“But what is reality?” asked the gnomelike man. He gestured at the tall banks of buildings that loomed around Central Park, with their countless windows glowing like the cave fires of a city of Cro-Magnon people. “All is dream, all is illusion; I am your vision as you are mine.”

Pygmalion’s Spectacles, Stanley Weinbaum (1935)

Virtual reality is concept borne, perhaps aptly, out of the world of science fiction. In a world where colour photographs and moving images on film were only just becoming known by the general population, already there was a desire to go one step further, to step inside the painting and visit the world being depicted before the viewer’s eyes.

Stanley Weinbaum’s fantastical short story, which depicts a man undergoing a strange experience after putting on a pair of goggles and entering another world, reads somewhat naively to an audience that understands the nature of modern-day virtual reality. At the time, however, it was pure make-believe; it would be two decades after the story’s publication before research started in earnest on the first head-tracking devices.

First steps into the void

It took until 1968 before even the meanest elements of Weinbaum’s fictional creation were achieved with the development of ‘The Sword of Damocles’, commonly understood to be the first motion-tracking head-mounted VR display. Its ability to display a cube suspended in front of the user it was a clear precursor to modern virtual reality headsets, yet it also foreshadowed later development in augmented reality due to the user’s surroundings being partially visible through the head gear.

 

Ivan Sutherland, 1938–

Known for: The Sword of Damocles, The Ultimate Display (essay, see below):

“The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. 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.”

Insurmountable hurdles

Despite this early progress with virtual reality hardware (and the coining of the term in 1987), the following decades saw little in the way of commercial efforts to take this space forwards. Despite the rapid encroachment of virtual reality onto the silver screen – the first Tron film, the Holodeck in Star Trek – and extensive use of simulation devices for flight training, it wasn’t until the 1990s when the full potential of VR started to be being taken seriously. The rise of the PC and the advent of the home gaming console resulted in much more powerful machines being widely available, which made it feasible to look at introducing virtual reality platforms to a mass market audience.

Sword of Damocles – History of VR

Sega were the first of the big gaming companies to attempt a set of VR glasses, although this never made it past the prototype phase. Next came Nintendo and its Virtual Boy games console. Developed by an R&D team led by Gunpei Yokoi – who had risen to fame thanks to his work in creating the ground-breaking Game Boy device – The Virtual Boy was a 32-bit table-top unit that featured a single colour red-on-black LED display. It was put to market despite the reservations of Yokoi, due to Nintendo’s wish to push development of the N64.

The VR console quickly bombed, hindered by sluggish sales, a lack of attention from the manufacturer’s management and reports of users experiencing ‘dizziness, nausea and headaches’. Its failure led to Yokoi parting ways with Nintendo under a cloud – but not before he delivered the much more commercially successful Game Boy Pocket.

 

Gunpei Yokoi, 1941 – 1997

Known for: Game Boy, Virtual Boy

“I actually consider it more of a minus if the graphics are too realistic. There’s no room for your imagination, and the reality of those faces you thought were beautiful will be revealed. I believe your imagination has the power to transform that perhaps-unrecognisable sprite called a ‘rocket’ into an amazing, powerful, ‘real’ rocket.”  

History of VR – Virtual Boy

Breaking through the virtual wall

After Nintendo’s very public failure, the hype around virtual reality as a technology waned considerably, although films such as The Matrix kept the idea of a computer-generated world firmly in the public consciousness. A few companies still toyed with the idea of VR – notably Disney with its Disney Quest interactive theme park – but for many, the price point for entry was simply too high.

In 2012, however, something changed. An enthusiast frustrated by the low quality of the few virtual reality headsets being made decided to create his own, quickly garnering attention from the wider tech and gaming community. Dropping out of university to focus on this project, the young inventor – named Palmer Luckey – created a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a headset known as the ‘Rift’.

This fundraising attempt raised $2.4 million (nearly 1,000% of the original goal) and subsequently led to Oculus being acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $2bn. When Oculus Rift’s first ever consumer-grade headset went to market, it spearheaded an army of similar devices, including the HTC Vive, Samsung Gear and the upcoming Playstation VR from Sony, that have finally established virtual reality as a mainstream technology.

Palmer Luckey, 1992–

Known for: Oculus Rift

“When VR arrives, it has to be good. Really bad VR is the only thing that can kill off VR.” [speaking to Engadget, 2014]

History of VR – Oculus Rift

Bringing stories to life

At the heart of virtual reality is its incredible potential to act as a storytelling device – this harks all the way back to Weinbaum’s vision of being taken into another world by machinery. One company riding the crest of this particular wave is Within.

Its founder – Chris Milk – began his career directing music videos before embarking on a number of immersive installations, including the much-heralded ‘Summer into Dust’ moment at Coachella 2011, where 2,000 glowing interactive balls dropped from the sky during Arcade Fire’s set. As he explains in his 2015 TED talk ‘How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine’, the pursuit of a more emotional connection with the audience inevitably led to VR as a medium for his work:

“A frame is just a window. I mean, all the media that we watch – television, cinema – they’re these windows into these other worlds. And I thought, well, great. I got you in a frame. But I don’t want you in the frame, I don’t want you in the window, I want you through the window, I want you on the other side, in the world, inhabiting the world.”

As well as working with news outlets including Vice News and the New York Times, Within has also partnered up the United Nations to create Clouds over Sidra, a documentary told from the perspective of a 12-year-old child about life in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. This is virtual reality at its most visceral – placing the viewer into a situation that they would likely never be able to experience otherwise.

 

Chris Milk, 1976 –

Known for: Clouds over Sidra (VR film), Millions March (Vice News)

“I think we’ve just started to scratch the surface of the true power of virtual reality. It’s not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people’s perception of each other.”

History of VR – Clouds over Sidra documentary

What will the VR of the future look like?

While the headsets reaching our shelves today represent an incredible step forward on the technology available only a short time ago, there are still a number of areas where we can expect virtual reality to vastly improve over the coming months and years. Current high end headsets require top-end machines to power them, trail wires all across the room and frequently require unintuitive input – all of these are likely to prove teething problems that will be resolved as the hardware evolves.

 

No matter how virtual reality is being used, the fundamental premise behind virtual reality has never changed. From its earliest origins, humanity has always sought to augment the story-telling experience, whether with music, theatrical performance, machinery or technological innovation. Virtual Reality is simply the next step on this curve: a means of authentically bringing ideas to life and creating a realistic narrative that others are not only able to imagine, but can truly experience for themselves.