In 1935, Stanley G. Weinbaum published a short story titled “Pygmalion’s Spectacles.” In it, a professor describes his fantastic invention; a pair of goggles that engages all the senses and allows the wearer to place themselves inside a movie. In the words of the professor, “the story is all about you, and you are in it.”
Like so many pieces of technology, what seemed like a far-flung dream of science fiction turned rapidly to reality. Check out some of the steps along the way to today’s incredible virtual reality systems;
Patented in 1962, the Sensorama was a photo booth-sized seated experience created to try and bring an immersive feeling to existing video technology. Creator Morton Heilig designed ways to use smell, vibration of the seat, wind in the user’s hair and more to draw viewers into the five films recorded for the device. Amazingly, since the Sensorama came before digital computing, it was entirely mechanical! Check out some wonderful footage taken of a Sensorama machine in the 80’s:
The first head-mounted display, a step toward the “goggles” described in fiction, was Ivan Sutherland’s “Sword of Damocles.” This amazing (but intimidating!) machine was so heavy that it had to be suspended for the player to use; it was simply too big to just sit on their head!Many credit this as the first true Augmented Reality- in addition to being able to view simple wire-framed rooms, the Sword of Damocles could show a cube hanging in the air.
The next keys to modern VR came in the form of programs instead of hardware. Projects like the Aspen Movie Map, a virtual tour of Aspen, Colorado, began to show the world just how far software could take them. By collecting photos, videos, and eventually creating 3D models of the city of Aspen, a team at MIT paved the way for programs like Google Earth that have now become the centerpieces of virtual reality.
MIT’s Aspen Movie map was just one of many games, pieces of art, and advances in computing that began to come together in the 80’s and 90’s.
An explosion of consumer-level virtual reality headsets appeared in the 90’s. Sega released the Sega VR, a headset for arcade games. Virtuality, a multiplayer VR system, launched a virtual reality arcade in San Francisco. Countless more projects began to explode onto the scene… only to fade away, dismissed as novelties.
Then, in 2010, the first modern VR headsets began to emerge. Led first by the Oculus Rift, and then by the HTC Vive, high-definition, stunningly immersive hardware gave developers the opportunity to transport people to another world… or just to give them a perspective on the one they were already in. Today, with the development of lower-quality but highly affordable systems like Playstation VR, Samsung Gear, and Google’s Cardboard and Daydream, virtual reality experiences are accessible to a vast market. Most importantly, they’re reaching schools, artists, gamers, and businesses on a scale never seen before.