Virtual reality seems to have materialized under our eyes in the last few years, with the development of specialized headsets such as the Oculus Rift. But the technology behind VR games, movies and apps is not new – and the concept behind it has been around for about a century.
Before we delve into the interesting history of virtual reality, we should know first what it is and precisely how it works. A simple definition of virtual reality starts from its name – virtual meaning “not existent in the physical world”, but created by means of software in a very realistic manner. So, in a linguistic understanding, virtual reality is something as near to reality as possible, without being the actual, real world around us.
The Key Characteristics of the Virtual Reality Experience
Moving on to a technical definition, virtual reality is an experience achieved with the aid of a specialized device – the virtual reality headset. The headset covers the eyes and, in certain cases also the ears, completely, blocking out any visual and audio connections with the world outside. It is of the greatest importance that the headset fit the user’s head perfectly so that the only stimuli perceived by the eyes and ears come from it, and not from the real world.
The VR head-mounted display (HMD) or headset is connected to a computerized system – a desktop or laptop computer, a smartphone – with specialized software or applications installed on it. Virtual reality is, thus, generated by a computer and experienced through an immersive device worn by the user.
The defining characteristics of virtual reality experience are:
- Believable – the experience must emulate a form of reality with life-size elements and objects, giving the users the sensation that they are actually inside the respective environment;
- Immersive – the experience of virtual reality must engage all senses, not just sight and hearing; the users must feel the sense of motion and be able to feel that they are a part of the environment and are interacting with it;
- Interactive – users should be able to manipulate or interact with the virtual environment in some way, such as navigating to new VR experiences by gaze controls or obtaining real time effects to their actions, such as pushing open a door or lifting up an item from the ground;
- Explorable – users must be able to move around in the virtual environment and see the landscape around them change as they move in depth or to the sides; the environment must give the sensation of an expanse of space, with more elements existing beyond the immediate line of sight.
From the Stuff of Sci-Fi Books to the First Prototype
Virtual reality may have become a daily news item only recently, but people have been envisioning the possibility of exploring worlds beyond the real one for over a century.
Here is a short but comprehensive timeline of the evolution of virtual reality, from a sci-fi literature concept to the present day VR headsets and business applications.
- In 1929 Edwin Link invents the device named Link Trainer (popularly known as Pilot Maker) which is the precursor to flight simulators. The device was mechanically operated and helped pilots with their training.
- In 1935 sci-fi writer Stanley G. Weinbaum describes a virtual reality environment with holographic recordings which can be accessed by wearing a pair of goggles, in the story titled Pygmalion’s Spectacles.
- In 1961 C. Corneau and J. Bryan create the first head-mounted display, named Headsight.
- In 1962 Morton Heilig creates Sensorama, a prototype “experience theatre” which featured five short films engaging various senses (sight, hearing, touch and smell).
- In 1968, Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull create the first HMD which offers immersive experiences. The device had limited user interface and offered very little realism, and was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling.
- In 1985 the company VPL Research, founded by Jaron Lanier, develops several VR devices such as Data Glove, the Eye Phone, and the Audio Sphere. The Data Glove was licensed later on to Mattel, and was used in the development of the present day Power Glove.
- In 1991 Sega announced Sega VR-1 (demonstrated in 1993), an arcade game attraction capable of tracking head motion and featuring stereoscopic 3D visuals.
- In 1992 the Electronic Visualization Laboratory created The Cave, the first cubic immersive room. Similar to the holodeck featured in the Star Trek TV series, The Cave consisted of a multi-projected environment.
- In 1995 the first head-mounted display was released for sale to the public – the VFX1 Headgear developed by Forte Technologies. It offered stereo audio, head movement tracking and stereoscopic 3D, and had a retail price of around $600.
- In 2010, the first Oculus Rift prototype is developed by Palmer Luckey.
- In 2014, Facebook purchases Oculus VR for $2 billion.
- By 2016 at least 230 companies were involved in developing VR-related devices.
Current Applications of Virtual Reality
Virtual reality is not just a technology for entertainment purposes. It has practical and useful applications in various fields of business and science, such as:
- Prototype design
- Military training
- History and arts
Thanks to virtual reality, trainees and specialists can develop new products or acquire new skills in a safe, controllable environment which is capable of simulating any desired conditions. In this way, the impact of human errors and unforeseeable accidents is greatly reduced, allowing professionals to develop innovative products by trial and error, but without real life consequences.