What is virtual reality and where does it come from?

In some ways virtual reality came from outer space because science fiction was integral to its development. In this chapter we look at VR’s history and how storytelling and cameras played a role, plus look at the technical achievements that made it possible.

This chapter offers two modes for comprehension. The audiobook mode can be used to listen to the text (handy if you’re traveling or need to work handsfree). With the reading mode, you can read through the material at your own tempo. In both cases, the text is accompanied by visuals.

A panorama depicting the Siege of Sevastopol, created in 1905. Photo credit: Rumlin/Wikimedia
Probably the First Comprehensive and Specific FictionalModel for Virtual Reality.

Hi there. Welcome to VRTL Academy’s Introductory Course, where we will uncover the basic principles unique to virtual reality and 360 video. You will delve into the most common technical terms so you can understand and explore VR with ease. Let’s find out what is virtual reality and where it come from?

Perhaps virtual reality’s first imaginings date all the way back to the Pleistocene days when man spoke of other heavens or alternative universes. By 2 AD, Lucian came up with ideas of a primitive telescope and alien worlds. Yet, it took until well into the 19th century before the primitive ideas of virtual reality could go beyond fireside storytelling and imaginary spheres.

Science fiction is often revolutionary technology’s primordial soup and such is the case of virtual reality. An early mention last century first appeared in 1935. A short story by Stanley G. Weinbaum, Pygmalion’s Spectacles, described a pair of glasses that:

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.
Being able to meta-represent the world parallels the discovery and interest in photography. The first fixed image developed from a small camera came in 1826. In 1838, Sir Charles Wheatstone invented the first stereoscope, which used two mirrors–each at 45-degree angles–to project a single image. Patented in 1939, the View-Master, held carton disks with miniature slides that differed from the right and left eyes, creating a sense of depth.
Right after WWII, a small number of technologists came together to discuss concrete ways to view images on an infinite screen. The technology at the time was too limited and cost prohibitive to realize. Still the concept had traction, and like the early origins of the Internet, virtual reality’s promise was embraced early on by the military; viewing in 360° was helpful for warfare simulations.
© Itsuo Sakane, Tokyo – Sensorama. 2011.01.06​
a revolutionary motion picture system
  • 3-D
  • wide vision
  • motion
  • stereo-sound
  • aromas
  • wind
  • vibration
In 1957, the first multimedia device, the Sensorama, was created by Morton Heilig. An interactive theatre experience, this early form of virtual reality was patented in 1962, with the following elements. Seated in a chair that could rotate, the viewer would face the screen displaying stereoscopic images. There was the illusion of depth, and the possibility of viewing from different angles. The Telesphere Mask (patented 1960) invented by Morton Heilig’s was the first example of a head-mounted display (HMD) The headset provided stereoscopic 3D and wide vision with stereo sound but without any motion tracking. Designed for helicopter pilots who needed to better detect their night environment,  Headsight  was the first head-mounted display (HMD) with motion tracking and was developed by the engineering team at Philco Corporation.
© Collection of the Computer History Museum – This lecture was recorded on March 19, 1996.

The biggest development leap came in 1968 when Ivan Sutherland invented the Ultimate Display. While a student at MIT, he created the first graphic interface for computers, Sketchpad. Later, when he was a professor at the University of Utah, he created “The Sword of Damocles.”

The Sword of Damocles required a HMD linked to a computer, which in turn allowed the wearer to see a virtual world. The weight of this display was too heavy to maneuver so the display had to be attached to a suspension device. Users, had dual screens that let them see the room through a 3-D box suspended from above.

In the late 1980s, a former employee of Atari, with a background in mathematics and computer science, developed a Visual Programming Language. While VPL did not last long on the marketplace, its co-founder, Jaron Lanier did leave a permanent mark on the field by naming it:

Virtual Reality.

At the same time, personal computers were exploding and generating interest in technology’s potential. Virtual Reality, however, was having difficulty in meeting expectations. Movies like the 1982 Tron left people anticipating other-worldly, transformational, experiences only to find the leap between what was found inside a headset and what mimicked reality was too great. The technology was still too primitive.

By the 1990s, the Internet came along and captured the world’s undivided attention. With the Internet’s global fascination came constant evolutions by Internet Service Providers and telephone manufacturers to offer faster connections and smaller devices. The cumbersome desktop gave way to the laptop, the tablet, and eventually, the pocket-sized smartphone. The smartphone was critical to VR’s resurgence. With compact high-resolution displays and tiny gyroscopes and accelerometers, the mobile processors could manage 3D graphics. Clunky hardware was no longer an obstacle to virtual reality experience.

Movies in the 1990s to 2000s, dealt with a lot of virtual reality or themes of alternate universes which again set the bar high in terms of what is possible, but also drove continued interest in VR, including Total Recall (1990), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and of course The Matrix (1999).

It wasn’t until ten years later, in 2009, Palmer Luckey assembled parts to build a state-of-the-art VR headset, later documenting his journey in an online forum. He formed Oculus to accompany a Kickstarter campaign to bring Rift to market (originally conceived as a do-it-yourself kit).

© Facebook Technologies, LLC.
Oculus Rift isn't the all-encompassing 'future of entertainment' some may have expected, but we're optimistic that it might earn that title in the coming years.

A game developer, John Carmack, of Doom and Quake fame requested a prototype from Luckey for a demo at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo which in turn generated significant consumer demand. The immersive, almost real-life experience was unlike anything else ever made; users fully experienced the game as opposed to just playing it. Luckey also used gaming conventions and events to demo his product until he raised more than $2.4 million for his Kickstarter campaign. In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus for $3 billion, an indicator of strong confidence in virtual Reality.

While gaming sparked the first leap into consumer demand for headsets, on a parallel track, 360° filmmaking began to flourish. Once cameras incorporated external storage and multiple lenses, the heavy files and end-to-end frames allowed for an infinite visual flow. The results enabled breathtaking displays of nature, like theBlu, where viewers felt they were underwater, floating alongside sea creatures, or when the audience could induce the same adrenaline rush BMX bikers experience as they race up and down the concrete sides of empty swimming pools.

According to the analytics firm Global Web Index, at the end of 2017, just 4% of Internet users around the globe owned a VR headset. Compare that with the 67% of the world who owns a cell phone. Even so, after decades of starts and stumbles, VR finally enters its adolescence.

More filmmakers feel up to the task to approach immersive cinema despite its daunting complex technical origins. Not to mention the added challenge of making a panoramic film that seamlessly blends art with technology.

But the successes have been highly rewarded, Alejandro González-Iñárritu won the 2018 Special Achievement in Film Academy Award for his VR project Carne y Arena, an award last given out in 1995.

The Darren Aronofsky-produced VR piece, Spheres won the best virtual reality award at the Venice Film Festival in 2018, as well. It was the first VR piece to command a seven-figure deal.

© Wevr – Theblu season 01
© EYE – Amsterdam
© Protozoa Pictures