From Sensorama to Extended Reality: the history of VR

A look back at the history of Virtual Reality, from the View-Master to the Oculus Rift.

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The concept behind Virtual Reality (VR) goes back further than you might initially think, with early landscape painters even considering how to fill a viewer's peripheral vision to immerse them in alternate worlds. Theories started to become a reality as soon as the 19th century, but once the first major technological advances were made in the 20th century, progress became relentless. Now nearly all of us are familiar with the technology defining acronym, and VR has come into its own as enterprises and consumers around the world battle COVID-19 by going remote. As a fascinating future for the technology begins to unfold, now is the time to gain a better understanding of what made it all happen.

The origins

To start at the very beginning, the first device that could be considered to have had VR characteristics was the View-Master. This type of stereoscope was the patented version of a concept that had been around since 1838, which started out as a device for viewing pairs of separate images at the same time to create a single three-dimensional image. The View-Master was introduced in 1939, offering the ability to view reels made up of cardboard disks containing seven stereoscopic 3-D pairs of small colour photos on film. The concept became popular among holiday makers, with new models introduced later in the 20th century.

While the View-Master serves as the first noteworthy device that was a forebear to the VR headset we know today, the concept of virtual reality was explored more deeply in 1935. In 1935, Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote a work of fiction called Pygmalion's Spectacles, featuring a pair of spectacles that could immerse the senses of the wearer when watching film. The story provides the first comprehensive view of a technology that could change the perspective, and ultimately the reality, of the user.

The cinema of the future

Building on the simplistic capabilities of the View-Master, a cinematographer called Morton Heilig introduced the Sensorama in 1962, a device that made some of Weinbaum's imaginings a reality. The device was large and functioned more like a booth, with the seated viewer looking into an enclosed opening in the machine. The Sensorama provided full 3D video and audio, while also being able to create atmospheric effects like weather conditions. It was Heilig himself who considered the invention to be the 'cinema of the future,' realising he had designed a truly immersive viewing experience.

The Sensorama was ground-breaking in its own right, but Heilig would go on to take his vision to the next level. In 1964 he introduced the Telesphere Mask, a head-mounted display (HMD) that would be used alongside his previous invention. The mask's ability to untether the user from the stationary Sensorama was highly innovative and marked a long stride towards the head-mounted displays we now deem synonymous with VR technology. Now offering users a wider field of vision and stereo sound, Heilig had played a foundational role in the technology's development.

The Sword of Damocles

Despite the trailblazing advances of previous years, the outputs had predominantly been focused on novelty purposes, contrasting the growing range of enterprise use cases for VR and augmented reality (AR) that we see today. The technology we know today is commonly linked back to the computer scientist Ivan Sutherland, who is responsible for creating a blueprint for modern VR.

Tracking technologies were the main missing ingredient from Heilig's advances earlier in the decade, and in 1968, Sutherland would remedy this with his tracking system and HMD that became known as 'The Sword of Damocles.' Sutherland developed a head-mounted display that was similar to Heilig's Telesphere Mask, then incorporated head-tracking capabilities with the support of his students, Bob Sproull, Quintin Foster and Danny Cohen. The project became known as the 'Ultimate Display,' with testing at MIT having started as early as 1966. While its capabilities were still highly limited by modern standards, the device now responded to the direction of the user's gaze, a huge step towards the level of interaction users can achieve with VR today.

Earning the name, going to market and NASA

In 1985, VR goggles and gloves entered the market for the first time. Founded by Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman, the company responsible for this ground-breaking launch was VPL Research, Inc, offering an impressive range of VR devices given that the technology was still in its early stages. The VR goggles were not drastically dissimilar in appearance to the VR headsets we see today, and the VR gloves added another level of immersion to the experience that had been created so far.

Another crucial development took place in 1987, as the evolving technology finally earned the official name of 'virtual reality,' a further milestone attributed to VPL Research. Around this time, British Aerospace was also working with VR, focusing on the creation of a Virtual Cockpit that incorporated computer-generated 3D maps. This innovation also started to bring radar and infrared technologies into the fold, with militaries around the world becoming increasingly advanced.

Now VR was catching the attention of major organisations around the world, and in 1989 NASA began adding their own developments to the timeline. The renowned organisation set up a contract focused on exploring the ways in which VR could be used as a training simulator for astronauts, recognising a powerful use case for the technology that is being deployed extensively by enterprises today.

Google Street View

The arrival of Google Street View in 2007 makes an ideal next-stop in our analysis of the history of the technology. Just prior to the year 2000, VR experiences had started entering the film and TV world, with cardboard or plastic glasses with red and blue lenses offering a glimpse into a more immersive viewing experience. At this time, many new additions were being added to the VR space, and Google Street View serves as an interesting culmination of some of the most relevant advances.

Street View is built on images taken with specialised cameras that capture surroundings in a 360-degree way simultaneously. Many around the world are familiar with the branded Google vehicles with mounted camera systems incrementally building up the crucial visual database. Once collated and implemented, users gained the ability to go online and see a virtual reality view of a chosen location, further enhanced by its link to Google Earth. This unique use case demonstrated what the technology was capable of, inspiring the development of potential ways to utilise VR at the enterprise level.

Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift is a name that has become synonymous with modern VR, from the design of the head-mounted display, through to the capabilities it enables. While the first model was introduced in August 2012, prototypes had been created as early as 2007, before the company has even been formed.

The first officially launch was the Rift Development Kit 1 (DK1), introduced initially as part of a crowdfunding campaign in 2012 to get the model into the hands of developers. As 2013 arrived, the DK1 was widely released with a 7-inch screen, offering a significantly lower pixel switching time than the original prototype.

In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2.3 billion, signalling the promise of VR to the wider tech space and the world. Other development kits and iterations came along, but in 2019 Oculus began shipping a VR headset called the Rift S. This version was capable of tracking its own position as well as the positions of its controllers in 3D space, enabled by a camera-based system called Oculus Insight. This relatively recent iteration marks an impressive advance in VR capabilities at a commercially available level.

Enterprise VR and the XR future

The world faced some unique challenges in 2020 that are ongoing today, and they have framed the true importance of VR. Enterprises around the world explored use cases that leveraged VR to enhance remote collaboration, but also for more innovative purposes like industrial maintenance and training. The greater need for remote working has been an accelerant for enterprise innovation across the board, with organisations investing in autonomous and sensor technologies as other prime examples.

Training is a highly relevant VR use case example in the enterprise space, with organisations in oil and gas as well as mining using the technology for realistic training outside of hazardous live environments. VR hardware and systems have now matured to such a point that trainees can be walked through complex processes while gaining valuable situational awareness, making training more effective, more efficient, more safe and less expensive to run.

As VR continues to mature and be applied in new enterprise and consumer use cases, the future of the technology is likely to be in Extended Reality (XR). Thought to be the future of mobile computing, XR is an umbrella term for VR, augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR) and anything else in between. Just like Morton Heilig intended to create a more immersive experience with the Sensorama, developers now intend to unlock new enterprise value through combining VR with its technology counterparts.