The concept of virtual reality has actually been around a lot longer than most people think. One of the first examples we have of someone questioning reality is Plato, and his Allegory of the Cave. Then Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, came on the scene with “I think, therefore I am.” He questioned his entire existence, and he’s not the only one. Many of us still do so today. Let’s take a look at how virtual reality was born, and how it will continue to evolve.
A brief history
The concept of virtual reality has been around for a really long time, although it first started to enter popular culture in around 1972, with The Eden Cycle. The novel tells the story of a “Sensory Experience Simulator”, gifted to humanity by a group of aliens. This tech made humans immortal in a virtual world (a kind of hedonistic paradise), while their bodies were tended to below ground in nodes.
Of course many of us will know The Matrix, which tells a similar story. Humanity is kept in a virtual world by tyrannical robots, and only a select few have the stomach to break out of the matrix and into a horrifying reality. The Matrix might have captured hearts and minds, but it was hardly realistic (although I’ll still be lining up to watch the new one in 2021).
Early iterations of VR technology included the Sensorama, invented by cinematographer Morton Heilig in the 1950s. His creation allowed the viewer to sit inside of a mechanical cabinet, and view 3D stereoscopic movies. In 1966, Thomas A Furness III invented the very first flight simulator, commissioned by the US Air Force. Then in 1987, Jaron Lanier (who also coined the term “virtual reality”) founded the visual programming lab VPL. The VPL created some of the first commercial VR products, which influenced early iterations of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
The 90s proved to be a pretty wild time for VR technology. At this point, the virtual reality world was less of an established industry, and more of a wild west. In 1989, SEGA developed an infamous VR headset for the Sega Genesis console.
In 1995, Nintendo came out with the Nintendo Virtual Boy (VR-32), which was intended to be a portable 3D gaming console. However, all the graphics were in red and black, and after a year on the market the project was shelved.
At the start of the 21st century, the concept of workable, high-quality VR tech still seemed the stuff of science fiction. Fast forward nearly two decades, and we’re sitting with incredibly convenient, successful VR technology that’s available to pretty much anyone with a smartphone.
Today’s VR headsets might not be fully immersible (our bodies aren’t plugged into the matrix, yet), but they have some incredible features:
- Rendering high quality visuals in 4k per eye.
- Hand motion devices with functional ergonomics.
- High resolution virtual realities.
- Growing consumer adoption.
- Merging into augmented reality.
Where is VR going?
Is it possible that we could be living in a VR simulation in the future? In this case, it would be a simulation of our own making, but no less sinister. VR has the potential to change the world. From helping old people fight loneliness and isolation, to training army recruits in combat, this tech has the power to change society as we know it. Now that we’ve taken a look at how virtual reality was born, it’s pretty clear why this technology has its roots in science fiction. Either way, VR is here to stay.