The History behind Virtual Reality

The earliest attempts of achieving VR, according to the Virtual Reality Society (2015) who delves into the usage and purpose of the contemporary technology, are “the 360-degree murals (or panoramic paintings) from the nineteenth century. These paintings were intended to fill the viewer’s entire field of vision, making them feel present at some historical event or scene.” (V.R.S., 2015). An example of these murals is shown in Figure III, a painting depicting the Battle of Borodino, painted in 1812, just a little over two hundred and four years ago! By studying the painting, it gives the viewer the ability to feel a part of the action, which was Louis-François Lejeune’s (1812) intended point. Though there is not anything technological about panoramic paintings, in comparison to what we’ve seen with the HTC Vive, the comprehension of becoming a part of a different reality was very much imminent in the minds of the creative.
The idea of VR would not limit itself to the visions of struggling artists, but would progress rapidly; only a mere century later would the first aviation simulator be utilized in order to train potential pilots in World War II. Electromechanical technology would be incorporated to what was called the “Link Trainer,” named after its creator Edward Link (1931), which would be “used by over 500,000 pilots for initial training and improving their skills” (V.R.S., 2015). These pilots would never have to leave the ground to experience the situations and complications that piloting would bring, such as turbulences and other disturbances. This simulation would not only bring an inexperienced pilot the proper training, but also would keep him safe from the dangers of the sky. This example of early VR shows that this technology is not just meant for entertainment; that VR, even in the 1930s into the 40s would be beneficial in the careers posted by our military.
And further still, this technology and idea of becoming a part of an artificial reality has yet to reach new heights. In the 1950s into early 60s, Morton Heilig (1962) would create “an arcade-style theatre cabinet that would stimulate all the senses, not just sight and sound” (V.R.S., 2015) called Sensorama. This technological upgrade would be for entertainment purposes, unlike the simulator for the pilots, but would have even more realistic effects on the user. It “featured stereo speakers, a stereoscopic 3D display, fans, smell generators and a vibrating chair” (V.R.S., 2015) in order for the viewer to completely be immersed in the film’s environment, going above and beyond just sight and hearing. Heilig (1962) filmed six productions himself, all of which would be explicitly for the use of Sensorama contraption.
By 1968, the dream of being a part of another world has sharpened, and innovations to improve equipment such as Link’s Trainer and Sensorama were well on their way. Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull (1968) would contribute and expand to the concept of Virtual Reality in creating the Sword of Damocles, a “head mounted display […] that was connected to a computer and not a camera” (V.R.S., 2015) The contraption itself was far too heavy to wear, so they technology would be suspended from the ceiling with the user strapped into place, as shown in Figure V. The visual effects generated by the computer it was connected to were simple, described by the Virtual Reality Society as “very primitive wireframe rooms and objects” (V.R.S., 2015). Though the graphics were two-dimensional, not-detailed, and, fair to say, unrealistic, the attempt of Sutherland and Sproull (1968) would inspire future innovators, specifically, in creating light-weight equipment a user can wear, as well as rendering a display through the use of a computer, instead of a camera.
Now, we make a jump from the early 1970s to a more contemporary time, the 1990s. This is where gaming had become more advanced, at least for that time period, and where arcade games were transferred into consoles that be taken and played with at home. SEGA and Nintendo were big names throughout this time; SEGA making strategic games and Nintendo making consoles, for both living room television stands, and as hand-held devices. Right off the bat, it is fair to say that both SEGA and Nintendo were ultimately unsuccessful at proving the usefulness of VR, due to the lack of innovation in software design and the lack of profit when released (for Nintendo) to the public.
SEGA, in 1993, had announced that they were in the process of creating a headset, that would accompany their console Sega Genesis. The headset, as described by the Virtual Reality Society, was a “wrap-around prototype glasses [that] had head tracking, stereo sound and LCD screens in the visor” (V.R.S., 2015). Unfortunately, though, due to the lack of innovative software during that time, this headgear would “forever remain in the prototype phase” (V.R.S., 2015). For Nintendo, though, in 1995, their VR technology would be released to the public, and it would be called the Nintendo Virtual Boy. Like SEGA, this would also be a flop, due to “a lack of software support and […] difficult to use the console in a comfortable position” (V.R.S., 2015). In addition, the graphics were very amateurish due to the lack in color; the only colors that could be rendered were black and red. For the price of one hundred and eighty dollars, this addition to the Nintendo family was not worth it in the eyes of the public. But despite these failings, there were lessons learned in creating future equipment. Though there was more portable headwear for both, the graphics lacked, or the wearing of the technology was uncomfortable. These ideas that were released under public scrutiny would only enable a better future for VR technology, where graphics are rendered by powerful machines and we actually feel a part of the environment of our choosing.
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