Virtual reality has exploded onto the video-gaming scene, presenting gamers with a sparkling gateway into their favorite fantasy worlds. But the concept of virtual reality has a long timeline that dates back to the 1800s, long before VR terminology was coined or fully conceptualized.
The modern-day phenomenon of VR was once an imaginative concept borne and popularized through early science-fiction literature and film. No longer are fantastical otherworldly experiences a mere matter of creative imaginations - today, they’re just one power-on button away.
The technology on the market today is a beautifully refined production of decades of ideation, creation, and boundless imagination. And the potential for virtual reality gaming is filled with exciting opportunities. On this stroll down memory lane, we’ll take a look at the unique history of virtual reality as we look forward to whatever the future has in store next.
Panoramic paintings - 1793-1863
For centuries, the predominant mode of landscape representation was the bird’s-eye view. Bird’s-eye view paintings provided a perspective through the eyes of an onlooker from a high-elevation viewpoint. From pastoral scenes to city coastlines, the aim of the bird’s-eye view was to showcase as much scenery as possible without pointed concern for true perspective or ultra-precise sightlines. The panorama offered a new perspective that took the art world by surprise.
Featuring a circular 360-degree architecture, panoramic paintings aimed to provide a viewing experience that mimicked the feeling of being present in the moment. The panorama effectively captured the human fascination with creating the illusion that we are present in an experience that is completely removed from actual reality. It’s this desire to be transported elsewhere that opened the earliest doors to virtual reality.
Stereoscopic photos & viewers - 1840
Sir Charles Wheatstone was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1840 for his groundbreaking research on stereopsis and the development of the stereoscope. Better known as depth perception today, Wheatstone’s research on stereopsis found that the brain understands three-dimensional objects by means of each eye viewing and processing different two-dimensional images. It’s the sum of these perceptions that allows the brain to understand a single object and the distance at which it stands.
Through use of his patented stereoscope, Wheatstone discovered that viewing two side-by-side stereoscopic images through a stereoscope provided the user with an immersive depth perception. Wheatstone’s stereoscope used a pair of mirrors positioned at 45-degree angles to the user’s eyes and a pair of matching images on either end of the device. It’s this very blueprint design that Google and a number of VR display manufacturers
use to this day.
The 20th-century tech boom
Link Trainer: the first flight simulator - 1929
Having developed a passion for aviation during his early boyhood years, Edwin Link went on to pursue his dreams without the need to venture into the sky at all. Link’s first flight simulator hit the commercial market in 1929. The machine was completely electromechanical, controlled by motors and gears that perfectly simulated the in-plane functions of a full-scale airplane. Link even included a small device that mimicked turbulence and other airborne disturbances to ensure trainees were given as lifelike an experience as possible.
The Link Trainer proved to be an incredibly valuable training tool for the U.S. military during World War II and went on to become the gold standard of aviation education. The Link Trainer is one of the earliest and most successful examples of virtual reality in action.
Sensorama - 1962
Regarded as one of the most progressive pioneers of virtual reality technology, cinematographer Morton Heilig’s Sensorama was a landmark invention that brought lifelike immersion to the film-sphere. Heilig’s invention was a large arcade-style booth that utilized inventive technologies to stimulate the senses and immerse the mind. The 1960s machine housed stereo speakers, scent generators, a vibrating chair, electric fans, and a stereoscopic 3D display. Heilig even produced six short films that brought his machine to life.
Just a few years later, Heilig patented the Telesphere Mask, the first VR head-mounted display. The Telesphere Mask aimed to provide users with a sensory experience that would later become the blueprint for later HMD inventions.
Ivan Sutherland debuts “The Ultimate Display” - 1968
Of his ideation, Sutherland claimed “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.”
Sutherland’s 1968 virtual reality HMD, The Sword of Damocles, did not quite live up to his otherworldly aims, but it served as an important step forward for future models.
Virtual reality gets official terminology - 1982
Despite the pointed aims toward developing virtual reality, a name for the science and sought-after experience still remained nameless well into the 1980s. It’s thanks to Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research, that virtual reality earned its name
VPL Research is best known for being the first to sell VR goggles and gloves, and for their massive developments in virtual reality haptics. Products like the DataGlove, EyePhone HMD, and the Audio Sphere were each game-changing devices.
Sega and Nintendo tackle VR - 1993
The 1990s saw a respectable explosion of VR advancement as video-gaming gained widespread popularity. It was during this decade that Sega and Nintendo dominated the industry, seeing worldwide success with every new console and compatible game release. With the rapid development and bubbling excitement behind virtual reality, both tech titans decided to capitalize.
The Sega VR headset for the Sega Genesis debuted to the world in 1993. The head-mounted unit featured a wrap-around architecture that featured head tracking, stereo sound, and integrated LCD screens. Priced at $200, there was plenty of buzz about Sega’s latest gadget. However, due to a number of technical difficulties, the device never hit consumer markets. The project proved to be a complete flop
Following Sega’s lead, Nintendo tried their hand at a 3D gaming console. The Nintendo Virtual Boy was hyped up as the world’s first portable console that was capable of showcasing true 3D graphics. The device hit consumer markets in Japan and North American in 1995, but sales were massively disappointing. Because of the system’s glaring shortcomings
, production came to a full stop the next year.
For two major gaming forces to see such devastating virtual reality failures, the motivation to invest in VR subsided, eventually fading out of the industry limelight for years.
Modern VR mania
Oculus Rift - 2010
2010 was 18-year-old entrepreneur Palmer Luckey’s lucky year. The Californian teenager spent his formative years completely obsessed with the computer-generated world and virtual reality. After building and experimenting with over 50 different head-mounted VR models, his passion led to the creation of his first prototype of the Oculus Rift. Boasting an impressive 90-degree field of view, Luckey’s earliest Oculus Rift brought plenty to the VR table that had never been seen before.
The Oculus Rift addressed a number of frustrations and concerns Luckey found with existing VR systems, from unimpressive field-of-view and low contrast to weighty bulk and pricey costs. Luckey’s invention was an intelligent reimagination of head-mounted VR devices. Within a couple of years, Oculus Rift was able to earn an astounding $2.4 million on Kickstarter before Facebook purchased it for $2 billion
This enormous move served as a defining moment in VR history as it added momentum to the modern digital age. Shortly after, Sony announced its plan toward the development of Project Morpheus: a head-mounted VR display designed to be compatible with PlayStation 4. Facebook’s highly-publicized move shot VR back into market interest, rapturing tech enthusiasts all around the world.
Google goes stereoscopic - 2014
The Google Cardboard was an unexpected move made by the giant search engine company. Engineered to be a low-cost, do-it-yourself stereoscopic viewer for smartphones, Google Cardboard made good on early inventors’ attempts at easily-built, minimalist virtual reality. The product effectively encouraged consumer interest in VR devices and applications, moving the ball toward even bigger innovations.
Popularization and gaming - 2016
By 2016, companies all around the globe were making significant strides toward the development and production of VR products. It was made abundantly clear that Luckey’s Oculus Rift was the VR genius that set the industry ablaze once again.
With both the Oculus and Project Morpheus in rapid production, the gaming world became subject to VR testing once more. Having learned from Sega and Nintendo’s mistakes and shortcomings decades before, Facebook and Sony made carefully strategized moves as progress was made.
Oculus promised to make good on Luckey’s original intention to revive VR gameplay experiences with full 3D immersion that proved to be more lifelike than any previous head-mounted VR displays. Likewise, Sony’s Morpheus promised the same immersive gameplay.
VR as a non-gaming platform - now
With such massive names in tech running the engines behind the advancement of VR, industry heads outside of the gaming sphere quickly capitalized on the potential for its many uses. Companies like Walmart, ExxonMobil, and Verizon have all transformed the face of their employee training programs by switching to virtual reality learning. Employers are better able to teach new employees the rules, expectations, and codes of action via VR by inserting trainees into lifelike situations.
Future of VR
Today, virtual reality has transformed into the very thing early researchers and inventors intended for it to be, and so much more. VR is being used in a vast variety of industries
all around the world, from providing eSports professionals with lifelike gaming experiences to helping doctors simulate real-life medical procedures. As VR becomes more widely accessible, its applications will continue to expand and impress.
The fundamental premise behind virtual reality has persevered over many long decades; answering the call of human’s desire to transcend space and time. Though monumental leaps and bounds have been made toward the development of virtual reality, there will soon come a time where head-mounted displays are looked upon as obsolete, clunky attempts at even more advanced technology. With so many influential tech titans in the running toward creating the ultimate VR experience, the future of virtual reality shines with brilliant promise.
About the Author
Tulie Finley-Moise is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Tulie is a digital content creation specialist based in San Diego, California with a passion for the latest tech and digital media news.