The first reference to virtual reality was in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s 1935 sci-fi short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”, which you can read more about here. From then on, VR went down in history as we know it today.
A Timeline of VR’s History
- 1833: Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the stereoscope, which was improved by Sir David Brewster.
- 1928: Edwin Land began development of Polaroid glasses, which showed their first stereoscopic film in 1935.
- 1929: Development of the Link Trainer, which was a flight simulator that was later used in training during WWII.
- 1930: Herman Ives brought us lenticular lenses, multiplexed 3D images that capitalized on a binocular parallax for the illusion of depth.
- 1935: The concept of virtual reality was introduced in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”. It depicted a goggle-based VR device that carried recordings of a fantasy land with fictional sensations of smell, sight, and touch.
- 1938: French theatre director, Antonin Artaud, described the dreamlike qualities of characters and props on stage as “la réalité virtuelle”. Although this isn’t the first use of the term in the sense of computerized VR, it is the first time we see it in published language.
- 1939: The ViewMaster was introduced. It was a goggle-like mount containing cardboard disks with seven stereoscopic 3D pairs of small color photographs on film. This was possible because of the recent development of Kodachrome color film which made the use of small high-quality photographic color images feasible.
- 1952: The Cinerama Projection System was introduced in theaters.
- 1955: Morton Heilig, sometimes referred to as the “Father of Virtual Reality” wrote of an “Experience Theatre” in which all senses are stimulated as the user engages with what’s onscreen in a theatre.
- 1958: Invention of the Philco Television head-mounted-display.
- 1962: Heilig built a prototype of his “Experience Theatre” and called it the Sensorama. The machine came with five short films to be displayed that stimulated multiple senses. The Sensorama was purely a mechanical device, since it predated digital computing. It was capable of displaying stereoscopic 3D images in a wide-angle while tilting the user’s body, emitting stereo sound, and project wind and aromas during the films. No one would financially back Heilig for his VR device patents, so it was halted.
- Late 1960s: Frederick Brooks, Henry Fuchs, Stephen Pizer, and Warren Robinett at the Dept. of Computer Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill developed scientific visualization, molecular modeling for pharmaceutical chemistry and medical imaging, the ARM (Argonne Remote Manipulator), and an ‘architectural walkthrough’ of Sitterson Hall.
- 1968: Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist and Internet pioneer (aka the father of computer graphics), created the first VR and augmented reality (AR) head-mounted display (HMD) system with his student Bob Sproull. By today’s standards, it was primitive in user interface and realism — not to mention that the HMD was so heavy that it needed to be suspended from the ceiling. The graphics in the device were wire-frame model rooms, which are visual presentations of 3D objects. The device was called The Sword of Damocles.
- 1978: Researchers in France developed force-feedback devices (virtual violin) for sound synthesis. They accomplished a transmission of gesture as a means for linking human eye-hand skills and imagination with computerized rendering tools.
- 1978: The Aspen Movie Map was created at MIT. It was a virtual simulation of Aspen, Colorado in which users could walk the streets in three modes of summer, winter, or polygons. The researchers photographed every possible movement through the city’s grid for the summer and winter modes. For the polygons, the researchers developed a basic 3-D model of Aspen.
- 1982: Atari created a virtual reality research lab, but it shut down after two years because of the Atari Shock. The researchers, however, stuck around and developed VR technologies. Jason Lanier, one of the researchers, became a pioneer in VR and popularized the term “virtual reality” in the 80s.
- 1985: Jason Lanier founded VPL Research and developed VR devices such as the Data Glove, Eye Phone, and Audio Sphere.
- 1985: Scott Fisher and Warren Robinett at NASA were the first to use a combined Data Glove (from VPL) and HMD in the Virtual Environment Display system. 3D sound was added. It also evolved into A Virtual Interface Environment Workstation and was capable of voice command and speech recognition.
- 1985: Dr. Jonathan Waldern started a VR garage startup, “Virtuality Group” and developed VR headsets, graphics subsystems, 3D trackers, exoskeleton data gloves, and other immersive designs.
- 1986: In Kyoto, Japan, researchers created Advanced Telecommunications Research (ATR), which was a multidisciplinary project that enabled telecollaboration without the use of HMDs, gloves, or body suit through the construction of virtual rooms.
- 1987: VPL, AGE, and Mattel developed the $100 Power Glove for the video game market.
- 1989: VPL & Autodesk begin commercial development of VR.
- Late 1980s: VR’s popularity in mainstream media took a slight dip and became more known among subcultures like cyberpunks (viewed VR as vehicle for social progress) and recreational drug users.
- 1990: Dr. Jonathan Waldern (from above) showcased his arcade machine “Virtuality” at London’s Alexandra Palace. It used a VR headset, joysticks, and networked units for multiplayer gaming. Virtuality went on to become the first mass-produced networked VR multiplayer entertainment system. But it cost upwards of $73,000.
- In the early 1990s, VR was popularized in mainstream media. Two VR industry magazines, CyberEdge and PCVR, led the mainstream discussion of VR concepts and ideas. Although people were getting excited about it, the computer technologies available at the time didn’t allow VR form into what we know it as today. Much of VR technology was used in medicine, flight simulation, automobile design, and military training.
- 1991: Sega released its Sega VR headset for arcade games along with the MegaDrive console. It used LCD screens, stereo headphones, and inertial sensors to track users’ movement all across their body.
- 1991: Some folks at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory created the first immersive cubic room, deviating from the conventional use of goggles. It was a multi-projected environment where people could see their own bodies and others.
- 1994: Sega released the Sega VR-1 motion simulator arcade machine. It was able to track head movement and had 3D polygon graphics in stereoscopic 3D.
- 1994: Apple released QuickTime VR, which displayed 360 photographic panoramas.
- 1995: Artist Maurice Benayoun created the first VR art piece. It connected the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal through dynamic 3D modeling, video chat, spatialized sound, and AI management.
- 1995: A group of entrepreneurs in Seattle made public demonstrations of a cave-like 270 degree immersive room experience called the Virtual Environment Theater.
- Mid-1990s: Mars exploration robot controlled from earth through VR.
- 1996: The Virtual Environment Theater was picked up by communications company and became the first VR device connected to the Internet with online feeds embedded in 3D virtual world models.
- 1999: Entrepreneur Philip Rosedale created Linden Lab to develop a hardware that would allow users to be fully immersed in a 360 VR experience. At first, they tried to produce “The Rig” which was a steel contraption made up of several computer monitors mounted on users’ shoulders. That idea led to the creation of a software-based 3D virtual world called Second Life.
- 2001: SAS3 or SAS Cube led the charge as becoming the first PC-based cubic room. This group eventually birthed to Virtools VRPack.
- 2007: Google introduced Street View, which displayed panoramic images of different locations around the world.
- 2010: Google added a stereoscopic 3D mode to Google Maps.
- 2010: Palmer Luckey designed the first prototype of the Oculus Rift. At the time, it was only capable of rotational tracking. But it had a 90-degree field of vision which was groundbreaking for the consumer market.
- 2014: Facebook buys Oculus Rift for $2 billion. Sony announces Playstation VR. Google announces Google Cardboard.
- 2015: HTC partnered with Valve and announced the HTC Vive.
And there you have it. The history of VR.
Using VR as an Accessory to our Senses
In Howard Rheingold’s book, “Virtual Reality” he shares his experiences with researchers at a VR lab based in the University of North Carolina (pp 24-33). In this section, he discusses human intelligence expansion, medical imaging, the ARM, and implications in architectural 3D walkthroughs.
He discusses IA, which has to do with intelligence augmentation. I found it interesting that he considered VR within the purview of expanding human capabilities with IA. It certainly gave VR more of a transcendent quality that isn’t as centrically apparent in other technologies. I’m curious as to why Rheingold pursues the discussion of emerging VR technologies in the direction of transcendence — I prefer to think that it’s due to the novelty of the technology, but the wearability seems to have certain implications in how we think of it. Wearability entails a form of holistic intimacy (Rheingold was experimenting with the ARM, an exoskeleton machine rigged to a VR HMD, or, a head mounted display). So, we’re giving multiple facets of our selves, through our sensorial pathways, to this technology. When Rheingold was virtual fishing with the ARM, he recalled how it genuinely felt like he caught something quite alive on the other end of his virtual fishing line — this was all sensorial mimicry that the machine carried out (pg. 29). The invasiveness of VR seems to position us in a state of reverence for a machine that claims such a large part of ourselves in order to guide us through an experience it creates for us. Consequently, there’s an element of trust and vulnerability in the way we interact with these devices. Rheingold certainly touches upon these themes when he fancies possibilities of human intelligence expansion and the hyper-realistic experience he had with the ARM.
EXistenZ: Union with Technology
EXistenZ (1999) was a sci-fi film directed by David Cronenberg that played with the idea of virtual reality gaming through biological means. It featured Jennifer Leigh and Jude Law as characters who play the game by inserting the console into a “bioport” at the bottom of their spines and try to save the original copy of the game from being corrupted before release.
David Cronenberg is a Canadian director who spearheaded the movement in in visceral body horror. He has created over 20 films throughout his career, such as “The Fly” and “Crash”.
To be brutally honest, I thought the film was awful. But the concept was egregiously compelling. It depicted a world where people would insert themselves into a device that looked like a weird piece of live flesh with an umbilical cord. It was disgusting. I could go on about how the film relied too much on grotesque imagery at the expense of good storytelling, but I’ll focus on the idea of biological attachment to virtual reality.
Cronenberg was very specific in his vision of this universe — to have VR be something you plug into yourself and to depict the devices as fleshly extensions of ourselves. Although this quality could be attributed to his body horror leanings, I would argue that he’s driving at a far deeper point in our experience of technology. The film did a great job of depicting the fanaticism that accompanied using the technology, which is not too far from how we interact with emerging technologies. There is a fanatical crowd when new devices are released: the lines outside of Apple Stores for weeks before a new product launch, the endless links to blogs that spend all their time speculating what the new Apple device is going to be for the next year, the addiction to technology that we all have to some degree. Cronenberg pursues the ambitious idea that we are headed towards an era in which we fantasize about being completely unified with our technologies. We’re certainly headed in that direction. Technology has only gotten more wearable. It might get to a point where it becomes an actual part of our immediate bodies. Wearing my Apple Watch might get boring after I’ve experienced what it’s like to just have my watch surgically installed into my wrist.
There are also various elements of voracious consumption that are present in the film, from the sexualized way in which Jennifer Leigh’s character fondles her device to the way Jude Law’s character devours the amphibians in the Chinese restaurant. Although these are certainly Freudian themes of fantasies of oral impregnation, it’s also a reflection of the literal consumption of our technologies. Someday, VR HMDs just won’t be enough. It’s easier and better to experience technology through ourselves, not through an external device. It gives us a sense of ownership and union with something bigger than ourselves, which is something we all long for. We are creatures designed for worship. Cronenberg points to that quality through the worship of fabricated worlds his characters claim can give them infinite pleasure. The consequence is, as Cronenberg communicates in the last shot of the film, that we’ll only lose sight of what’s actually true.
Here’s another article I wrote a while ago that dives a little deeper into this idea of wearble technology.
Cool stuff on VR:
- A community music venue that’s being evicted made their own 360 film to capture the nuances of the location during a typical weekend night filled with music and all-age guests.
- Casey Neistat on consumer 360 filmmaking.
- VR and AR pieces at Sundance.