A Virtually Realistic History of Virtual Reality

Ik ben het rijk van de virtuele wereld aan het onderzoeken en vond een kort overzicht van zijn geschiedenis.

What’s the coolest piece of technology in Star Trek? One word, three syllables: Holodeck. Screw tri-corders and tractor beams, every man, woman and child that watched Gene Roddenberry’s TV cult classic secretly dreamed of the day when they would be able to walk through an automatic doorway and into a far away land.
Well, we’ve got the automatic doors, an iPod is practically a tri-corder, we’ve already got virtual data rooms,  and I’m sure that some particle physicist somewhere almost has a lock on the tractor beam. So, the question remains, where’s our Virtual Reality room?

A Brief History of Virtual Reality

The creation of virtual reality has been slow going, arduous and, up until the mid-‘90s, largely theoretical in nature. In 1965 Ivan Sutherland, an ARPA scientist, published his grand oeuvre “The Ultimate Display.”  In his essay Sutherland predicted all sorts of advances in computer technology: computer mice, drag and drop interfaces and voice recognition software. But most importantly, he wrote about the ultimate display—“a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter.” Sutherland’s essay might have been full of fanciful speculations about the future of digital technology, but his wild (and shockingly accurate) predictions helped plant the seed of VR in the minds of scientists and non-scientists to follow.

In 1968 with the help of one of his assistants, Sutherland created one of the first head mounted augmented reality display systems—what would come to be known through movies and TV as a VR helmet—known to some as The Sword of Damocles because it was so big and heavy that it had to be suspended precariously over the user’s head with a series of cables. The display only showed the users crude outlines of a virtual environment.


Despite the technology’s scientific beginnings, however, VR made its first major strides in fiction. The movie TRON had people imagining the possibilities of interactive gaming to the Nth degree. William Gibson rocked the minds of a generation when he wrote of a cyber-punk society where a brain-computer interface was possible in Neuromancer. Ray Bradbury took the concept of a VR room to its most horrific extreme in The Veldt.

And while VR charged ahead in the realm of fiction, in the field of science it scrambled to keep up.

The first major technical leap forward came in the mid-‘70s in the form of Myron Krueger’s VIDEOPLACE. Using cameras, computers and projectors, people in a VR room were able to see and interact with silhouettes of people in other similar rooms. Compared to the advances that writers and directors of the time were coming up with, VIDEOPLACE was crude, but Krueger’s experiments showed that science was at least trying to move forward with VR.


So, Virtual reality had bounded forward in one of the five senses—sight—but that left the other four to conquer. Soon scientists were trying to combine systems like VIDEOPLACE with data gloves and tactile interfaces. The leader in this field was Jaron Lanier. In fact, he popularized the term virtual reality. In 1985 Lanier founded a company called VPL Research and began experimenting with all sorts of goggle and glove set ups.

Initially, the video game market, captivated by the possibilities of VR, tried to cash in on the early advancements. Who could forget that seminal scene in the classic movie Wizard where the badass townie unlocks a Nintendo power glove from a carrying case and proceeds to school all those who dare come up against him? Or the phase in the mid-‘90s where you could stand on a giant platform, put on a ridiculously large helmet and box a 16-bit opponent with Nintendo Wii-like controllers?

But all of these attempts to game with VR would quickly fade away—most in less than a year. The tech was too expensive, the equipment was too bulky and the graphics and game play offered weren’t up to par. So, gaming companies quickly cut their losses and left VR to the scientists and the artists, and they had a field day.

Since the late ‘80s virtual reality has been popping up everywhere in movies and TV. The Lawnmower man, VR5, Virtuosity, eXistenZ, and most famously The Matrix imagined worlds where the goggles and gloves were obsolete; it was all about beaming the information directly into the user’s brain.

Science too kept pursuing the elusive brass ring of VR, but direct to brain transmission was and is still a little invasive for the scientific community (However, this didn’t stop Sony from patenting the idea that information could someday be beamed into a human’s brain earlier this year). Instead, they concentrated on better, less intrusive helmets, more efficient interfaces and more realistic 3D modeling.

Virtual Reality in… Reality

This brings us to today. Current VR technology, while more impressive than anything we’ve had before, still falls short of what we imagined it could be. Technology has evolved in leaping strides, but though we may have advanced inventory software to help enable near-robotic efficiency, organization and workflow, when it comes to VR technology, most systems can only manage to immerse two senses at a time: The VR systems that therapists use to help treat client phobias or PTSD use helmets or small rooms to simulate sights and sounds; The Nintendo Wii allows people to physically interact with a virtual opponent.

But science is getting tired of this plateau it’s been stuck on. In the last few years, researchers in the field of VR have been stretching themselves to hit more of the five senses.
One of the biggest innovations in VR came earlier this year. Sight and sound have always been the go-to senses for virtual reality researchers, but few have ventured into the realm of taste and smell. In March 2009 a team of scientists from the Universities of York and Warwick in the U.K. revealed what they saw as a giant leap forward in VR tech, the Virtual Cocoon. The cocoon not only simulates the looks and sounds of a 3D environment on the inside of a portable helmet, it also has a library of smells and tastes it can feed to the user to correspond to the world they are experiencing.


Which just leaves one last aspect of creating a truly immersive virtual reality system–the ever elusive locomotion? You can create life-like graphics and simulate realistic sounds, you can feed them tastes and smells, but as soon as your test subject takes their first step to explore your virtual world, you’re in trouble, and a virtual world the size of your living room just doesn’t do it for most people. To get around this problem, a company called Cyberwalk has started work on an omni-directional treadmill they call the CyberCarpet. This would allow people to walk in any direction for as long as they want without hitting a wall or walking into traffic. When combined with something like the Virtual Cocoon, we’re the closest we’ve ever been to escaping this troublesome world in favour of an ideal one of our own making.

We may have waited a long time, and the technology might be in its infancy, but we may have our VR rooms and Holodecks sooner that we think.



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