Virtual reality (VR) can trace it’s roots back to the late 1800’s, but the first use of the term and first VR device are from the 50’s.
Is Virtual Reality a New Technology?
Neither Virtual Reality (VR), nor Augmented Reality (AR), nor the peripherals used (like the DataGlove or headsets) are new technologies.
The History of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)
Both VR and AR can be traced back to the 1800’s, but the history of modern Virtual Reality begins with the Sensorama (outlined in 1955 and invented in 1962). However, the VR we know today begins with the creation of the first computerized VR / AR.
The First Computerized VR / AR
As soon as computers able to handle it, VR is developed for Air Force cockpits by Tom Furness (“the grandfather” of VR and AR). In the same year at MIT, Ivan Sutherland began work on his “The Sword of Damocles” device (the first true VR / HR Head-Mounted Display (HMD)).
Following this we get a host of other VR pioneers, like Steve Mann (father of wearable computing), Jaron Lanier (co-creator of the DataGlove), and many more. Most of these folks continued to work on VR throughout the years, and we owe a lot of the current tech to them. That said, most of the work failed to make it to the mainstream (despite many attempts since the 90’s) and was developed outside the public eye.History of Virtual Reality – Reality Check. A quick and smart history of VR and AR (see the next video for the first hand, more in depth, Jedi version).
VR From the Air Force to the Living Room
The history of VR and AR in business and government (notably aviation, healthcare, and military) has been nonstop since the 1960’s, but for consumers the history is more spotted due to cost and technology factors.
For consumers, the story of VR and AR includes the first computer controllers and video games, and includes countless devices you probably don’t remember like Glasstron (1997), to eMagin (2000), to MyVu (2008). Fuzzy memories aside, consumers will likely remember the DataGlove (1977) which was used as a model for Nintendo’s Power Glove (1989), Nintendo’s Virtual Boy (1995), and those VR arcade machines from the 90’s (think Lawnmower man).Tom Furness (Grandfather of AR and VR) – “Being the Future” at AWE 2015.
NOTE: VR and AR are two different technologies cut from the same cloth. VR is a fully virtual environment, AR is when we augment our reality (either via a screen or as a protection in the real world). AR and VR were developed side-by-side, and they are both different ways of solving the same problem, “how do we enhance the way we interface with reality using computers”. For example, a lot of the Air Force tech was simply a mix of VR and AR. Given this, it’s not super useful to separate the timeline until about the late 90’s when consumers start having to choose between smart glass AR headsets and fully VR headsets. Read more about the difference between VR and AR here.
Modern VR / AR
Modern devices like Google Cardboard (2014), which does AR and VR, and the Oculus Rift (2016), which does VR, are the latest attempt to bring immersive artificial reality out of fields like military training, aviation, and healthcare and into the mainstream consumer market.
Below we explore the history of the Sensorama, other VR / AR devices leading up to 2016, what went wrong in the past, and why 2016 is different.
When Was The Term Virtual Reality First Used?
The first use of the word “virtual reality” was in the 1938 book Le Théâtre et son Double (The Theater and its Double in English). Later in the 80’s the term was popularized by Jaron Lanier. Prior to this we called both AR and VR “artificial reality”.
Did Virtual Reality Exist Before the 60’s?
There are a number of devices (reaching as far back as the late 1800’s) that could be seen as precursors to virtual reality and augmented reality, but the first device to fit the modern definition of virtual reality is the Sensorama which was outlined in a paper in 1955 by it’s inventor Morton Heilig. You can learn all about the Sensorama and it’s history here.A video about the Sensorama, the world’s first virtual reality device. Morton Heilig prototyped in 1962. Heilig first envisioned the Sensorama in a 1955 essay. Learn more about the Sensorama here.
FACT: The Sensorama of 1962 can be considered the first virtual reality and augmented reality head-mounted display (HMD) system. However, the terms are used loosely when talking about the Sensorama. The first devices that resembles modern VR / AR are by Tom Furness and Ivan Sutherland respectively in 1966 (read more about those devices here). This is true even though term “Virtual Reality” wasn’t used until the 80’s and Augmented Reality wasn’t used until the 90’s.A video showing First Head-mounted display (1965) Ivan Sutherland’s The Sword of Damocles.
Virtual Reality Beyond the 1960’s
Since the Sensorama virtual reality has gone through a couple of revolutions with notable devices in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s arising from the interests of tech pioneers, science and health professionals need for scientific data visualization, and the militaries need for innovation in aviation.
Outside of the nifty Sensorama, we can consider the first computer games to be the first virtual realities and the first controllers (like the mouse and pen) the first VR peripherals. Like-wise, the first time we used a virtual HUD overlay, it was the first augmented reality. That being said, when we think VR / AR we are thinking headsets and wearable’s, so below we will detail a few notable AR / VR inventions.
Important innovations include:
NASA and the Air Force: While consumers weren’t too keen on the first round of VR, certain fields have been using it since day 1. Specifically NASA and the Air Force have contributed a lot to VR. The Air Force is who we owe most of the credit as far as development goes. The tech was never financially viable outside the Military, if it wasn’t for the Air Force we would have lost about 20 years of R&D on VR. Agencies like NASA were also important in much the same way. Essentially if you don’t have a budget like NASA, or the Air Force, and if you don’t have the need for tech like the aforementioned, no one is going to spend hundreds of millions on a moonshot. Suffice to say, if you want to look at the history of VR you look at NASA, the Military, and their work with Silicon Valley, universities, and labs. The tech has been there since the 60’s, but it was only affordable to those with big budgets in the past (and present for that matter).
Wired Gloves: The DataGlove and PowerGlove were patented in 1982 by Thomas G. Zimmerman and developed with help of VR pioneer Jaron Lanier (who also coined the term Virtual Reality in the 80’s). Nintendo’s PowerGlove may have failed to reach a mass audience, but DataGloves are making a big comeback with the modern VR devices. They have been working since the 80’s and are refined at this point. They can use pressure, and other sensory feedback, to give users a more immersive experience.
Healthcare and Education: Most people will think of VR and AR as “video games”, but the truth is far from this. Both AR and VR are vital for areas like Healthcare where they can help with everything from heart surgery to pain management. The applications are endless, but they are expensive.
The Virtual Boy: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy isn’t looked at kindly by history due to it’s game library and lackluster graphics, but it was actually way ahead of it’s time predating the Oculus by over 20 years. Like the Power Glove, the problem wasn’t technology, as much as it was making the technology affordable to a mass audience. The red and black graphics, and non-wearable headset are products of budget cuts to bring it to market at an affordable price, and not products of available technology. NOTE: Obviously technology has progressed, and this helps bring virtual reality to life, but the cost factor is the overarching issue.
AR: The term AR was coined in the 90’s (supposedly) by Professor Tom Caudell while working on aviation related computing for Boeing. That said, it’s important to understand that some of the first stuff Tom Furness did with VR was AR, before the 80’s it was all just “artificial reality”. There is no big exciting AR device for consumers outside the string of failed smart glasses, but you may be surprised to know that your phone is AR (and VR) ready and just waiting for you to download some cool AR Apps.
The two re-births: The above devices aside, there have seen two big pushes for VR in the mainstream. One in the 90’s with an expensive arcade-style Lawnmower man type video game in arcades and first round of smart glasses and wearables, and recently in 2015 – 2016 with the latest VR boom with devices like Google cardboard and the Oculus Rift, which are both designed for home use. Regardless of how this round of VR fares, it is safe to say people won’t be giving up on VR any time soon.
NOTE: As we get to modern devices, and why VR hasn’t worked before, putting things in perspective becomes part speculation. I’ve tried to separate my opinion from reality. But what is reality? What if we fully model the real world and interact with it pixel for pixel? Is that real?… Wait off topic, point is i’m going to speculate about the Oculus and throw out advice, so keep that in mind.
Why VR / AR Hasn’t Worked in the Past?
Every time a company tried to bring the AR or VR the experience to consumers the devices suffered due to cost and the library of games.
Specifically big cuts were made to products like the PowerGlove and Virtual Boy because of the cost of the technology. This left consumers with half-baked products that didn’t work consistently, and this led to a limited market of games. Before anyone could develop fun VR games the devices were already off the shelves. This is true for just about every VR device yet.
Ultimately everything from the Virtual Boy to DataGloves failed and everyone went back to their flat gaming devices.
Opinions: The VR / AR failure is part Moore’s Law (technology gets cheaper and faster overtime) and part “you need really big pockets to eat all the losses”. VR and AR are the future, but people are resistant to wearables on their face. People with glasses (i.e. 1/2 your target audience for high end VR) can’t wear normal AR glasses and some VR devices (at least comfortably without looking silly). People are social, and pre-speedy wifi, VR was an anti-social thing. To make VR / AR work, industries will have to take the punches and remind people that the ends justify the means. Cold feet and playing scared will have us waiting for the next big VR craze, eating losses and moving forward no matter what will mean success as wifi speeds increase and tech gets cheaper.
The Re-Re-Birth of VR
After booms in AR and VR tech in the 90’s and 2000’s VR became a plausible concept again. Finally in the 2010’s with Facebook’s Oculus, Google Glass, Google Cardboard, and the competition we are getting a new round of affordable and high powered VR and AR devices.
Mark Zuckerberg and Oculus’s Michael Abrash on Why Virtual Reality Is the Next Big Thing – FULL. VR and AR are only possible to bring to the consumer today due to the amazing amount of time and effort put into perfecting the modern cell phone screen. But why listen to me tell you when you can listen to Zuckerberg and the Oculus’s Chief Scientist and VR guru Micheal Abrash?
Opinions: The technology, wifi, price-point, and the rest is almost there. Zuckerberg knows the history of VR / AR and he knows we are on the cusp of the price-point being right, but we can see even with the first round of Oculus the phase in is purposefully slow and steady. This is actually a good sign. That said, the Oculus competition going into VR for a quick buck threatens to dilute the market and the message.
VR and AR in 2016 and Beyond
Despite the inevitable integration of VR and AR into the mainstream, the first round of truly powerful VR / AR set to launch 2016 is still sitting at over $500. Devices like the Oculus rift require a gaming rig beyond what the average person has (and only runs on Windows), and all devices require getting people to adopt wearable tech.
We know the failure in the past has been weak libraries of games and cost factors. We also know that people are slow to adopt things they put on their face (can’t stress this enough, this IS the hurdle).
Does this mean we have time to go before the VR or AR finally hits the big time? Likely the VR / AR market will grow slow and steady due to cost and tech limitations and slow growing game libraries. There is also the very real threat of splitting the market. With everyone so excited about VR on the dev side and different platforms using different tech, we run the risk of bad third-party games and sparse A list games on anyone system. It’s likely only a few devices will survive unless they all can play the same games.
Ultimately, VR / AR is inevitable. The tech is just too cool to pass up. Whether it’s Facebook’s Oculus VR, Sony’s Project Morpheus, Google Cardboard’s (mock, but affordable, VR), Samsung, HTC Vive, or all the above who can breakthrough to the mainstream is the question.
A video showing the different VR / AR devices coming in 2016.
Opinions: We can argue a hurdle for the devices is the fact that they are very alienating to others in the room (more true for VR than AR). That said, advances in internet connectivity and technology open new doors for social gaming. We could find that the social aspect of these devices become their selling point.
- Augmented Reality vs. Virtual Reality: What are the differences and similarities?
- Virtual reality
- “10 Forthcoming Augmented Reality & Smart Glasses You Can Buy“
- “Google Glass“
- “Google Cardboard“
- “The history of augmented reality“
- “Steve Mann, the “father of wearable computing,” introduces new augmented reality glasses“
- “Jaron Lanier“
- “Human Interface Technology Lab“
- “NASA SHOWS THE WORLD ITS 20-YEAR VIRTUAL REALITY EXPERIMENT TO TRAIN ASTRONAUTS: THE INSIDE STORY“