Virtual Reality, called ‘VR’ for short, has been around for a few decades now, having started out as stereo displays, immersive entertainments, and simulated environments. It has become more viable as a consumer product these last few years, but it’s been on the public consciousness since the ’90s. Ask any Gen-Xer and they’ll tell you about the first generation of VR games. However, the first development of the technology and the concepts that would become VR were introduced further back in the past, coalescing in the ’50s and gaining momentum 40 years later.
19th Century — Immersive, 360 degree murals and panoramic paintings were the earliest attempts at creating environments in which the viewer would be lost in. The scale and scope of these artistic renderings of fictional and non-fictional events were meant for the viewer to feel as if they were there.
1838 — Stereoscopic viewers — Research by Charles Wheatstone found that the brain processes the two slightly different images each eye receives into three dimensions. This leads to the development of three dimensional stereoscopic viewers and, in the 1930s, the View-Master.
1929 — The “Link Trainer” Flight Simulator — A far cry from today’s multi-million dollar computer-controlled flight sims decked out with flat panel displays, the Link Trainer (developed by its namesake, Edward Link) was the first flight simulator developed to improve piloting skills. It had rudimentary articulation to simulate flying conditions,
1930s — Science fiction predicts the development of VR — Science fiction “pulps”, or magazines, predict that computer-generated environments where users will experience sights, sounds and touch (and smells) generated artificially. Sci-fi writer Stanley G. Weinbaum writes Pygmalion’s Spectacles, a story that predicts the use of head-mounted displays.
1950s — Sensorama — Inventor Morton Heilig introduced the Sensorama, a theater cabinet that looked film booths, which featured stereo sound, stereographic film projectors, a vibrating chair and scent generators. The films, which he also produced, were meant to put the viewer in the environment he captured.
1950s — Douglas Engelbart, an electrical engineer and former US Navy radar technician, foresaw the use of computers as displaying information. This idea was radical for its time because computers were viewed as glorified adding machines, but there was a need for data visualization. The military was looking for a way to display information processed from radar stations around the world, in real time. Aircraft designers wanted to visualize airflow data from wind tunnel models.
1960 — Telesphere Mask, the first head-mounted display — Heilig is also credited with creating the first head-mounted display, which he dubbed the Telesphere Mask. However, the HMD was non-interactive and did not feature any motion tracking.
1961 — Headsight, the first HMD with motion tracking — Philco developed the first HMD with tracking, the Headsight, for military use. The HMDs were connected to a closed-circuit camera, with magnetic trackers tracking head motion.
1965 — The Ultimate Display concept — Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist who would ultimately be named the father of computer graphics, laid out his idea for “The Ultimate Display”. The Ultimate Display would use HMDs and computers to render a realistic, interactive world with accompanying audio in real time.
1968 — The Sword of Damocles — Sutherland and his student, Bob Sproull, introduced The Sword of Damocles, an HMD connected to a computer that was a primitive VR and augmented reality headset. The weight of the headset required it to be mounted to the ceiling and the user strapped into the device. The graphics were primitive, wireframe renderings. The government took interest in Sutherland and his ideas, with NASA, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation and the CIA funding his projects.
1969 — Artificial Reality — Myron Kruegere, a computer artist who is now identified as one of the first pioneers of VR and AR researchers, coined the term “Artificial Reality”. He used the term to describe the interactive environments he developed, GLOWFLOW, METAPLAY, and PSYCHIC SPACE. This lead to VIDEOPLACE, a VR lab at the University of Connecticut. Unlike other attempts at VR with HMDs at the time, Kruegere’s Artificial Reality used video cameras, projectors and specialized hardware for use in a room.
1985 — Human Computer Interface or Interaction (HCI) — Development of VR drops out of the public eye for much of the ’70s and ’80s, but the introduction of personal computers and the new ways to interact with machines that VR would allow made computer scientists consider the way people interact with them. Michael McGreevy, in particular, experimented with VR as a new way to interact with computers.