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A Brief History of VR


A Brief History

While VR seems like a relatively new invention, the concept has been in existence for quite some time. Michael Mortimer from VR Lab at Deakin Geelong explains "Depending on people’s perspective about exactly what VR means, you could go back all the way to the 18th century where you would see artists doing large panoramic paintings. Full 360 paintings, where the idea was to be able to immerse the user back into a particular historical event". Michael is referring to artists such as English Painter Robert Barker who created a panoramic image of Albion Mills that was first displayed in a purpose-built wooden rotunda in the back garden of the Barker home and measured only 137 square metres. Once on tour with the piece, Barker would make a fortune with people flocking to experience this immersive experience.


However VR, as we know it today, would be realised in the mid 20th Century.

1950 - 1970


Morton Heilig, described as a multimedia specialist, built a prototype for his "Experience Theater" - The Sensorama. "The user would actually put their head in this enclosed area within the machine and the idea was to try and simulate all the human senses." explains Mr Mortimer "So the video would be the visual, they would have audio, smells and even on a driving video they had wind coming through to try and stimulate the sense of touch" 


Several years later in 1960, the head-mounted display (HMD) was patented by Morton Heilig. It was a Telesphere Mask offering 3D stereo images with audio but did not track motion. In 1968 Ivan Sutherland further developed Morton Heilig's idea and while the tethered device was primitive in some regards it did manage to include head & motion tracking.

1990 - 2000


Virtual Reality was again thrust into the public consciousness both through pop culture in movies such as the Lawnmower Man & Matrix, however, it was pushed into the mainstream and took major leaps in gaming. " we got into, the mid-90s, early 2000s, there was a little bit of a boom – this is considered the first boom of VR. SEGA released a VR headset and you had VirtualBoy, which was a Nintendo version of a gaming console using a VR headset" Mortimer continues "But there were still quite a lot of issues; the technology wasn’t there in the ability to have a very small delay between the user’s movements and the virtual content being created" this factor resulted in bad motion sickness.

In Recent times

The late 2000's were what you could consider as the second boom of Virtual Reality, as David Nelson from the MXR lab USC describes "So the proliferation of smartphones has made high resolution displays cheap and ubiquitous.  There were some commercial devices, like the old Hasbro Viewmaster. So we did a kind of higher fidelity version of that with two phones and specialty lenses and using the tracking in the phone, then we open-sourced those. Those HMD's informed a lot of the designs of some of the things we’re seeing now such as the early Oculus Rift DK1."


Palmer Luckey was at the MXR lab and part of the development of those open-sourced head-mounted displays and launched his product prototype the Oculus Rift on Kickstarter in 2012. The Oculus Rift was the first notable product that pushed VR into the mainstream consciousness and was available for affordable consumption. Oculus was subsequently acquired by Facebook in 2014 for a reported 2 billion USD. 


From that point on more VR products would become more readily available from the HTC Vive, Playstation VR, Samsung Gear through to the rudimentary Google cardboard. Significant investment from major companies has enabled VR to move from a conceptual stage to a mass produced consumable.


So while we are currently still in what would be considered the early adopter mode, it has now reached a point that has become accessible and leverageable for businesses.