The origins of virtual reality

We go back in time to reveal the forefathers of todays VR headsets
The origins of virtual reality

For a long time virtual reality was nothing more than an elusive sci-fi concept. Then, after a lot of groping around in the dark, the technology started to gain some traction and catch up with the fantasy.

Computer scientists, inventors and futurists all began to realise that combining head gear with hardware could transport us to entirely new realms, while our feet stayed firmly planted in the real one.

Essential reading: The best VR headsets

Now, with the release of the Oculus Rift, it seems like the perfect time to look over our shoulder and check out the ancestors of modern day virtual reality.

Make sure you also check out our features on the origins of the fitness tracker and the tech family tree of the smartwatch.

1956: Sensorama – 3D displays

Okay, so it might look like a piece of medical equipment, but it was actually one of the first attempts to shut out the real world and draw us into another. The Sensorama had stereo sound, a 3D display, smell generators and even a seat, which vibrated according to the content on screen. It was the brainchild of cinematographer Morton Heilig, who produced six short films to play for the viewer including A Date With Sabina and I'm A Coca Cola Bottle.

1961: Headsight – Head tracking

What will soon be a plaything for people buying the Rift started out life as a top-secret military project. Engineers at the Philco Corporation fused a video screen and basic magnetic head tracking system into a helmet and linked everything to CCTV. Called Headsight, its primary purpose was to remotely view situations that were deemed too dangerous for up close and personal inspection.

1966: GAF Viewmaster – Stereoscopic 3D

The iconic red stereoscope merged two slightly different images of the same scene to create a 3D image. It introduced generations to the sensation of being immersed in another world by holding up a wraparound device – even if that other world was Star Trek or Disney films.

1968: Sword of Damocles – AR graphics

Otherwise known as a head mounted display (HMD) system, this was pioneered at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and superimposed a geometric grid over the user's view of a room. It was the first system to replace a camera with a computer and it got its nickname because all the component parts were so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling on a mechanical arm.

1980: Eye Tap – Miniaturisation

Pioneer and wearables "daddy" Steve Mann created an unwieldy backpack computer connected to a helmet-cam and viewfinder. It harnessed a beam splitter to send a scene both to the user and to a computer-connected camera, allowing the overlay of real-time data. Although Mann's reality is augmented and not virtual, his subsequent prototypes refined Eye Tap and showed that virtual technologies needn't be bulky and unnatural.

1984: RB2 – First VR controllers

Reality Built for Two was the first commercial VR system from the company set up by VR legend Jaron Lanier included the DataGlove, which allowed users to twist and turn virtual objects that appeared in the EyePhone heads-up display. However, you needed deep pockets as the whole package would set you back $100,000, although there was a budget option available for $50,000.

1985: NASA – LCD optics & head tracking

The space agency has been instrumental in keeping VR alive over the last four decades, combining LEDs, liquid crystal displays and wide-angle optics to good effect. It also pioneered head tracking technology that was built upon by successive efforts from private companies.

1993: SEGA VR – VR console gaming

At the height of its powers, the Japanese company led the charge for VR gaming with wraparound glasses that debuted at that year's CES, along with four games. Unfortunately a lukewarm reaction to the platform had SEGA claiming that the experience was too real and that gamers could injure themselves. Very quietly, the project was mothballed.

1995: CAVE – Multiple users

The CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment used stereoscopic LCD shutter glasses and wall projections to create three-walled, room-sized spaces that the user could walk through. Designed by students at the University of Illinois, they managed to create a more lightweight VR vision, more akin to what we're enjoying today. What's more, CAVE was truly groundbreaking in that it allowed multiple users to enjoy the same experience.

2009: Kickstarter – New funding avenues

If it wasn't for the launch of the crowdfunding platform it might have taken Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey a lot longer to get his virtual vision made real. As it was, Oculus Rift Development Kit 1 raised nearly $2.5 million dollars from 10,000 backers and became one of the biggest crowdfunding success stories.


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