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The Very Real History of Virtual Reality (+A Look Ahead)

September 26, 2019

Let’s go back to move forward.

Virtual reality is constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries of what we understand about the world around us – and it always has. In this article, we’ll briefly cover the major milestones that made this tech what it is today and what we should expect in the coming years.

Here's a quick snapshot:

virtual reality timeline

The history of virtual reality

Virtual reality has come a long way in the last 50 years, but it’s still considered an emerging tech. Funny how that works. 

Virtual reality technology has been used in many different industries over the years, from marketing and entertainment to space missions and immersive breaking news.

BONUS: In 1935, science fiction author Stanley Weinbaum wrote Pygmalion’s Spectacles. In this fictional short story, the main character meets a professor who invents a pair of goggles that allowed him to view a movie with sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. From fiction to reality… 

pygmalions spectacles birth of vr

Virtual reality in the 50s & 60s

Let’s look at the early days and how this imaginary technology actually came to fruition.

1957: Morton Heilig, a cinematographer, invented the Sensorama, a theatre cabinet multimedia device that offered viewers an interactive experience. 

VR was invented with the sensoramaThe device stimulated the users' senses with a viewing screen for sight, oscillating fans for touch, devices that emitted smells, and audio speakers for sound.

1961: Comeau and Bryan, two Philco Corporation engineers, created the first head-mounted display (HMD) called the Headsight. The display had two video screens, one for each eye, as well as a magnetic tracking device. 

history of vr headset headsight

It was the first motion-tracking device ever created. Headsight was primarily used to move a remote camera allowing a user to look around an environment without physically being there. 

1966: Thomas Furness, a military engineer, developed the first flight simulator for the Air Force. This sparked a lot of interest in VR technology and how it could be used for training purposes.

1968: Ivan Sutherland, a Harvard professor and computer scientist, invented the first VR / AR head-mounted display called ‘The Sword of Damocles’.

The intimidating contraption was suspended from the ceiling and displayed computer-generated graphics that changed perspective has the user moved around.

RELATED: Read more about the history of augmented reality and how VR / AR have become the distinct technologies we know today.

Virtual reality in the 70s & 80s

Work in virtual reality research really takes off in these decades and major advancements are made in VR hardware. 

1978: Developed by MIT, the Aspen Movie Map used photographs taken from a car in Aspen, Colorado to give viewers what they called a “Surrogate Travel” experience.

It was an interactive first-person view of the city (essentially an early VR version of Google Street View re:2007).

1982: The movie Tron brought the concept of virtual reality to the masses. Geared at gamers, the characters were immersed in a fully virtual environment that simulated a video game.

1986: Furness worked on his Air Force simulation project through the 80s and in the end developed the Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator (VCASS). The system gave pilots a virtual view that streamlined the barrage of information they get every moment.

the super cockpit virtual reality

VCASS led to the invention of The Super Cockpit program that essentially helps pilots make better decisions, faster, with technology like computer-generated 3-D maps, infrared, and radar imagery.

1987: John Lanier, computer scientist, researcher, and artist, coined the term ‘virtual reality’. He founded the Visual Programming Lab (VPL) and developed a range of VR gear, including the Dataglove alongside Tom Zimmerman, and the EyePhone HMD – making VPL the first company to sell VR goggles.

Virtual reality in the 90s & 00s

This period has its share of flops but it saw the idea of VR gain tremendous ground in common understanding of technology.

1991: The Virtuality Group released a series of games and arcade machines bringing VR to the general public. Players would wear a pair of virtual reality goggles and play immersive games in real-time. 

history of vr video games

A few of these devices were even networked together for multi-player virtual gaming experiences. 

1991: Sega attempted to bring a similar gaming experience to homes with its console. The company never released the Sega VR headset accessory because developers were comically worried it was too realistic and users would get hurt.

1995: Nintendo Virtual Boy launched as the first portable console that could display 3-D graphics. 

It was a flop due to the seemingly expensive price tag of $180, lack of colored graphics, and poor software support. 

1997: Georgia Tech and Emory University researchers teamed up to create Virtual Vietnam. 

virtual vietnam vr

The group used virtual reality to simulate war zones to assist in veterans’ exposure therapy sessions treating PTSD.

1999: The Matrix came to theaters and had massive buzz, popularizing the idea of virtual realities with an even bigger portion of the general public.

2001: SAS cube was introduced as the first PC based cubic room. The SAS library eventually led to the Virtools VRPack.

2007: Google, with Immersive Media, announced Street View. The technology launched with imagery for five mapped cities.

The panoramic images were captured from a patented camera mounted on a moving car to show users roads, inside buildings, and more.

Virtual reality today

In the last 10 years, the world of virtual reality has made big improvements, mostly from the tech giant battle that ensued – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Sony, and Samsung all built VR and AR divisions. However, consumers are still on the fence about VR tech as it tends to come with a hefty price tag attached.

2010: Palmer Luckey designed a prototype for what would become the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

oculus rift prototype

Facebook bought Oculus VR for around $3 billion in 2014, just after the first shipment of kits went out via the Kickstarter campaign – there was a lawsuit filed against Facebook and Oculus for taking company secrets.

2013: Valve corporation found a way to display lag-free VR content and shared it freely with Oculus and other vendors.

HTC vive prototype

Valve and HTC announced their partnership alongside the HTC Vive headset and controllers in 2015 and released the first version in 2016.

2014: Sony unveils Project Morpheus, aka PlayStation VR, for the PlayStation 4 video game console.

The final consumer version released in 2016, encouraging its users to not just play the game, but “live the game”.

2015: Google introduces Cardboard, a do-it-yourself stereoscopic viewer where a user places their phone inside a literal piece of Cardboard to wear on your head.

Google cardboard vr

It solved the price tag problem, but is it really a virtual reality headset? That’s debatable. 

2016: Hundreds of companies were developing virtual reality products. Most of the headsets had dynamic binaural audio, but the haptic interfaces were still lacking. 

2018: At the Facebook F8 Developer Conference, Oculus revealed the Half Dome – a headset with a 140-degree field of vision. 

The future of virtual reality

So, where do we go from here? Virtual reality continues to find new applications and with the backing of billion-dollar tech companies, you can bet the technology is here to stay. VR Software is advancing just as fast as its compatible hardware is – but that’s the biggest opportunity for those in the race. 

Find the best Virtual Reality software on the market. Discover Now, Free →

The competitive environment on the business side should mean good news is coming soon for consumers. Pricing will be key to the consumer market and making the advanced technology an everyday item in our lives. 

Right now, VR is mainly seen as a gaming experience but the potential future applications are totally up to the imagination. Mixed reality experiences, or interactive experiences that are part augmented reality and part virtual reality, provide a nice gateway into full VR adoption. 

The most tangible future virtual reality predictions include:

  • AR & VR will merge to create a new type of experience
  • Advanced virtual social interactions will be introduced
  • VR interaction will occur through handhelds
  • VR headsets will slim down to look more like sunglasses

So far, so good

Nearly 50 years ago virtual reality technology didn’t even exist. With the big guns now all vying for the market share, the next few years should be interesting to say the least.

Can’t get enough? Check out these AR/VR trends from our research team! 

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