The History of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is a concept that you have been aware of for years, but you may not realize that it actually has a decades long history. Most people were not aware of VR until the ‘90s, yet the concept was conceived many, many years before then. If you think of virtual reality as the illusion of being somewhere you are not, you can trace it all the way back to the earlier 19th century, when man first began creating panoramic paintings. These murals were designed to fill your entire field of vision, creating the illusion of being full immersed into the scene. The desire to be immersed in a different reality has been around for centuries. In many ways, virtual reality apps have been a long time coming, beginning in the 1800s.


The first research integral to VR’s development was conducted in 1838 by scientist Charles Wheatstone. In his research, Wheatstone found that each human eye sees two different two dimensional images, which the brain merges together to create a three-dimensional image. With this revelation, he invented the stereoscope, a device that allowed the viewer to be fully immersed in an image. This technology was later applied to inventing the View-Master, the goal of which was to allow for “virtual tourism.”

1930 to 1960

In the ‘30s, writer Stanley G. Weinbaum predicted a world in which virtual reality was possible in the short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles.” The plot of this science fiction story centers around a virtual reality system that utilizes goggles and holographic technology to record different experiences, incorporating all senses. In 1956, this fiction became closer to truth with the invention of the Sensorama. Cinematographer Morton Heilig invented it in order to produce short films that completely immersed the viewer with the use of a 3D display, smell generators, and vibrating seats. In 1960, he followed his first invention with the Telesphere Mask. The Telesphere Mask was the first head-mounted VR display and used stereoscopic 3D imagery and stereo sound.


In 1961, Philco Corporation created the first head-mounted VR display as we know them today, known as the Headsight. Using a separate video screen for each eye and a magnetic motion tracking system, this was first designed for military purposes. When the user moved their head, a closed circuit camera would move, allowing them to look around the virtual environment in a natural way. This invention was comparable to the head-mounted displays we use with today’s virtual reality technology except that it was not paired with a camera. In 1968, the first head-mounted VR display that was connected to a computer was invented by Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull. This was called the Sword of Damocles, and it required the user to be strapped into a large, heavy device that hung from the ceiling. The first responsive VR programs were developed a year later by computer artist Myron Kruegere, who developed computer experiences that allowed people to respond to their virtual environments. Ultimately, this led to the development of technology that allowed people to communicate through VR.


Despite the fact that virtual reality technology had already had a long history, there was no term for it at this time. In 1987, “virtual reality” was coined by Jaron Lanier, founder of the Visual Programming Lab (VPL). Through VPR, Lanier created several virtual reality gadgets, including gloves and goggles. This was a huge success for haptics technology, also known as touch interaction, incorporated into virtual reality.


In 1991, the first publicly available VR technology was introduced through arcade games. During these games, the player would wear VR goggles to be fully immersed in stereoscopic 3D images. For some units, multiplayer gaming was possible. In ‘92, the movie “The Lawnmower Man” starting Pierce Brosnan introduced the concept of virtual reality to the public. In the film, Brosnan portrays a scientist who turns a man with an intellectual disability into a genius through the use of virtual reality technology. This sparked a major public interest in VR, which Sega attempted to profit off of in 1993 by announcing the impending release of a VR headset for the Sega Genesis. This technology never developed, so this was never released. In 1995, Nintendo attempted to release its own 3D gaming console, but this was discontinued because it was very difficult to use. In 1999, “The Matrix” was released in theaters, and the concept of virtual reality became mainstream due to its popularity and portrayal of characters living in virtual worlds.


In the 21st century, the development of VR technology has evolved parallel to the rapid development of computer technology. Due to the prevalence of computers, VR prices have fallen significantly, making it accessible to the public at large. The rise of smartphones has enabled VR technology to become lightweight and actually usable in daily life. Using motion controllers, facial recognition, and camera sensors, companies like Google and Samsung are able to offer virtual reality through smartphones. Given how much virtual reality has spread in just the last few years, the plethora of potential applications of this technology is only starting to be realized.

Virtual reality has so many fascinating applications to our lives. If you believe that you or your organization could benefit from your own virtual reality app, we can help with our virtual reality creation software. At VR Dimensions, we make creating a VR app easier, more efficient, and more affordable than ever. Shop today to get started.


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