The History of Virtual Reality and the State of it Today

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

Virtual Reality is the future. Just in the last couple of years we have seen the industry grow by leaps and bounds. The days of "Ready Player One" are on the way believe it or not. Lets take a look at how we got there and what is the state of VR is in 2019.

Attempts at Virtual Reality have been around much longer than most people realize. Although it was not called virtual reality early recorded attempts at immersive experiences happened hundreds of years earlier. The oldest known examples of these panoramic works of art that still exist as far back as the early 1800s. It is likely that attempts at immersive experiences for those viewing the artwork goes back even thousands of years. Here is an example of one such attempt from 1881 called “Panorama Mesdag”. It can still be seen today although you will have to travel to Holland to see it. The idea was to make the viewer feel like they were immersed in the work of art.

Here is a fragment of a 360-degree panorama of the Battle of Borodino 1812 as painted by Franz Roubaud. The painting was unveiled in 1911.

The first signs of the technology that we see in today's VR headsets happened as early as 1838 with Stereoscopic viewers. This is when we first discovered that the brain can process two separate images in each eye into a single object of three dimensions.

You may recognize this picture of the View-Master Model G that was first sold in 1962. It was this viewer that coined the phrase “Virtual Tourism”.

Augmented reality first appeared at about the same time as the View-Master with the Sensorama which was panted in 1962 by Morton Heilig. Development on it started in the mid-1950s and was designed to stimulate all the senses. It was not only included sight and sound but also had fans to simulate wind, smell generators, and even had a vibrating seat. Morton Heilig developed six films for it with the intention of fully immersing the viewer in the experience.

Here is the actual machine:

Morton Heilig interview from 80s

The same inventor Morton Heilig is credited with developing the first head mounted display which he patented in 1960. While it did not offer motion tracking like the headsets of today it had 3D wide vision with stereo sound.

Some call him the Father of VR. In 1965 Ivan Sutherland described a concept for the Ultimate Display. “A display connected to a digital computer gives us a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world. It is a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland.” And so the concept of what we know today as VR was born. You can read the paper he published below.

“The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.” – Ivan Sutherland

Read "The Ultimate Display"

In 1968 Ivan Sutherland created the worlds first version of the technology we see today. With the help of his student Bob Sproull, the two built a headset display connected to a computer and not a camera. Called the “Sword of Damocles” it was quite the monstrosity. So heavy in fact it had to be suspended from the ceiling.

In 1969 Myron Krueger an artificial reality computer artist created several computer-generated environments that interacted to the people immersed in it. His work eventually culminated in a technology called Videoplace.

Video of Videoplace software in action

The year is 1987 and the name Virtual Reality is born. Though all the years of evolution of VR technology there was never a name that described the science of computer-generated environments. To the scene came Jaron Lanier.

Jaron along with Thomas Zimmerman teamed up to found a company in the late 80s called VPL Research. VPL went on to become the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves.

In addition to being a computer scientist and visual artist Jaron is also a composer and author. In 2010 he was named to Time 100’s list of most influential people. Below is a video from his appearance at TED where he talks about we need to remake the internet. I found the video incredibly deep and insightful myself. It is worth 14 mins to watch if you have time.

In the early 90s we saw the first attempts at commercialization of VR for consumers. The cost of the equipment was still too high for average users to own in their home.

The first try at VR to the masses came from Sega with the VR Glasses they unveiled at the 1993 Consumer Electronics Show in 1993. They were to be compatible with the Sega Genesis console and were due to be released at a price point of about $200. Technical issues basically killed the project and it never made it past the prototype stage even though 4 games were created for it.

Nintendo was the next to try bringing VR to the masses. They created a stand-alone console called “The Nintendo Virtual Boy” that bosted true 3D Graphics. Released in 1995 the console had a price point of around $180. Nintendo sold just shy of 800k of the consoles and was considered a commercial failure.

Notice the stand that must be placed on a table while peering into the viewer. Wonder if it would have been a bigger success by allowing it to be strapped to the users head like the VR Headsets of today?

Here are some images of what you would have seen in the viewer

In 1997 Researchers from Emory University and Georgia Tech used VR to help treat PTSD in Vietnam Vets. They created a virtual war zone that could be used for Exposure Therapy. This particular therapy was known as Virtual Vietnam.

These PDF documents describe the treatment

Virtual Environment for Treatment of Vietnam War Veterans

Case Study for using Exposure Therapy to treat PTSD

In 2007 Google added street view to their maps but, in 2010 they took it to the next level by giving street view a stereoscopic 3D mode.

Also in 2010, Palmer Luckey introduced the first prototype of the Oculus Rift. Palmer was only 18 when he unveiled his prototype and is now listed in Forbes list of richest entrepreneurs who are under the age of 40.

In 2012 the Oculus founder launched a Kickstarter campaign for the production of the Oculus Rift. The goal for the Kickstarter Campaign was $250,000 yet before the end of the campaign they had raised an incredible $2,437,429

2014 was a breakthrough year for Virtual Reality.

1. Facebook bought Oculus for a wapping 2 Billion

2. Sony announced they were working on PSVR project called Morpheus.

3. Google released “Google Cardboard” for smartphones.

4. Samsung announced, “Samsung Gear VR” where you could experience VR using your smartphone.

Two years later there were many companies getting into the VR industry. Also in 2016 HTC Vive released their first VR Headset. The motion tracking was an upgrade over what Oculus Rift had and for the first time open room area play was easily possible with only two trackers.

Over the last three years participation of Companies and Developers has skyrocketed. The resulting effect has made VR Technology to really take off.

HTC Vive released it’s Vive pro in 2018 and just released it’s very first standalone system called Vive Focus in 2019. Additionally VIVE announced it’s next-generation Headset for PC use called the VIVE COSMOS.

Oculus has been just as busy with the release of two new headsets in 2019. The first is also a standalone VR headset called the Oculus Quest. Additionally, Oculus stopped production on the Rift and has recently released the Rift S at the same price point.

The speed at which we have seen VR evolve over the last 24 months is amazing. There can be no doubt that VR is not only here to stay but, will become a bigger part of our future. The future will hold amazing things for us all but, that is a story for another blog post!


Spokane Virtual Reality Arcade

5208 North Market St.

Spokane, WA.


Tel: (509)-242-3367

Fax: (509) 474-1536

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