Virtual Reality is all the rage these days, with the likes of HTC, Oculus, Sony and Samsung all taking advantage of computing power that’s now potent enough to render detailed 3D worlds. But the concept of VR has been around for longer than you might think. Did you know that you can trace its roots back to the handheld stereoscopic viewers of the 1830s?
It’s just the first of many key milestones that have paved the way for today’s goggle-assisted immersive entertainment. Without them, we might not have an Oculus Rift…
The first flight simulator
If you take the concept of a ‘virtual reality’ in its literal sense, then the idea of simulating an aeroplane pretty much fits the bill. In 1929 Edward Link produced the Link Trainer — also known as the Blue Box — an electromechanical device that mimicked the controls and movement of a single-seat fighter plane. Designed to train pilots to fly by instruments alone, it sidestepped the need for an accurate representation of the outside world. More than 50,000 US pilots were trained on such devices.
The first immersive multi-sensory device
American cinematographer Morton Heilig — often cited as the father of virtual reality — invented the Sensorama Simulator in 1957. The device, which resembled a modern-day arcade cabinet, enabled the viewer to watch a stereoscopic 3D film of a motorcycle ride in Brooklyn, shot from the rider’s viewpoint.
To boost immersion, viewers also heard stereo sound, felt the wind in their face, the motion of the bike’s saddle, and were even treated to the smells of the city. Sadly, Heilig couldn’t secure the sales he needed to continue his expensive project, so the groundbreaking system simply sat under a tarpaulin by the family pool.
The first stereoscopic headset
Undaunted by the failure of his Sensorama Simulator, Heilig forged on, creating the Telesphere Mask. Patented in 1960, this pioneering head-mounted display was intended for use as a personal home cinema, enabling users to watch wide-vision 3D telly with true stereo audio. Naturally, the system didn’t include head-tracking, but the stereoscopic headset perfectly foreshadows the VR devices of today.
The first motion-tracking head-mounted display
The first true VR-style headset was the Headsight. This was produced in 1961 by Charles Comeau and James Bryan, two engineers at the Philco Corporation. It employed a video screen for each eye and its magnetic motion tracking system was linked to a closed-circuit camera, which moved in concert with the viewer’s head movements. Its main purpose was the remote surveillance of dangerous situations for the military.
The first true VR headset
The original combination of a head-mounted display, head-tracking technology, stereo vision and CG imagery was built by Ivan Sutherland (known as the father of computer graphics) and his student Bob Sproull in 1968.
Regarded as the first true VR/AR headset, the Sword of Damocles was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling on a mechanical arm – hence the name – and it needed to be strapped to the wearer. However, it did enable the exploration of some rudimentary wirefame 3D rooms and objects.
The first use of ‘Virtual Reality’
We can’t do an article on VR and not mention Jaron Lanier, the founder of VPL Research in 1985 and the man who coined the term ‘virtual reality’. VPL was one of the first companies to develop and sell VR products, including the Data Glove, the EyePhone headset (as featured in The Lawnmower Man) and the DataSuit, a full-body outfit with sensors for tracking the movement of the arms, legs and torso.
The first VR games
For a brief period in the 1990s, a small company from Leicester in the UK stood at the forefront of VR. Headed by Dr. Jonathan Waldern, Virtuality Group produced commercial VR systems, initially for companies like British Telecom, Ford and IBM, later branching out into coin-op machines for the arcades.
Released in 1991, its 1000-series hardware featured both standing and seated units, powered by Commodore Amiga 3000 hardware with Polhemus tracking systems. Sadly, its pioneering, but clunky polygonal games were a far cry from Hollywood’s portrayal of VR at the time, and public interest soon waned.
The first VR film
With VR back from its two-decade-long hibernation, everyone wants a piece of the VR action — although there are still wildly varying ideas of what VR is supposed to be. One of the more unusual projects is Miyubi, a 40-minute comedy produced by Felix & Paul Studios and written with the help of Funny Or Die.
This VR film is free to download and watch (see if you can unlock the two secret scenes…), but you’ll need an Oculus Rift headset or a Samsung Gear VR to do so.
Find out more about the latest advances in virtual reality, powered by Intel, here