In the late ’80s, VR finally had a name and by the ’90s — set to the soundtrack of grunge, swaddled in flannel and talked about in coffee shops — it gained cultural relevancy. While many identify headsets with today’s crop of VR startups and game console accessories, the first virtual boom happened a little before the turn of the century. To many Gen-Xers who saw and experienced that decade’s love affair with VR, the 2010s seem very familiar.
1987 — “Virtual Reality” — While the concepts and ideas of VR were established by artists and engineers, it did not have a name. However, Jaron Lanier, head of the Visual Programming Lab, coined the term virtual reality (though others maintain he popularized the phrase). Lanier and the VPL were instrumental in developing the EyePhone, a HMD that featured head tracking and the Data Glove (an input device that used hand gestures in space; it was invented by Thomas Zimmerman). Lanier would also experiment with the use of haptics, which are now an important part of VR and smartphone feedback output.
1991 — VR in arcades — While VR hardware was priced outside the grasp of most consumers, the Virtuality Group launched VR gaming machines that could be networked, for use in arcades. Virtual Reality had entered the public consciousness and pop culture. The Virtuality games sold for over $70,000 and included a glove wired as an interface and large HMDs.
1992 — The Lawnmower Man — Very loosely based on a Stephen King short story and generally regarded as an average sci-fi movie, The Lawnmower Man took cues from Lanier’s experiences with developing what would become VR, using VPL equipment as props. VR would show up in music videos and other movies would use it as plot points, such as 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic (which was loosely based on a William Gibson short story of the same name). Hollywood’s love of VR would peak with 1999’s The Matrix, which introduced the concept of simulated reality, or SR.
1993 — Sega VR — A player in computer gaming hardware at the time, Sega announced its VR entry into the home console market, the Sega VR. With a proposed price tag of $200, the HMD would include stereo sound and head tracking. Despite four titles in the pipeline for the device, Sega VR disappeared from the company’s release schedule by 1994. Reports stated that users experienced motion sickness and headaches from use of the device.
1995 — Nintendo Virtual Boy — One of the first, if not the first, consumer VR devices released, the Nintendo Virtual Boy also has the dubious distinction of being one of the few Nintendo products to flop. Reviewers panned its monochromatic displays, lack of head tracking and the headaches and motion sickness it seemed to cause. It was pulled from shelves a year later.
1999 — Linden Lab — Philip Rosedale founds Linden Lab, a developer of VR hardware. Rosedale focuses on developing “The Rig”, a VR device users could wear on their shoulders. However, development proves impossible and Rosedale and Linden Labs move on to developing virtual worlds — including Second Life.