Most people would assume that virtual reality is a modern concept. However, the idea of virtual reality has a very long history. In fact, the concept has been postulated in art and literature as far back as the 1860s.
From being an idea portrayed in science fiction to become an aspect of mainstream media and entertainment, the history of virtual reality is thought-provoking and fascinating. Our comprehensive timeline will help you understand the evolution of the technologies that paved the way for virtual reality as we know it today. VR now is also available on phones with use of VR headsets.
When Virtual Reality Entered Public Consciousness
Many would argue that the concept of virtual reality entered the zeitgeist via Pygmalion’s Spectacles, a science fiction novel written by Stanley Weinbaum in 1935. The story describes a goggles-based contraption that offers its users a holistic holographic experience, transporting them to a fictional world.
Eighty-five years down the line, the book somewhat accurately describes the current state of VR technology.
Virtual Reality- A Timeline
1. 1838 – Stereopsis And Stereoscopes
The first technical developments that paved the way for virtual reality began in the 1830s. So our timeline of virtual reality starts here.
Sir Charles Wheatstone was the first to propose the concept of stereopsis, in 1838. The term describes the ability to perceive depth and 3-dimensional structures due to the 2-dimensional visual information accumulated from each eye- binocular vision.
He was awarded the Royal Medal by the Royal Society in 1840 for his research on stereopsis. The research enabled him to create the earliest prototype of a stereoscope. Wheatstone’s stereoscope utilized two mirrors angled at 45 degrees to the user’s eyes, each reflecting a picture located off the sides in order to create a 3-D image.
2. 1956 – The First VR Machine
In 1956, Cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama, as a culmination of his efforts to create a complete cinematic experience.
The arcade-type booth could fit up to four people at a time. The non-computerized VR machine focused on creating phenomenologically complete virtual environments for the viewers. This was accomplished by using scent producers, vibrating chairs, stereoscopic 3D screens, and stereo speakers to stimulate multiple senses at the same time.
Heilig wanted the Sensorama to be the “cinema of the future”. He also created six short films for his invention which he shot, edited, and produced himself.
3. 1960 – The First Head-Mounted Display
Morton Heilig made significant contributions to the development of virtual reality. After inventing the Sensorama, he went on to patent the Telesphere mask in 1960, which was the first head-mounted display (HMD). The headset provided stereoscopic 3D images with stereo sound and a wide field of view. However, there were no motion-tracking technologies at that point of time.
4. 1961 – The First Motion-tracking Headsets
In 1961, the Philco corporation developed the first motion-tracking HMD, known as the ‘Head Sight’.
However, this freaky-looking device wasn’t used for virtual reality. Instead, it was a device used by military personnel to allow them to remotely access hazardous situations. The tracking system allowed users to move their heads to trigger an adjusted view of the scene.
5. 1965 To 1968 – The Development Of The First Virtual Reality HMD
In 1965, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, presented his notion of the Ultimate Display. In his paper and corresponding speech, Sutherland laid out a vision for the future of VR technologies.
His concept described VR headsets that would create indistinguishable-from-real virtual environments for totally immersive experiences. His theory is pivotal to the story of when was VR invented, and his paper is considered the fundamental blueprint of VR.
Building on his vision, Sutherland, along with his student Bob Sproull, created the first virtual reality HMD named the Sword of Damocles, in 1968. Their contraption had to be connected to a computer rather than a camera and displayed virtual wire-framed shapes.
Although the prototype was primitive, it set up the practical and theoretical groundwork for future VR technologies to pick up from.
6. The 1970s To 1990s- Further Developments In VR Technologies
In 1975, Myron Krueger, a computer artist, developed VIDEO PLACE, the first interactive VR platform. The platform was displayed at the Milwaukee Art Center and consisted of large dark rooms with large screens to surround the user in VR.
The users could see computer-generated silhouettes imitating their actions and movements. Users in different rooms but in the same virtual world could interact with each other through their silhouettes.
In 1977, MIT created the Aspen Movie Map. The program allowed users to take a virtual tour of Aspen City, Colorado, suggesting that VR could transport people to other places. The program paved the way for future VR platforms such as Google’s Street View.
In 1985, Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman founded VPL Research, Inc. The company became the first to sell VR equipment, ranging from gloves to headsets. They developed a range of VR products such as DataGlove, EyePhone HMD, and Audio Sphere.
In 1987, Jaron Lanier popularized the term ‘Virtual Reality,’ marking the true birth of the VR industry.
The 1990s was the era when virtual reality truly began to take off. The first mass-produced VR arcade games and entertainment systems were developed that left the public awe-struck at the level of immersion these systems offered. With companies such as SEGA and Nintendo investing in VR technologies, the concept became more accessible to the public.
Virtual Reality In The 21st Century
The VR hype generated in the 1990s subsided by the early 2000s, primarily due to a lack of requisite technologies for further developments in the industry. The idea was only kept alive by sci-fi films such as The Matrix. With VR unable to deliver on the promises it made, it seemed as though the format had met its final defeat.
However, the next phase of development began once technology caught up with the ideas. In 2010, Google came up with the Streetview App, a platform that gave a stereoscopic 3D view of streets across the globe. By 2012, Palmer Luckey, an 18-year-old entrepreneur, wowed investors with his Oculus rift prototype.
This brought the spotlight back onto the VR industry, leading to Mark Zuckerburg purchasing Oculus for 2 billion dollars in 2014, a defining moment in VR history.
The Future Of Virtual Reality
There is no definitive answer to when was virtual reality invented. However, we would all agree that until fairly recently, the idea of donning a headset to be transported into a virtual world belonged purely in the realms of science fiction.
Thanks to the work of several pioneers and ingenious inventors, this is no longer the case. The best VR headsets these days offer in-depth, immersive virtual experiences like never before.
With VR technology entering the second generation, we can only expect greater appeal and larger than life experiences for mainstream consumers in the future.