History Of Virtual Reality

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History Of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality has beginnings that preceded the time that the concept was coined and formalised. In this detailed history of virtual reality we look at how technology has evolved and how key pioneers have paved the path for virtual reality as we know it today.

Defining Virtual Reality

Before we can consider the virtual reality development timeline, we have to briefly consider that is that counts as “VR” or should be seen as a precursor to it. After all, the point of virtual reality is to trick someone’s brain into believing something is real, even when it isn’t.

For example, there’s the famous example of an early cinematic screening. It showed a train heading straight at the camera. The people in attendance, having never seen film before, had a reaction to the footage as if it were really a train, than just a picture of one. While that story may be considered more of an urban legend in modern times, it underscores the problem of defining virtual reality neatly. It is entirely possible for film and television imagery to influence our sense of reality, at least to a point. Yet, we don’t think of them and virtual reality as being one and the same.

There are plenty of definitions of VR today, which all more or less overlap in key areas. When we use the word “VR” now, it specifically refers to computer generated imagery and hardware specifically designed to bring those sights and sounds to us in a way that is totally immersive.

Many definitions also stipulate that VR must be interactive. This would differentiate it from things like 3D -movies, 360-degree video and other similar “look but don’t touch” media. The problem with this is that plenty of computer generated VR isn’t interactive at all, yet everyone considers it to be VR. While 360-degree video might not be computer generated, it’s functionally no different to a pre-planned non-interactive CG VR experience.

In a historical context then, we have to broaden what is seen as VR or VR-adjacent. Some of the milestones discussed in this article are therefore also ancestors to other forms of media, such as film.  The technologies are also branched into many different directions. In some cases,a milestone is more about the establishment of an idea, rather than the invention f a specific technology.

Early attempts at virtual reality

Panoramic paintings

If we focus more strictly on the scope of virtual reality as a means of creating the illusion that we are present somewhere we are not, then the earliest attempt at virtual reality is surely the 360-degree murals (or panoramic paintings) from the nineteenth century. These paintings were intended to fill the viewer’s entire field of vision, making them feel present at some historical event or scene.

Battle of Borodino, 1812
Battle of Borodino, 181

1838 – Stereoscopic photos & viewers

In 1838 Charles Wheatstone’s research demonstrated that the brain processes the different two-dimensional images from each eye into a single object of three dimensions. Viewing two side by side stereoscopic images or photos through a stereoscope gave the user a sense of depth and immersion. The later development of the popular View-Master stereoscope (patented 1939), was used for “virtual tourism”. The design principles of the Stereoscope is used today for the popular Google Cardboard and low budget VR head mounted displays for mobile phones.

  • 1838 : The stereoscope (Charles Wheatstone)
  • 1849 : The lenticular stereoscope (David Brewster)
  • 1939 : The View-Master (William Gruber)

Over time mankind has been slowly but surely creating ever richer ways to stimulate our senses. Things really began to take off in the 20th century, with advent of electronics and computer technology.

1929 – Link Trainer The First Flight Simulator

In 1929 Edward Link created the “Link trainer” (patented 1931) probably the first example of a commercial flight simulator, which was entirely electromechanical. It was controlled by motors that linked to the rudder and steering column to modify the pitch and roll. A small motor-driven device mimicked turbulence and disturbances. Such was the need for safer ways to train pilots that the US military bought six of these devices for $3500. In 2015 money this was just shy of $50 000. During World War II over 10,000 “blue box” Link Trainers were used by over 500,000 pilots for initial training and improving their skills.



Left: Edward Link, Right: The Link Trainer

1930s – Science fiction story predicted VR

In the 1930s a story by science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum (Pygmalion’s Spectacles) contains the idea of a pair of goggles that let the wearer experience a fictional world through holographics, smell, taste and touch. In hindsight the experience Weinbaum describes for those wearing the goggles are uncannily like the modern and emerging experience of virtual reality, making him a true visionary of the field.


Image source: sffaudio.com

1950s – Morton Heilig’s Sensorama


In the mid 1950s cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama (patented 1962) which was an arcade-style theatre cabinet that would stimulate all the senses, not just sight and sound. It featured stereo speakers, a stereoscopic 3D display, fans, smell generators and a vibrating chair. The Sensorama was intended to fully immerse the individual in the film. He also created six short films for his invention all of which he shot, produced and edited himself. The Sensorama films were titled, Motorcycle, Belly Dancer, Dune Buggy, helicopter, A date with Sabina and I’m a coca cola bottle!

Image source: mortonheilig.com

The video below is an interview with Morton about the Sensorama.

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