An oral history of a technology whose time has come again
Adi Robertson i Michael Zelenko. THE VERGE.
When Facebook bought virtual reality company Oculus in early 2014, virtual reality blew up. While game and movie studios began reimagining the future, others looked back at the “old days” of VR — a loosely remembered period in the 1990s when gloves and goggles were super cool and everyone was going to get high on 3D graphics. But things were never so simple. We spoke to 18 key VR innovators about their work and dreams. What follows is over two decades of memories and visions for what the future could be.
Some people identify the birth of virtual reality in rudimentary Victorian “stereoscopes,” the first 3D picture viewers. Others might point to any sort of out-of-body experience. But to most, VR as we know it was created by a handful of pioneers in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962, after years of work, filmmaker Mort Heilig patented what might be the first true VR system: the Sensorama, an arcade-style cabinet with a 3D display, vibrating seat, and scent producer. Heilig imagined it as one in a line of products for the “cinema of the future,” but that future failed to materialize in his lifetime.
In 1965, Ivan Sutherland — already known as the creator of groundbreaking computer interface Sketchpad — conceived of what he termed “The Ultimate Display,” or, as he wrote, “a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter.” He demonstrated an extremely preliminary iteration of such a device, a periscope-like video headset called the “Sword of Damocles,” in 1968.
Meanwhile, at the Wright–Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, military engineer Thomas Furness was designing a new generation of flight simulators, working on a multi-decade project that eventually became the hallmark program known as the Super Cockpit.
A few years later, in the late ’60s, an artist and programmer named Myron Krueger would begin creating a new kind of experience he termed “artificial reality,” and attempt to revolutionize how humans interacted with machines.
Jaron Lanier Co-founder of pioneering virtual reality company VPL, musician, and technological philosopher Ivan Sutherland proposed a head-tracked head-mounted display in ’63 as part of the initial invention of computer graphics itself. [He] built one, which is on display at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. When I was a teenager in the ’70s, I was so excited by Ivan’s work that I used to almost jump up and down — stop random people on the street like, “Look at this! Look at this!” — and just make an ass of myself.
Ben Delaney Market researcher and creator of VR industry newsletter CyberEdge Journal It was a head-mount that was suspended from the ceiling because it was just too heavy to wear. The display was all wire frame, but they were 3D models, and you could change your position and see different views thanks to a tracking system built into the head mount. Ivan was really the father of VR.
Nicole Stenger Digital media artist, creator of influential virtual reality film AngelsThere were two inventors who basically found the secret of VR in the ’60s: Ivan Sutherland and Tom Furness. Ivan Sutherland started a major computer company, while Tom Furness was developing the technology inside the Air Force. When he started his lab, he had been kicked out of the Air Force because they didn’t believe in it anymore. They were wrong, of course. After the first Gulf War, when his system was being used by the Air Force, everyone realized that [it] was a major breakthrough.
Stephen Ellis Head of the NASA Ames Research Center’s Advanced Displays and Spatial Perception Laboratory The first time I saw something that provided full immersion experience was here at Ames [NASA’s Ames Research Center]. Though I’d been in aircraft simulators, Ames was at the forefront of developing [VR technology]. In the ’50s and ’60s, they built a model train-like environment, with all the little buildings and aircraft, and flew a miniature camera across the surface to create a visual that could be fed into the cockpit and looked like an out-the-window scene. And then, while I was here, it actually switched to computer-based imagery using Evans’ and Sutherland’s equipment. Ivan Sutherland was involved in developing some of the fast hardware that would make it possible to do the perspective transformations quickly enough so you could have some degree of interactivity in the systems.
Jaron Lanier Flight simulation was really the first practical digital-simulation application. There are people who put a lot of effort into them and some of them are really cool. When I was coming up in the ’70s, the flight simulators were definitely the highest art.
Scott Fisher Head of interactive media at the University of Southern California, founder of the NASA Ames Research Center’s Virtual Environment Workstation Project, and co-founder of VR company Telepresence Research [Mort Heilig] was just so brilliant and ahead of his time. He just didn’t have good luck with this stuff. There are four [Sensoramas] left. I feel bad; it’s groundbreaking work. He should absolutely be acknowledged and be a common name in these discussion and he’s not.
Linda Jacobson Author, founding staff member of Wired, and former “virtual reality evangelist” for supercomputer company Silicon Graphics A lot of new science museums have interactive displays: basically, you’re interacting with projection images that are generated by a computer while your body is being tracked by a camera that interpolates where you are in space and alters the graphics accordingly. The intersection of those two technologies really are at the basis of VR as we know it today, and was first developed by Myron Krueger.
Myron Krueger Groundbreaking early virtual reality artist and innovator When I got to the University of Wisconsin, I decided to find the biggest computer that I could use by myself and make it interactive. Because of my liberal arts background, I had a much different idea about what computers were for, and so I imagined a more romantic search for a relationship between a human and a machine. I decided to try to find the essence of interactivity. Most people were either on the far end of theory — and I mean stuff that would never be practical in a thousand years — or on the other end, making arguments about what was practical at that minute, and there wasn’t much in between. I just imagined what it would be like to use a computer in the extreme, sort of, and I thought that being able to move around physically was one of the things. I don’t know why I thought all of this was important, but it just seemed to me that I was important and the computer wasn’t.
As I worked towards thinking about what it would mean to do the computer as a full-body experience, I got involved with a dynamic environmental sculpture called “GlowFlow.” I decided from then on that I would focus on interactivity. I vowed to create an experience that would allow a person to go into a room and come out with their attitudes about computers changed.
I didn’t know about Ivan Sutherland’s statement that the ultimate display would have you sitting, but I knew that I wanted to be able to walk around. So that in this environment, everything you saw and everything you heard would be a response to your physical movement.
As Myron Krueger developed his own system of projector-based VR, the computer was invading American businesses, and eventually, homes. The Apple II was released in 1977, followed two years later by VisiCalc, a groundbreaking software application that moved personal computing beyond the realm of mere curiosity. Atari was at its peak, having expanded from arcade games to home consoles in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Meanwhile, a new generation of researchers was coming of age, crafting successors to Sutherland’s head-mounted display and Heilig’s entertainment supersystem.
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