but also significant leaps in technology. As the space race between the United States and USSR raged on, it culminated with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins landing on the moon in 1969. In a bid to become the first superpower to conquer space, the scientists of both sides also raced to increase their available computing power.

Amidst all this, 1962 saw the release of what’s widely believed to be the first video game. It’s called Spacewar! and it was created by computer scientist Steve Russell, and it was equipped with a special controller. It all started here, and without Spacewar, we wouldn’t have Pong, Mario, Zelda, Halo, Call of Duty, or any other games. While it was rather crude in comparison to the modern games, it undeniably laid the foundation for creating interactive simulations.

On the hardware side, there are three remarkable advancements that happened during the sixties. The first one was Headsight, which was made by Philco in 1961. It was the world’s first VR headset with motion tracking. While it didn’t yet simulate virtual environments, it could display a camera feed that could be panned using magnetic tracking that sensed movement.

One of the biggest names in VR history is Ivan Sutherland. He was already a computer science legend thanks to his pioneering work in computer graphics and the creation of Sketchpad. However, in 1965, he outlined a concept of a virtual reality device in his essay The Ultimate Display, stating that a computer should generate worlds that no longer confine us to the limitations of our world and that we should be able to interact with it via various intuitive interfaces.

Three years later, in 1968, Sutherland and his students, including Bob Sproull, created the first VR headset that was connected to a computer and could show simulated graphics - laughable nowadays but groundbreaking back in the sixties.

It was appropriately named Sword of Damocles, and it didn’t earn this name for being lightweight or pretty. The device was suspended from the ceiling, and the user had to be strapped in to use it. While it wasn’t focused on ease of use, it was an incredible proof of concept, and the modern HMDs are direct descendants of the Sword.

The 1970s

While this decade wasn’t as eventful in the history of VR as the previous, there are a couple of inventions that must be noted. The first one is VIDEOPLACE, created by Myron Krueger in 1975. It isn’t VR in the traditional sense, but it was an interactive projection laboratory that used the user’s position to manipulate the objects on the screen.

Another noteworthy invention was the VITAL helmet which was developed by the aerospace manufacturer McDonnell-Douglas. Until now, virtual reality devices never left the laboratories they were created in as they were nothing more than ambitious experiments. VITAL, however, saw actual use by the US military as a tool for pilot training.

The 1980s

Technology is not an isolated vacuum, so one invention in an entirely different field could lead to a ripple effect. The biggest hurdle standing in the way of virtual reality was the screens. The early prototypes used heavy and bulky CRT displays. With the advent of quartz wristwatches, it was the watch industry that led the charge in LCD screen miniaturization. In 1982, Seiko released a wristwatch that was also a television set, proving that screens can be tiny.

This was also the decade when Macintosh, IBM PC, Amiga, Commodore 64, and many other affordable home computers became available to the consumers, making computing available to the mainstream. Similarly, consoles like Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System had made video games popular as home entertainment that wasn’t limited to arcades anymore.

With most people getting their first taste of the digital world, the idea of home VR became more and more accepted. A huge proponent of virtual reality was Jaron Lanier, who in 1984 founded the company VPL Research. They became the first company to sell head-mounted displays to the consumers, with EyePhone 1 coming out in 1989 (not to be confused with Apple iPhone).

It, most certainly, was a massive breakthrough in the world of VR, but EyePhones were bulky, the graphics were abysmal, and it could generate only five frames per second. But the biggest killer here was the price, with the entire system costing more than $250,000.

VPL also experimented with haptic input devices. One of them was DataGlove - a $10,000 input device, and the other was DataSuit, which was a full-body suit that could measure the movement of the wearer’s arms, legs, and chest. This was a hard sell to the consumer, and the company folded in 1990. However, it’s hard to deny VPL’s impact, and they laid the groundwork that let VR become popular today.

The 1990s

Everyone thought that the nineties would finally be the decade of VR, but in reality, it was way too early for it to become mainstream. It wasn’t because of the lack of trying - after all, this decade saw the massive failures of not just one but two Japanese gaming giants. The technology just wasn’t there yet.

The first VR game ever made is widely believed to be created by Virtuality Group in the early nineties. As they were too expensive for home use, Virtuality devices were made for arcades and provided much lower latency (50ms) than the earlier EyePhone and other HMDs.

However, the ultimate dream was a virtual reality device in every home, and Sega was the first of the gaming companies to take a stab at it. Their first concept - Sega VR for Mega Drive, had LCD screens, motion tracking, and stereo audio, but it never left the prototype stage. Three years later, SEGA released VR-1, which was an attraction made for theme parks.

Nintendo’s Virtual Boy is what most people used to associate with VR, and it’s one of the reasons why the entire industry went dormant until Oculus revived it. Virtual Boy claimed to be the first game console capable of showing a stereoscopic 3D image; you had to stick your head in a plastic contraption that awkwardly stood on the table. It was widely panned for its horrendous graphics that showed only one color - red.

Modern VR technologies

It wouldn’t be unfair to divide the evolution of VR into two eras - Before Luckey and Anno Oculus and after it. After all, it’s hard to overstate how important Palmer Luckey and Oculus were to the evolution of VR, bringing it into the mainstream. The Oculus Rift was released in 2012 after an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $2,400,000.

Just like Lanier and Sutherland before him, Palmer Luckey was a true believer in virtual reality, and he spent three years experimenting with various prototypes after not being satisfied with the current state of VR devices. It was the perfect time for the dream of VR to make a comeback, and Palmer seized it flawlessly.

Total Paradigm Rift

Unlike Virtual Boy and its precursors, which suffered from poor graphics and frame rates, gaming PCs in 2012 were already powerful enough to run VR games smoothly. With a consumer-grade GPU such as NVIDIA GTX 680 or AMD 7970, you could have excellent visual fidelity at a high frame rate. Needless to say, 2022 hardware is even more powerful.

Another factor that helped to make Oculus Rift happen was smartphones. Rift had two 1080x1200 screens, and the development of high-resolution displays was largely fueled by Apple and Android smartphones. In addition, it used gyroscopes and accelerometers to track motion, which was another technology that was rapidly advanced by the smartphone industry.

In 2014, Facebook Inc. acquired Oculus for 2 billion dollars, and later they released two more generations of Rift, in addition to their first completely standalone VR HMD. Oculus Quest and its sequel Quest 2 work completely independently, without the need to connect it to a computer. They use Snapdragon chips, like the ones you’d find in top-tier Android smartphones, and have a 2-3 hour battery life.

In 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook Inc. would be rebranded to simply Meta, and they are focusing their efforts on creating something they call the Metaverse. It will be a social experience that connects all their users and lets them be closer together. While the initial reaction to the Oculus acquisition was divided, it seems clear that this division, which is now renamed as Reality Labs, will play an instrumental role in creating the Metaverse.

Quest 2 is one of the most popular headsets not just because of its convenience but also the price. It’s an affordable entry into the world of virtual reality, costing just $350 on Amazon. The box includes all you need to get started - a fully standalone headset with built-in audio and two motion controllers.

Oculus Alternatives

The release of Oculus Rift spawned several competitors, the most notable being HTC Vive. This Taiwanese company used to make Android smartphones, but now they focus on virtual reality devices and have sold their phone division to Google.

Whereas Vive devices generally had higher specs and better motion controls, they were also more expensive than Oculus. They were more suited to enthusiasts than mainstream consumption.

They are still the leaders in screen technology, with Vive Pro 2 sporting an incredible 2448x2448 resolution and 120-degree field of view, compared to Quest 2’s 1832x1920 LCD and 89 degrees. Of course, it comes at a price, seeing as Vive Pro 2 complete set costs $1389 on Amazon.

Another excellent choice for gamers comes from Valve. Their Index headset costs $999, and it sports one of the most advanced motion tracking systems out there. It can also boast an incredible 140° field of view and two 1440x1600 screens.

You shouldn’t think that VR gaming is limited to just powerful PCs. If you are a console gamer, you can try out Sony PlayStation VR. The first generation was an affordable device that supported only PlayStation 4, but with third-party software hacks, you could hook it up to a PC as well. The next generation - PS VR2 - will come out later in 2022, and it will sport two 2000 x 2040 OLED screens which is a massive ramp-up over Sony’s first VR game headset.

This is just a small amuse-bouche among the massive world of consumer VR. There are several great options made by HP, Varjo, Samsung, Asus, Pico, and many others. In addition, there have been rumors that Apple is going to enter the VR space, similar to what Google did with their Daydream project.

The VR Revolution: Incredible Opportunities

When you put on your VR headset, you can be instantly transported to an entirely different world. It can simulate any environment, any situation, and basically have limitless possibilities. While the natural response to such a proposition would be gaming or other entertainment, VR has actually found several uses in professional and enterprise settings.

Remember - the first customer of early VR technology was the US military, so it’s fitting that modern headsets would find use by the military. These devices are used for specialized training and simulations. After all, it makes more sense to let a novice fighter pilot crash the jet several times in a simulation than do it once in real life.

The medical field is also excited by the opportunities brought by VR for several reasons. The first one is obvious - it’s a great training tool that can help surgeons get more experience with certain procedures. Various studies also show that VR can reduce the patient’s anxiety during operations and reduce pain if anesthesia is not available.

Almost any kind of training or education can be enhanced by VR, as visualizing the concept in virtual reality will help the students understand the topic better than just reading it in a textbook. Similarly, it’s a great marketing tool. For example, instead of watching static pictures on the internet, why not give the potential customer a house tour or a test drive in a car?

While virtual reality is mostly discussed in the context of gaming and education, it is important to recognize that the virtual world is, just like the internet, open to everyone. There are no limitations on what’s possible, and brilliant software developers are implementing new ideas in hopes of making the ‘killer app’ of VR.

If we take a look at the mass adoption of previous technologies, it often takes an entirely new and innovative idea to get the people on board. Just like it wasn’t the phone or e-mail that led to the adoption of the iPhone, but rather the brand new social media apps and games, will VR become popular after something appears on the horizon that we didn’t even imagine before?

Some people believe that VR for adult entertainment is the key to mass-market adoption. Just like the adult industry decided the winners of past technology wars between Betamax vs. VHS or HD-DVD vs. Blu-ray, maybe adult VR sites like Dreamcam will make this tech mainstream.

In conclusion

If Stanley G. Weinbaum were still alive, he would be very proud to see the progress made in the last century. What seemed to be a completely outlandish idea back then has become a reality, and now everyone can buy a headset to join the VR fun.

Of course, the history of virtual reality wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of things to come together at the right time in order to get where we are today. It wasn’t the work of Palmer Luckey or any other pioneer alone, but rather the collective effort of the entire technology field.

Super-fast chips, high-resolution displays, advanced lenses, and incredible motion tracking all had to come together to bring us the stunning technology we can enjoy today. It’s hard to even imagine where we will be in just a couple of years. With AI, augmented reality, holograms, and other promising technologies, this is just the beginning.

DC Blogger
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