Virtual reality (also known as immersive multimedia) is a computer-simulated environment that mocks or simulates real-world environments, as well as simulates physical presences in real or imagined worlds. VR technology has traditionally been a virtual sight- and perhaps sound-based experience, but has the potential to recreate other sensory experiences, such as virtual taste, smell, and even touch.
As for touch (haptic technology), some systems have already included such experiences in their designs, including vibrating controllers for video gaming, allowing players to get a feel of what is happening in a game. Some advanced haptic systems now include tactile information, generally referred to as force feedback in medical, military and gaming applications.
Today, VR technology is big business in many areas of the tech, medical and military community. However, the technology is not a new one, as the term can trace its roots back more than a century. In fact, the first mention of virtual reality can be traced back to the 1860s, when 360-degree art via panoramic murals began to appear. While this may be a very archaic description of the term virtual reality, the future of the technology only gets better.
Simulators, which today are almost everywhere, were introduced in the 1920s. Early vehicle simulators may have helped bring about more futuristic systems that now include flight simulators, golfing simulators, spacecraft simulators, as well as simulation-based video gaming. In fact, Thomas A. Furness III would develop the first visual flight simulator for the US Air Force in 1966.
In the 1930s, Stanley G. Weinbaum described the first goggle-based VR system, called Pygmalion’s Spectacles. This early device recorded holographic images of fictional experiences and included smell and touch. By the 1950s, Morton Heilig was describing an “Experience Theatre” that could encompass all senses, drawing the viewer into the activity taking place onscreen or onstage. He developed the Sensorama prototype in 1962 and produced five short films to be displayed on the device, engaging multiple senses (sight, sound, smell, and touch).
In 1977, MIT researchers developed the Aspen Movie Map, which was a crude virtual simulation of Aspen, Colorado. The primitive system allowed users to wander the streets of the city in one of three modes: summer, winter, and polygons. The seasonal modes were based on a multitude of photographs taken of virtually every aspect of the city in both summer and winter. The polygons mode was a simple 3D model of the city.
The virtual reality concept began to become mainstream in the 1980s, being popularized by Jaron Lanier, one of the modern pioneers in the field. He founded the company VPL Research in 1985, which had developed some of the influential “goggles and gloves” systems of the decade.
In 1991, Antonio Medina, an MIT graduate and NASA scientist, designed a VR system that would “drive” Mars rovers in apparent real time despite the substantial delay of Mars-Earth-Mars signals.
Virtual reality gaming started to take shape in the early 90s as well. Jonathan Waldern, a VR PhD researcher launched “Virtuality” in 1992, the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer VR location-based entertainment system. The system, which was primarily used in the UK, went on to comprise more than 42 million plays in more than 17 countries. The Virtuality system featured headsets and exoskeleton gloves that gave users one of the first immersive VR experiences.
Nintendo jumped into the VR gaming scene in 1995 with the HMD gaming system Virtual Boy. Other head mounted displays for gaming released in the 90s include Virtual I-O’s iGlasses; Cybermaxx, developed by Victormaxx; and Forte Technologies’ VFX-1.
Virtual reality gaming was also big in the 90s in arcades around the world. These virtuality systems encompassed aspects of racing and shooting games, many of which are still thriving today. These early arcade gamers, however, were simplified and only simulate certain aspects of reality. But modern gaming brought VR technology to a whole new level with the inception of devices such as the Wii Remote, Microsoft’s Kinect and the PlayStation Move, all of which track and send motion input of the players to the game console.
The latest craze in VR gaming comes with a new high field of view VR headset system designed specifically for gaming called the Oculus Rift. The headset provides about a 110 degree field of view, absolute head orientation tracking, USB interface and aimed at 1920×1080 resolution or greater. The company behind Oculus Rift, Oculus VR, was purchased by Facebook in spring 2014 for $2 billion.
Sony announced at the Game Developers Conference in March 2014 that it was developing a rival system to the Oculus Rift – the prototype has been dubbed Project Morpheus.
Virtual reality has also been popularized in pop culture, being portrayed in books, music, TV and film. Some of the more notable films that touch on VR include: Tron (1982), Total Recall (1990, as well as the 2012 remake), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Virtuosity (1995), Strange Days (1995), The Matrix (1999, and its sequels), Vanilla Sky (2001), Inception (2010), and Ender’s Game (2013).
Today, VR technology is being widely implemented, helping medical and military personnel in training exercises and perhaps eventually in real-life scenarios. What will the future hold for virtual reality? Only time will tell.
Image Caption: Virtual Reality concept with a Head Mounted Display. Credit: dolgachov/Thinkstock.com