When we think of Virtual Reality (VR) we still think of something modern, something “futuristic”. However, VR origins date back to the 1838 when Charles Wheatstone studied how the brain transform two 2D images (one from each eye) into a single 3D image and invented the stereoscope. Wheatstone’ stereoscope was later improved by David Brewster in 1849 who invented the lenticular stereoscope.
In 1930 Stanley G. Weinbaum, American SciFi writer describes, in his Pygmalions spectacles, a device based on goggles which allowed people to watch holographic recordings of virtual stories. The device described by Weinbaum was also able to let the user feel touch and smell. Weinbaum with his novels was letting common people think of VR for the very first time. The SciFi current that Weinbaum started has been popular until the end of the ‘90s.
In 1957 the VR stopped to be just SciFi and started to be real, thanks to Morton Leonard Heilig, a pioneer of VR technology also known as the “Father of Virtual Reality”. Heilig developed a prototype of a multimedia system to provide the user with a multi-sensory (multimodal) virtual experience. In particular, the prototype, named Sensorama, was a big and bulky machine including 2 wide-angle stereoscopic monitors together with actuators providing body tilting, phones supplying stereo sound and tracks for wind and aromas to be triggered during the movie.
However, Sensorama was probably too modern for its time, and Heilig was not able to obtain financial backing for it. Nevertheless, Heilig contributions to VR didn’t stop with Sensorama, indeed he also patented a “portable” version of Sensorama namely HMD standing for Head mounted Display. However, he was never able to built one HMD working version.
In 1961 based on Heilig HMD patent two Philco engineers built what is probably considered the first headset: the Headsight. This headset was originally designed for real time control of potentially dangerous situations by the military. The device incorporated two screens (for stereoscopic vision) and a head motion tracking system linked to a closed circuit camera. Actually the device was not a VR headset, but, it was something really close to it.
In the upcoming years the VR technology kept on improving and in 1968 Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull invented the first wearable Augmented Reality (AR) headset. The headset incorporated two cathodic tube monitors and it was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling (for this reason it is also known as Sword of Damocles). The device was able to show simple wireframe graphics superimposed to real images. The second version of the Sword of Damocles was redesigned to be lighter and more comfortable and it adopted ultrasonic transmitters to track the head movements.
Between the ‘70s and ‘80s the interest in VR was growing and, later on, in 1982 the well known gaming company ATARI created a lab totally dedicated to VR. However, due to the gaming market crisis, after only 2 years, in 1984 the lab was dismissed. In the same year, a company named VPL Research was founded.
VPL Research was the first company to make real money out of VR based devices. The company produced memorable products such as Dataglove: a glove which allowed people to manipulate and re-orient virtual objects and Eyephone: a wearable VR headset. These devices strongly contributed to the increasing popularity of VR.
In the early ‘90s VR became worldwide popular, even if it was not considered as something concrete that could actually be used in everyday life with a useful/entertainment purpose. A company called Virtuality Group changed this concept by introducing Virtuality, a VR gaming device that was not that different (at the least in looks) from today’s VR based gaming systems. Virtuality was composed by a headset with embedded headphones and a joystick for interaction. The computing system was based on an AMIGA 3000 station. The biggest limitation of Virtuality was its hefty price: about $60k.
After the introduction on the market of Virtuality, all the big players of the gaming market saw the potential of VR and started working on their own VR systems:
- SEGA started working on SEGA VR, a light VR headset working with SEGA consoles. Nevertheless, the device was a failure as it was affected by huge motion sickness problems.
- Nintendo tried to have its own VR headset and, in 1995, introduced the Virtual Boy. As for the SEGA VR also the for the Virtual Boy the motion sickness problems resulted in a failure.
- Sony introduced the Glasstron a head mounted display device, famous mainly for introducing an innovative (for that time) game perspective in the game MechWarrior 2.
- Atari continued on its previous VR project, creating a prototype named Jaguar VR, which was a promising device that never reached the market.
After a time span in which VR headsets were considered mainly console devices Forte Technology introduced VFX1, a PC based VR system. The system included a headset, a handheld controller, an ISA interface board and offered head-tracking, stereoscopic 3D and stereo sound. The VFX1 opened the consumer VR world to the PCs. Following the VFX1 commercialisation Philips introduced the Scuba VR, a device based on the Jaguar VR which was originally designed to work as VR helmet for the Atari Jaguar but then adapted to work with Windows PCs.
In spite of this race to VR, by the end of the ‘90s the VR seemed to be totally vanished from the consumer electronic market and nothing significantly relevant happened in the VR world until late 2010.
In 2010 a young guy named Palmer Luckey started working on a “new” technology and founded Oculus VR. In 2012 Oculus VR announced the Rift, a virtual reality headset designed for gaming, and launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of the product. The campaign was successful, collecting around $10 million. Everything that came after put VR back on the map. We at Go Touch VR are trying to be a part of it with VR Touch, an high fidelity haptic wearable device!