Odds are you may never step on Mars or join in with the Velociraptors, or even get up on stage and give it your best Elvis impression. But with the latest wave in technology, you can have an experience as close to the real thing all within the comforts of your very own living room. Virtual Reality aims to provide a way for humans to escape both their current circumstances and into worlds beyond. There’s the common belief that VR is a new phenomenon. However, VR actually has a history spanning more than 130 years.

In the late 1990s, virtual reality was all the rage. Popularity dwindled in the early 2000s as excitement for new innovations such as smartphones and tablets took over. While VR has been steadily gaining interest again since 2010 with a few key developments including Google Cardboard and Oculus Rift.

So what is Virtual Reality? To understand Virtual Reality, we need to break it into two definitions, psychological and technical. 

What is Psychological Virtual Reality?

Unlike real-life, virtual reality is an immersive simulation of pieces from our world or imaginary worlds. Emulation and Perception are two of the primary factors when it comes to Virtual Reality. 

Let’s examine that for a moment. 

We have systems that process information from the five senses. Understanding the virtual reality experience is a combination of sensory data and how we process that data to form our perception of what is happening. What if we present these systems with fake data? 

In summary, Psychological Virtual Reality is an emulation of a situation that we understand, or perceive, to be real. 

Okay, we looked at a psychological definition of Virtual Reality. Let’s now dive into the technical. 

What is Technical Virtual Reality?

Put very simply, the term Technical Virtual Reality is used to describe a digital environment in which you can explore, and be immersed in. For a Virtual Reality experience to be successful, there are four key requirements.

  1. The experience must be believable. You need to feel like you are there. You lose that and the experience dies. 
  2. The world must be interactive. This can also mean that the world must require the person to move around, reach out and grab things or crouch to creep under surfaces. 
  3. The world must be explorable, this is what separates virtual reality from a TV show. It has to allow you to experience it from any angle on your terms. 
  4. Combining interactive and believeable, the environment becomes immersive. Virtual reality is only immersive when both of these parameters are present.

A Brief History of Technical Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality is a head mounted display that uses the latest technology to allow you to interact with virtual worlds, but how long has this been around? With some history behind it and different levels of development, it can be said that the concept of virtual reality has been around for 130 years.

Virtual reality had a long way to go before making it into the head-mounted display we know today, but it is based on forerunning inventions that lead to virtual reality of today.

  • In the 1890s, the world’s first film experience was created by Thomas Edison and William Dison. Thomas Edison created the Kinetoscope, which was a box with little holes to see through. The viewer would insert his or her face into one of these holes and experience motion pictures from different angles by turning the crank.
  • In 1929, the first mechanical flight simulator is developed by Edwin Link, with the Link Trainer and Pilot Maker. 
  • In 1956, Morton Heilig, a filmmaker, develops artificial sensory machines, including an early head-mounted display. 
  • In 1962, Heilig would go on to patent the Sensorama, that allows the viewer to experience artificial sight, sound, smell and even vibration. 
  • Morton Heilig is regarded by many as the true father of virtual reality. In 1962 he designed the first virtual reality headset, the Sensorama. This futuristic device was able to stimulate all five senses with a wraparound screen. The user could smell flowers at one moment and be behind someone’s horse while riding it in another.  Heilig also invented an early type of game controller for this system that resembled a steering wheel. Heilig’s Sensorama was a virtual reality precursor to the modern day computer and smartphone, but it never became popular because consumers were not yet ready for such advanced technology.
  • Also in 1962, Ivan Sutherland created what is arguably considered to be the world’s first virtual reality head-mounted display that included both stereo vision and head tracking.
  • In 1968, the first large-scale virtual reality room called The Cave was created by Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Parkin as part of a NASA project to study how humans interact with immersive environments.
  • In 1962 to 1968, Ivan Sutherland develops Sketchpad, an early light pen, computer drawing system, a key development for real-time computer graphics. He also produces a sophisticated head-mounted display with stereo 3D. 
  • In 1970, computer scientist Myron Krueger opens Videoplace, a virtual reality, explorative laboratory. 
  • In 1974, Ivan Sutherland would go on to invent the Graphics Head Mounted Display (GHD), which stimulates one eye with a digital display, while blocking the other so that the virtual reality is not clashing and confusing to users.
  • In 1980, David Em became one of the first people in history to experience virtual reality when he tried on The Sword of Damocles at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. He was only 15 years old at the time.
  • In 1983, Myron Krueger coins the term artificial reality. Artificial reality is scientist Jaron Lanier co-invented virtual reality goggles, called the DataGlove.
  • In 1989, computer scientist Jaron Lanier coins the term virtual reality. He develops VPL Research to produce VR head-mounted displays and haptic data gloves. 
  • The earliest known virtual reality game is Dactyl Nightmare which was released by Sega in 1991 but it didn’t have an accompanying head mounted display so you couldn’t experience virtual reality at that time.
  • In 1991, virtual reality is proposed as a new mode of operation for NASA’s mission control system by David Liddle at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Center (UCAR).
  • Also in 1991, computer scientist Scott Fisher introduces his head mounted display and gloves to simulate pellet gun shooting.
  • In 1995 Nintendo released VR-32: Virtual Boy a head mounted display that required you to insert your own game cartridge and use red LED’s for viewing purposes with an image quality just above standard definition.
  • In 1994, Dave Raggett develops VRML, Virtual Reality Mark-up Language. The first commercial VR console came out in 1995 and it was called Virtuality.
  • The first commercial VR console came out in 1995 and it was called Virtuality.
  • In 2011, Palmer Luckey builds the Oculus Rift from his parent’s garage; this becomes one of the most successful Kickstarter projects to date with over $100 million raised. 
  • In 2014, Facebook goes on to acquire Oculus in a deal worth well over two billion dollars. 
  • 2016 forward, the modern day, or next era, of virtual reality hardware begins to ship with many companies and devices available to consumers to explore and develop virtual reality. 
  • In 2021, the newest virtual reality headsets that you can purchase today are the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PlayStation VR – whose sales are set to exceed $700 million this year. Virtual reality history is certainly rich and detailed, but we truly are only beginning to see where this technology can take us.
Leah van der Walt

Leah van der Walt

Leah is a 3D Artist & VR / AR Developer with 8 years of experience. Based in South Africa, she is a passionate teacher and loves to listen to drum and bass in her spare time.

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