History of Virtual Reality

Author: Jonas W. Kvist
Date: January 23, 2016

 

History about VR - Sensorama
Sensorama from 1957 – one of the first examples of VR

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Once Upon a Time…

Back in 1992, my dad brought me to the IT and Electronics Expo in Fredericia – a city in the country Denmark. At the time, I was 10 years old, and I was quite a bit more interested in IT and computers than many other kids my age. For this reason, I was as gleeful as a little kid, which, of course, is what I was, about getting inside to see all the new and exciting things. Today, about 24 years later, I remember hardly anything from the various exhibit booths that my dad and I toured – except for one! You see, one company had decided to bring brand new and futuristic Virtual Reality (VR) – and you could even try it!

The line in front of their booth was long, but it meant nothing considering the fact I would get to try something so different – and something that, at the time, had been limited to wild speculation and stories. Stories about how you could be teleported into a different world – that instead of sitting there looking at your Commodore 64 screen, you could get inside the screen and truly become part of the game. My dad didn’t quite share my enthusiasm, but fortunately, he is a patient soul, so he waited nicely with me in the very long line.

When about an hour had passed, it was finally my turn. In front of me was something resembling a plastic motorcycle from the arcades of that time: A piece of plastic – roughly shaped like a motor cycle with fixed plastic wheels and handlebars. Next to the motorcycle was one of the workers from the booth, holding a VR helmet. It was big enough to pose a challenge for the small neck muscles of a 10-year-old, a challenge my little neck was more than willing to take up, so I sat down on the motorcycle, after which he helped me put on the headset.

 

old VR headset
One Virtual Reality Headset from the 1990s

At once, I was in different and very futuristic world – I was inside the computer game! The hairs on my neck still stand on end, when I think back on it, that’s how powerful the experience was. I could look around in this new and different computer world. I could see that my plastic motorcycle had now turned into a real motorcycle, and even thought it was rough and the graphics were not great, it was real to me. The point of the game was to rid around on a square track, and while you drove, a wall would appear near the motorcycle, which you had to avoid. If you remember the game “Snake”, it was comparable to that, only here the snake had been replaced with a motorcycle. It was in every way a lousy game, and the graphics were, if possible, even lousier, but none of that mattered. Because no graphics or lack of gameplay (which tell you how entertaining a game is) could compare to the amazing experience it was for me to be transported into this game world. Right there, sitting on a plastic motorcycle with an oversized VR headset on my comparatively very undersized head, I was convinced that this was the future of computer gaming.

The Revolution Didn’t Happen

Unfortunately, as it turned out, VR did not make it big – not then, anyway. Over the next few years, in an arcade here or there, you could get lucky enough to try a VR experience that the owner had purchased (and probably paid much too much for). Along with other movies from that time about VR, Stephen King’s film “The Lawnmower Man” from 1992 contributed to dreams about the possibilities for this new medium. The dreams never became reality, however, and the final stop to realizing them was when Nintendo in 1995 launched Virtual Boy.

history of virtual reality - Nintendo Virtual Boy
Nintendo’s Virtual Boy

Virtual Boy was a poorly executed attempt at delivering a VR product for the regular consumer. In Japan, Nintendo stopped the sale just 6 months after launching the product. After this fiasco, no other manufacturers dared try to create a similar VR product. It was concluded that technology was not yet ready for it, so the idea of VR for consumers was abandoned – and remained so for almost 17 years, until a 19-year-old boy had the courage to take the chance and revive the dream.

The Dream about VR is Given New Life

Back in 2012, the then 19-year-old Palmer Luckey constructed a prototype of a VR headset. It was the very latest of a long series of prototypes he had used to fine-tune his design. His goal was to create a VR headset for the regular consumer. At that time, there was only a very small group of VR enthusiasts. Palmer had attracted their attention the year prior, which created a lot of buzz about his latest prototype. One of these enthusiasts was John Carmack. John was and is still known as one of the most competent and intelligent pioneers in the gaming industry. He had achieved this status by such things as having developed cutting-edge technologies for creating better graphics, which were used in his work with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake.

Wolfenstein3d VR
Screenshot from Wolfenstein3D

These were all games that defined the 3D game genre in the 90s and into the 00s. John contacted Palmer to get one of his latest prototypes. After receiving the VR headset, he used some rocket algorithms he had been developing (John was also involved in rocket design) to improve Palmer’s design. The result was the beginning of a VR revolution.

John Carmack then took the headset to the largest game expo named E3 that takes place every year in Las Vegas. Here, a prototype held together by duct tape became one of the products that garnered the most attention – more attention than the normal products like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo.

oculus VR prototype
The Oculus Prototype from E3

Just under two months later, Palmer Luckey launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter (a crowdfunding website). He had started a company named Oculus, and through this campaign, he wanted to realize a new VR headset prototype targeted to developers. The name of the VR headset was “Oculus Rift DK1 (Developer Kit 1)”. In order to produce it, there had to be sales for at least $250.000, at the time equivalent to about DKK 1.5 million. The campaign lasted a month, but already 24 hours after it had been started, Oculus had exceeded its goal. When the month had passed, Oculus had sold almost 10 times their goal – a total of $2,437,429 equivalent to more than DKK 15 million.

Here, almost 4 years later, VR is now a reality. Oculus is a million dollar company and has been purchased by Facebook. John Carmack has a lead position at Oculus. The first VR headsets have been launched, and at the time of this writing, Oculus is just about to release their VR headset for consumers (Oculus Rift), which will be launched in March of this year. Furthermore, other VR producers have entered the market: Sony with PlayStation VR, HTC with Vive, and not least, Google and Samsung with Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR, respectively, which are already available for purchase.

2016 is the year when VR makes it big, and you are here to experience it. The development is very swift, and it can be hard to figure out what to buy. Therefore, we will try on this site to help you find the VR gear (VR headsets, VR controllers, or a PC for VR) that best matches your expectations and the amount of money you want to spend on Virtual Reality.