The History of Virtual Reality
The earliest attempts at virtual reality came long before computers. These ranged from massive panoramic paintings designed to make the viewer feel as if they were witnessing a battle firsthand to attempts to simulate reality through the mediums of film and theater. The 1960s brought the Sensorama, an experience theater released in 1962 which placed the viewer into a booth which isolated them from the real world.
The Sensorama incorporated smells, sounds, vibrations, and sights together to bring a virtual reality experience to the viewer. The device was created by Morton Heilig who viewed movies as simply a step towards a truly immersive experience. He produced a number of short films using a 3d videocamera that he designed for the Sensorama. One example allowed the viewer to feel as though they were riding a motorcycle, their hair blowing and the seat rumbling as they zoomed through New York. Even the scents of the city were captured. His device never hit the mainstream and wallowed without investment capital.
Morton Heilig is oft considered the father of virtual reality. He was certainly ahead of his time. In the 1950s and 1960s, 3d film was very rare. This was exactly what Heilig required for his Sensorama. He had to invent his own brand of 3d video camera to create experiences, including a sensual number where the viewer could watch a lithe belly-dancer, breathing in her perfume as she sauntered on stage.
The Sensorama is an example of an invention that came too soon. Heilig had to create custom parts for his machine, which lead to difficulties in large scale production, and the many moving parts lead to large maintenance bills which put him and his wife in increasing levels of debt. This was not Heiligs only foray into VR.
One of the First VR Headsets: The Telesphere
If you are familiar with the modern design of VR goggles, you may be surprised at the resemblance to such an early design. The Telesphere look uncannily familiar. This is the first known head mounted display mask known in history. It enabled the viewer to witness film with stereoscopic vision.
He patented the device on Oct. 4, 1960. It was designed to improve stereoscopic television for personal use. The product aimed to be comfortable and adjustable, including ear phones to allow for an audiovisual experience. The device was not just limited to sight and sound. Reading through the patent file, the following gem appeared:
“Each one of a pair of air discharge nozzles is connected by a tube leading to a suitable air supply source through a control which source may be perfumed air”
It seems as though Heilig dreamed of bringing his sensual, perfumed belly dancers to the masses.
First Modern VR Headset: Ultimate Display
Ivan E. Sutherland is widely considered to have created the first modern form of Virtual Reality, a headset so heavy and powerful that it required it to be suspended from the ceiling. This headset was impressive enough that it was dubbed The Sword of Damocles. It provided real time 3d images displayed with real time head tracking and even included tactile hand tracking. This HMD (Head Mounted Display) ushered in a new era of VR.
Head tracking was the newest advancement in VR. It put another level of immersion, allowing the viewer to feel that instead of just watching a film, they had an element of control.
You may be wondering what the significant of the moniker “Sword of Damocles” was. The ancient tale revolves around Damocles who fawned to his kind Dionysius, exclaiming of his prowess and might. The king hears his praise and offers to switch places with him – but that as he enjoys his new power, a massive sword be suspended above him held only by a single horses hair. What is the motto? With great power comes great responsibility. Virtual reality is going to shape and change our world, and the creators bear a responsibility that comes with bringing it to life.
Either that, or people putting the huge suspended VR display on their head knew that if the cables broke, they would break their neck! Whatever the reason, the name stuck.