A Brief History of (Virtual) Reality

Originally published on 7/11/07 on www.ggl.com/headplay.

I’ve done a little research, and here are some of my favorite moments from the history of virtual reality. This is hardly an exhaustive list. But it’s my blog and I can do what I want.

1955: Cinematographer Morton Helig designs and builds the Sensorama, the first multimedia theater.

This arcade machine featured three-dimensional wide-angle stereoscopic film images, stereo sound, a moving seat and devices to create wind and olfactory effects. The device was non-interactive, and played a number of pre-programmed experiences, such as riding a motorcycle through the streets of Brooklyn. Helig could not gain funding for his business venture; one problem may have been finding a cameraman who would wear three 35mm cameras strapped to his body. But one original Sensorama still exists, and operates to this day.

1955: The Circarama Theater at Disneyland introduces the world to immersive, 360º vision.

On opening day, visitors to Tomorrowland saw “A Tour of the West sponsored by American Motors,” a 360º film projected in the circular Circarama Theater. An update of the Cinéorama at the 1900 Paris Exposition, the Circarama (later renamed Circle-Vision, then Circle-Vision 360) used nine projectors to screen films shot with nine cameras on a circular base.

Although not fully immersive, the film was shown in a darkened theater, and tricked the viewer into thinking the room was moving – the immobile theater had handrails to keep visitors from falling over! After several upgrades, Circle-Vision was removed in 1997. The theater site became part of the queue for Rocket Rods, and is now Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Disney plans to debut the new Sphere-Vision 3602 at California Adventure next year.

1968: Future Turing Award-winner and GUI pioneer Ivan Sutherland invents the first head-mounted display system.

It only displayed primitive wireframe room models and lacked audio. The unit was so heavy, it had to be mounted to the ceiling over the wearer’s head; hence its nickname, the “Sword of Damocles.” The display tracked head movements, and altered the in-display perspective accordingly. Sutherland was particularly interested in using the device to create virtual worlds that violated the rules of physical reality.

1984: Dreadlocked tech visionary Jaron Lanier founds VPL Research, a still-extant VR products manufacturer.

Some notable products include the DataGlove, the AudioSphere 3D sound system, the Body Electric OS for VR systems, and the EyePhone, a color head-mounted display (HMD) system. HMDs at this point are still low resolution and prohibitively heavy.

Lanier is generally credited with coining the term “virtual reality,” and popularizing the “goggles & gloves” style of VR hardware.

1989: Mattel releases the Power Glove controller for the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first affordable VR device for home use.

Nintendo was not involved in the design or production of the Power Glove, although Mattel (and PAX in Japan) produced the device under license. It was a dumbed-down version of the VPL Research DataGlove, with yaw, pitch, roll, and finger movement detectors, in addition to the usual NES controls. Unfortunately, only two games were produced to take advantage of the Power Glove: Super Glove Ball and Bad Street Brawler. The other games promised in the “Power Glove Gaming Series” were never released. Other games like Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!! incorporated the glove in ways that were actually detrimental to game play. In the end, the Power Glove influenced little more than the fashion styles of Jackey Vinson and Isaiah “Triforce” Johnson.

1990: The first BattleTech Center opens at the North Pier Mall in Chicago.

Gamers sit in a fully-realized (but immobile) simulated cockpit and play against other players in a 3D computer game based on FASA’s BattleMech franchise. Virtual World centers were opened across the country, including the one I used to play at in Pasadena, California. Eleven locations are still in operation around the U.S.

Unfortunately, playing at Virtual World could be prohibitively expensive, especially for teens. And Virtual World did not update the software as often as one might like. By the time my friends and I got tired of Virtual World, you could buy Mechwarrior 2 and have a much better gaming experience at home. But the thrill of sitting in an actual mecha cockpit was pretty enticing.

1995: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy is the first portable game console with genuine 3D graphics.

The device was pretty much an HMD; but due to its weight, the Virtual Boy was designed to sit on a stand on a table in front of the user. The red & black vector graphics were created using LED lights and oscillating mirrors, and small speakers were situated near the player’s ears. A controller that doubled as a battery case attached to the unit by a cord. Dual “D-pads” were used to allow control in three dimensions. The Virtual Boy was inexpensive and fun; but it was not a hit with consumers, and the line was pulled after a year.

2005: Sony Entertainment patents a speculative system for using electromagnetic radiation to create realistic sensory illusions in the human brain.

The idea was to non-intrusively create fully-realistic VR worlds, a la William Gibson’s Neuromancer. A Sony Electronics spokesperson denied that any experiments have yet been performed. “It was based on an inspiration that this may someday be the direction that technology will take us.”