Virtual reality may have popped into the headlines only in the past few years, but the concept of virtual reality has been around for decades. Virtual reality has beginnings that preceded the time that the concept was coined and formalised. When VR systems first emerged from university research laboratories and were offered to industry as a revolutionary design and visualization tool, it was very difficult to convince industry to embrace the technology. There were confused messages about the applications for VR. In this detailed history of virtual reality we look at how technology has evolved and how key pioneers have paved the path for virtual reality as we know it today.
To begin with though, I will put some sort of historical context and show how VR first emerged.
The First Flight Simulator
In 1929 Edward Link created the “Link trainer” (patented 1931) probably the first example of a commercial flight simulator, which was entirely electro-mechanical.It was controlled by motors that linked to the rudder and steering column to modify the pitch and roll. A flight simulator that responded to the pilot’s controls and gave an accurate reading on the included instruments. During World War II over 10,000 “blue box” Link Trainers were used by over 500,000 pilots for initial training and improving their skills.
First Fictional Model for Virtual Reality
In the 1930s American science fiction writer Stanley G.Weinbaum presented a comprehensive and specific fictional model for virtual reality in his short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles. The story contains the idea of a pair of goggles that let the wearer experience a fictional world through holographics, smell, taste and touch. Great short story that gives a surprisingly accurate description of what VR may be like, making him a true visionary of the field.
Stereoscopic photos & viewers
In 1838 Charles Wheatstone’s research demonstrated that the brain processes the different two-dimensional images from each eye into a single object of three dimensions. Viewing two side by side stereoscopic images or photos through a stereoscope gave the user a sense of depth and immersion. The later development of the popular View-Master stereoscope (patented 1939), was used for “virtual tourism”. The design principles of the Stereoscope is used today for the popular Google Cardboard and low budget VR head mounted displays for mobile phones.
- 1838 : The stereoscope (Charles Wheatstone)
- 1849 : The lenticular stereoscope (David Brewster)
- 1939 : The View-Master (William Gruber)
In the early 1960s digital computers started to make an impact on commercial organizations and educational institutes. The machines were very large, often requiring air conditioning and several human operators to load punched cards, paper tape, magnetic tapes, and printer paper. Memory size was measured in kilobytes and a 32 kB machine could cost in the order of $100,000.
In the early days, the computer’s only graphical peripheral was the graph plotter which drew lines on paper using an or ink pen. The size of these devices varied from a dozen inches to several feet, and the drawing speed could vary from a sluggish 3 to 100 cm/s. Some drawings might only take a few minutes but others could easily exceed an hour, and in spite of these display speeds it was soon realized that computers could be used for animation.
To create an animation sequence a program was designed to draw the individual frames upon animation cells that were then back painted and photographed. It was a tedious process, but even then, the computer was seen as a revolutionary creative tool.
Storage Tube Displays
In the 1970s the storage tube transformed computer graphics by providing a high-resolution screen for displaying monochrome (green) line drawings. The major disadvantage of the device was that the only way to erase part of the screen was to erase the entire screen. Thus it was useless for any form of moving image. The screen contents could be output to paper using a special thermal printer.
Video displays exploited the technology of television to use a video signal to produce an image in the form of coloured dots and lines. Video technology however, provided a mechanism for selective erasure, and simple animation.
As computer memory became cheaper and more abundant, the frame-store emerged in the mid-1970s. This was capable of storing a single image in the form of a matrix of pixels and opened up the possibility of shaded images. It could still take anything from a few minutes to an hour to create a single image that was output to a video-disk or video recorder.
Shading algorithms appeared in the 1970s notably from Gouraud (1971) and Phong (1973), and texture mapping from Blinn and Newell (1976). Other topics such as anti-aliasing, shadows, hidden-surface removal, environment mapping, and modelling strategies kept researchers busy in the USA and the UK.
Towards the end of the 1970s Ivan Sutherland was experimenting with simple real time image generators (IGs) that were eventually embraced by the flight simulation industry. By the early 1980s the flight simulator industry became the first to employ VR techniques without realizing it. To them, real-time computer graphics was simulation, and we had to wait a few years for Jaron Larnier to coin the term virtual reality. In 1984 he had set up VPL Research – a company which pioneered research into virtual reality and 3D graphics which also sold the first virtual reality gear such as virtual reality glasses, data gloves and later, the full data suit. However, VPL Research filed for bankruptcy in 1990 and in 1999, all of its patents were bought by Sun Microsystems.
Lanier partnered up with Tom Zimmerman – the inventor of the first data glove and together they produced a range of virtual reality products such as glasses, gloves and a relatively inexpensive head mounted display (HMD).
Since 1965 Ivan Sutherland had realized that computers had an important role to play in real-time graphics, and his early work on head-mounted displays (HMDs) was a constant reminder what the future had in store. However, as with many inventions it can take 10-20 years before an idea is truly realized.
Nevertheless, over the past two decades we have witnessed a series of major events that collectively have resulted in today’s VR systems. Such events include Cinerama in 1952, Morton Heilig’s ‘Sensorama’ system in 1956, Dan Sandin and Richard Sayre’s bend-sensing glove in 1977, the Polhemus tracking system in 1979, and Andy Lippman’s interactive videodisk to drive around Aspen in 1980. In 1982, Thomas Zimmerman patented a data glove that used optical sensors, and in 1983, Mark Callahan built a see-through HMD at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
During this creative period of invention and discovery various companies pioneered the development of VR hardware and software: notably VPL Research, Inc., W Industries Ltd., Division Ltd., Fakespace, Inc., Polhemus, Virtual Research, Reflection Technologies, Sense 8 Corporation, and Superscape Ltd. Many still exist today, but some, alas, have not managed to survive the intense commercial pressures that pose a constant threat to any embryonic technology.
The future is yet to come…
Published also on medium