For many years the concept of virtual worlds and far flung digital realities was the stuff of speculative fiction and philosophy. The latter half of the past century put some of these ideas into practice, albeit in brief technical functions that never quite lived up to the commercial hype.
Even so – throughout this tumultuous history of virtual reality, many fundamental ideas and technical capabilities began to take root. Advancements in computing power, screen graphics and overall better tech has given us our current crop of VR technologies and put it on the map.
Actual work on virtual reality tech didn’t start until the mid 20th century and a few decades into the new age of computing. One of the first contemporaneous conceptions of what we’d consider a modern take on virtual reality (headsets for visual experience, haptics etc.) was laid out in an early science fiction story called Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley G. Weinbaum. It’s a surprisingly accurate take on what a fully immersive virtual world would entail.
The following quote sums his premature vision up succinctly: That was written in 1935. It might seem like Weinbaum was a bit ahead of his time, but one can’t forget the philosophical greats and their alternative reality musings that preceded him. Arguably one of the most famous and ancient examples of questioning your own reality, and subsequently paving the way to think about creating new virtual realities, comes from Plato. Many people will remember his Allegory of the Cave, which was one of his dialectics about the nature of someone’s reality.
In summary, chained cave dwellers watch shadows projected on a wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them. These shadows are their reality and they know nothing more than that.