In a 1935 short story, a young man named Dan meets Pygmalion, a professor who has created a pair of goggles that immerse users in another world. Although American science fiction writer Stanley Weinbaum imagined a fantasy world using a pair of goggles, it was a sneak peek at the device that would allow people to see things in a different reality.
Years later, though, Weinbaum’s story is still relevant because there’s a race among tech companies to put users between the virtual and real worlds with headphones that can be strapped to their faces.
With the release of the Apple Vision Pro, a $3,500 mixed reality headset, interest in the term “extended reality”—where users can see the real world through a headset, but also interact with digital objects projected onto the real world—seemed high. But the truth is, “Extended reality” is something that has been around for a very long time.
We take a look at the origins of Extended Reality (XR), specific facts about VR/AR, and the people who have made the biggest impact with their work in immersive technologies.
3D technology and virtual reality may seem new to many, but their origins go back to the 1830s. Sir Charles Wheatstone, Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King’s College London, introduced the concept of an “anthropomorphic” (based solely on drawings) to the Royal Society of London. Wheatstone’s paper provided an overview of the concept of “stereoscopic” or “microscopic vision” where the brain combines two images (one from each eye) of the same object taken from different points to make a single 3D image.
This led to the development of the first stereoscopic viewer in 1838 which created the illusion of three dimensions. Although it was designed to investigate binocular vision, the stereoscope also served as a form of drawing room entertainment. It’s no wonder Wheatstone’s invention of a stereoscopic device helped lay the foundation for modern 3D and virtual reality technology. In fact, most modern headsets use stereoscopic displays to show virtual objects in a third dimension.
From the fifties to the seventies
While Wheatstone’s work on the stereoscope will always be useful in modeling 3D and VR technology, it was inventor and cinematographer Morton Heilig who introduced the world to the first VR machine.
In 1956, Heilig created something called the “Sensorama Simulator,” a large booth that could fit four people. Marketed as a “revolutionary motion picture system,” Sensorama played a 3D movie with stereo sound, scents, fans, and a vibrating chair to create an immersive sensory environment. Heilig created six short films, which he shot, produced and edited to show the VR machine’s capability. Ten years later, in 1962, Heilig patented the Sensorama machine.
Although Sensorama provided a 3D display with stereophonic sound, it was not interactive and only pre-recorded short films were shown. But two engineers (Comeau & Bryan) from Philco Corporation were already thinking about how to take Heilig’s idea to the next level. They created the “Headsight” headset, which provides one monitor to each eye like a modern VR/Mixed Reality headset with head tracking technology. Introduced in 1961, the Headsight device was the first motion-tracking head-mounted display (HMD).
Although Headsight was superior to anything seen in the immersive tech space, it wasn’t designed for virtual reality experiences (the term didn’t even exist at the time). Instead, Headsight is designed specifically for the military to allow them to remotely monitor dangerous situations. It worked in conjunction with a remote camera that would track the user’s head movements so that they looked around naturally. Sight was the first step towards a fully functional virtual reality headset.
Seven years later, computer scientist Evan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproul created the first headset connected to a 3D computer-generated environment. The head-mounted screen, named The Sword of Damocles, was very heavy and had to be mounted to the ceiling. But the headset was the first to be connected to a computer, allowing users to see a computer-generated 3D world. Certainly, computer visuals were basic and consisted of rooms and objects with a grid structure. But then the headset allowed users to experience a computer-generated 3D environment for the first time, also in 1968. What’s more, the headset was, in a sense, designed to provide augmented reality rather than virtual reality.
MIT then created the Aspen Movie Map, a new way to take a virtual tour of Aspen, Colorado back in 1978. The idea was to take users on a computer-assisted tour through the city of Aspen. It was created using images from a car driving through the city. Users did not require headphones but the virtual tour was meant to be interactive, similar to how Google Street Views works.
From the eighties to the nineties
The development of VR and supported applications started gaining traction with Jaron Lanier in the 1980s. Lanier, along with Thomas Zimmermann, founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves. Founded in 1985, Lanier, who is credited with coining the term “virtual reality,” has taken virtual reality to a whole new level. His company not only found ways to create commercial virtual reality hardware, but also wrote software for the hardware making Lanier a pioneer in the field of virtual reality.
At one point, Lanier was selling virtual reality headsets for as much as $49,000. While VR technology was still in its infancy and the cost of a headset and the computer to operate it limited to a select few, Lanier’s biggest challenge was porting the headset and providing a demonstration for those interested in the technology.
But as we entered the 90s, virtual reality got a huge boost, especially among mainstream consumers, with arcade virtual reality devices. Virtuality Group has released many arcade games and arcade machines that have allowed players to enter a new world of 3D games. Around the same time, Japanese gaming giant Sega revealed its plans to enter the VR market with a headset designed to work with Genesis and Mega Drive consoles. But Sega never released the headset. It was discontinued shortly after its big reveal at the Consumer Electronics Show, and the company hasn’t come back since with a VR headset. However, the company released the Sega VR-1, a motion simulator arcade machine, in 1994.
But things were about to change in the virtual reality market with the entry of Nintendo but no one expected it to be that bad. In 1995, Nintendo released Virtual Boy in North America. The gaming console promised in virtual reality but failed to deliver on all fronts. Not only did the console look weird, but the games weren’t in VR either. They were basically red lines stacked on top of each other, visible through the viewfinder. Nintendo reportedly sold 770,000 Virtual Boy units worldwide during its limited lifetime, making it Nintendo’s worst console ever.
After the failure of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, things went really quietly for the consumer VR market for a very long time. Most brands that were active in VR at some point have stopped experimenting with VR or have temporarily put future devices on hold. However, research continued in both VR and AR (the term “augmented reality” was coined in 1990 by Boeing researcher Tom Caudell).
In fact, interest in augmented reality, a technology that combines the digital world with real objects, began in the late 1990s. In 1998, Sportsvision broadcast the first NFL game live in augmented reality, and a year later, NASA took advantage of augmented reality to fly the X-38 by creating an augmented reality dashboard for navigation. And in the early 2000s, the world’s first outdoor augmented reality game ARQuake was launched.
From 2010 to 2020
But from 2010 onwards, the XR market entered a new phase, thanks to 18-year-old Palmer Luckey, who created the first Oculus Rift headset prototype. It featured a 90-degree field of view, and relied on computer processing power to deliver the images. Luckey then launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for a brand new Oculus Rift VR headset in 2012, and it was an overwhelming success. Luckey raised $2.4 million, and his company, Oculus VR, was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for about $2 billion.
Although the VR headset market was a niche at the time, Facebook’s interest in virtual reality caught the attention of both investors and the general public. Development in the field of virtual reality has accelerated faster than expected, and brands such as Sony are starting to work on virtual reality headsets. The announcement of Project Morpheus, a VR headset for the PlayStation 4 (PS4), has garnered a lot of attention.
While headsets like the Rift and HTC Vive rose in popularity, they still catered to enthusiasts. This was around the time Google released its first Cardboard, a low-cost cardboard VR viewer for smartphones. Samsung quickly followed suit with the Gear VR, a headset that requires a smartphone to work.
Parallelly, AR has been seeing a lot of interest from Big Tech. In 2012, Google surprised everyone when it revealed Google Glass AR glasses, augmented reality glasses that overlay digital information in the real world and allow users to access apps like Gmail. However, Google Glass was poorly received due to its high price and privacy concerns.
Then in 2016, Microsoft released its HoloLens headset, which relied heavily on “mixed reality” where technology blends the digital world with the real world. This was the time when “Pokémon Go” was one of the major mobile games that brought AR into the mainstream. Even Apple, for that matter, wanted to get into the AR space with its augmented reality developer kit, called ARKit, in a move aimed at bringing augmented reality experiences to iPhones and iPads.
Between 2017 and 2019, a lot of startups big and small entered the XR market but no one made as much noise as Magic Leap. The brash and secretive startup has been on a fast track by raising money from investors, but its first headphone, released in 2018, proved to be a massive flop. Since then, the company has shifted its focus to industrial and healthcare uses for its headphones.
Can the Metaverse return in 2023?
The past two years have been a disaster for the Metaverse, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg describes a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one we live in. The nerd(y) concept is still trying to push it into the mainstream by changing the name of its social media company to Meta in 2021 and then pouring billions of dollars into virtual reality development. This year, especially after the launch of Apple’s Vision VR, everyone admitted that Zuckerber’s Metaverse strategy may not be what people want.
Contrary to the initial belief many had about Apple and its XR strategy, people are now supporting the Cupertino-based company’s path to making headphones popular after others failed to capture the public’s attention. The developers, in particular, are excited to get excited about the headset. And again, at $3,500, the Vision Pro is aimed at developers and true Apple fans. But Apple’s idea of facial computers as a spatial computing platform rather than a single device still makes more sense than Metaverse, which remains a digital ghost town despite Meta selling millions of Quest headsets.
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