When Was VR Invented? The History of Virtual Reality

In the last 30 years, the term virtual reality (VR) has seen a significant usage increase. Its latest spike can be attributed to the recent announcements about the development of Meta’s metaverse. However, it’s not just a neat new term we can use: The number of VR devices created and sold has also seen a considerable uptick. The current hype might mislead you into thinking that VR is younger than it is; to set the record straight, we’ll cover when VR was invented and how it came to be; before all that, however, we’ll explain what this technology even is.

Defining VR

There are many overlapping definitions of VR, and (as if that isn’t enough!) it’s not the only important concept to keep track of. To properly distinguish VR, you need to know what augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and extended reality (XR) are. For example, XR is a supercategory for AR, VR, and MR, which are non-immersive, fully-immersive, and semi-immersive, respectively. People often mix up VR and AR, even though AR belongs to the non-immersive group and VR belongs to the fully immersive group.

VR is entirely digitally created, so users find themselves in a computer-generated environment or digital copy of the real world with which they can interact. VR users can’t interact with the outside world (if we don’t count bumping into things). On the other hand, AR leaves the user fully capable of interacting with their surroundings, providing an additional overlay with information or images on top of the physical surroundings.

When Was VR Invented?

This question is more complex than it might seem. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly VR was invented or who invented it, because our definition of VR changed over time. Still, the most common consensus is that Ivan Edward Sutherland created the first VR/AR headset in 1968; on the other hand, Jaron Lanier popularized the term “virtual reality” in 1987. Therefore, if you’re wondering: “How long has VR been around?” the answer is, over half a century.

Virtual Reality Evolution

While Sutherland’s headgear resembles VR tools as we think of them today, this is not the beginning of the immersive experience: For example, Renaissance painters created panoramic paintings and created the illusion of depth to place the viewer in the center of significant historical events. We don’t consider this virtual reality by today’s standards, but they certainly did, although not in the same terms.

The First Virtual Reality System

In 1838, Charles Wheatstone demonstrated that presenting an image to each eye side-by-side meshes them in our brain to create a sense of depth. Following that principle, the first step toward VR goggles of today was View-Master’s stereoscopic system from 1939. It immersed the viewer into a static 3D world using pairs of Kodachrome colour film photographs. Modern VR headsets do the same thing, just not with static imagery. In the beginning, View-Master’s original product was used as a tourist guide and, in the end, a children’s toy.

1962 – Sensorama

In the 50s, Morton Heilig worked on developing his own multimedia experience. He expanded on the stereoscopic idea by adding mechanical and chemical elements that would encompass other senses. In 1962, he patented the Sensorama: A full-body VR device with five short movies that showed images using a stereoscope, played sound via speakers, used fans to imitate the wind, and evaporated chemicals to evoke the scents appropriate to the imagery; finally, the chair could vibrate. No modern VR system offers this range of stimulation.

That’s not Heilig’s only contribution: In 1960, he patented the Telesphere Mask, the first head-mounted display (HMD) and precursor to the virtual reality headsets. The Telesphere Mask didn’t have any motion tracking, nor was it supposed to. It was made for movie viewing, so it included stereo sound.

Virtual Reality Technology Development

In the 20th century, developing new technology was mostly the purview of government agencies, universities, and research labs.

1968 – Ivan Edward Sutherland

The first virtual headset that used computer-generated images was created in 1968 by the father of computer graphics, Ivan Edward Sutherland, and his students Bob Sproull, Quintin Foster, and Danny Cohen.

The device was massive, as it had its own mechanical tracking system suspended from the ceiling, earning it the name the Sword of Damocles. It could only create simple wire mesh environments and objects, but this experiment was the first example of a display showing a computer-generated image. All previous displays used camera footage, so this system was a giant leap in virtual reality technology.

1975 – VIDEOPLACE

VIDEOPLACE was more of an art installation than a VR system. Created by Myron Krueger at the University of Wisconsin in 1975, it focused on the interaction between the user’s digital representation and computer-generated reality.

VIDEOPLACE could transfer user actions from the real to the artificial world, enabling interaction with a computer-generated environment. The user didn’t need a VR headset or gloves; instead, the system used position sensing technology, computer graphics, video displays, and projectors. The biggest attraction was that users in different parts of the world could interact within the confines of the displays.

1977 – Sayre Gloves

In 1977 Daniel J. Sandin and Thomas Defanti created the first data glove – the Sayre glove – for a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. It used photocell technology to measure the amount of light passing through the tubes on the glove. When the hand was bent, the light passing through to the sensor varied, thus providing a measure of flexion.

1982 – Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator

While the world was on the verge of a great video game market crash, Tom Furness developed and presented his work to the US Air Force. The Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator (VCASS), created in 1982, was the first working virtual reality flight simulator.

1984 – VPL Research

Together with Jaron Lanier and Mitch Altman, Thomas Zimmerman started VPL Research in 1984. The company went on to produce a range of VR equipment for the consumer market. It was the first company to sell a virtual reality headset and data glove.

1985 – VIEW

In 1985, NASA developed their virtual reality system, the Virtual Interactive Environment Workstation (VIEW). It included a VR helmet and data gloves. The system allowed users to interact with a computer-generated environment or reality relayed from a remote camera.

1986 – Super Cockpit

Tom Furness continued working for the US Air Force as a director for the Super Cockpit project developed from 1986 to 1989. The project’s core was the further advancement of VR helmet use for combat flight simulation.

1990 – Virtuality

The first-ever virtual reality headset for gaming was developed in 1990 by Virtuality. Its design was emblematic of the era, and some units had network capabilities allowing for the first multi-player gaming sessions.

1991 – Medina’s VR Mars Rover

NASA continued expanding their VR capabilities and, in 1991, Antonio Medina developed a virtual reality system which allowed Mars rover robots to be controlled from Earth with the help of a virtual reality headset.

1993 – SEGA

SEGA announced it was working on a virtual reality system for their arcades and console, but nothing ever came out. The product was never released due to concerns over user safety.

1995 – Virtual Boy

In 1995, Nintendo released their own VR gaming display called Virtual Boy. It was a commercial failure, the only Nintendo console with under a million units sold. Its failure has been attributed to monochrome displays and unimpressive stereoscopic effects.

1997 – VRET

In 1997, Georgia Tech and Emory University researchers used VR to create a Vietnam-like war zone for VRET (Virtual reality exposure therapy) to help veterans suffering from PTSD.

Modern Age Virtual Reality Headsets

From 1997, there was a lull in VR development. In the meantime, PC hardware advanced rapidly, setting the stage for the resurgence of virtual reality technology in the second decade of the 21st century.

2012 – Oculus Rift

Disappointed with the existing VR helmets, Palmer Luckey set about to create his own. In 2009 he started working on the prototype. After several iterations, he was ready to launch Oculus Rift on Kickstarter, raising 974% of his initial target.

After a few high-profile demonstrations, including one for Valve and at E3 2012, the gaming community was hyped for Oculus’ capabilities, and this headset delivered. As a result, the company was bought out by then-Facebook in 2014, ultimately developing an improved version of the headset, Oculus Rift S, in 2019.

2014 – VR Revolution

Other companies noticed Oculus’s success and the growing interest in VR technology.

SONY announced that it started working on its own VR set called Project Morpheus, which was released in 2016 under the name PlayStation VR. Samsung started working on the Samsung Gear VR system, integrated with its smartphones.

Multiple companies started experimenting with AR and VR technologies, creating interactive experiences of roller coasters, the Oval office, exhibits, and even refugee camps.

2016 – HTC Vive

HTC released the VIVE SteamVR headset, the first commercial headset with sensor-based tracking, allowing users to walk freely in the play area instead of being stationary.

2017 Onward – The VR Race

VR technology projects have now become ubiquitous among the tech giants of our time, especially after Meta’s name change and VR-centric future announcement. HTC, Google, Apple, Microsoft, SONY, Amazon, etc., have all begun developing VR systems of their own.

What’s Next?

Consumers have now seen what VR could do and haven’t stopped asking for more. Today’s market has enough virtual reality sets to satisfy the needs of those who can afford them, but the industry is already looking for the next big thing and broader adoption.

FAQ

What was the first VR game ever made?

The first VR game was released for an arcade-like VR game system called Virtuality. The system included a couple of games (Grid Busters, Hero, and Legend Quest), including the first multiplayer VR game, called Dactyl Nightmare.

Who is the forerunner of virtual reality?

In 1962, Morton Heilig created the first multimedia stereoscopic experience with his Sensorama. It used stereoscopic images combined with fan-generated wind, smells, and seat vibration to provide users with an immersive experience of a New Your bike ride.

When was the first VR headset made?

In 1968 Ivan Edward Sutherland created the first VR/AR headset. Some also consider this a point when VR was invented, at least in the sense we think of it today.

An eye for aesthetics and a passion for writing and technology are both parts of Dusan’s essence. He is a curious spirit with an appreciation for a well-written story and pop and indie-folk music, undying love for cats and deep knowledge of Taylor Swift’s lyrics. He discovered his passion for writing at a young age. Dusan’s creativity has been unlimited ever since, prompting him to compose various pieces one word at a time.

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