The term virtual reality isn’t a new thing, it may be gaining a lot more fame now, but the idea of virtual environments and head-mounted displays have been around for decades. It turns out the tech needed to make it happen only developed recently. The very idea of something like virtual reality technology goes back all the way to the birth of the photograph.
As time went on, we wanted more in our field of vision and eventually wanted to replace it entirely. However, we’ll get into that later. First, let’s see how the virtual reality we know today has evolved over time.
1930s The Prediction
In the 1930s, science fiction story writer Stanley G. Weinbaum (Pygmalion’s Spectacles) wrote about a set of goggles that allow the wearer to experience a fictional world through holographics, smell, taste, and touch. In retrospect, Weinbaum’s description of the experience for individuals wearing the goggles is really similar to the present and emerging experience of an artificial reality, making him a true visionary of the field.
In the mid-1950s, cinematographer Morton Heilig created the Sensorama (patented 1962), an arcade-style theater cabinet that stimulated all of the senses rather than simply sight and sound. It had stereo speakers, a 3D stereoscopic display, blowers, odor producers, and a vibrating chair. The Sensorama was designed to completely immerse the viewer in the film.
1960s Innovation Begins
The Telesphere Mask (patented in 1960) was Morton Heilig’s second invention, and it was the first example of a head-mounted display (HMD), although for the non-interactive cinema medium with no motion tracking. The headset offered stereoscopic 3D and broad vision, as well as stereo sound.
In 1961, two Philco Corporation engineers created the Headsight, the first forerunner to the HMD as we know it today. It had a TV screen for each eye as well as a magnetic motion tracking device linked to a closed circuit camera. The Headsight was not designed for virtual reality applications (the term didn’t exist at the time), but rather allowed the military to view dangerous events from a safe distance. Head movements would move a remote camera, allowing the user to gaze around organically. Headsight was the first step in the growth of the VR helmet-mounted display, but it lacked computer and image creation integration.
1970s The Practical Approach
General Electric manufactures a “computerized” flight simulator with three screens placed in a 180-degree rotation. The screens encircle the simulated training cockpit, giving novice pilots a sense of total immersion.
Next, the Aspec Movie Map is created by MIT. This system allowed users to navigate a virtual tour of Aspen, Colorado. It was almost like a forerunner to Google Street View. They created the illusion of moving across the city by using footage shot from a moving car.
1980s Virtual Reality is Born
Despite all of the advancements in virtual reality, there remained no all-encompassing name to characterize the area. This all changed in 1987, when Jaron Lanier, the inventor of the visual programming lab (VPL), created (or, as others claim, popularized) the phrase “virtual reality.” The research area has a name now.
Jaron produced a variety of virtual reality gear through his company VPL research, including the Dataglove (together with Tom Zimmerman) and the EyePhone helmet-mounted display. They were the first to market Virtual Reality goggles ($9400 for the EyePhone 1; $49,000 for the EyePhone HRX) and gloves ($9000). A significant advancement in the field of virtual reality haptics.
1990s The Video Game Era
We began to witness public access to virtual reality gadgets, yet family ownership of cutting-edge virtual reality remained out of reach. The Virtuality Group introduced a new line of arcade games and machines. Players would wear VR goggles and play on gaming computers with real-time immersive stereoscopic 3D images. Some devices were also networked together to allow for multiplayer gaming.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in 1993, Sega revealed the Sega VR headset for the Sega Genesis platform. The prototype wrap-around spectacles featured head tracking, dual sound, and LCD screen panels in the visor. Sega fully expected to sell the product for around $200 at the time, or around $322 in 2015 dollars.
Despite having designed four games for this product, technological development issues meant that the device would always be in the prototype phase. Sega suffered a commercial failure with this game.
The Present Day
Soon after the 90s, virtual reality started moving in leaps and bounds, not only with video games but with other features too. In 2007 the world saw Google Street View for the first time, 2012 saw the birth of the commercial virtual reality headset, and now in 2022, we have the Metaverse. We can now interact with each other, work, and play in a simulated reality all with a pair of goggles.
Future Applications Ahead
Right now, virtual reality technology is only going to improve. The idea of a 360-degree 3D virtual reality that can one day look like our actual reality sounds like something from a science fiction story. However, we are getting there year by year.
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