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The History of Virtual Reality | SignalWire

The History of Virtual Reality

Everyone knows that XR is a big buzzword in the tech world but the concept of Virtual Reality is a relatively old one.

  • If you want to be really cheeky about it, you could argue that panoramic painting dating back to the 19th century could be considered an alternate reality. Because the paintings went around 360 degrees, the viewer is immersed in the image making it feel like they are in different surroundings.

  • Alright alright, that’s a bit of a stretch. So we’ll start our story with the Stereoscope which was invented in 1838. Charles Wheatstone conducted research that demonstrated that when each eye is presented with a two-dimensional image, the human brain processes it as a singular three-dimensional image. Stereoscopic images of popular tourist destinations were presented side by side and viewed through the Stereoscope to create the illusion of immersion. These same principals are used today in cell-phone mounted VR displays like Google Cardboard.

  • Next came the Sensorama which was patented in 1962. Cinematographer Morton Heilig invented an arcade-style theatre that played interactive movies that stimulated all of the senses. His goal was to make the viewer feel like they were in the movie through the use of stereoscopic 3-D images, stereo speakers, fans, and a vibrating chair. He also invented the Telesphere Mask which was the first head-mounted VR gear.

  • Inspired by the Telesphere Mask, Ivan Sutherland invented the ultimate head-mounted device ominously named ‘The Sword of Damocles’ in 1968. This device was connected to a computer rather than a camera which, in turn, made it too heavy to fit on a person’s head and had to be hung from the ceiling. The headset displayed three-dimensional computer generated graphics that changed perspective when the user turned their head. The images could also be superimposed on top of a real life background, making it the first augmented reality.

  • In the 1970s, Myron Krueger was the first to use the term “artificial reality.” Virtual Reality, the term we all know and love, was later used by computer scientist Jaron Lanier in the 1980s. Lanier also worked on early versions of VR gear such as sense cloves and goggles.

  • In 1991, Sega was one of the first companies to launch a VR headset designed for the public; designed for their 16-bit Genesis game console. Unfortunately, the headset was never released to the public because Sega feared their VR was too good, and people would accidentally end up hurting themselves in the real world. Other sources tell us that there were too many technical problems with the headset to be fit for public release. We’ll let you decide which is true.

  • In 1995 Nintendo tried their hand at VR with the Nintendo Virtual Boy. While consumers were excited for the portability of this product, its awkward fit and unimpressive graphics quickly made this headset a flop.
  • Today, smartphone technology and the leap in graphics quality has once again made consumers excited about VR. Google cardboard and other D.I.Y. VR headsets allows anyone with a smartphone (which nowadays is almost everyone) to participate in the phenomenon. Engineers are even starting to make special VR treadmills so that you don’t run into the living room wall or smack the T.V. with your controller (it happens…trust us.) With 5G being introduced in the next year and a growing gaming culture, the future of XR is just beginning.

(For a look into some of the buzzwords referenced in this blog, check out our 2018 Tech Buzzwords blog here.)