The Rise Of Virtual Reality

Timeline of the advances in VR technologies

Virtual reality has come a long way since it’s first inception, with lots of devices having varying amounts of success and failures. It’s exciting to see where virtual reality will go with more technological advances over the coming decades and with it gaining more popularity from consumers and big companies investing heavily in the market. The very first invention that started it all was stereoscopic photo viewers which were released all the way back in the year 1838 thanks to Charles Wheatstone. Charles research proved that the human brain processes the different 2D images from each eye into a single 3d object, so then by viewing two stereoscopic photos side-by-side this would give the user of the device immersion and depth. This basic idea is how today’s virtual reality devices like the Google Cardboard works and is also why it is very affordable.

charles wheatstone
Charles Wheatstone source: Britannica

From the stereoscopic viewers came the very first flight simulator in the year 1929. The Link Trainer was created by Edward Link and during World War II over 10,000 were used by over 500,000 pilots for their initial training. The US military purchased six units at $3,500 which equates to roughly $50k in today’s dollar. Bet that HTC Vive looks cheaper now! It was controlled by motors connected to the rudder and steering column to modify the pitch and roll. A small motor-driven device created the sensation of turbulence and disturbances that a pilot would come across while flying a real aircraft.

Link Trainer
Link Trainer

From the Link Trainer we now travel to the year 1962 where Morton Heilig’s, Sensorama was patented. Sensorama was a theatre-cabinet resembling an arcade machine which would stimulate all of the player’s senses, even smell! This device was aimed at watching films, of which Morton shot and produced 6 of them exclusively for the product.

 

Sensorama
Sensorama

Morton Heilig also invented the Telesphere Mask which was patented 2 years before the Sensorama making it the first head-mounted virtual reality display. Again this was aimed at watching films and featured stereo sound, wide vision and a stereoscopic 3D image.

Telesphere Mask
Telesphere Mask

Morton’s devices didn’t feature head-tracking technology but the first example of it was created by Philco Corporation engineers, Comeau & Bryan called the Headsight. It worked by incorporating a video screen for each of the user’s eye and a magnetic motion tracking system linked to a closed circuit camera. Much like the Link trainer, the Headsight was developed with the war in mind to allow for immersive remote viewing of dangerous situations by the military. As the user moves their head, a remote camera would also move, this would pave the way for how virtual reality devices work today.

Ivan Sutherland and one of his students, Bob Sproull, invented the first virtual reality and augmented reality head-mounted device which was named, Sword of Damocles. Sounds a bit like a rare weapon you’d find in Skyrim! Unlike the head-mounted VR devices of today, the Sword of Damocles was a very large device, making it too heavy for someone to wear, so it was held by other structures as shown in the image below.

Sword of Damocles
Sword of Damocles

Even though by this stage we see many virtual reality devices, the phrase itself wasn’t coined until the year 1987. The name originated from Jaron Lanier who was the founder of VPL (Visual Programming Lab) and they created such devices like the EyePhone head mounted display, and the Dataglove.  Later in 1992, a movie was released depicting virtual reality and much of what VPL was working towards. The movie was called The Lawnmower man.

Dataglove
Dataglove

In 1993, Sega jumped into the virtual reality arena with their device that worked with their popular console, the Sega Genesis. Unfortunately, the product didn’t do too well due to development difficulties and never made it passed the prototype phase. It’s such a shame because it was a sleek looking unit and has aged well.

Sega VR
Sega VR

Another big video game publisher/developer also gave virtual reality a shot and that was Nintendo in 1995 with their device, the Nintendo Virtual Boy. It was advertised to be the first portable console capable of displaying 3D graphics, but much like Sega’s attempt, it was also a commercial failure.

nintendo virtual boy console
Nintendo Virtual Boy Console

Now we fast forward to the present time where virtual reality is making a big comeback. Big companies like Sony, HTC, Google, Facebook, Samsung and many more are all heavily investing in the VR market. Lots of people think VR is just a fad and it will fail like some of the devices of the past, but from what we’ve seen throughout 2016, I am confident that it will continue growing and continually improve and become more advanced and realistic. Not just for gaming, but for other forms of application like education, medical, training etc.

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