The history of virtual and augmented reality goes back further than you think. Here’s a look at the technologies that brought VR/AR to where they are today.
Ever since researcher Jaron Lanier coined the term “virtual reality” in 1985, it has been a buzzword among tech enthusiasts. While science fiction imagined the possibilities of placing ourselves in computer-generated, artificial environments, researchers, engineers, and inventors have spent decades trying (and sometimes failing) to deliver on the promises of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
Today, major product releases and investments coming from big names like Google, Facebook, Sony, Microsoft, and Samsung, and a vibrant startup culture have sprung up around VR/AR. But it’s been a long road for us to get to what many consider to be an approaching golden age of VR/AR.
Here's a look at the technologies that got us here (for better and worse) and are pointing the way to the future.
(Image source Wikimedia Commons)
Panoramic Paintings (1800s)
The earliest examples of creating virtual environments date back to the 19th century when painters such as Baldassare Peruzzi began creating large scale panoramic works such as his Sala delle Prospettive (shown), designed to give the viewer the impression of being completely immersed in a setting. The Atlanta Cyclorama, which depicts the Civil War's Battle of Atlanta is another example and, with a circumference of 358ft, is one of the largest oil paintings in the world.
(Image source: mortonheilig.com)
Built in 1962, by Morton Heilig, a cinematographer turned inventor, Sensorama was an attempt at creating the films of the future by completely immersing the viewer in the cinematic experience. Essentially a booth that viewers sat and stuck their heads in, Sensorama's films offered 3D motion pictures, as well as stereo sound, vibrating seats, smells, and even wind.
(Image source Wikimedia Commons)
The Sword of Damocles (1968)
Created in 1968 by a computer scientist named Ivan Sutherland, the Sword of Damocles was a frightening-looking device that is considered the first VR and AR headset. It weighed more than one man could handle and had to be suspended from the ceiling. The graphics were only simple wireframes, but the headset was quite revolutionary for its time. In addition to the first attempts at head tracking the headset, which was designed to help pilots land at night, was transparent to allow graphics to be layered onto the real world as augmented reality headsets do today.
(Image source: yenimedyaduzeni.com)
Virtual Fixtures (1992)
Like many technologies VR and AR have firm roots in the military. Developed in 1992 by Louis Rosenberg, an inventor working for the United States Air Force, Virtual Fixtures is credited as the first fully-immersive AR system – overlaying simulated information and visuals onto the real world. The device was also an early example of telepresence — connecting wearers to a remote robot whose arms were positioned to match where the wearer's would be. This same sort of concept is used today in telepresence robots used in a variety of applications. Studies using Virtual Fixtures provided the first proof that AR overlays could improve human performance in real-world tasks.
(Image source Wikimedia Commons)
If you spent any time in a shopping mall or video arcade in the early 90s you might've seen one of these machines on display. Virtuality Group produced both standing and sitting versions of its VR units (called “pods”), both with Amiga 2000 PCs at their core. The headsets were clunky and way too heavy for most kids, but the games offered real-time head tracking to explore virtual environments. Games required players to move their heads and sometimes even their entire body. The arcade units cost a whopping $73,000 each. The company later released a $299 home version that only sold 50,000 units.
(Image source Wikimedia Commons /Sega)
Sega VR (1993)
In 1991 Sega, then one of the biggest names in video gaming, took the bold step of trying to bring VR into homes with a headset for the 16-bit Sega Genesis home video game console. Sega created working headsets and even demoed it at conventions. Alas, the Sega VR was never released due to various issues. The hype around Sega VR did however demonstrate that there was a definite hunger for some sort of consumer, home-based VR entertainment system.
(Image source web3D.org)
There was a time when we thought virtual reality was going to take over the internet. A brave new virtual world needed a brave new virtual programming language. Enter Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML). VRML was to 3D images as HTML was to text. The idea was to replace flat, standard websites with beautifully-rendered 3D environments. It was a novel idea, but it never quite caught on – possibly because Internet speeds in the mid-90s couldn't really accommodate hi-resolution 3D graphics all that well. But the concept survives to this day and VRML has been replaced by a new, but little-known language called X3D.
Today, most developers prefer to do their virtual environment design using engines like Unity and Unreal.
(Image source Wikimedia Commons)
Virtual Boy (1995)
Nintendo's Virtual Boy is quite possibly the worst product ever created for VR (or otherwise). While it did offer 3D games and graphics, the only thing virtual about this system was how terrible it was. Forget that the unit was fixed and offered no head or motion tracking, the graphics consisted entirely of red lines drawn on a black background. Decades later some people may still be getting over the migraines this thing gave them. It may not have pushed the technology forward, but the Virtual Boy surely must be a shining example to all engineers as to what consumers absolutely do not want out of a VR experience.
(Image source: Facebook / Oculus)
Oculus Rift (2012)
VR had all but died in our collective conscious until a Kickstarter campaign promised us the VR we had been dreaming of. After a multimillion-dollar crowdfunding campaign the Oculus Rift (shown) took the tech world by storm with its at the time unheard of field of vision and rapid head movement tracking ability. Gamers went wild over the device and the immersive effect was so real that even researchers and enterprises started giving VR a serious look.
In 2014 Oculus sold to Facebook for a whopping $2 billion. Since then the company has released new headsets, included the Oculus Quest, a standalone gaming headset (no PC required) with full six degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) tracking.
(Image source: Alphabet / Google)
Google Glass (2013)
First released in April 2013, Google Glass, Google's head-mounted augmented reality glasses quickly became one of the company's most high-profile projects. Intent on bringing the internet figuratively and literally right before users' eyes, Glass also recorded video and took photos and was adopted for a wide range of conceptual applications from entertainment to healthcare.
Glass was also met with a good deal of social backlash over fears that wearers were violating people’s privacy by secretly recording them or just generally being snide jerks about their new toy. Bars and other establishments even banned Glass wearers – so-called “Glassholes.”
(Image source: Samsung Mobile Electronics)
Samsung Gear VR
Samsung's Gear VR was a device that fit around Samsung mobile products such as the Galaxy line of smartphones. Developed with Oculus VR, the folks behind the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR effectively used a smartphone or tablet as its CPU, turning the device’s screen into a 3D effect and allowing users to control and navigate games and apps with head tracking movement.
While it may have been better than nothing, and a decent entry point for very casual users, Gear VR and devices like it didn’t really have much to offer in the way of creating truly innovative VR experiences. Technology quickly moved on, and Samsung discontinued the Gear VR in 2019, effectively ushering in the death of phone-based VR devices.
(Image source: Microsoft)
Microsoft calls HoloLens the first standalone holographic computer – a head-mounted system capable of projecting interactive holograms into our daily lives. HoloLens was the first step in a larger plan by Microsoft to create its Windows Mixed Reality ecosystem – an entire line of Microsoft and third-party VR/AR products that would have plug-and-play functionality with Windows.
Since its release the HoloLens has become the go-to headset for enterprise users working with augmented reality and has been one of the biggest factors in AR finding more of a home in the enterprise space over consumer.
(Image source: Sony of America)
Playstation VR (2016)
Where Sega has failed, Sony has succeeded. In 2016 Sony unveiled the Playstation VR (PSVR), a headset peripheral for the Playstation 4 (PS4). The headset was very successful for Sony (to be fair the PS4’s hardware is light years ahead of what the Sega Genesis was) and is expected to be a staple of Sony’s Playstation systems going forward. The PSVR has cemented Sony as the first company to successfully bring VR to home video game consoles.
(Image source: Magic Leap)
Magic Leap (2018)
In 2014 Magic Leap was a mysterious startup that raised nearly half a billion dollars in funding from major players like Google and Qualcomm. Originally the company pitched itself as having developed a way of doing augmented reality without the need for cumbersome hardware. Rumor was that Magic Leap could use smartphones and other wearables to create and project virtual images onto environments that we could then interact with using specialized objects the company calls “totems.”
Alas, that idea never came to fruition and, after some controversy around the legitimacy of its demo videos up to that point, Magic Leap turned out to be doing AR more or less the same way everyone else has done it.
In 2018 the company released its Magic Leap One headset. Since that time the company has pivoted away from consumer and entertainment applications and has leaned into positioning itself as an enterprise AR company.
(Image source: Adobe Stock)
The Future (2020 and Beyond)
Analysts are predicting the global VR/AR market to be worth well into the tens or hundreds of billions in the next decade. The VR/AR landscape has expanded rapidly in recent years – finding applications and use cases in everything from gaming and entertaining to healthcare, product design, automotive, and retail. New hardware from pioneering companies like Facebook/Oculus and Microsoft as well as other major companies like Alphabet/Google, HTC, ThirdEye Gen, Vuzix, VRgineers, and Pico Interactive, among many others are making VR more accessible and convenient, and of better quality than it ever has been.
Time will tell whether VR/AR devices become must-own hardware in the way that, say, smartphones have. But for people looking for a new modes of entertainment and for employees looking for new ways to work and collaborate it’s safe to say VR and AR aren’t going away this time.