Virtual Reality: The History (Part 1 of 2)

Dan Risko, Network Administrator

The term “virtual reality” gets thrown around a lot in marketing these days. For years, it was looked at as the funny guy in the room, great to have around, but never truly taken too seriously when it came down to business.

Virtual reality is now being taken very seriously, and is being considered the next major opportunity for digital marketers who want to understand and connect with their customers on more intimate, immersive levels.

The term virtual reality itself has become widely popularized and publicized in recent years. That said, it may surprise you to learn that virtual reality was actually first popularized back in 1987, and dates back all the way to the 1800s. That’s right, it wasn’t always Mark Zuckerberg and the crew at Facebook tinkering with virtual reality. Your grandparent’s generation may have had a say in where it has landed today. 

Augmented reality is not virtual reality

Let’s get something straight. Augmented reality and virtual reality are not the same thing. These terms all too often get used interchangeably, due to their digitally-based components and the experiential conversations that often surround them. But in fact, they have distinct differences that set them apart and make them each unique in their own way. 

Augmented reality is the blending of virtual reality and real-life. With augmented reality, users are able to interact with virtual elements in the real world, and are able to distinguish between the two. Virtual reality is an entirely artificial simulation or computer-generated recreation of a real-life environment or situation; a situation that allows users to become immersed as if they are experiencing these situations first-hand.

Where it all began

Early attempts at this type of experience date back to the 1800s:

1838: The Stereoscope – device for viewing separate images as one scene (single three-dimensional image)

1849: The Lenticular Stereoscope – lens based device for viewing a single three-dimensional image

1929: The Link Trainer – first commercial flight simulator created by Edwin Albert Link (used during WWII)

1935: Pygmalion’s Spectacles – science fiction short story

1939: The View-Master – first used for “virtual tourism”

It wasn’t until 1955 that we saw full-on “Experience Theaters” for public testing. In 1962, a prototype was released called the Sensorama, that allowed for a multi-sensory immersive experience complete with stereo sound, aromas, and stereoscopic 3D images with wide viewing angles. 


Sensorama - Source: VRS

All of these innovative (yet often failed) attempts at early-stage virtual reality left the field itself in a somewhat ill-defined state. What would its practical use eventually be? Would it be something that stuck, or something that faded with the inventors of the time? 

But in the 1960s, the release of head-mounted displays began to take charge and lead an entirely new movement for virtual reality:

1960: Telesphere Mask – a prototype head mounted display providing wide vision film and sound (but no motion tracking)

1961: Headsight – the first motion-tracking head-mounted display

1968: Sword of Damocles – the first computer connected head-mounted display (featured below)

sword of damocles

Sword of Damocles - Source: VRS

The gaming push behind virtual reality really began to take off during the late 1980s. We saw things like the Nintendo Power Glove, virtual reality group arcade machines, gaming headsets, and the emergence of networked gameplay.

power glove

Power Glove - Source: PlayerAttack

Throughout the early to mid 90s, the gaming movement of virtual reality persisted. Sega announced VR glasses (which never left the conceptual stages). And Nintendo released the iconic “Virtual Boy,” which was uncomfortable and only displayed in red and black, but left a lasting impression in the field. Each of these movements helped to build out and shape the bigger picture for virtual reality, but typically didn’t have enough legs to stand on their own. 

What’s on the horizon?

When we take a step back and take into account the hundreds of years of innovation, it seems we have come a long way since the first prototypes and novice gaming applications that we once saw from key industry players and forward-thinking inventors. While we still have the headsets, networked gameplay, and practical everyday application, the landscape has changed entirely. 

Check back later this week to see where virtual reality has found itself today, and what the future may hold for this unique method of immersive storytelling. 




Dan Risko

Dan Risko Network Administrator