It’s hard to believe the comeback that virtual reality (VR) is having after so many years without a wide audience. You might be surprised to learn that virtual reality, or the use of computer technology to create a simulated, three-dimensional world that a user can interact with, has existed (at least in concept) since the 1950s. A cinematographer named Morton Heilig envisioned a theater experience that would engage all his audience’s senses, and built a console called the Sensorama Simulator in 1960. The Sensorama played a 3D film along with stereo sound, aromas, and wind in order to create an immersive sensory environment. The machine ended up being too complex and never made it past the prototyping stage, but many people to this day imagine a device similar to Heilig’s contraption when they hear the words “virtual reality.”
In 1961, the Philco Corporation developed the first head-mounted display, or HMD. The helmet included a video screen and tracking system, which was linked to a closed-circuit camera system. The engineers at Philco intended the HMD for remote observation of dangerous environments. In 1965, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland conceptualized the “Ultimate Display,” with the following criteria:
The virtual world appears real to any observer, seen through an HMD and augmented by three-dimensional sound and tactile stimuli
A computer maintains the world model in real time
Users can manipulate virtual objects in a realistic, intuitive way
Sutherland built such a display in 1966 - it was tethered to a computer system, which provided all the graphics. He used a suspension system to hold the HMD since it was too heavy for a user to comfortably support. The HMD was able to give the illusion of depth and could track the user’s head movements to change the field of view appropriately.
For the next decade or so, virtual reality technology remained out of the public eye. NASA, the Department of Defense, and the National Science foundation funded research and development of VR projects. Then, in 1984, a computer scientist named Michael McGreevy began to experiment with VR technology as a way to advance human-computer interface (HCI) designs, which later paved the way for the use of VR technology in high-priced video games. Jaron Lanier is credited with coining the term virtual reality in 1987, when he founded VPL Research, one of the first companies to make VR technology commercially available. VPL Research developed several VR devices like the Data Glove, the Eye Phone, and the Audio Sphere.
In 1989, gaming company Mattel released the Power Glove, based on the patented Data Glove. The $75 device allowed game players to perform hand motions in order to control a character on-screen. While the Power Glove is credited as being the first “affordable” VR device, it was hard to use and was not popular. Sega announced the Sega VR headset in 1991, which used LCD screens in the visor, stereo headphones, and sensors that allowed the system to track and react to the movements of the user’s head. Versions were planned for arcades and home consoles, but only the arcade version was released. In the same year, Virtuality Group released a line of networked, multiplayer VR location-based entertainment systems called Virtuality. The gaming machines featured headsets and exoskeleton gloves that gave one of the first "immersive" VR experiences. Virtuality systems cost up to $73,000, and didn’t sell well after the public’s expectations for the capabilities of VR technology exceeded the reality.
Throughout the 1990s, VR technology continued to develop despite the public’s waning interest. In 1995, artist Maurice Benayoun created the first VR artwork, titled “Tunnel Under the Atlantic,” and Nintendo released the Virtual Boy gaming console, which was considered a failure but laid the groundwork for the widely successful 3DS in recent years. The late 1990s and early 2000s brought a focus on 360-degree VR experiences, one of which became the widely popular Second Life, launched in 2003. Google introduced Street View in 2007, featured in Google Maps and Google Earth. Street View shows panoramic views from positions along many streets in the world, and features a stereoscopic 3D mode which was introduced in 2010.
Recent developments in the world of VR include virtual reality headsets from Sony, HTC, and Oculus VR as well as an omnidirectional treadmill video game peripheral. Outside of gaming and entertainment, VR technology is being applied in industries like healthcare, education, and of course, real estate, more and more every day.