Virtual Reality History


The concept of Virtual Reality appeared in Science Fiction in  the 1930s with Pygmalion's Spectacles written by Stanley Weinbaum (Griffin, 2016). Weinbaum's  pair of goggles enabled the user to navigate in a fictional world and included the senses of smell, taste and touch, making him a visionary of the field of Virtual Reality (Virtual Reality Society, 2017).


Figure 1 : Weinbaum's Pygmalion's Spectacles (

History of Virtual Reality : Precursors of the HMD and simulators

Stereo photos are photos with two separate images of the same scene, which when viewed with a stereoscope, has an illusion of depth and so seems to form three-dimensional (3-D) images. This form of photography was popularised after the 1850s when photography became more easily practised and stereoscopes became more portable (University of Sydney, 2014). The first stereoscope  was designed by Wheatstone, had mirrors positioned at right angles for viewing images on panels facing each other, but a portable hand-held version introduced by Brewster in 1849 enabled the popularity of stereo photos (University of Sydney, 2014). However, Brewster claimed that the idea for his portable stereoscope came from a "Teacher of Mathematics" from Edinburgh, Mr. Elliot who constructed a simple "a simple stereoscope without lenses or mirrors, consisting of a wooden box 18 inches long, 7 inches wide and 4 inches high, that was an instrument for uniting two dissimilar pictures" (Zone, 2007, p.9). The stereoscopes later developed into the View-Masters in 1939 . The design principles of the stereoscope  is used for the development of the Google Cardboard and the low budget VR head mounted displays for mobile phones (Virtual Reality Society, 2017).



Figure 2: A Brewster-type stereoscope (

The first simulator the “Link trainer”, was created in 1929 by Edward Link  (patented 1931) was a commercial flight simulator, which was entirely electro-mechanical (Virtual Reality Society, 2017).  A replica of a cockpit mounted on a platform controlled by pneumatics which provided for the aircraft's movements, provided a safer and less expensive environment for teaching "Instrument (cloud) flying" (New World Encyclopedia, 2017). During World War II, over 10,000 “blue box” Link Trainers were used by over 500,000 pilots for initial training and improving their skills (New World Encyclopedia, 2017). This was the beginning of the simulation industry. 


 Figure 3: Flight simulator "Link trainer" (

Simulated environments was also used in the entertainment industry. Sensorama was  designed in 1956 by Morton Heilig for simulating a real city environment in an arcade-style theatre, where you “rode” through on a motorcycle, and had multi-sensory and 3-D experience to see the road, hear the engine, feel the vibration, and smell the motor’s exhaust in the designed “world.” (Virtual Reality Society, 2017). An interview with Heilig has shots of the experience in this video.  The Sensorama was a single user console for a highly immersive experience (Merchant, Goetz, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt,& Davis, 2014).

sensorama,3d,morton heilig,virtual reality,machine

Figure 4 : Heilig's Sensorama

In 1960, Heilig patented the head-mounted Telesphere Mask, the first example of a head-mounted display (HMD) (Virtual Reality Society, 2017). Although this HMD was non-interactive, and had no motion-tracking, it provided stereoscopic 3D and wide vision with stereo sound (Virtual Reality Society, 2017). His work  would provide the foundation for the future of VR (The Franklin Institute, 2018).  


Figure 5 : The Telesphere Mask

History of Modern Virtual Reality

In 1965, Ivan Sutherland put forward the concept of a HMD which he described would be  a “window into a virtual world”, which he called “the Ultimate Display” (The Franklin Institute, 2018).  He would claim that there would be a point where reality would be simulated to the point where one could not tell the difference from actual reality. In his concept, a  virtual world is viewed through a HMD and appeared realistic through augmented 3D sound and tactile feedback, where computer hardware is used to create the virtual word and maintain it in real time, and users have the ability to interact with objects in the virtual world (Virtual Reality Society, 2017). In 1968, Sutherland's  HMD or “the ultimate display” project, which consisted of a HMD connected to a stereoscopic display which could change perspective with the users'  head movement, was controlled from a computer program depicting simple virtual wireframe shapes (Dormehl, 2017). Dormehl sees this as augmented reality as these displays were superimposed on top of a real background.

 In the 1980’s, there was an increase in the use of virtual reality technologies in professional education and training mainly due to the technologies developed by NASA for flight simulator training and exercises (Merchant, Goetz, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt,& Davis, 2014).

In 1969, Myron Kruegere, a computer artist, developed a series of interactive experiences in a computer-generated environments which he had called “artificial reality” (Virtual Reality Society, 2017). He developed computer-generated environments with interactive animations which sensitive and could respond to the individual in the environment, even though they were miles apart (Media Art Tube, 2008; Virtual Reality Society, 2017)

MediaArtTube (2014). Myron Kruegere: Videoplace, responsive environment 1972-1999. 

in 1987, Jaron Lanier, founder of the visual programming lab (VPL), coined the term “virtual reality” which became the keyword for researchin this field (Virtual Reality Society, 2017). Lanier and Zimmerman developed the Dataglove, which was a wired glove or an electromechanical device for sensing motion applications, and was used in haptics applications. Lanier also developed the EyePhone and the Data Suit head mounted display.   

Virtual Reality from 1990s: Jaron Lanier 

Virtual Reality was used in the entertainment industry mainly for gaming from Arcade machines from Virtuality to Nintendo Virtual Boy and Sega VR, and movies such as The Matrix made this concept popular in the 1990s  (Dormehl, 2017; Virtual Reality Society, 2017)

Virtual reality was also being used for education in the 1990s. VR was used with guided inquiry for students from K-12 to higher education to experience a virtual world  as students interact with pre-developed VR application, develop their own virtual worlds while doing research on a subject matter and interact in a multi-user distributed world  (Youngblut, 1998). 

In 2010, Palmer Luckey created the first prototype of the Oculus Rift. which would popularize virtual reality again (Dormehl, 2017). The Oculus Rift  promises high quality HMDs to mimic the real world and a consumer-grade Oculus Rift CV1 became available for the general public in 2016. Gear VR by Samsung and powered by Oculus, is a wireless device which relies on the technology of a smartphone to create an immersive virtual experience (Moro, Stromberga & Stirling, 2017).





History of VD in Video format by Reality Check: 

 Virtual Reality 1991. 


VR Project Home


Contributions to the Physiology of Vision.—Part the First. On some remarkable, and hitherto unobserved, Phenomena of Binocular Vision. 
By CHARLES WHEATSTONE, F.R.S., Professor of Experimental Philosophy in King's College, London. Retrieved from

Dormehl, L. (2017, November). 8 virtual reality milestones that took it from sci-fi to your living room. Digital Trends.

The Franklin Institute (2018). The History of Virtual Reality.

Griffin (2016, March 25). Virtual Reality:A Game Changer. Retrieved from

Merchant, Z., Goetz, E. T., Cifuentes, L., Keeney-Kennicutt, W. & Davis, T. J. (2014). Effectiveness of virtual reality-based instruction on students’ learning outcomes in K-12 and higher education: A meta-analysis. Computers & Education 70, 29–40

Moro, C., Stromberga, Z., & Stirling, A, (2017). Virtualisation devices for student learning: Comparison between desktop-based (Oculus Rift) and 
mobile-based (Gear VR) virtual reality in medical and health science education. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 33(6), 1-10.

New World Encyclopedia (2017). Flight simulator.

The University of Sydney (2014). Virtual Empire: Stereo Photography In Britain And Australia 1851–1879. Retrieved from

 Virtual Reality Society (2017). History of Virtual Reality.

Youngblut, C. (1998). Educational uses of virtual reality technology. Alexandria, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA Document D-2128).

Zone, Ray (2007). Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film, 1838-1952. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

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