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Where Did Virtual Reality Come From?

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By 2020, it is predicted that one-third of global consumers will be using VR to some extent. Though it’s easy to look to modern computer science and advancements as the reason for its success, the real breakthroughs began decades ago. From first generation headsets and optical illusion devices to the 250+ sleek options available today, augmented and virtual reality came a long way in a relatively short time.

  • 1838, Stereoscope: Invented by English scientist Charles Wheatstone, this simple device took advantage of human vision limitations and used optical illusions to create a larger, seemingly distant, 3D image.
  • 1935, Pygmalion’s Spectacles: a science fiction classic written by Stanley G Weinbaum featured a pair of goggles capable of virtual experiences and ensnaring all the senses. Though a fictional tale, this story inspired future inventors to bring it to life.
  • 1938, View-Master: Introduced at the 1938 New York World’s Fair as a high tech update to scenic postcards, this stereoscopic 3D photo viewer brought early VR experiences to the public.

Virtual reality stands out as the next frontier for gaming and entertainment in particular, but it’s unique technology doesn’t just stop there. In the 19th century began the fascination with creating immersive, virtual worlds; because of this pieces of tech like the Stereoscope and Thomas Edison’s Kinetescope were invented. Though intended for entertainment purposes, even in the early years of VR tech development, its potential for practical applications were well known as well.

  • 1929, The Link Trainer Flight Simulator: invented and developed by Edwin Link of the Link Piano and Organ Company. Offered aspiring pilots a simulation of aircraft operation without the altitude. This device featured an entire fuselage , simulated dangers of flying, pneumatic pumps to simulate movement.
  • 1986, Air Force Super Cockpit Program directed by Thomas Furness projected computer generated 3D maps, infrared images, radar, and avionics to create a simulated aircraft experience, an update only made possible by earlier iterations.

However it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that computing power began catching up, ushering in new designs, broken barriers, and the modern of of VR as we know it today. Morton Heilig, cinematographer and VR pioneer was responsible for developing some of the most famous pieces of virtual reality technology, incorporating full body experiences for users during the 1960s.

  • 1960, Telesphere Mask: first ever head-mounted display, or HMD. Used stereoscopic technology, 3D imagery, widescreen vision, and stereo sound.
  • 1962, Sensorama and Motorcycle Simulator: 3D-equipped booth that simulated the sounds, feelings, and even smells of taking a motorcycle trip through New York.

They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and virtual reality is no exception. Faced with over a century of technological roadblocks, the limitations of finally creating immersive environments, for both entertainment and otherwise, have broken. Without the passions and developments of the past, the world VR as we know it today may never have been possible. Take a look at this infographic for more on the history of VR technology, how far it’s come in its lifetime, and where we can expect it to take us in the future.

Brian Wallace is the Founder and President of NowSourcing, an industry leading infographic design agency with offices in Louisville, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio.

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