In 1935, an American science-fiction writer, named Stanley G. Weinbaum, wrote Pygmalion’s Spectacles, a story in which the main character, Dan Burke, met a professor, Albert Ludwig, who invented a pair of goggles which enabled “a movie that gives one sight and sound […] taste, smell, and touch. […] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.”
People who read the book at that time probably never imagined that just 80 years later we would have a headset with almost those exact same characteristics and functionalities, and accesible to all people, not just super-smart scientists with a lot of resources and capabilities to build their own device. Weinbaum essentially predicted what we know today as virtual reality.
“The story is all about you, and you are in it.” That’s the promise that virtual reality has always offered. You can go anywhere, do anything, make things appear out of thin air, speak with the “shadows” and interact with them; and all that is happening inside your head; it’s not reality, it’s a virtual reality.
When we think about the history of virtual reality we probably don’t think as far back as the 1950s, but that’s when the first actual virtual reality device was first invented. It might not have been as small and immersive as today’s high-tech headsets, but it was a huge step into what we know today as VR.
In 1957 Morton Heilig, a philosopher, filmmaker, and inventor created the Sensorama, an arcade-style cabinet which stimulated different senses through movement, sound, vibrations, wind, and even smell generators. All these features had the purpose of creating an illusion of reality. The Sensorama was composed of two different inventions, the Sensorama Motion Picture Projector and the Sensorama 3-D Motion Picture Camera.
Morton’s first patent, the Telesphere Mask, was in 1960. It was the first ever head-mounted display which provided stereoscopic (3-D) TV, wide vision and true stereo sound.
A few years later, in 1965, Ivan Sutherland, a well known inventor who created the revolutionary computer interface Sketchpad, developed what he called, “The Ultimate Display,” which he described as, “a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter.”
In 1968, with the help of his student Bob Sproull, Sutherland created the first VR head-mounted display that was connected to a computer and not a camera. He named it The Sword of Democles and it was so huge and heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling in order to be usable, but it was the start of something much bigger (or smaller in this case).
In 1969 Myron Kruegere, an artist and software developer with the idea of changing the way people interact with machines, made his own version of a projector-based VR. Naming it “artificial reality,” he developed computer-generated environments that responded to the people in it.
As Kruegere worked on his artificial reality system and several other researchers developed new, more advanced versions of Sutherland’s head-mounted display and Heilig’s Telesphere Mask, computers began entering the homes of the american people and becoming more popular with the release of products like the Apple II in 1977. Atari was also exploding in popularity, developing home consoles and arcade game machines. People began embracing technology, not only as a means of work and research, but as a form of entertainment and mere curiosity.
Atari was one of the first companies to invest in VR research, founding the Atari Sunnyvale Research Laboratory in 1982 to explore the new virtual reality technologies and implement them in new, more immersive gaming programs and systems. Headed by Alan Kay, a scientist from Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) where the first personal computer was invented and the first graphics operating system was designed, the company hired people like Zimmerman, Scott Fisher, Jaron Lanier, and Brenda Laurel, who would later become major influencers in the advancement of virtual reality.
In the early 1990’s the rapid growth of virtual reality helped create a broad new category of books, magazines and news articles related to the subject, and this increase in press coverage helped expand the popularity of VR even more and bring the attention of large companies and smart minds to help take this amazing technology to a whole new level.
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of Virtual Reality – A History of the Future