Virtual reality has only gained mainstream usage over the last decade, but the technology builds on ideas from the 1800s. Back in 1838, the first stereoscope was invented that projected a single image using two mirrors. This is just one of the concepts that VR would build upon.
In this guide, we’ll take a walk through the history of key VR developments. You’ll notice that breakthroughs are happening at a much faster rate as the interest in VR around the world grows exponentially.
If you’re new to VR, be sure to check out our beginner’s guide to virtual reality. It talks about what is virtual reality along with lots more info.
The timeline of virtual reality
1838 – Stereopsis Research
Research carried out by Sir Charles Wheatstone demonstrates binocular vision. This found that the human brain combines two images of the same object and constructs a 3-dimensional. Based on his findings, Wheatstone went on to invent the stereoscope.
1935 – Pygmalion’s Spectacles released
Stanley Weinbaum publishes Pygmalion’s Spectacles, a science fiction story about a professor who invents a pair of goggles. They allow the user to watch an immersive movie that they are a part of.
1956 – Sensorama invented
The first VR machine was the Sensorama which was a large four-person booth. Invented by cinematographer Morton Heilig, the stimulating experience included full-color 3D video, smell, audio, vibrations, wind, and other effects.
1960 – Telesphere Mask patent
The first head-mounted display (HMD) was patented by Morton Heilig in 1960. Although there was no headset motion tracking, it offered stereoscopic 3D images along with stereo sound and wide vision.
1961 – Invention of Headsight
Headsight was a revolutionary breakthrough that allowed motion tracking. It was made by Philco Corporation engineers, Comeau and Bryan, for military purposes rather than VR.
1965 – Ultimate Display
Ivan Sutherland presents Ultimate Display in 1965. The concept utilized a head-mounted display to view a virtual world that couldn’t be differentiated from the real world. This was the first blueprint for virtual reality which envisaged a room where users could interact with objects in the environment.
1966 – First flight simulator
Military engineer, Thomas Furness, creates the first flight simulation device for the U.S. Airforce. Thanks to this breakthrough, the military increased funding for improved simulators, driving forward our understanding of VR in the process.
1968 – First Head-mounted VR
Sutherland and Sproull develop the first prototype VR headset that connected to a computer. It was named Sword of Damocles but was far from the quality of modern VR. The viewer could see basic wireframes shape, while head tracking shifted the viewer’s perspective as they moved. This device was never commercialized as it was far too heavy to comfortably rest on someone’s head.
1969 – First artificial reality experience
Computers and video systems create computer-generated environments which react to anyone that enters it. These artificial reality experiences were developed by a computer scientist called Myron Krueger.
1972 – 180-degree screen
General Electric makes a 180-degree screen as part of a flight simulator. The wide-angle was made by joining three screens that surrounded the user sitting in a cockpit.
1975 – Videoplace
Milwaukee Art Center displays an interactive VR room called Videoplace. Invented by Myron Krueger, large screens surrounded users who stood in dark rooms. Rather than using goggles and hand controllers, Videoplace used projectors, graphics, cameras, and sensor technology to provide an experience that tracked the user. Users could view silhouettes matching their own movements.
1977 – Aspen Movie Map
MIT creates a program allowing users to take a virtual stroll through Aspen, Colorado. Named Aspen Movie Map, it provided an experience similar to Google Street Maps. This advancement in technology allowed for first-person interactivity.
1979 – VITAL helmet
Made by McDonnell-Douglas Corporation, a military helmet is made that integrates VR. Called the VITAL helmet, sensors track the pilot’s eye movement and match CGI visuals.
1982 – Invention of Sayre gloves
In 1982, Sandin and Defanti create Sayre gloves that contain wires for monitoring hand movements. Many believe this was the beginning of gesture recognition.
1985 – VPL Research founded
The first company is founded that produces and markets gloves and goggles for VR. Founded by Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman, this company specialized in VR equipment like the Audio Sphere, DataGlove, and EyePhone HMD.
1986 – Invention of the Super Cockpit
Thomas Furness invents a flight simulator that featured advanced infrared and radar imagery along with 3D maps. A helmet allowed pilots to control the aircraft using speech, gestures, and even eye movement.
The following year, British Aerospace incorporates speech recognition into a cockpit similar to the Super Cockpit.
1991 – Computer Simulated Teleoperation
NASA scientist, Antonio Medina, designs a system that utilizes VR to control the Mars robot rover from Earth. Despite signal delays due to the extreme distances between planets, the robot could be controlled in real-time.
1991 – SEGA announces VR headset
SEGA announces they are developing a VR headset that works with their gaming console and arcade games. It was never released as SEGA had concerns over safety issues.
1994 – SEGA releases SEGA VR-1
The first motion simulator arcade machine is released in 1994 by SEGA.
The following year, Nintendo launches the Virtual Boy console allowing users to play video games in monochrome. It was a commercial failure comfort issues and an inferior screen.
2007 – Google Street View
Initially, four cities are videoed by driving the streets and filming with a patented dodecahedral camera array. By 2010 Google introduces a stereoscopic 3D mode for viewing streets on their platform.
2007 – Oculus Rift headset invented
The Oculus Rift headset is invented by an 18 year old, Palmer Luckey. The initial prototype offered a 90-degree field of vision and required a computer to deliver images. It was the first major development in VR for many years and sparked renewed interest in the VR space.
2012 – Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign
Palmer Luckey launches an Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign and raises $2.4 million.
2014 – Facebook buys Oculus VR
In 2014, Facebook dives into VR by purchasing Oculus VR for $2 billion. This sets off a chain of events, with Google introducing a low-cost cardboard VR viewer that could be used with a smartphone.
Sony also announced plans to release a VR headset for their PlayStation 4.
Samsung announced their headset that works with their smartphone, called Samsung Gear VR.
2015 – Increased release of VR content
Media giants jump into VR by producing interactive content. Examples include BBC’s Syrian migrant camp, WSJ’s Nasdaq Stock Market roller coaster, and the Washington Post’s Oval Office experience.
2015 was also the year that Gloveone initiates a Kickstarter campaign to commercialize their interactive VR gloves.
2016 – HTC Vive SteamVR headset
Among a slew of new product releases, HTC unveils its HTC VIVE SteamVR headset. This was the first commercial headset that allowed users to freely move in a space.
2018 – Increased adoption of VR
Virtual reality expands beyond traditional industries like gaming. Psychological disorder treatment, business meetings, and medical training are just a few of the ways VR is being applied to real life situations.
2019 – Standalone headsets dominate
2019 saw standalone headsets become the hardware of choice rather than tethered devices. Their freedom of movement and ease of use were popular with consumers. Check out our guide on the types of VR headsets to learn more.
Nintendo enters the market with the Labo, a VR kit for use with the Nintendo Switch. In the same year, Beat Saber becomes the first VR app to surpass 1 million copies in one year.
2020 – Oculus Quest 2 released
In September 2020, Facebook unveil the new Oculus Quest 2. It was well-received by users and became the leading seller of VR headsets around the world.
2021 – Development of haptics
As VR headsets continue to become more powerful, haptic wearables are now being produced by a plethora of manufacturers. These can be attached to the chest, arms, feet, or practically any part of the body. This allows body movements to be mirrored in the virtual world; the user can also feel touch using advanced wearables.
If you’re new to VR, be sure to check out our article on how to overcome VR motion sickness. It could make your first sessions much more enjoyable.