A Brief History of Virtual Reality

Although virtual reality (VR) technology may seem like something out of a science fiction movie, this innovation isn’t as new as you might think. While people argue, sometimes at length over what the true definition of VR is, many of the ideas that led to where we are with today’s immersive technology has roots in developments several hundred years ago. In terms of inventions, VR had developed as an idea around the time that practical photography was established.

There is, of course, one thing to conceive of the idea and another to actually bring the idea to fruition and there were many efforts to properly execute the idea of VR. The first recorded instance being in 1838, when the stereoscope, the first of its kind, was introduced.

A 1901 American-made stereoscope, made of oak, tin, glass and velvet. Currently housed in the UK’s Victoria and Albert Museum.

After the modest stereoscope came the Link Trainer in 1929. This was a Flight Simulator that featured a small device that was driven by a motor. While these helped in imitating the turbulence associated with flights, there were other motors connected to the steering that could influence other aspects such as the pitch. This device, however, wasn’t some game invented for the thrill but rather to train pilots in a safe yet effective manner.

Link TrainerConsistent advancements eventually led to the making of a patented device, the View-Master, in 1939. A brand still going to this day.

In 1960, head-mounting gear made its first appearance and was invented by Morton Heilig, but it was far less interactive from what we can experience today. Eight years later, Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull attempted to connect the head mounted display to a computer instead of a camera and created what came to be known as ‘The Sword of Damocles’.

But in doing so, the resulting device was too large and bulky for a user to wear on its own, thus it hung from the ceiling. Wearers could see a series of 3D generated computer graphics that, while advanced for their time, would look like pixelated boxes to us now.

The Sword of Damocles

Even though the creation of what we know as VR technology was in the works back in the 1800s, the term itself made its debut in the 1980s. That was when the founder of VPL Research, Jaron Lanier, started working on his own version of what we now call ‘gear’, which also included special sense gloves and goggles that would help the wearer experience the phenomenon of VR.

After this milestone, there were a number of impressive feats that were accomplished. To begin with, VR was made accessible to the public in the early 1990s, in the form of arcade games where a headpiece could be worn and used to view graphics. A few years later, videogame giant SEGA announced that they would be creating VR glasses to accompany their Sega Genesis/Mega Drive console. Revealing it to the public at the Summer International Consumer Electronics Show (SCES) – what is now CES – in 1993. Although, it would never come to market.


SEGA’s big rival Nintendo followed suit with a VR push and in 1995, they introduced the Nintendo Virtual Boy to their devoted base of customers. Even though the excitement that surrounded this console hit that of its predecessors out of the park because it was portable, it slowly diminished. That was because the console didn’t abide by the standards of ergonomics, and was thus discontinued.

Virtual BoyFor a number of years the idea of VR was something of a laughing stock, a tech industry punchline. Arguably that changed at the brink of the new millennium – not through any technological leap, but when the film The Matrix was released. Featuring protagonist Neo who lives in a completely virtual world, the movie had a huge impact on viewers who looked forward to such a possibility in the future. The idea of VR breathed again.

Onto (and into) the 21st Century and more recent history which has brought with it many advancements most would have considered futurisitic even a decade ago. The development of VR skyrocketed and with the advancements in smartphone technology a huge number of mobile owners now have the ability to use VR practically in their pocket. Now, reigning tech giants like Samsung and Google and virtual reality focused companies (such as ourselves at iVROX) are all enjoying their share of popularity when it comes to being known for their VR devices. It’s strange to think that so many people have now been able to try out VR – a concept that seemed impossible just a few decades ago.

What changes will the next year, or five, bring?