A Brief History of Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality, or VR, is coming into its own for the first time, having been considered quite gimmicky until relatively recently. It’s come a long way, and the technology that we see today is built on ideas that go right back to the 1800s!

Creating the First Simulated Environments

While VR is used for immersive training, education and leisure pursuits today, with sophisticated headgear, the first equipment that could be considered VR was the View-Master, which was patented in 1939. It developed from the stereoscope that was invented in 1838 and used twin mirrors to project one image.

The View-Master is still around, but it couldn’t really be said to be simulating environments. That started a few years later, and the first significant milestone was probably Morton Heilig’s Sensorama, developed in 1956. Heilig, with a background in Hollywood’s motion picture industry, wanted to make people feel as if they were actually in the movies they were watching.

The Sensorama simulated a real-life city, and made users feel like they were riding through it on a motorcycle. With multisensory input it was possible to see the road, feel the vibrations, hear the engine and even smell the exhaust from the motor.

A few years later, Heilig also patented the Telesphere Mask, a head-mounted display device. Many inventors who came after him would build upon this solid foundation; Ivan Sutherland created a head-mounted device in 1965 that was described as a “window into a virtual world” and was called the “Ultimate Display”.

A Heady Time in VR Development

The craze for new-world technology and modernisation in the 1970s and 1980s meant that the field of VR saw major developments. Instruments that allowed people to move around in virtual situations were developed, alongside optical advances. The Virtual Interface Environment Workstation, or VIEW, developed in the mid-1980s at the NASA Ames Research Centre, and enabled haptic interaction with gloves that were combined with a head-mounted device.

VPL Research, founded by Jaron Lanier, augmented work at the VIEW. Lanier was the first to use the term “Virtual Reality”, in 1987, and VPL stood for Visual Programming Languages. The work that Lanier did with goggles, gloves and other gear required for VR was truly ground breaking. His creations include the full-body Data Suit, and his vision lives on today.

Where VR is Now

The technology that supports VR today has come a long way, and it is possible to have incredibly realistic experiences. Unlike mobile casino games, its mobility is still quite limited; the power required for creating ultra-realistic visuals is often too heavy to be portable. As research continues, this should change, and as the demand for and support of mainstream VR increases the prices of high-quality units should drop. We’re not quite at the stage of everyone being able to enjoy VR at any time, but the turbo-charged trajectory that we see in VR’s history suggests that we are not very far off!