History

The concept of Virtual Reality as we know it today has its beginnings in the mid-1950s when Morton Heilig applied his cinematography experience to developing the Sensorama (Pimentel & Teixeira, 1993), a game-like film that allowed the player to experience riding a motorcycle through the streets of Brooklyn at the time, engaging not only sight, but sound, smell and touch as well.  This is similar to films that are currently being marketed as 4D films: these are films that combine 3D with physical effects in synchronisation with the film.  However, these still lie within the realm of the mechanical, and users are passive audiences, unlike the interactive digital realities that we now associate with virtual reality.

A concept that overlaps into the world of virtual reality is that of Augmented Reality: a live feed of computer-generated sensory input to modify the user’s view of the real-world environment.

The transition into the digital realm of virtual reality was the creation of the augmented reality system, Headsight, in 1961.  It’s compared to today’s telepresence systems, i.e. videoconferencing (Haller, Billinghurst & Thomas, 2007) because although it provided an augmented reality view in real-time, computer generated imagery was not incorporated.

Then, in 1965 through 1968, computer scientist, Ivan Sutherland envisioned and built a head-mounted display (HMD) which displayed computer-generated images in stereo, giving full illusion of depth, and could track the user’s head movements to vary the field of view to match the user’s ‘vision’.  This display would be the beginnings of the journey into digital virtual environments.

Following the improvement of computer generated graphics used in Hollywood Blockbusters and the video game business in the 1970s, the first dataglove was created in 1977 by Dan, Sandin, Richard Sayre and Thomas Defanti.   The dataglove allowed users to interact with the virtual environments previously made possible by the HMD.  The Nintendo Power Glove was one of the first of these made available to the public, however the high production costs and less-sophisticated graphics and processing power have led these gadgets to fall by the wayside.

Around this time, Myron Krueger, one of virtual reality technology’s pioneers and author of the highly cited books Artificial Reality 1 & 2, created a complete artificial reality lab using projectors, video cameras and special hardware to project onscreen silhouettes onto screens so the user could see the results of their actions on the screens, giving them a sense of presence within the virtual reality whilst interacting with the onscreen objects as well as other users.  Despite the lack of tactile feedback, the sense of onscreen presence made users recoil when their silhouettes would collide and intersect (Rheingold, 1992; Kalawasky, 1993).

Public knowledge of virtual reality technology up until the 1990s was minimal.  It was around this time that the media over sensationalised the technology and the resulting unrealistic public expectation caused the technology to fade away from the public eye once again.

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