A Brief History of Virtual Reality

For Making Realities’ inaugural post, we thought a quick review of the history of Virtual Reality was in order. We always like to begin at the beginning.
NASA Ames and Inspiration
Although the idea of computational realties had been explored for a long time, most notably in the field of Flight Simulation, the first glimmer of “VR” tech is usually thought to have been born at the NASA Ames Research Lab at Moffet Field, CA in the 1980s.
This research project had all the basic parts of a modern VR system — a graphical, stereoscopic, head-tracking, head-mounted display, and spatially tracked hand sensors. The graphics were primitive by today’s standards, but the whole shebang was there in 1980s form.
VIEW project at NASA Ames
VIEW project at NASA Ames
Science Fact Becomes Science Fiction
Perhaps the most important legacy of VIEW was that William Gibson got to see it. It inspired him to imagine a future that combined a Virtual Reality interface with a vast network of computers that connected society (today we’d call it the “internet”) — and he coined the combination cyberspace in his 1984 cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. The cyberpunk movement invented many versions of cyberspace — notably in True Names (1981) by Vernor Vinge and as the metaverse in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992.)
Science Fiction Becomes Crappy Products (VR’s First Wave)
A generation of technologists grew up yearning for cyberspace and the metaverse — which resulted in the first great wave of Virtual Reality in the early 1990s. A company called VPL Research was created to bring VR to the masses, by a very weird guy named Jaron Lanier. (VPL stood for “Visual Programming Language.”) VPL’s major “products” were the Data Glove, based on work by Thomas G. Zimmerman when he worked at NASA Ames, and the EyePhone, the Head Mounted Display.
VPL tried popularizing the spacy/artsy/trippy side of the Virtual Reality experience. Lanier was trying to promote enlightenment through avatars — something he called “homuncular flexibility”. While there were more serious projects at VPL Research (like this VR brain explorer,) the high price, research-oriented system, and lack of the “killer app” drove the company to bankruptcy in 1990. In 1999, Sun Microsystems bought all their patents, which was in turn bought by Oracle in 2010.
VPL Research
VPL Research
Another company tried a more proven application genre for VR — arcade games. A company called Virtuality tried launching VR arcade games from 1991-1994. The machines were expensive and the games were primitive and not very well designed for the arcade playing environment. Virtuality, too, went bust.
Bad Arcade VR from Virtuality
Bad Arcade VR from Virtuality
Even Nintendo dipped its toe into VR during this period with the Nintendo Power Glove. It was a 3-D spatially-tracked glove that was supposed to let you control the 2D 16-bit sprites on the day’s gaming consoles. About as much fun as it sounds.
Nintendo Power Glove
Nintendo Power Glove
During this period, there was also a druggy/trippy aspect to the hopes for this tech. None other than the famous Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor famous for exploring the LSD and philosophy in the 1960s, was fascinated by the possibilities of VR. He sought to reach beyond the “Absolute Reality” of the “Real World” and access higher levels of consciousness through computational simulation, instead of direct chemical stimulation. To be honest, today’s VR is much better set up to accomplish this than the tech of his time. Unfortunately, his trip ended in 1996 at the age of 75.
Timothy Leary
Timothy Leary (Drugs and/or VR)
The Rise of 3D Is Doomed
Even while the first wave was crashing, the seeds of VR’s second wave were being planted in the early 1990s in Austin, TX, at the offices of a small game company called Id. John Carmack, Adrian Carmack (no relation) and John Romero were pioneering a new genre of gaming, called the first-person shooter — as embodied by the game series Castle Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake. Over the next decade, these games (and hundreds more in the genre) became so popular that they drove the evolution of 3D hardware and software at the consumer level, in consoles and desktop computers (and eventually phones and tablets.) 3D Gaming became such a big business that 3D gaming engines became licensable, some were even free and opensource. 3D tools are everywhere, game programming has become more like authoring than hard-core technology development. As of the early 2010’s, the consumer expects great 3D experiences delivered by an army of 3D artists and engineers.
In short, the hardware and software got better, and cheaper. And the dreams remained.
DOOM changes computer gaming & drives hardwae
DOOM Changes Computers & Gaming
VR’s Second Wave
On August 1, 2012, a man named Palmer Lucky launched a kickstart campaign to bring a new VR Head Mounted Display to market that would be good enough to play 3D games and cheap enough to be bought by gamers. In 2012, Facebook bought Oculus Rift for $2 billion. In 2013, John Carmack joined Oculus Rift as its CTO.
Around the same time, a huge gaming company built on 3D shooters called Valve hooked up with a huge contract manufacturer called HTC and decided to launch a VR Gaming platform of their own. A little electronics and gaming company called Sony has launched yet another VR platform. A newly revitalized Microsoft is launching a related product called HoloLens. And the giant Google launched a $10 VR headset spec called Google Cardboard.
It’s hard to overstate the difference between the 1990s and today. In the 1990s, there was a few tens of millions of dollars pushing VR with slow hardware and custom-made software, with a public that was mostly meh about the whole enterprise. Today, there are billions of dollars pushing VR from several proven, successful, and brilliant companies pushing somewhat-affordable hardware and mature industry-supported software. There is a ready audience in the hungry hard-core gaming set, but there is also a wider audience that has become accustomed to innovative experiences around the $1k price point, especially in 3D and Mobile.
Enough of history. Let’s invent the future!
Oculus Rift CV1
Oculus Rift CV1
Google Cardboard
Plus Phone