From the development of perspective in Renaissance Italy, to the science fiction dream of creating virtual worlds that are indistinguishable from the real one, human beings have always been fascinated by virtual realities and have been pursuing their creation one artistic and technological leap at a time.
The term itself was first coined in the late 1930s by playwright Antonin Artaud to describe the immersive experiences of the theater. It was later popularized by computer scientist and VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, whose company VPL Research was one of the first to develop and sell virtual reality products in the mid-1980s.
All art is, of course, an attempt at making new worlds, but in this article we’ll focus specifically on the technological underpinnings of VR as well as attempting to answer the burning question on everyone’s lips: Why aren’t we there yet?
A Look Back
Virtual reality technology has a long and storied history that goes all the way back to the stereoscopes and View-Masters of the early to mid-1800s. As you might expect, the first devices that started to resemble what we understand as VR today originally had industrial and military applications.
The Link Trainer, pioneered in 1929 by Edward Link, was an electromechanical flight simulator that taught trainees how to fly using instrument readings rather than visuals. From the 1930s to the 1950s over 500,000 US pilots were trained on it. In 1961 Philco produced Headsight, the first head mounted display that could perform motion tracking.
It was used in conjunction with radio controlled CCTV cameras to allow anyone to look around dangerous environments. The first head-mounted display connected to a computer was the Sword of Damocles. Created in 1968 by Ivan Sutherland, it was the first device to be able to generate a stereoscopic 3D wireframe environment.
The experience was not completely immersive as subjects could see the wireframe projected over their field of view. For this reason it’s considered the first AR (augmented reality) device. It was ground-breaking for the time but the computer generated graphics were primitive and the machine itself was so big and heavy that it had to be screwed to the ceiling (hence the name).
From the 1970’s to the 1990s virtual reality continued as primarily an academic, industrial and military pursuit. Owing to how new and expensive the hardware was, the only people to have any real access to it were researchers experimenting with VR within these domains. The aforementioned Jaron Lanier, was one of the few to buck the trend.
His company, VPL Research, launched the EyePhone headset and DataGlove input device in the late-1980s. They were extremely expensive but captured people’s imaginations and set the stage for a lot of future development. VPL’s Dataglove technology was actually licensed to Mattel, who used it to make a much more affordable version called the Power Glove.
Not Ready for Prime Time?
The 1990s ushered in the first commercial VR technologies as well as a great deal of hype in the videogame industry that ultimately failed to materialize. In 1992 Computer Gaming World predicted that affordable virtual reality systems would be available by 1994. VR games were to be the next big thing and VR headsets would likely replace the TV as the output device of choice for your games console.
The oldest millennials will remember drooling over magazine photos of the Sega VR headset that was to be paired with their beloved Genesis consoles. Announced in 1991, it featured LCD screens, head tracking, looked the business but sadly never came to pass. Nintendo managed to get further than the concept stage by launching the Virtual Boy in 1995.
The console flopped due to its single color display and the fact that it induced motion sickness and headaches in its users. Alas, if anyone was fortunate enough to enjoy a VR experience in the 90s it probably wasn’t in the comfort of their own homes but on the first generation of VR arcade pods such as those produced by Virtuality.
Each pod retailed for over $70,000, could be networked with other pods and featured virtual reality headsets and exoskeleton data gloves. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, VR once again faded from the public eye.
There have been several VR hype cycles followed by periods of waning interest as everyone is forced to cool off and face the inescapable fact that the tech isn’t quite there yet. As we have seen, the big one was in the 1990s when the world was primed and ready for virtual worlds à la Tron and The Lawnmower Man to be made widely available.
By the first decade of the 2000s interest in VR had all but disappeared and an entire decade went by during which VR was all-but forgotten. The dot-com bubble, millennium bug, the exponential growth of the Internet and smartphones kept everybody so busy that when VR finally started to come back into focus again in the 2010s, most people had little or no memory of what had occurred back in the 90s.
This coincided with Palmer Luckey designing the first version of the Oculus Rift in 2011, which was billed as a first generation device, despite all the development that had taken place two decades earlier. In fact it’s a testament to just how short our memories can be in tech.
The Oculus Rift went from a kickstarter campaign in 2012 to being purchased by Facebook for $2bln in 2014. By 2016 more than 230 companies, including heavyweights such as Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft were actively involved in the development of VR products.
The hype train had left the station.
Even the humble smartphone was employed as a bootstrap for Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR. These devices allow you to slot your phone into an all-but empty headset and use its display as a stereoscopic screen. Content creators started producing fully immersive 360° videos by rigging up 2-8 GoPro cameras and stitching the videos together.
Virtual tours became all the rage. Predictably, the porn industry saw a novel use case and vigorously explored it. Then, by 2018, the VR obituaries started coming in again, the dream was dead.
Still Too Soon?
Some technologies need a lot of other things to line up first in order for mass adoption to be possible. If you’re trying to launch before these other technologies have been established you’re going to have a bad time. It’s the dreaded curse of being too soon.
The Lumiere brothers went down in history for just this. In 1895 they were stunning audiences with their patented cinematograph. A mere five years later they were permanently out of what was to become one of the biggest industries of the 20th century.
Consider the following: WiFi was introduced to the world in 1998. YouTube launched in 2005. Facebook was opened to the public 2006. The iPhone came to market in 2007.
It’s probably fair to assume that the first iPhone wouldn’t have had the same earth-shaking effect if Steve Jobs also had to worry about inventing the Internet, wireless networking, video streaming and social media alongside his revolutionary mobile phone.
The iPhone was only able to change the world and how we do just about everything because the technologies it depends on and leverages to devastating effect were already in place.
Inferior Tech Often Wins
We all know that it’s not always the best, most ambitious iteration that wins the day.
Betamax vs VHS, Laserdisc vs CD, Concorde vs any modern passenger plane. The canals of history are littered with better tech that failed to make it. Even AI, the buzzword on everyone’s lips right now is still largely stuck in the domain of narrow, task-specific AI, while the sci-fi promise of general, human-like, artificial intelligence seems further away with every step we take towards it.
In many ways this is also the story of the various iterations of VR. It’s a great idea, everybody wants it, but we haven’t quite figured out how to get it right yet, so the simpler incumbent solution still wins the day.
Speaking of simpler tech, Fortnite, one of the most popular online games right now, started its life out as a cooperative survival game that combined the humble third-person shooter with added Minecraft-like elements of being able to build. It failed to set the world ablaze when it was released in 2017.
Then the game’s developers spun it off as an online battle royal and it quickly became one of the biggest games on the planet, netting it’s parent company, Epic Games, an estimated $2.4bln for 2018 in the process. Not bad for a game that’s essentially available for free.
How is this relevant to VR?
Because the 250 million or so registered players that it has managed to amass (to the chagrin of their parents, teachers, employers and spouses), are not out there buying VR equipment or even regular video games anymore, they’re hooked on a game that has no end and is essentially indistinguishable from the shooters of 10-15 years ago, with the added online/social hook.
VR Needs More than a Killer App
Remember Pokémon Go? Recall seeing grown men and women wandering around in public holding their phones out as if trying to catch pixie dust with them? Remember hearing about catastrophically stupid people trying to play the game while driving? That’s a killer app.
Why did it go viral so suddenly? Because it was a good idea that piggybacked existing technology that already works well. Smartphones, mobile Internet, geolocation, done. It was a huge feather in the cap of VR’s scrappier sibling, AR, and it didn’t require anything other than the phone you already carry around with you. That and way too much free time on your hands.
When you put Sega’s VR headset from the early 90s next to Facbook’s Occulus line, you get a queer sense that we haven’t really moved all that far ahead in almost twenty years.
Despite offerings like the HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Oculus Quest, they’re all still rather dorky looking things you have to strap to your face, they make a lot of people dizzy and for serious gaming are ultimately way more annoying than just using a keyboard or controller with a two dimensional screen at a safe distance. Not to mention all the other issues that haven’t been convincingly addressed yet. Things such as haptic technologies, so that you can feel what’s happening in the virtual world and omni-directional treadmills, so that you can walk around them without bumping into your furniture.
We’re still nowhere near to establishing a clear winner and standard bearer in these areas. It’s a problem that has to be overcome if VR is to ever be anything more than an interesting gimmick.
Sometimes You’re Just Looking in the Wrong Place
The first half of the previous century saw young scientists flocking to the field of nuclear physics over its seemingly less practical quantum cousin. Why? Because it seemed like a no-brainer, the more logical path to follow.
Nuclear energy was to be the future. People expected there to be a nuclear reactor in every city; cheaply, cleanly and efficiently meeting all of our energy needs. By comparison, theoretical physics must have seemed like errant navel-gazing to the more practically minded of the time. Something akin to studying medieval poetry when your father was expecting you to become a lawyer.
How strangely ironic that nuclear physics was destined to lead to Chernobyl and Fukushima, while Quantum Mechanics resulted in transistors and semiconductors, which our entire modern civilization would be unthinkable without. Meanwhile, we’re still mostly burning dead things from the Paleozoic Era to charge our iPhones and gaming laptops.
The point is that perhaps it’s not writ large that virtual reality has to happen through silly headsets, screens inches away from your eyeballs, gloves, bodysuits and funky treadmills. Perhaps it’ll be a breakthrough in a completely different field that makes us realize how wrong-headedly we’ve been going about it.
We can only hope, because without such a breakthrough it seems as though VR has at least a couple more hype cycles yet before it gets anywhere near mainstream adoption. For the moment it appears that we’re still firmly in the era of the two-dimensional screen, be it TV, computer monitor or smartphone.