A Brief History of Virtual and Augmented Reality (AR/VR)
Although Extended Reality (RX) is nothing new, the sector has attracted a lot of attention for its own sake in recent years. With the first publicly available devices emerging in the early 1960s, when Morton Leonard Heilig released the Sensorama, it has certainly taken some time for it to become a serious investment opportunity. But now it seems that its days as conventional technology have finally arrived. The days of crazy Virtual Reality (VR) gadgets and gizmos are coming to an end, and companies like XRApplied are developing handy, pocket-sized apps that find their use in everyday life.
The Sensorama: A pioneering device in 1962, it laid the foundation for what we now know as Virtual Reality (VR)(Source)
It’s been a long road to get VR to where it is today
While computers managed to take over the world at a blinding pace, Virtual Reality (and, later, Augmented Reality) has taken its time. Providing some perspective on the different rates of development, Alan Turing first published his work on the Turing Machine (a theoretical computer capable of executing any arbitrary algorithm) in 1949. By the 1960s, computers were, among other things, truly useful, in charge of landing on the Moon (and getting there and back safely).
Contrast this with Virtual Reality, which was first articulated by Antonin Artaud in his 1938 book The Theater and its Double. In the late 1960s, around the same time that computers landed on the moon, Bob Sproul’s Sword of Damocles, the first “head-mounted” Virtual Reality display, debuted, allowing users to look around certain rooms. basic wire, and that was it. But it wasn’t called the Sword of Damocles for nothing. Here, “head-mounted” just implies that one attaches one’s head to the device. And yes, you connect your head to the device, not the device to your head. It was so bulky that it actually had to be suspended from the ceiling, and its “formidable” appearance and perceived potential to cause harm to its users inspired its name.
The Sword of Damocles: Named for its formidable appearance, it was the first VR head-mounted display (HMD)(Source)
Allowing homophones, the first iPhone was a VR headset: the EyePhone
Progress in VR continued at a snail’s pace after its birth in the 1960s. There was little interest in Sensorama-type experiences, and while the computing power needed to enforce VR environments was available, the sprawling nature of devices like the Sword of Damocles made them quite impracticable.
But things started to look up in the ’80s, and true Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) became a reality. These developments came amid a flurry of futuristic thinking, with one of the first companies to sell VR technology products (VPL Research) creating devices that weren’t too far removed from the VR gear we all know and love today.
The VPL EyePhone: Along with the BodySuit and the DataGlove, the EyePhone was the genius of the ’80s. But priced at $250,000 and clocked at 6 frames per second, the EyePhone was as flashy as it was flashy(Source)
Among the suite of products that make up the VPL range was the EyePhone: a virtual reality HMD that visually differs from the devices we see today only in its solid fit around the head and charming color scheme with beige predominance. Showing great progress from its predecessor, the Sword of Damocles, the device also managed to include motion sensors without the use of physical tethers to fixed points.
But while VPL’s ambitions were futuristic (they also produced the “DataGlove” and “BodySuit” motion sensors), 1980s tech wasn’t where it needed to be for VR to move forward. Due to these limitations, the original EyePhone device was only capable of running at six frames per second, a speed that made its simulations more like animated gifs and less like reality. It’s also worth noting that the cost of the EyePhone system (which needed dedicated computers to run it) was a whopping $250,000.
Although the fundamentals were in place, the much-needed technology was not
With much of the essential foundations of Virtual Reality now in place, it would seem that it was ready to take off in the nineties. But, despite having the basics for HMDs and other motion sensing devices, the graphics processing demands of Virtual Reality were not easily met by the available computing power.
But this didn’t stop companies from trying to cash in on this futuristic technology, with big game companies like Sega and Nintendo hyping their respective VR product developments. Ultimately, however, this led to disappointment.
Sega made some big VR promises in the early nineties, but the one thing their VR headset did well was disappear from view, never to be released.
After announcing the upcoming release of its VR headset in 1991, Sega quietly pulled it from any release schedule after a handful of game appearances. Sega’s claims at the time were that it simulated reality too well, thus putting users in danger, but initial user reports of rapid onset of motion sickness are a likely contributing factor to its quiet demise.
But more than that, the graphics of the time were still too rudimentary, as evidenced by Nintendo’s 1995 response to Sega’s VR hype: the Virtual Boy. With rudimentary monochrome red graphics, the experience left a lot to be desired. One user in a recent YouTube video even describes playing 2D Mario on a regular Nintendo console from that era as “more 3D” than “glasses or whatever the hell that was.” This same user describes Virtual Boy Mario as a “Flat Stanley”.
The Nintendo Virtual Boy: A user comes to describe the normal Nintendo consoles of the time as “more 3D” than the Virtual Boy.
After years of trying, Oculus and Google Glass arrive, finally giving VR and AR some legitimacy.
After decades of hardware-hindered development, the 2010s were the year that VR and AR finally started to gain some legitimacy. Oculus and Google Glass caused a storm, finally delivering on the promises VR had made for decades. (Even if Google Glass missed the mark and suffered from a lack of traction.) But, even with the hardware finally coming of age, there were still some hesitations.
In early 2012, just before the Kickstarter campaign that launched Oculus on its VR success trajectory, founder Palmer Luckey was still skeptical. Writing about his hopes and dreams for the Oculus project, Palmer said “I will not make a penny of profit from this project, the goal is to pay for parts costs, manufacturing, shipping and credit card/Kickstarter fees. with about $10 left over for a pizza and a celebratory beer.” Little did he know that Facebook would pay more than $2 billion to acquire him just two years after making this statement.
After a decade of tidying up the hardware, today we see a rapid acceleration in Virtual Reality…
As the hardware began to mature over the course of the 2010s, mainstream interest in VR and AR technologies began to develop. At first, this was largely limited to VR, especially gaming; Initially, no one really knew what to make of Augmented Reality developments like Google Glass. But as early adopters began to experiment with what Virtual and Augmented Reality could do, a snowball effect began to emerge.
Now, as the first year of a new decade draws to a close, this acceleration has brought VR and AR to such speed that we no longer have to wait years for breaking news on Virtual and Augmented Reality developments. . Today, as the demand for technological innovations in VR and AR increases exponentially—from therapy to training to enterprise quality control—companies like XRApplied are delivering… fast.
Breakthroughs that used to take decades now happen seemingly overnight, which means there’s something VR or AR related that’s in the news every day. To help themselves (and everyone else) stay on top of things, XRApplied created a VR and AR news aggregation app that acts as a kind of highly curated RSS feed. With this app, the latest VR and AR news developments are neatly summarized in a digestible format, making it the perfect continuation of the VR history books we’ve been through today.
(Featured image by Stephan Sorkin via Unsplash)
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