There’s a lot of talk nowadays about virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Although they really seem like cool and modern technologies, not many people know that the earliest iterations of VR/AR are at least half a century old (or even more). In this article, we will walk you through the history of VR/AR, from its early beginnings to the futuristic advancements we’ve reached today.
Fasten your seat belts for a journey through the history of this technology spiced up with pop culture, wacky and ridiculous early devices, and unexpected plot twists that forever impacted our culture. Let’s go!
Baby Steps and Early Beginnings
Although it’s probably a little bit of a stretch, some trace the first implementation of VR back to the nineteenth century. Back in 1838, Charles Wheatstone found that human brain uses 2D images viewed by each different eye separately, and then merges them together to process a 3D image. He thus invented the stereoscope, a device that allowed people to see two side-by-side pictures through a pair of “glasses” to simulate a sense of depth. Although extremely crude, this technology is based on the same principle used today for the popular Google Cardboard, so we can argue it really was the first VR headset prototype.
However, the first devices that we could really identify as fully-developed VR headsets are found a century later, during the ’60s and ’70s. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland created the Sword of Damocles, a head-mounted display connected — for the first time — to a computer that could generate primitive wireframe graphics rather than simply a camera or a fixed picture. This gigantic contraption was huge and uncomfortable, and got its name because it had to be kept hanging from the ceiling. As scary and bulky as it looked, it paved the way for a lot of other devices such as the VITAL helmet, which was mostly used for flight simulators or for military purposes by the U.S. Army or NASA. (The VR craze has been going on for quite a while. Learn more in Tech's Obsession With Virtual Reality.)
Virtual Reality in the ’80s and ’90s
The ’80s and ’90s were a fantastic time to live. Everything was so crazy and over the top — VR was no different and started popping up in the form of a lot of curious and wacky devices. VR back then was a huge fad, and was widely popularized by tons of movies and comics that depicted it as some sort of futuristic tech that allowed people to live in a “virtual world.” We may even argue that this powerful urge to create a new immersive world may have been the reason why MMORPGs became so popular a full decade later, as the VR phenomenon had a deep influence on Western culture back then.
However, despite the will to generate a fully interactive and virtual environment, early VR devices fell flat on their (electronic) faces because of the significant technological limits of that age. A lot of purported “VR headsets” were nothing but rudimentary and extremely bulky 3D units. Even the most advanced ones were hampered by motion blur issues and poor head tracking, and ended up causing severe physical discomfort after a brief use. Try to imagine a device that generates virtual reality games by using pixel graphics or crude polygon graphics. If you’re thinking “it’s an ugly idea,” well, you’re probably right, given the effect that these early devices had on the finances of gaming giants such as Atari, Sega and Nintendo.
The Next Age of Virtual Reality
After the repeated failed attempts of the early ’90s, at the dawn of the 21st century we didn’t see much in terms of VR. A notable exception was an interesting, but only moderately related iteration of this technology in the form of a stereoscopic 3D mode for Google Street View launched in 2010. It’s hard to tell whether this specific feature really made any difference in the struggle between Google Maps and its competitors, but it may be argued that it contributed to the success of the former. Anyhow, it really looked like too many broken promises had caused consumers and developers as well to lose interest in VR and AR technologies.
Things changed substantially in the subsequent decade, however, when Palmer Luckey launched a surprisingly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012 for the Oculus Rift, raising a whopping $2.4 million. PC gamers suddenly realized that they’d wanted VR games all along, and that they had simply forgotten about their existence. The processing power of the newest high-end graphic cards allowed gamers to rediscover the hidden potential of this technology. In just a few years, competitors like the HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard started sprouting up in a new spring of VR. By 2016, hundreds of companies were developing their own different VR products to be used in a lot of different fields other than just entertainment.
Augmented Reality Makes a Breakthrough Thanks to… Pikachu
But what about VR’s twin brother, augmented reality? In the early 2000s, some iterations of this technology actually hit the market, such as the NFL’s popular Skycam, used to insert the virtual first down marker on the field; Esquire magazine’s 2009 experiment with bar codes to introduce AR content to readers; or Marvel Comics’ AR app, released in 2012, that let readers access additional content from print comics. Cool stuff, yes, but definitely not a big thing.
The real breakthrough of this technology that popularized it to the general public, instead, occurred in 2016, thanks to a famous… yellow electric squirrel. When Pokémon Go went viral literally overnight, something changed forever in the world of augmented reality and e-commerce as well. It did a lot more than just sending people into streets, beaches and parks, looking for a legendary Pokémon to catch. When the game brought AR to private users for the first time, it finally allowed this technology to make its breakthrough. Shortly thereafter, a lot of digital companies jumped on the bandwagon, seeing the potential of AR for online marketing, and a new era began.
Mixed Reality: Merging AR and Web 3.0
Although somewhat underestimated, today VR and AR technologies have all the potential to become a disruptive technology. We’ve already seen some of the amazing applications of VR in the education industry, but few know (or dare to imagine) how much AR may also revolutionize the world of science by merging it with the physical world in a streamlined continuum. A handful of brilliant minds at Solution4Labs devised a new application which has merged AR with the latest semantic technologies for a lab setting. Holo4Labs is an incredibly futuristic HoloLens application that embeds virtual reality and mixed reality components in labs, creating a Minority Report-styled product experience.
With potential applications in all industries and R&D labs, the app allows scientists and workers to interact with objects through their HoloLens headsets, using hand gestures, eye movements and voice commands. Data collected from samples can be examined “on the spot” and then uploaded into a laboratory information management system in real time, streamlining the research process and overcoming all barriers between the physical and virtual world. The AI-powered software is smart enough to distinguish gestures, objects and other humans. This new frontier of virtualization has been aptly named “mixed reality” since it adds semantic understanding of the surrounding environment. (For more on VR and Web 3.0, see 5 Ways Virtual Reality will Augment Web 3.0.)
As Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, once said, “Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming.” AR and VR’s journey across the last century is far from ended today. We’re now seeing the beginning of a new golden age of these technologies, which are evolving at a pace we’ve never seen before. Although I must admit that I still miss the good old days of the Virtual Boy!