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Virtual Reality

A Brief History

by Philipp Maruhn & Lorenz Prasch
Even if the latest marketing campaigns would like to convey otherwise, virtual and augmented reality have been around much longer than most people think. Time for a history lesson.

Virtual reality is all about immersing users in entirely new worlds. However, the idea of escaping reality and envisioning what could be is as old as time. The techniques employed have started with mere storytelling at a bonfire but have kept pace with technological progress. The foundations of today's display concepts were laid long before the digital age.

1789 - La nature a coup d'oeil

Section of the Rotunda, Leicester Square IN - 'Plans, and Views in Perspective'  - Robert Mitchell 1801

Panoramas have not just existed since smartphones or Google Street View. Robert Barker exhibits 360° paintings in cylindrical buildings called rotundas for the first time. Visitors enter the viewing platform through a tunnel and find themselves immersed in the middle of the scenery. Rumor has it that Queen Charlotte of Great Britain and Ireland visited a panorama and became seasick as she watched sailors with their capsized boat in heavy seas. The first report of simulator sickness?

1838 - Discovering Stereopsis

Charles Wheatstone-mirror stereoscope XIXc.jpg

Maybe you remember your first 3D movie. The basis for this was already created a long time ago. In 1838, Charles Wheatstone first describes the basics of binocular vision under the term stereopsis. He introduces an apparture with which slightly offset drawings (stereograms) can be viewed simultaneously for the left and the right eye in order to create a feeling of spatial depth.

1865 - Stereoscope

handeheld wooden appartus with two lenses to watch 3d images

David Brewster recognizes the potential of Wheatstone's apparatus and, whole in the sense of the human-centered approach, also its weak point: poor usability. He developed his lenticular stereoscope, a handheld viewer for stereo images. If you now imagine a strap to attach to the head instead of the hands, this is the precursor of today's HMDs (head-mounted displays) or simply, VR glasses. The advent of photography, especially stereo photography, led to a rapid spread of stereoscopes.

1957 - Telesphere Mask

The principle of stereoscopes remained unchanged for a long time. Until cinematographer Morton Heilig took up the cause in 1957. With his Stereoscopic-Television Apparatus for Individual Use, he made it his mission to popularize immersive experiences. The similarities of his patent drawings with today's VR glasses are remarkable.

1961 - Sensorama

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With his Sensorama, Morton Heilig goes one step further to create a truly immersive experience. With a wiggle seat, smell generators, stereoscopic video, stereo sound and a wind machine, users can immerse themselves in one of 5 movies, such as a helicopter ride or, ..., a belly dance performance. However, Heilig also recognized the benefits of his apparture beyond entertainment and already suggested it in his 1961 patent the use for training in dangerous situations.

1961 - Headsight

Charles Comeau and James Bryan develop Headsight, a closed-circuit television survuilance system. The special feature here: introducing head tracking. The operator is shown the image of a remote CCTV camera by means of an HMD. However, the CCTV camera reacts to the operator's head movements. For the first time it is possible to change the camera perspective in real time.

1965 - The Ultimate Display

Ivan Sutherland postulates his vision of the Ultimate Display: "The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked." Sutherland (1965, p.508) Ivan Sutherland (1965) The ultimate display Google Scholar

1968 - The Sword of Damocles

Finally, we are here. Inspired by Headsights CCTV installation, Ivan Sutherland develops what is mainly considered the first VR Headset. The "Sword of Damocles" is named after the rod on top of the head for tracking the head's position and rotation. For the first time, he introduces computer generated images: a cubic wireframe displayed via semi-transparent mirrors, floating in the room. Accordingly, it is actually not the first VR, but rather the first AR headset. (There is a lot of confusion regarding these and related terms. Here is our take on this.)

1982 - Atari Research

Atari Logo

Atari wants to revolutionize the entertainment industry with virtual reality and founds Atari Research. Although Atari Research has to be shut down just 2 years later due to the video game crash or Atari shock in 1983, many well-known names gathered in the department during that time, including Jaron Lanier and Scott Fisher.

1984 - VPL Research

VPL DataSuit 1

In 1984, Jaron Lanier founds VPL Research (Virtual Programming Languages) with the goal of commercializing VR systems. Although the company is to be shut down in 1999, the term "Virtual Reality", first coined by Lanier, remains in use until today.

1990 - NASA Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW)

Head-mounted display and wired gloves, Ames Research Center

In the mid-1980s, NASA starts to develop human computer interaction systems under the direction of Scott Fisher. They also develop a haptic input device, the DataGlove, with which users can see their hands in VR and grasp virtual objects. In addition, a system for tracking the entire body is developed, the DataSuit. Main application areas were telerobotics, management of large-scale integrated information systems and research in the field of human factors.

1991 - Virtuality

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In 1991, Developer W. Industries, later renamed Virtuality Group, are the first starting to distribute VR arcade systems. The devices have a latency of only 50ms and are even multi-player compatible.

1992 - The CAVE

CAVE Crayoland

In 1992, Cruz-Neira et al. Carolina Cruz-Neira, Daniel Sandin, Thomas DeFanti, Robert Kenyon & John Hart The CAVE: audio visual experience automatic virtual environment Communications of the ACM first present a room capable of displaying a virtual environment by means of a rear projection. They dubb this system with the recursive acronym CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) and thus also draw a parallel to Plato.

1995 - Nintendo Virtual Boy

Nintendo releases the Virtual Boy, the first 3D entertainment system. From a human factors perspective, the system is a disaster: the display was too heavy for the head and had to be mounted on the table. The display technology causes such severe cybersickness symptoms that Nintendo has to introduce game pauses and warnings. After only one year, sales of the system are discontinued.

2003 - Second Life

Second Life Logo

The idea of virtual worlds in which people can meet and interact has not just been around since Facebook changed its name to Meta. In 1999, Philip Rosedale founds Linden Lab, originally with the goal of developing VR hardware. Instead, the company releases Second Life.

2012 - Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift - Developer Version - Front

The first wave of VR headsets from the 90s had since died down again and failed to excite the masses. Palmer Lucky is one of those who were disappointed with VR Hardware at that time and starts a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 to fund the Oculus Rift, and with great success. With an unprecedented field-of-view of 90°, a new era of headsets is born and with it we enter the second hypecycle of VR.

2016 - Microsoft HoloLens

HoloLens 2

Microsoft releases the HoloLens, a standalone AR headset. Virtual content can be augmented into reality via a semi-transparent display, but only in a field-of-view of 30° horizontally and 17° vertically.

2016 - HTC Vive

HTC Re Vive

HTC, in cooperation with Valve, launches the HTC Vive, a new VR headset and, more importantly, a new tracking system. In its first version, the Steam Lighthouse tracking system allows end users to track on a diagonal area of up to 5 meters, and in the second version on an area of up to 10 m x 10 m.

2019 - Oculus Quest

Oculust releases the Oculus Quest, a first standalone VR headset. Besides the headset, no other hardware such as a desktop PC or a tracking system is necessary. The tracking is built directly into the glasses and thus allows for an arbitrarily large tracking range.

2019 - Varjo XR-1

AR headsets are still severely limited by their small field-of-view. In addition to optical see-through, however, there is also the option of displaying the environment via stereo video streams, which results in certain optical limitations and latency, but drastically increases the field-of-view. In 2019, Varjo releases the XR-1, a headset that adds AR functionality to VR glasses with video-pass through.

2021 - VR Flight Simulator

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Traditionally, flight simulators or flight training devices are large, dome-like simulators. In 2021, EASA certifies a VR HMD-based simulator for the first time.

Closing thoughts

now what?

A look at the past shows that many of the concepts and systems currently being developed are based on basic ideas that have been established for a long time. However, it also shows that VR benefits particularly strongly from technical developments and is constantly reinventing itself. Especially in human factors research, we can take advantage of this and investigate human-machine interactions in ever new ways. With increasingly powerful systems, augmented reality is also becoming a potent medium. In the future, it will be even easier for human factors practitioners to test virtual prototypes with users at an even earlier stage of development, resulting in ever better designs.

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