A Brief History of Virtual Reality

Pygmalion’s Spectacles

The concept of VR is not new . In fact, Stanley Weinbaum’s short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles published in 1935 is the first widely acknowledged reference to VR.

In it, the story’s protagonist meets a professor who invented a pair of spectacles that he describes as:

A movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story. Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. (Weinbaum, 2007, para. 20)

In this quote, the experience described can be considered immersive because it engages multiple senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. In addition, unlike cinema of the day, the professor’s goggles did not place the viewer in front of a screen as an observer; rather, they immerse the viewer within an interactive experience, with the viewer being “in it.” As is often the case with science fiction, this early fantastical description captures the essential characteristics of a technology that would later become a reality. In particular, VR’s immersivity is its key characteristic that differentiates it from other media, such as newspaper, television shows, and multimedia presentations.

Yet, even in the 1930s, Weinbaum’s story was not based purely on fantasy. Advances in photography starting in the 1800s were already laying the groundwork for VR. Notably, Wheatstone (1838) invented a piece of headgear in the 1830s called a stereoscope that allowed users to view three-dimensional images, and it is one of the first examples of an immersive technology.

Stereoscope
ViewMaster

100 years later, Gruber and Graves released the now-famous View Master toy that used similar technology for producing three-dimensional images, but with an improved design (Rossen, 2017). During the mid-20th century, advancements in computing technologies allowed for more sophisticated VR machines to be developed, with the invention and integration of transistors in the 1950s and then the microchip and microprocessor in the 1960s (Craig, 2010).

Released in 1957, the Sensorama created by Morton Heilig was one of the first well-documented VR machines. The Sensorama played films recorded in three-dimensions and users would put their head into the machine to view the film in a nearly 360-degree environment. While the film played, the Sensorama used perfumes, fans, and a vibrating seat to immerse users in the viewing experience (Brockwell, 2016).

Sensorama

Not long after the Sensorama, the first VR headset was produced by two engineers at the Philco Corporation, and it included a video screen, stereo-quality sounds, and a tracking system. Together, these elements combined to form programmable virtual environments that allowed its users to move freely in them (Srivastava, et al., 2014). However, neither the Sensorama nor Philco Corporation’s VR head set gained traction in the entertainment industry. Later, in the 1990s, a variety of video game companies released VR headsets, from well-known companies such as Nintendo and Sega to smaller ones like Virtuality and Victormaxx. These attempts too failed to gain traction due to eye-straining graphics, poor user interface, limited numbers of games, unattractive designs, and cost (Brunner, 2014; Knapp, 2015; Seibert, 2017). Another 20 years would pass before a VR company found success.

Oculus Rift

In 2012, a young startup company named Oculus ushered in a new era for VR when it released the Rift, a sleek looking VR headset with high-quality graphics, advanced motion-sensing technologies, built-in microphones, and handheld controllers (Fincher, 2012). With a robust library of downloadable applications (apps) that users could browse, it allowed them to apps of interest, download them wirelessly, and be immersed within moments. In their review of the Rift headset, Goradia et al. (2014) described it as “a headset which allows its user to feel like they are actually in a game just by wearing it” (para. 4), like the professor’s spectacles. With its advanced tracking and motion sensing technologies, the Oculus Rift was the headset for delivering the immersive experience that VR had promised for decades, and Facebook bought the Oculus company in 2014 for $2 billion (Huddleston, 2018). Following the Rift’s success, Oculus released upgraded VR headsets, and other companies – Valve, Sony, HP, HTC, etc. – have developed and introduced their own comparable versions. Moreover, as VR has become more widely adopted, best practices for VR developers have been published, with the goal of increasing its immersive qualities (Dealassandri, 2020; Hart, 2014). From these roots, the VR marketplace has grown to be valued at over $10 billion. Forecasters expect that the marketplace will grow at a compounding annual rate of 27% until 2027 (Grand View Research, 2020), with a driver of that growth being the desire to integrate VR into educational contexts (Marr, 2020).