When thinking about the term virtual reality, your mind might jump straight to images of flying cars, your favorite science fiction book, or movies like Total Recall. But the truth is, VR technology has been a part of our lives for decades, tracing its conceptual roots back even further. Sony’s Project Morpheus and the Oculus Rift are just the latest iterations of VR, molded to fit within the entertainment sphere, specifically the video game industry. The technology that will soon allow immersive sensory gaming first flourished in the science, military, and even art fields. Let’s take a trip back through time to take a broad look at the precursors of modern-day VR and how they helped to shape our society.
Virtual Reality: The Early Years… Earlier Than You Think!
The earliest forms of virtual reality can be found in the 1860s with the emergence of 360-degree artwork. Baldassare Peruzzi’s piece, Sala delle Prospettive challenged the notions of traditional architecture by incorporating perspective into the design; effectively tricking the eye of the viewer into thinking that a painted element is actually real. These illusions are a far cry from the tangible VR contraptions of the 20th or 21st century, but the ideology is still quite similar.
Fast forward to the 1930s and virtual reality as we know it began to take shape. Pygmalion’s Spectacles, a short story by Stanley G. Weinbaum, describes a goggle-based virtual reality system with the holographic recording of fictional experiences including smell and touch.
In the 1960s, Morton Heilig sought to immerse an audience into film like never before with his creation, the Sensorama Experience Theater. Paired with a movie, his device added sounds, smells, and even elements of touch to the experience. Shortly after, Douglas Englbart’s was the first to utilize monitors or digital screens to display information from a computer. This discovery allowed computing to evolve leaps and bounds with virtual reality progressing along with it.
By the late 1960s, Ivan Sutherland created the first true precursor to the Rift and Morpheus, The Sword of Damocles. Widely considered to be the first virtual reality system, the apparatus incorporated a head-mounted display (HMD) and was able to generate simplistic wire-frame virtual environments. The military experimented with HMD apparatuses as well, creating specialized software and motion-control platforms which would later become standard tools for military training as flight simulators.
Moving Toward a More Modern Era
Noticing just how lucrative VR and computing could be, the entertainment industry jumped on the opportunity to incorporate virtual reality tech and concepts in their motion pictures. Movies such as Star Wars IV: A New Hope and Tron were especially powerful vehicles, showcasing the possibilities of computer graphics and ushering them into the mainstream. This newfound appreciation for special effects catalyzed virtual reality’s entrance into the video game industry, as well. Perhaps the first official foray into the gaming sector came in the form of the Nintendo Power Glove (1989), a device adapted from NASA Ames group’s VR peripheral the DataGlove. Although it functioned poorly, its ingenuity was a testament to the potential innovation of virtual reality.
Over the course of the next 20 years, the simpler gadgetry of the past has become highly sophisticated. Both the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus feature HD brilliance with 1080p displays, headsets featuring motion tracking and stereoscopic sound, and most importantly, a creative malleability that allows these VR machines to deliver experiences both realistic and fantastic. With technology at our disposal, the ideas of the many visionaries like Weinbaum or Heilig may soon leave the landscape of thoughts or dreams, and enter reality.