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The History of Virtual Reality

The definition of Virtual Reality (VR) according to Wikipedia is a computer-simulated reality that replicates an environment that simulates a physical presence in places in the real world or an imagined world, allowing the user to interact in that world. Virtual realities artificially create sensory experiences, which can include sight, touch, hearing, and smell.

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However, one could argue that the history of virtual reality starts with paintings. In the 19th century panoramic paintings became an environment in which a person, the viewer, could immersive oneself in another environment. Great examples of these “analog” virtual realities are the Battle of Borodino by Louis-François Lejeune and Panorama Mesdag (Hendrik Willem Mesdag). And although they used the name panorama for their virtual realities, the name panorama was coined a long time before by Irish painter Robert Barker in 1792 when he created a cylindrical surface called “The Panorama”, a word that did not even exist until then.

The step towards virtual reality as we know it, a way to fool the mind in a way that we think we are in another environment started in 1838 wit stereoscopic photos and viewers. Charles Wheatstone’s research demonstrated that the brain processes the different two-dimensional images from each eye into a single object of three dimensions. This was the start of 3D but also an important step towards the technique for virtual reality.

A next step in virtual reality from a more technical point of view was the first flight simulator that was created by Edward Link in 1929.

Wearing goggles instead of looking at pictures in order to experience an alternate reality was first described in Pygmalion’s Spectacles by science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum.

In the mid 50’s of last century, Morton Heilig developed the Sensorama. This was an impressive arcade-style theatre cabinet that would stimulate all the senses. It featured stereo speakers, a stereoscopic 3D display, fans, smell generators and a even vibrating chair.

Heilig followed up on his invention in the 1960’s with the Telesphere Mask, the first head-mounted display that provided stereoscopic 3D and wide vision with stereo sound. Unfortunately lacking motion detection.

In 1968, engineers Comeau & Bryan added motion detection to the world of Virtual Reality with the Headlight. It had a video screen for each eye and a magnetic motion tracking system linked to a closed circuit camera but was not connected to a computer.

In that same year, Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull developed a VR / AR head mounted display (The Sword of Damocles) that was linked to a computer. It was not really wearable (suspended from the ceiling) but it was the result of the Sutherland’s earlier vision of what he had called “the Ultimate Display” This concept should be able to do the following:

  • A virtual world viewed through a HMD and appeared realistic through augmented 3D sound and tactile feedback;
  • Computer hardware to create the virtual word and maintain it in real time;
  • The ability users to interact with objects in the virtual world in a realistic way.


Modern virtual reality

With the widespread adoption of the internet, online virtual worlds emerged, the most notable and notorious being Second Life from Linden Labs. This was indeed a virtual reality where one could walk (and fly) around and interact with others with the use of avatars. But these worlds were 2 dimensional and looked not very real, so no immersive experience.

In the 2010’s, Virtual Reality become hot again. Due to the introduction of the smartphone, technology and screens became both powerful and small allowing mounted head displays with very realistic images and real time processing of movement.

Palmer Lucky creates a set of VR Goggles in a garage and raises over 2.5 million on kickstarter in 2011. Oculus Rift as the goggles are called is taken over by Facebook in 2014 for 2 billion USD.

Google has a smart take on Virtual Reality Goggles by creating a cardboard placeholder for a smartphone. Samsung introduces the Samsung Gear VR, HTC the HTC Vive and Sony the Playstation VR.

To get a good idea of what you can do with Virtual Reality technology:

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