Despite what you may think, virtual reality (VR) is not a new concept. This article will provide an insight into the history of VR, misconceptions, and practical uses in the past, present, and future.
So sit down, have a drink, and prepare to be enlightened!
The History of VR: Where it all began…
Here we observe the very early history of VR, as we begin to see the origins of present-day VR use.
You’d have to go back to 1838 to begin the history of VR story, with Charles Wheatstone creating the stereoscope. This device allowed the user to view two separate images for each eye, creating a larger 3D image and a sense of depth in their minds.
Thomas Edison and William Dickinson invented the kinetoscope in 1881. The kinetoscope allowed users to view images at 46 FPS (frames per second), as a piece of film was sent between a lightbulb and a lens to form an image.
Did you know? Thomas Edison first believed that the kinetoscope was a silly toy. However, it was an immediate success deeming him a pioneer of the motion picture.
Link Trainer Flight Simulator (LTFS)
The LTFS created by Edwin Link of the Link Piano and Organ Company in 1929. He’s widely known today as the man who invented the flight simulator and kick-started a multi-billion pound industry.
The machine involved only a plane fuselage (the main body of a plane) that simulated the movement of an aircraft. This aids pilots to experience being inside a cockpit, and also recreated the realistic dangers of air travel by using pneumatic pumps (a mechanism which uses compressed gas to create movement).
William Gruber and Harold Graves’ stereoscopic 3D photo viewer, known as the View-Master, was invented in 1938. The device took stereo photographs, giving the user an illusion of depth by providing each eye with a slightly different image, meaning an image formed in 3D in the mind of the user. According to ViewMaster.co.uk, the device was originally created as an educational tool, however, it developed into other markets such as children’s entertainment.
The View-Master’s potential was recognised by the US Military, as ten’s of thousands of View-Master’s were purchased to aid aircraft identification during the second world war.
Did you know? The View-Master brand name was once recognised by 65% of the world’s population. However, one of the inventors of the product, William Gruber, hated the name! He believed it sounded too familiar to kitchen appliances available at the time!
The History of VR: Late 20th-century progress…
The 1960s to the 1990s bridge the gap between the history of VR and its present-day use, highlighting the technological progress made during this era.
The telesphere mask was developed by Morton Heilig in 1960 and was the first-ever invention of a head-mounted display, paving the way for modern-day devices such as the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR and Playstation VR. A huge step forward in the history of VR! This was the first of its kind to incorporate stereoscopic technology, stereo sound, 3D imagery, and widescreen vision into a single device. It did, however, lack the ability to be interactive.
The definition of virtual reality: VR is the creation of a virtual environment presented to our senses in such a way that we experience it as if we were really there (According to The Virtual Reality Society).
A year after the telesphere mask was developed, Headsight was invented by the Philco Corporation during 1961. Two engineers from the organisation (Comeau & Bryan) took Heilig’s head-mounted display one-step further, adding interactivity to the device by adding motion tracking. A magnetic tracking system tracked the head movement of the user, which was linked to a remote camera.
The practical use of Headsight included immersive remote viewings of dangerous situations by the military.
Morton Heilig developed his VR offering to the world by inventing the Sensorama in 1962. The Sensorama was a machine that included a stereoscopic colour display, fans, odour emitters, stereo‐sound system, and a motional chair! This provided one of the earliest examples of immersive, multi-sensory technology.
The device was built for entertainment purposes, and dubbed ‘The Cinema of the Future’. Initially, 5 films were on offer, including a bike ride through New York, with the user experiencing the feeling of wind blowing towards them, whilst the aroma of hot-dogs and petrol fumes would be recreated by chemical aromas.
The Sword of Damocles
Soon after the Sensorama, The Sword of Damocles was created by Ivan Sutherland in 1962. This was a head-mounted display that was connected to a computer for the first time, as opposed to a camera. The headset was extremely heavy to wear, so it had to be hung from the ceiling in order for it to be comfortably worn. This lead to the device’s name, as in Greek mythology the Sword of Damocles hung above the King’s throne to symbolise that with great fortune and power, comes great danger.
Airforce Super Cockpit Program
Thomas Furness designed the airforce super cockpit program in 1986, which projected computer-generated 3D imagery into the head-mounted display of the user, infrared and radar imagery, and avionics data to create an immersive, 3D, virtual experience.
Furness is considered one of the pioneers of transitioning simulator technology from real-world imagery to virtual reality.
Virtual Group Arcade Machines
The not-so-distant history of VR (1991) saw the launch of virtual group arcade machines, which used magnetic stereoscopic visors and joysticks. This allowed for multiplayer gaming in both standing and sat-down scenarios.
The 1990s Rise and Fall
Believe it or not, the hype of VR was as big in the 1990s as it is today. This decade saw virtual reality take a huge leap forward, which was swiftly followed by a crippling fall back to the real world.
The gaming console giants of their day, Nintendo and Sega, took the leap of faith by launching their own virtual reality headsets, the Virtual Boy and Sega VR. Like today’s complete immersive experiences, the 1990s VR experience was delivered through a headset. This, however, was where the similarity between VR of the past and present begins and ends.
The ultimate failing of 90s VR was down to the poor technology on offer at the time. The headsets delivered their virtual services with an extremely low-resolution display, meaning low-quality images were formed causing a less immersive experience than the modern VR offering.
It was not just the quality of the images formed which hindered the experience, as the only colours visible on historic VR devices were black and red. This again decreased the overall experience obtained by the headset wearer, adding to why the new technology didn’t take off as it was expected to.
These reasons, along with the devices causing strain and damage to the users’ eyes, no multiplayer compatibility and extortionate costs, meant that 1990s VR was set to fail from the very beginning.
How Oculus kickstarted VR back to life
On the 1st of August, 2012, Palmer Luckey launched a Kickstarter campaign in order to raise funds for his virtual reality headset to be created. He hoped to get around 100 VR enthusiasts to back his project, with his goal to raise $250,000.
Within 24 hours of the Kickstarter campaign going live, $670,000 was raised from 2,750 people.
2 days later, $1 million was raised.
By the time the campaign had reached its conclusion, Luckey had raised $2,500,000 to fund his virtual reality headset, known as the Oculus Rift.
The first version of the Oculus was no-where-near perfect, with no position tracking, a low resolution, and reports of motion sickness showing early signs of being familiar to failures of the 1990s. However, despite the first instalments flaws, the $350 price tag attracted 65,000 purchases of the Rift. A Sell out. Oculus could have made more, however, work had already begun on the second version of the Rift.
This offering completely distanced the Rift between the failed projects of the 90s. A higher resolution, added position tracking, and eradication of motion sickness launched the revitalisation of virtual reality technology.
Oculus is currently owned by technology giant Facebook, with a $3 billion acquisition occurring in 2014. Palmer Luckey left Facebook and Oculus in 2017 with no comment being made by either party at the time, and he is now the co-founder of defence-technology company Anduril.
Is there more than just headsets?
Despite VR headsets being a prominent way to experience virtual reality in the 21st-century, people often forget that headsets are not the only form of VR available.
VR is the use of a computer to create a simulated environment, therefore meaning that VR can be experienced through a number of platforms, including mobile phones, tablets, PCs and interactive whiteboards.
Many sectors and industries are embracing the use of VR in their operations. The first which usually comes to mind is the entertainment sector, with companies such as Oculus and Sony developing VR headsets for gaming use.
The education sector has also benefited from technological advancement and increased accessibility of VR. Here at Seymour & Lerhn, we make VR accessible by offering Fishtank VR. Fishtank VR focusses on shared and accessible experiences, where viewers experience a full 360° environment which can be static, video, real-world, CGI or a mixture of them all.
VR has also begun to be utilised in the construction industry, with EyeSiteView offering property marketing solutions. Virtual tours are available for housing developments to be explored before a single brick is laid.
The Future of VR: What’s next?
The future of VR is certainly bright. More industries, organisations and consumers are incorporating virtual experiences in their day-to-day activities. The VR headset industry is continuously growing, with 3.5 billion devices expected to be used in the world by 2022 and 1/3 of global consumers expected to be using VR by 2020, according to VR Focus.
Virtual reality’s use is also expected to grow in other industries such as education, with the UK Government announcing a £4.6 million investment in a push to improve the capacity for EdTech in schools. This highlights the benefits which educational technology brings to the classroom, as it enables large groups of students to interact with each other as well as within a three-dimensional environment.
The museum and heritage industry will also reap the rewards from taking advantage of VR, by employing interaction as a means of communicating information to the general public in a new and exciting way. The increase of involvement from visitors to a museum enhances their overall experience, making interaction one of the main features of museum exhibits.
The history of VR goes back much further than you think… we hope that you now understand VR a little more!
More of a visual learner? Check out a History of VR infographic on our blog!