A Brief History of Virtual Reality

As a species, we’re naturally inclined to tell stories. The more immersive, the better. Throughout the history of time, we’ve used different mediums to tell those stories: murals in stone, parchment full of symbols, paintings of elaborate landscapes, books full of details.

Virtual reality is another medium to tell a story, and it’s well on its way to becoming the most immersive medium we’ve ever created. But virtual reality isn’t quite as new as you might expect. In fact, VR has been a long time coming. This post will give a brief history of the roots of VR, from the 19th century all the way up to 2010.

1838 — the Stereoscope, by Charles Wheatstone

 the Stereoscope, by Charles Wheatstone - Virtual reality history

The stereoscope of Charles Wheatstone demonstrated that our brain processes a 2D image from each eye into a single, 3D object with depth. This came to be known as stereopsis, and it’s the basic premise that makes virtual reality… well… a reality. Interestingly, Wheatstone’s stereoscope came before photography. The earliest-known photograph was taken in Paris in 1838, and the process of how it was taken was only unveiled in 1939. So the stereoscope was invented before it could be tested with actual pictures.

1929 — Link Trainer, by Ed Link

Link Trainer - Virtual reality history

The Link Trainer, created by Edward Link in 1929, can be seen as the first commercial flight simulator. It was meant to safely and effectively train pilots, and it was used to train over 500,000 US pilots during the Second World War, as well as pilots from almost every other warring nation. The Link Trainer would pitch and roll as the pilot used the controls. Although there was no visual aspect, the Link Trainer still showed the power of an immersive environment to achieve something useful in a faster and more cost-effective way.

Late 1950s — The Sensorama, by Morton Heilig

The Sensorama - Virtual Reality History

This device was well ahead of its time. Developed by Morton Heilig in 1958, the Sensorama stimulated all the senses. It had a stereoscopic color display, stereo sound, vibrations, and even atmospheric effects such as wind blowing through your hair. Unfortunately, the Sensorama remained a concept because Heilig couldn’t find investors to help him finance his project, but the device became an inspiration for computer scientists who wanted to create immersive environments.

1968 — The Sword of Damocles, by Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull

The Sword of Damocles - Virtual Reality History

Ivan Sutherland was already a well-respected computer scientist, having created the computer program Sketchpad, which helped pave the way for human-computer interaction. But he went a step further and designed what is now considered to be the first head-mounted display (HMD).

Along with his student Bob Sproull, Ivan Sutherland created the Sword of Damocles, a piece of headgear connected to a computer, that would let the user see grid-like surfaces superimposed on a real background. These grid-like surfaces changed in perspective as the user moved their head.

But the device, apart from being awfully creepy, wasn’t very practical. It was very heavy and required a mechanical arm to function, which is why it was never more than a lab project.

Mid-1980s — Jaron Lanier Coined the Term “Virtual Reality”

Jaron Lanier is an American computer scientist who’s widely considered to have coined the term “virtual reality”. In the mid-1980s, he founded VPL Research, through which he sold VR goggles and gloves. VPL stood for Virtual Programming Languages, and Lanier’s goal was to bring virtual reality into a mainstream audience. Unfortunately, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1990.

1993 — Sega VR

Sega VR - Virtual Reality History

In 1993, Sega introduced the Sega VR, a virtual reality headset meant as an accessory for the Sega Genesis / Mega Drive console. It was meant to be released with four launch games in 1994, but it remained a prototype and became a flop for Sega. However, this was the first major example of a gaming company showing interest in VR.

1995 — Nintendo Virtual Boy

Nintendo Virtual Boy

Nintendo closely followed Sega’s VR initiatives by introducing the Nintendo Virtual Boy, a gaming console that could display stereoscopic 3D graphics. Gamers would place their head against the eyepiece to see a monochrome display. However, the Virtual Boy flopped because of its lack of color in the graphics, and because the console wasn’t easy to use in a comfortable position.

1999 — The Matrix

The Matrix

While the Matrix wasn’t a technological innovation, it introduced millions of people to the idea of virtual reality, of a different world that people could access by being “plugged in.” Considered to be one of the best movies of the 90s, the Matrix helped move virtual reality from a hobby only nerds should be concerned about into an extremely cool idea.

2012 — The Oculus Rift Kickstarter Campaign

Oculus Rift Kickstarter

It took until 2012 before we arrive at the beginning of what could now be considered the ‘modern VR industry’. It took until then for a variety of reasons, but mainly because hardware and lens technology had to become better and cheaper, and because 3D development tools had to be created for developers to work with.

As a result of these things happening, the VR industry as we know it today started with the 2012 Kickstarter campaign of a new tech company: Oculus VR. They wanted to create the most immersive VR device for games, and had backing from big names such as John Carmack, the creator of DOOM.

The Kickstarter campaign raised $2.5 million on an original goal of $250,000, and was marketed to bring 3D gaming to the next level. Only two years after its inception, Facebook bought Oculus VR for an enormous $2.3 billion. Since then, the company has gone on to release multiple types of VR headsets.

Those are some of the most significant milestones in VR history. As you can see, even if a technology seems new, it likely has a very long history of technological advances to get to the point where it is now. Nothing comes out of nowhere. Virtual reality has been in the making for two hundred years, and it’s finally stepping out of the shadows.