What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality

The history of Virtual Reality is one that is far longer than you might expect. But that does, of course, depend on your definition of the technology.
Christopher McFadden

Virtual Reality (VR) is all the rage at the moment but this is not the first time the technology has been in the headlines. Many of you might remember its first 'bite at the cherry' during the 1980s and 1990s and may still chuckle at some of the disastrous applications produced by Nintendo and Sega at the time.

But VR actually has a much longer and very illustrious history. In the following article, we will take a quick tour through the story of VR from its early iterations to its boom during the computer age.

We will also pay homage to some of the industry's key players. Enjoy!

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
Source: Flickr

What Is Virtual Reality (It's Not as Simple as You Think)?

This should be a relatively simple question to answer. Afterall, we are taught at an early age that we have five main senses that we use to interact with and understand the world around us. 

So surely by VR, we are referring to the use of technology to trick our brains into thinking the experience is real? Whilst technically this is true, as you will see, it's not quite that simple.

Let's kick things off with some simple definitions. The very term ''Virtual Reality'' is an open compound word/noun that comes, naturally, from its component words 'virtual' and 'reality'. 

The word 'virtual' is defined as:-

"Almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition." - Oxford English Dictionary.

And, 'reality' is defined as:-

"The state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them."


"A thing that is actually experienced or seen, especially when this is unpleasant." - Oxford English Dictionary.

Simple right? But wait.

Without getting too philosophical here you could consider the way you interact with the world as 'virtual' already. Your brain needs to make sense of an enormous amount of data it receives from its plethora of neurons (sensors) around the body. 

These 'sensors' convert a wide range input (heat, pressure, sound, light etc) into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain to be deciphered and reconstructed into what we perceive as reality. 

This relies on a system forged over millions of years of trial and error to produce an artificial 'representation' of the 'real world' around us. But as we know, this complex and delicate system can be tricked relatively easily and so your 'experience' and 'the reality' can get out of whack. 

Although this seems counterintuitive and is certainly weird, it can have benefits.

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
Source: Pixabay

The Technical Meaning of 'Virtual Reality'

So, as you can see, by just using the above basic definitions of the component words you could consider your everyday life experience as a form of ''Virtual Reality''. But we instinctively know this is not what the term means.

In technical terms, the definition is a lot simpler. ''Virtual Reality'' has been fixed in the English lexicon to mean:-

"The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors." - Oxford English Dictionary


"Virtual reality is the term used to describe a three-dimensional, computer-generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions." - 'Virtual Reality' Society

In this sense, the very term means to artificially produce 'something' that we could experience that is as close to our experienced reality as possible.

But given the nature of our existing 'natural 'Virtual Reality'',  perhaps, it might be more accurate to call it "Artificial Environmental Stimulus Technology". However, as the very word 'reality' includes our daily experiences as human beings the term ''Virtual Reality'" can be considered fit for purpose.

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
Source: Didlestown 

How Is Augmented Reality Different From 'Virtual Reality'?

As we have seen this should be considered more of technical distinction than a simple understanding of the open compound words. 

The term Augmented Reality, AR for short, tends to be used to define the addition of digital elements (like cartoon characters) to a live view through a device like a smartphone. Great examples would be the very popular applications Pokemon Go!, Snapchat lenses or the up and coming AR tabletop type smartphone games

Virtual reality, VR, tends to mean the complete immersion of someone into an experience like a game or real-world simulation. This form of 'artificial' reality tends to require the users' isolation from the physical world in some capacity.

Whether that be the use of headsets and/or gloves etc.

Good examples would include devices like Oculus Rift, Vive, Google Cardboard and many more. VR, as compared to AR usually takes the user into a number of artificial 'real worlds' or ones of complete fantasy.

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It should be mentioned that there are combinations of the two called mixed reality, or MR. This, as the name suggests, mixes elements of both real-world and digital objects in one 'space' (discussed in more detail later).

MR is still in its infancy and is being developed by companies like Microsoft with their HoloLens technology. 

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
Ford is experimenting with MS HoloLens to improve their car designs. Source:Ford

When Was The First Virtual Reality Device Invented?

There have been many early attempts at reproducing reality in such a way that it can be perceived as real by the user or observer. It can, therefore, be argued that the history of Virtual Reality can trace its origins to as early as the late 17th and 18th Centuries.

The Realist movement of the 18th Century saw artists begin to make every more realistic work of art. Foremost among them were panoramic paintings of landscapes, battle scenes, and many other subjects.

The larger pieces were intended to fill the observers' field of view - often in 360 degrees, and were an attempt to immerse them in the subject and were highly effective, not to mention beautiful.

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
W.L Wyllie's Panorama of Trafalgar. Source: The National Royal Navy Museum, Portsmouth

Around the same time, in 1838,  Charles Wheatstone's research showed that the human brain was able to process two different images from each eye into a single 'image' composite in the mind's eye.

By combining two pictures side by side viewers were able to simulate a sense of depth from 2D objects. This later led to the development of the very popular View-Master stereoscope that was patented in 1939. 

These are still popular today and are used in low budget VR headsets and Google Cardboard.

In 1929 Edward Link developed his "Link Trainer" that he patented in 1931. This is widely viewed as the first flight simulator and included motors that mimicked the feel of controls and also moved to simulate turbulence and other disturbances. 

During the 1930's Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote a fictional story, Pygmalion's Spectacles, in which the protagonist wears a pair of goggles that let them experience a virtual world of holographic, smell, taste, and touch. Given how long ago that was his predictions are pretty spooky in hindsight.

These are all well and good but since we have established that Virtual Reality tends to be understood as the isolation (from external stimulus and provision of 'synthetic' sensory input) to the user.

In this case, it's time to jump forward a little further in time.

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
Source: Handige Harrie/Wikimedia Commons

Morton Heilig: The Inventor and "Father" of 'Virtual Reality'

Cinematographer Morton Heilig (dubbed by some "The Father of 'Virtual Reality'") developed his Sensorama in the mid-1950's. This was an arcade-style theatre cabinet that stimulated a lot of the user's senses not just their sight and sound. 

It also included a stereoscopic 3D display, fans, 'smell generators' and a vibrating chair.

Morton was one of the greatest visionaries of his time and if he was alive today would probably be called a Futurist. He was a Philosopher, Inventor, Filmmaker and in general a man who looked towards the future and was way ahead of his time.

But he didn't stop there. Later in the decade, he developed the now famous Telesphere Mask. This device was patented in 1957 and featured, for the first time ever, a head-mounted display (HMD).

Although it only played non-interactive films, without motion-tracking, it did provide stereoscopic 3D, wide vision, and stereo sound.

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
Source: U.S. Patent Office

In the early 1960s two engineers from the Philco Corporation, Comeau and Bryan were able to develop the precursor to a truly modern HMD. It was called the "Headsight" and features separate eye video screens that also had magnetic motion tracking linked to CCTV.

This was to be the first motion-tracking HMD.

As the user's head moved the camera would also move to allow for a more 'natural' look around a given environment. It was the next biggest movement towards VR as we know it today but lacked computer integration and image generation.

But VR technology was about to go to the next level.

When Was VR First Introduced?

In 1965, Ivan Sutherland ("The Father of Graphics") devised his "Ultimate Display" concept for potentially simulating reality to such a degree that you wouldn't actually be able to notice the difference. He envisaged a virtual world viewed through an HMD with 3D sound and tactile feedback.

It was also to be connected to a computer that created the simulation in real time and allowed the user to actually interact with objects in a realistic manner.

This was to become the blueprint for future developments down the pipeline of VR.

For many VR enthusiasts, the first introduction of VR (and the first 'Virtual Reality' headset) was Ivan's "Sword of Damocles". This was developed with help from his student Bob Sproull and consisted of an HMD connected to a computer (not a camera).

This device was very unwieldy, wasn't particularly comfortable and needed to be suspended from the ceiling (hence the name). Users were strapped into it and shown very primitive computer-generated graphics with objects in wireframe rooms.

What Was The First 'Virtual Reality' Device?

Depending on your definition (see above) the first 'Virtual Reality' Device was one of the following:-

The literal understanding of the term 'Virtual Reality'

The first 'Virtual Reality' Device was the Sensorama designed an built by  Morton Heilig in the 1950s. This was the first type of multimedia immersion of a user that included:-

- A viewing screen displaying stereoscopic images enclosed within a booth;

- Oscillating fans

- Speakers and;

- Smell emitting devices.

The technical definition of the term 'Virtual Reality'

The first, technically defined, 'Virtual Reality' Device was the "Sword of Damocles" designed an built by Ivan Sutherland in 1968. This was the HMD to be connected to a computer, did not rely on cameras, and showed users primitive computer graphics.

It consisted of:-

- A large and unwieldy HMD that was suspended from the ceiling;

- The HMD was connected to a computer that managed the entire experience and displayed motion tracked wireframe rooms and objects.

Ivan Sutherland wrote in his early paper about the device that “Even with this relatively crude system,” he wrote, “the three-dimensional illusion was real.” 

Who First Coined The Term 'Virtual Reality'?

As you have seen the actual technological development of 'Virtual Reality' has a long and illustrious history. However, it's incredible to think that the term was never actually coined until the late 1980's.

In 1987 Jaron Lanier, founder of the Visual Programming Lab (VPL), coined (or popularised) the term "'Virtual Reality'". 

Through VPL, Jaron would go on to develop his own range of VR gear that included the Dataglove and the EyePhone head-mounted display. VPL was also the first company to commercialize 'Virtual Reality' goggles.

An EyePhone 1 could be yours for $9400 or $49,000 for the EyePhone HRX. The Datagloves were sold for $9000 a piece. 

For early 1990's film buffs or with a long memory you might just remember the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man. This movie introduced to the wider population the concept of 'Virtual Reality' and it was loosely based on Jaron's work at JPL.

Jaron was played by Pierce Brosnan as a scientist who used VR therapy on mentally disabled patients. Real 'Virtual Reality' equipment from VPL research labs was used in the film and the director Brett Leonard, admitted to drawing inspiration from companies like VPL. 

What Are The Different Types Of 'Virtual Reality'?


'Virtual Reality' comes in many shapes, sizes and 'flavors' today (and in the past as we've seen). But they all have one unifying principle - as defined by the technical definition of the technology. 

One main aim of VR is to move beyond traditional forms of Human-Computer interaction with devices like the mouse and keyboard to something more intuitive and immersive.

However, it is likely in the future that all iterations of VR will merge into unified and standardized technology but with different modes in which the systems interface with its user.

These broadly fall into one of the following 'sub-species':-

1. Window on World

This type of system will dispense with, or have specialized, HMD's, for use in technical fields like medicine. Today they typically use a computer monitor and allow users to visualize complex procedures like surgery. 

These are well suited for simulations of real-life procedures for training/research purposes.

2. Telepresence

As the name suggests this form of ''Virtual Reality'' enables users to operate remote devices or be immersed in situations over great distances. This is particularly useful in dangerous situations like bomb disposal, remote operation of drones or undersea exploration.

3. Immersive Systems

Ostensibly the same as Window on World, this type of VR can be used for the user to be fully immersed in the system. This can be used for practical situations (remote control, the operation of avatars) as well as recreational activities and games of the future.

This could technically be described as a form of AR rather than VR. 

4. Mixed Reality

Mixed reality, MR for short, mixes VR and AR. These kinds of systems combine (r superimpose) computer-generated inputs on views of the real world (like Telepresence above) to augment the user's visual field with additional useful information.

Example applications are VR HUD-like HMD's for fighter pilots that display maps, systems, and weapons targeting information etc overlaid in their field of view. It could also be used for surgeons to vital information on the patient in real-time. 

Today’s VR Technologies

Today there are various big players in the current so-called Virtual Reality Renaissance.

The following is a selection of some of the big players, but there are many smaller companies also developing their own.

1. HoloLens

Currently, in development by Microsoft, it is set to be a formidable competitor to more established VR systems like Oculus Rift. It can even be used to 'Holoport' you or transport you to Mars.

2. Sony's PlayStation VR

Sony's Playstation VR is a newer contender on the scene and attempts to do what Oculus Rift does but better and for the PS4.

3. Valve's Vibe

The chaps behind Steam have collaborated with HTC to their own VR tech

4. Google Cardboard

Google's cardboard differs from its competitors in being more of a DIY VR system.

5. Magic Leap

In 2014 Google invested in a new startup, Magic Leap. This promises to bring innovation to 'light field' display technology.

6. Samsung Gear VR

Samsung like other smartphone manufacturers has developed their own VR systems over the past few years. Unlike others that focus on powerful computers, these types are specially designed for use with smartphones.

7. Oculus Rift

The 'big guns' of VR at the moment, Oculus Rift dominate the market. It was originally started as a Kickstarter in 2012 but received a massive boost when it was bought by Facebook in 2014. 

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
Source: Maurizio Pesce/Wikimedia Commons

Abbreviated 'Virtual Reality' Timeline of Main Milestones

The following is a selection of key events in the development of VR. This has been compiled with the help of The VR Society, Touchstone Research, and  Digital Trends

YearCategoryDescription1700-1800'sProto-VRRealism develops as a distinct artistic discipline1838Proto-VRCharles Wheatstone demonstrates the brain's ability to process different images with his stereoscope1849Proto-VRThe Lenticular stereoscope is developed by David Brewster1929Proto-VR/SimulatorEdward Link develops his "Link Trainer"1930'sProto-VRPygmalion's Spectacles is written by Stanley G. Weinbaum1939Proto-VRStereoscope is developed and patented1957Proto-VRMorton Heilig develops the Sensorama1960Proto-VR/HMDMorton Heilig develops the Telesphere Mask1961Proto-VR/HMDPhilco Corporation develops 'Headsight' - the precursor to modern day HMD devices1965Proto-VR/HMDIvan Sutherland develops his "Ultimate Display" concept1968First VRIvan Sutherland develops "The Sword of Damocles" - Widely considered the first VR1969VRMyron Krueger(a VR artist) develops a series of "artificial reality" experiences called GLOWFLOW, METAPLAY, PSYCHIC SPACE and VIDEOPLACE.1970-1980VR/SimulatorThe "Super Cockpit" trainer is developed1978VRTheAspen Interactive Movie Mapis developed. This was a DARPA funded early version of what Google Street View is today1982VR in mediaTron is released bringing the concept of immersion in a digital world into the wider audience1985VRNASA develop their Virtual Environment Display (VIVED)1987VRThe term "'Virtual Reality'" is first coined by Jaron Lanier. He also develops some early VR devices like EyePhone and the Dataglove1989VR/GamesNintendo release their Powerglove accessory for the NES1991VR/GamesThe 'Virtual Reality' Group develop a series of VR arcade games1992VR in mediaThe Lawnmower Man brings VR into the public eye1993VR/GamesSega produce their Sega VR headset but it is soon scrapped1995VR/GamesNintendo develop their infamous Virtual Boy. After some initial success, the project is scrapped a year later.1995VRAlso in 1995 the VFX1 VR Headgear is released by Forte Technologies. 1999VR in mediaThe Matrix is released. This makes a huge cultural impact on the ethics of VR.2010VRThe first Oculus Rift prototype is developed by Palmer Luckey.2011VR/HMDApple release their iPhone 'Virtual Reality' Viewer. 2013VRTactical Haptics VR motion controller is released.2014VRGoogle cardboard is released2015VRSamsung's Gear VR is released2015VR/MRMicrosoft announce their development of HoloLens2016VROculus Rift is made commercially available2016VRHTV release their Vive VR system2016VR/GamesSony release their PlayStation VR system for PS4

As for the future of VR, who knows?

What Was the First Virtual Reality Game?

During the 1990s the first Virtual Reality devices began to become available to the public. In 1991 the 'Virtual Reality' group launched a range of arcade games and machines.

They consisted of a set of VR goggles that allowed players to play games with immersive stereoscopic 3D visuals and in real-time. Some machines were even networked together to enable multiplayer gaming experiences.

Sega jumped on the bandwagon in 1993 with the reveal of their prototype their Sega VR headset for the mighty Sega Genesis. This was a wrap-around headset that included head tracking, stereo sound and had LCD screens in its visor. 

Billed as having a price tag of $200 (about $347 at the time of writing) it soon ran into technical difficulties and was later scrapped.

Then entered the most famous VR gaming system of the 1990's - The Nintendo Virtual Boy. This was a cumbersome 3D gaming console that was advertised as the first portable console with true 3D graphics. It was first released in Japan and then North America in 1995 with a $180 (about $296 at the time of writing) price tag.

The Virtual Boy had no end of issues including its lack of full-color graphics (games were only in red or black) and its lack of software support. It was also unwieldy to use and uncomfortable to play - not a good combination.

The Virtual Boy's sales failed to meet expectation for Nintendo and they discontinued its production in 1996.

Warning! The following video contains Strong Language. 

Why Early Versions of VR Failed

There are some of us old enough to remember ''Virtual Reality'' first attempt to change the world of entertainment during the late 1980's and 1990s. From the disastrous Virtual Boy to Sega's aborted VR system there were some key reasons why these bids all failed. 

1. The equipment was rubbish - A bold statement for sure but most of the hardware at the time usually suffered from the same problems. They were usually bulky and lacked motion tracking (though Virtuality's Visette had magnetic tracking). 

Most had low-resolution displays and their graphical interface tended to make the user suffer from eye strain fairly quickly.

2. The graphics sucked - Game graphics of the time look humorously amateurish to our modern expectation from games. They were simply not good enough to trick us into 'believing' the experience from the VR sets of the day.

3. The controls were awkward - At the time most game controls consisted of 'bash' buttons and D-pads. Nintendo's Powerglove had potential but turned out to unreliable despite the amount of tech packed into it.

These problems made the VR experience less than intuitive and frustrating at times. 

4. The culture was ready for it but became disillusioned - Films like Tron and The Lawnmower man certainly fertilized the soil ready for VR's wider acceptance by the public. It's just the tech just wasn't up to scratch to meet their expectations.

The 'Virtual Reality' Society

If you want to find out some more detailed and interesting information on 'Virtual Reality' a very good source is the 'Virtual Reality' Society. These guys are "A one-stop information and news resource for 'Virtual Reality' and its related technologies."

Their site contains many interesting guides and other information on the current goings-on in the 'Virtual Reality' industry. Its material is designed to provide comprehensive information for beginners to other detailed and deep discussion into the ethics, problems, implications, and applications of VR now and in the future.

Their mission is:-

"Our mission is to become the definitive source of 'Virtual Reality' information and we constantly strive to achieve this goal. Be sure to bookmark us and check back regularly for new features and new sections on our site."

Check them out!

What's In a Name? The Long and Short History of Virtual Reality
Source: The Virtual Reality Society

Via: Virtual Reality Society


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