Virtual Reality (VR) headsets require no introduction. We all know, how these gadgets offer an immersive experience in the digital world. When discussing VR, Oculus is probably the first thing to pop-up in your mind followed by HTC’s Vive headset. Even if you are not into gaming, you would have at least experienced VR on dirt-cheap Google Cardboard or Daydream headsets. All these gadgets mentioned so far were released after 2010. If asked to name a Virtual Reality headset older than that, most people will probably point a finger at Nintendo’s Virtual Boy released in 1995. However, the roots of VR headsets go far deeper than that.
In literature, the closest thing to VR headsets can be traced back to 1935’s sci fi book Pygmalion’s Spectacles. In this book by Stanley G.Weinbaum, a character named Professor Ludwig, develops goggles that can put a wearer inside an interactive story. Here’s how he describes his invention, “Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it. Would that be to make real a dream?”. Isn’t that very similar to modern day VR experiences?
The first gadget to lay foundation for the Virtual Reality was Morton Heilig’s Sensorama device. Using his expertise in movie production, Heilig wanted to create cinema more immersive. He laid out his idea in a paper published in 1955. First prototype was the light of day in early 60s. Sensorama delivered visuals with its 3D color screen, smell was simulated using chemicals, and of course it had stereo speakers. To simulate motion, it relied on fans, vibrations, and tilting chair.
It was quite an impressive hardware for its time. However, due to the high cost, investors did not find it to be a sensible investment. And let’s face it instead of a headset, Sensorama was more like a pod. Morton Heilig knew that and had already envisioned a portable VR device in his patent filed in 1960. His design was so ahead of time, that it resembles the current Oculus hardware!
Sword of Damocles
Ivan Sutherland known for developing the Sketchpad software in 1963, put forth the idea of the ‘Ultimate Display’ in his research paper for DARPA’s precursor ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency). It detailed how a head mounted display can simulate the real world. It would track user’s motion and respond to three-axis joysticks. After years of work, Sutherland aided by his students, built the first prototype of the head mounted display dubbed Sword of Damocles. The rudimentary device was quite big and needed to be attached to mechanical arms suspended to ceiling. Its stereoscopic screen would display wireframe graphics powered by a PDP-1 computer. This makes it the first true Virtual Reality headset ever made.
In 1985, NASA’s Human Machine Interaction Group started working on a VR headset. By 1990, the space agency had built its head-mounted display called VIEW (Virtual Interface Environment Workstation). For astronaut training, this VR headset could relay 3D computer graphics or beam in remote video footage. The VIEW was accompanied by a glove accessory to track user’s hand movements. Backed by a custom software, the system could allow the operator to interact with virtual objects. NASA also developed a full body suit for more immersive experience during the training.
Japanese video game company, SEGA known for its home consoles announced a VR headset in 1991. The gadget featured dual LCD screens and was lighter than any VR headset for its time. Much like how PS VR is powered by the PS4, the SEGA VR was an add-on for the SEGA Mega Drive console. The idea was that the gamers could enjoy games without requiring a TV. The SEGA VR had gyro sensors to track the player’s head movements and render the virtual world accordingly. The sensor was sensitive enough to monitor the head movement 100 times per second. The SEGA VR was supposed to release in 1993. The Japanese company had already readied four launch titles for the gadget. However, SEGA decided not to release the project most likely due to the negative feedback from testers.
A couple of years later, SEGA’s competitor Nintendo launched the Virtual Boy. After the Virtual Boy, the biggest push for VR came in the form of Oculus Rift, which is now a cultural icon.
Interesting bits –
- Pygmalion’s Spectacles is free to read at Gutenberg project.
- Apart from sounding incredibly cool, Swords of Damocles is an ancient Roman metaphor about the idea those in power positions are under constant fear of mortal danger. Like a sword hanging overhead. Since Sutherland’s prototype was also hanging from ceiling, it was named Swords of Damocles.
- Oculus was the brainchild of a 15-year-old home-schooled American kid Palmer Luckey. He built the first Oculus prototype in his Mom’s garage. After a successful KickStarter campaign, Facebook acquired Luckeys’ company for around $3 Billion.