History of Virtual Reality, Part 1: Waiting for the Technology to Catch Up

Virtual Reality technology has the potential to change the way we use computers. And, it will change the way we integrate computers into our daily life. You’ve probably heard fantastic descriptions and accounts of the new Virtual Reality experience. But there’s nothing quite like being in it yourself.

Not only should you try out VR to get a good understanding of what it’s like, knowing where VR came from will also help you understand how it can impact our daily lives. In a series of not-too-long articles, I will go over the roots of the latest VR craze and the implications of this awesome technology.

Virtual Reality Technology – the history.

In its current form, VR is new and exciting. But virtual reality is nothing new. The fundamentals of stereoscopic rendering have been around for 169 years. Charles Wheatsone first described stereopsis, or the perception of 3D images by binocular vision, in 1838.

stereopsis

Wheatstone invented a stereoscopic viewing device which allowed people to view specially prepared images in 3D. In this early diagram, Wheatstone depicted an observer facing two-45 degree mirrors in order to see two pictures, superimposed. This is the technology that was later used to create the beloved child’s toy, the Viewmaster.

Rendering two images, and moving on to tracking.

The same way Wheatstone’s stereoscope would show two images of the same scene from different points to create a sense of depth to the imagery, VR headsets render two images, one for each eye, to create the same sensation.

Many decades later, this technology appears in different forms, but mostly in viewing static video content. In 1968 Ivan Sutherland, known as the “father of computer graphics“, and his Harvard College student Bob Sproull would create what is widely regarded as the first Head-Mounted Display (HMD). They nicknamed “The Sword of Damocles”, and this HMD was too massive for a human to wear. Instead, they mounted it to the ceiling. Still, this device was noteworthy because it was the first device to be connected to a computer to render a virtual world.

As this was the late 1960s, the graphics were very unsophisticated. The visuals consisted only of wireframe boxes. The “Sword” also featured headtracking which would update the image displayed based on the direction of the user’s gaze.

Next come the prototypes.

In the 1980s, VR pioneer Jaron Lanier would coin the phrase “Virtual Reality” and co-found VPL Research. This outfit would go on to develop primitive VR devices such as the EyePhone (HMD), Data Glove (Motion-tracked hand controller), the Audio Sphere, and the Data Suit (body tracking suit). Most of these devices never left the prototype stage, with the exception of the Data Glove, licensed to Mattel to create the Nintendo Power Glove. Even that was not a hit.

Virtual Reality technology remained more or less stagnant until the 1990s, when the CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) system is invented by Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The Cave system would project a different image onto the walls of a cube to allow the user to see the virtual world around them without a headset. This gave the user the added advantage of being able to see their own body in relation to the simulation. Universities, Engineering Labs, and military training facilities use the CAVE systems for various applications.

The slow progression: Waiting for the technology.

CAVE-style VR systems would become the industry norm for VR with very few HMD plays, and even fewer successful ones. “Severe headaches and motion sickness” seemed to be the result of most VR offerings from gaming companies in the 1990s.

The Nintendo Virtual Boy was a stereoscopic game console released in Japan in 1995, and the Sega VR system was a proprietary HMD offered as an accessory to the Genesis 16-bit home game console. The Virtual Boy failed to hit sales targets and Nintendo pulled it after less than a year. Sega’s VR didn’t even get that far, due to the aforementioned physical responses observed during market tests.

Nintendo Virtual Boy

Virtual Reality technology did not significantly advance for several years. Gradually, small improvements to the already established CAVE systems were seen. This all changed in 2010 when Palmer Luckey, a California teen who had long been tinkering with complex electronics projects, created the first prototype of his Oculus VR HMD.

While the tech used in the Oculus was nothing new, computing had made some incredible strides since the last serious attempt at a consumer HMD. Computer graphics and rendering techniques had improved, enabling photo-realistic graphics at incredible framerates (depending on the hardware available).

This allowed Palmer to create a prototype headset that used two virtual cameras to render a scene twice, once for each eye. Even at a resolution lower than 720p per eye, it was clear that the computational power needed for breathtaking VR experiences was going to be here sooner than later.

Stay tuned for the next chapter: Major Silicon Valley players get in on VR.

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