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History Of Virtual Reality

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History Of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a technology that has been attracting a lot of attention in recent times. In fact, it has been attracting public attention since the early 1990s. However, the fact is that the concept of virtual reality is much older, and it is a technology with a very rich history.

Among the earliest virtual reality ‘devices’ were 360 degree murals and panoramic paintings – they were created to make the viewer feel as if they were at a scene, like a battlefield, by filling their field of vision. One can say that these were primitive attempts at ‘virtual reality’. In the 19th century, stereoscopic photographs and viewers that were to be held up to the face were developed.

The ‘Link trainer’ was created by Edward Link in 1929 – it was a commercial flight simulator that was completely electromechanical, and found use in the U.S. Military. The 1950s saw the arrival of an exciting technology that was extremely unique – the Sensorama. The Sensorama was the brainchild of a cinematographer named Morton Heilig. The Sensorama attempted to make users have an experience that covered all senses.

The forerunner to the modern Head Mounted Display, ‘Headsight’ was introduced by Philco Corporation in the 1960s – it featured head-tracking and a video screen for each eye. The blueprint for virtual reality concepts as we know them today was laid down in a concept introduced by Ivan Sutherland, known as the ‘Ultimate Display Concept’. This concept talks about reality being simulated by an ultimate display to the extent that one believes that it’s actually real.

‘The Sword of Damocles’, a virtual reality headset was produced by Sutherland in 1968 – it was prototype hardware and had to be suspended due to its high weight. It was in 1987 that the term ‘virtual reality’ was coined by the Visual Programming Lab’s (VPL) founder, Jaron Lanier. Jaron Lanier and Tom Zimmerman are credited as being among the primary forces behind the development of the ‘data glove’, a great step in the field of virtual reality haptics.

Public access to virtual reality devices occurred in the 1990s. Virtual reality arcade video games employing virtual reality goggles and booths were created by Virtuality Group in 1991. In 1993, the Sega VR Headset featuring visor LCD screens, stereo sound and head-tracking, was announced by Sega at the Consumer Electronics Show. However, it was destined to be confined to the prototype stage due to technical development hurdles. Virtual Boy was introduced by Nintendo in 1995.

It was in the 21st century that major strides were made by virtual reality companies. ‘Google Cardboard’ was recently introduced by Google – this is a DIY headset that is driven by a smart-phone. 360 degree virtual tours which are realistic, immersive and engaging have been developed by virtual tour companies. 2016 will be a great year for virtual reality with the arrival of eagerly awaited devices like ‘Oculus Rift’. While it is easy to see that virtual reality has a rich history, it also seems as if things are just getting started! Let’s wait and see . . .

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  • Guest
    Tony Havelka Monday, 06 June 2016

    Wow! Not one mention of any of the HMDs that were available in the 1990s - Just the Sega prototype that went nowhere other than on the cover of a magazine. So much was created and designed during that time that set the foundation for what we are doing today.

  • Hijas Moosa
    Hijas Moosa Wednesday, 08 June 2016

    Hello Mr.Tony Havelka,

    The history of virtual reality is one that is long and rich, and it is definitely a difficult task to cover all the pioneers and contributions that helped to develop the technology, in one short article. You are absolutely correct when you say that the 1990s was an important phase in the evolution of virtual reality, with great innovations and contributions that walked away into the sunset as unsung heroes. The virtual reality wave of the 90s was seen as a failure then, but today it is beginning to get its due with the revival of virtual reality. In many ways, the rise of virtual reality that we are witnessing today owes its very foundation to the 'failed' virtual reality of the 90s.

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Guest Wednesday, 03 March 2021