Today’s virtual reality technologies build upon ideas that date back to the 1800s, almost to the very beginning of practical photography. In 1838, the first stereoscope was invented, using twin mirrors to project a single image. That eventually developed into the View-Master, patented in 1939 and still produced today.
The use of the term “virtual reality,” however, was first used in the mid-1980s when Jaron Lanier, founder of VPL Research, began to develop the gear, including goggles and gloves, needed to experience what he called “virtual reality.”
Even before that, however, technologists were developing simulated environments. One milestone was the Sensorama in 1956. Morton Heilig’s background was in the Hollywood motion picture industry. He wanted to see how people could feel like they were “in” the movie. The Sensorama experience simulated a real city environment, which you “rode” through on a motorcycle. Multisensory stimulation let you see the road, hear the engine, feel the vibration, and smell the motor’s exhaust in the designed “world.”
Heilig also patented a head-mounted display device, called the Telesphere Mask, in 1960. Many inventors would build upon his foundational work.
By 1965, another inventor, Ivan Sutherland, offered “the Ultimate Display,” a head-mounted device that he suggested would serve as a “window into a virtual world.”
The 1970s and 1980s were a heady time in the field. Optical advances ran parallel to projects that worked on haptic devices and other instruments that would allow you to move around in the virtual space. At NASA Ames Research Center in the mid-1980s, for example, the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW) system combined a head-mounted device with gloves to enable the haptic interaction.
Today’s current virtual reality gear owes a debt of gratitude to the pioneering inventors of the past six decades who paved the way for the low-cost, high-quality devices which are easily accessible. Be sure to visit the VR stations at The Franklin Institute to experience a virtual environment yourself!