People seek escape: through words, through pictures, through imagination. But as the world progresses with uncontrollable momentum, the escape to the unreal has become unbelievably real. Certainly the keywords of the last three years, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have embellished the front pages of tech magazines as the “next big thing” that promise its consumers an immersive exodus from the tiring everyday life.
VR, whose name is credited to Visual Programming Lab founder Jaron Lanier in 1987, refers to a computer-generated environment that the user interacts with in a physical fashion and perceives as reality. AR, though similar, overlays the computer-generated model on the user’s perception, usually through a device, such as the smartphone or the computer. The key difference between VR and AR is the ability for the user to distinguish between the “virtual” and “real” world.
The quite recent popularization of VR juxtaposes its rather lengthy history embarking from the 19th century. Charles Wheatstone, a Renaissance-man inventor, introduced the world to the stereoscope, a device that combines two-dimensional images in order to create a three dimensional effect. Similar equipment inspired by the Wheatstone stereoscope was the View-Master in 1939, which used rotating disks with image pairs and initiated “virtual tourism” as an area of interest. However, the actual start of VR technology in the modern context originated in the 1950s, when the Cold War had left the field of virtual reality anything but frigid. As with many facets of science and technology, the military had initially incentivized the expansion of AR/VR research for flight simulations and remote scouting.
Cinematographer Morton Heilig explored the concepts of “virtual tourism” through his invention Sensorama, a booth- like contraption that provoked not only the visual, but also the olfactory, tactile, and auditory sensations through the use of a stereoscopic three-dimensional display, a smell generator, and a vibrating chair.
Yet, the familiar icon of VR is not a stationary contrivance, but rather the head-mounted displays (HMD) that are relatively light and mobile. Heilig had soon patented in 1960 the Telesphere Mask, the earliest prototype of HMD with a non-interactive 3D display and stereo sound. Philco Corporation, whose parent corporation is the electronics company Philips, released a HMD named Headsight a mere year later, which actually tracked the motion of the head and used two separate video screens to remotely view the hazards in an environment. Even so, Headsight lacked the “virtual” aspect, as the headset did not generate images for interaction.
The combination of computer generation and interaction finally reached a pinnacle through the hands of the revolutionary of the VR field, Ivan Sutherland. He published on the concept of “The Ultimate Display”, which included a real-time computer simulation with full interaction and sound and tactile feedback. He implemented his idea in 1968 with Sword of Damocles, the first true VR HMD. But comparable to its namesake, the bulky Sword of Damocles hung from the ceiling, sacrificing mobility and comfort in exchange for the computer-simulated visuals. The next task for the engineers was balancing the three aspects — computer-generation, interaction, and mobility — to craft a practical “The Ultimate Display” that Sutherland proposed.
Around the same time, Myron Kruegere contributed to the AR industry with projects that enabled experiences he coined “artificial realities” that allowed for video projections onscreen, encompassing the users in a virtual environment. The following years accompanied a focused interest by several visionaries, such as Tom Zimmerman and Jaron Lanier, rushing to refine the VR technology and popularize it. Soon, the interest spread to the public, who were fascinated by the media’s portrayal of VR, such as the film The Lawnmower Man in 1992, which depicted a VR therapy session on a mentally disabled patient. Businesses quickly followed the scent of profit and released expensive, but nonetheless mass-produced merchandises as part of a fresh trend the wealthy could partake in.
Ultimately, the technology that seemed to flourish came to a crashing halt in the late 1990s, when the products’ performance could not meet the consumers’ expectations. Despite the advertisements promising a complete immersion into a separate reality, the costly VR kits disappointed users with lackluster graphics and discomfort. Entertainment products such as the gaming console Virtual Boy by Nintendo flopped due to its painful red-and-black color palette that diminished the gaming experience rather than enhance it. Soon, the market crashed, and the public averted its attention away from the industry.
However, as evidenced by the plethora of companies dipping their toes into the AR/VR arena, the field revivified with fervor over the last five years. Google Cardboard, a DIY VR mount, illustrated the evolution of inexpensive and accessible VR product. HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, and Facebook’s Oculus Rift became everyday names. With the AR/VR industry projected to be worth 1.1 billion USD in 2016, VR is now approachable, and highly affordable. The technology continues to be a phenomenon, and the only way is up, towards the apex of technological advancements in fervent development.