Evolving From Caves to Quests

A history of Virtual Reality

Let’s start in ancient Athens with Plato

Plato (428 – 348 BC) an Athenian philosopher is famous for questioning reality.  It may well be the birth of critical thinking about virtual realities.  In Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ he considers how we perceive reality.  In his thought experiment, cave dwellers were chained in the dark and watched shadows projected on a wall. These shadows were their reality, their entire world.  This led to discourse on what reality really is and the meaning of life as we perceive it.  Great video exploring Plato’s Cave.

16th Century Rene Decartes (1596 - 1650)

We also have to mention the French mathematician, scientist, and philosopher who’s regarded as the father of modern philosophy.  Descartes questioned his senses coming up with another classic thought experiment – the brain in a vat.   He considered whether his existence was a simulation.  You may suppose if Descartes was alive today he’d have rephrased the question “is this real or are we living in a virtual reality?”

This is a question still posed today.  Some scientists and philosophers propose that what we perceive is just a simulation.

Exact origins of virtual reality are difficult to determine partly because it’s challenging to clearly define concepts around an alternative existence.  In Renaissance Europe many philosophers were considering depictions of spaces that did not exist, in what has been referred to as the “multiplying of artificial worlds”.

However, many people do credit 19th century Science Fiction as being the first clear description of virtual reality.

1835 Science Fiction - Pygmalion's Spectacles

In 1935 American science fiction writer Stanley Weinbaum created a vision of virtual reality in his short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles.  In the story, the main character met an elfin professor who invented a pair of goggles which enabled “a movie that gives one sight and sound […] taste, smell, and touch. […] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it”

It could be considered as the modern genesis of the ideas around virtual reality as a concept.

1932 The arrival early hardware

A stereoscope is a device enabling left-eye and right-eye images of the same object to be combined into a three-dimensional image. The earliest stereoscope was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone and constructed for him by optician R. Murray in 1832. Several other were patented around the same time.

1956 Morton Heilig and ‘experience cinema’

Morton Heilig, a cinematographer patented the Sensorama in the early 1960’s. The large booth could accommodate up to four people and combined multi-modal technologies to stimulate the senses. One of the first films was of a simulated motorcycle ride through New York and included a stereoscopic colour display, fans, odour emitters, stereo‐sound system, and a motional chair, fan-generated wind. He also simulated noise and smell. Heilig had a clear vision of enabling people to have a fully immersive experience and he developed six short films for the Sensorama.

Heilig also patented the Telesphere Mask which was the first head-mounted display (HMD). It had stereoscopic 3D images, wide vision and stereo sound but no motion tracking in the headset.

1966 The grandfather of Virtual Reality

Thomas A. Furness III, an American inventor and University professor has earned the title ‘Grandfather of Virtual Reality’ for his pioneering work in the development of human interface technology. He received the first-ever lifetime achievement award for his 50 years’ service in the field of virtual reality and augmented reality from the Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, California.

1968 The Sword of Damocles

Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist of some renown, assisted by student Bob Sproull (amongst others) developed another head-mounted display system. It was so heavy that it had to be suspended from the ceiling! The dramatic appearance of the device inspired the name ‘The Sword of Damocles’. The concept was of a virtual world viewed through an HMD which replicated reality so well that the user could not differentiate from actual reality and enabled the user to interact with objects. Sutherland’s paper is credited with being fundamental to the development of VR.


From the 1970’s to the 1990’s VR development sped up.  Development was primarily driven by needs in medical, military, automobile and aviation industries. 
Here’s a few highlights;

In 1972 General Electric Corporation built a computerised flight simulator which featured a 180-degree field of vision by using three screens surrounding the cockpit.

In 1977 David Em at At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory became the first artist to produce navigable virtual worlds.

In 1978 MIT created The Aspen Movie Map, a simple virtual tour allowing users to wander the streets of Aspen in summer or winter (and using polygons). It was a bit like a prototype version of Google Maps.

In 1979, Eric Howlett developed LEEP (Large Expanse, Extra Perspective) optical system. He combined stereoscopic images to create a convincing sense of space by taking into account the human field of view. The LEEP system provided a basis for most of the modern virtual reality headsets.

Also in 1979 McDonnell-Douglas integrated VR into its HMD, the VITAL helmet, for military use. A head tracker in the HMD followed the pilot’s eye movements to match computer-generated images.

The first company that developed and sold VR products like the DataSuit (A full body outfit for measuring the movement of arms, legs, and trunk) and the Data Glove was VPL Research (bought out by Sun Microsystems in 1999).  The owner, Jaron Lanier, popularised the term “Virtual Reality”.

In 1982 Atari founded a VR research lab, but the lab closed after two years due to a video game crash of 1983.

Also in 1982 Sandin and Defanti created Sayre gloves which were the first wired gloves. They monitored hand movements using light emitters and photocells in the gloves’ fingers.  An early example of gesture recognition.

In 1986 Furness (remember the Grandfather of VR) created a working model of a virtual flight simulator (again – military use), called the Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator (VCASS).  The helmet’s tracking system and sensors allowed the pilot to control the aircraft using gestures, speech and eye movements.

In 1987 British Aerospace developed an HMD similarly to the one developed by Furness’ VCASS to develop the Virtual Cockpit.  They improved the design by adding speech recognition.

In 1988, Autodesk implemented the first VR for a PC.

In 1989 Scott Foster was contracted by NASA to develop training simulation for astronauts – he founded Crystal River Engineering.  Here he developed the audio elements of the Virtual Environment Workstation Project (VIEW).  His company developed real-time 3D audio capability (Binaural recording).


During the 1990s headsets became more widely available in the consumer marketplace and hardware solutions proliferated with many of the big companies getting in on the scene. Virtuality became the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer VR entertainment system and was released in many countries. Costing over £65,000 per multi-pod Virtuality system, they featured headsets and exoskeleton gloves that gave one of the first “immersive” VR experiences.  Not something the average consumer could purchase.

In 1991, Sega announced the Sega VR headset for arcade games and the Mega Drive console. It used LCD screens in the visor, stereo headphones, and inertial sensors that allowed the system to track and react to the movements of the user’s head.   It was the VR revolution that didn’t quite take off … almost 30 years ago.  Any keen video gamer in the 1990s will remember the buzz surrounding VR at the time.

In 1991 Sega announced a planned release for the Sega VR but it never hit the shelves.  There were too many hardware limitations, it would have been too expensive for the average consumer and critically there were worrying reviews from testers – specifically about  motion sickness and nausea.  Problems that VR still faces today.  Reports were coming in that the headset was making people sick and giving them headaches. Sega pulled the product.

But the VR movement was unstoppable – installations from companies like Virtuality started appearing in arcades although it would take another few decades before anyone could successfully bring VR into our homes.

THE NEW CAVE – a nod to Plato

Also in 1991 the team from the Electronic Visualization Laboratory created the first cubic immersive room, the Cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE) which involved a multi-projected environment  allowing people to see their own bodies in relation to others in the room.

Virtual Fixtures immersive AR system was developed in 1992.  It features Dr. Louis Rosenberg interacting freely in 3D with overlaid virtual objects called ‘fixtures’.

In 1992, Nicole Stenger created Angels, the first real-time interactive immersive movie where the interaction was facilitated with a dataglove and high-resolution goggles. That same year, Louis Rosenberg created the virtual fixtures system at the U.S. Air Force’s Armstrong Labs using a full upper-body exoskeleton, enabling a physically realistic mixed reality in 3D. The system overlaid physically real 3D virtual objects with a user’s direct view of the real world, producing the first true augmented reality experience enabling sight, sound, and touch.

By 1994, Sega released the Sega VR-1 motion simulator arcade attraction, in SegaWorld arcades. It was able to track head movement and featured 3D polygon graphics in stereoscopic 3D, powered by the Sega Model 1 arcade system board.

Apple released QuickTime VR, which, despite using the term “VR”, was unable to represent virtual reality, and instead displayed 360 photographic panoramas.

1995 Nintendo launched the Virtual Boy console which played 3D monochrome video games. It was the first portable console to display 3D graphics. But it was a commercial failure because of a lack of colour graphics, software support and it was horribly uncomfortable.  It didn’t last a year.

Affordable home VR headsets were soon to be released by Virtual IO (the I-Glasses) and VFX1 Headgear was released by Forte.

In 1999, entrepreneur Philip Rosedale formed Linden Lab.  The company tried to produce a commercial version of “The Rig” – the prototype was a heavy steel device connected to several computer monitors that could be worn over the shoulders. The concept was later adapted into the personal computer-based, 3D virtual world program Second Life.

In 2007 Google introduced Street View and in 2010 introduced a stereoscopic 3D mode for Street View.

In 2012 – enter Palmer Luckey.  He launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift which raised $2.4 million.

The 18 year old entrepreneur, created the first prototype of the Oculus Rift headset featuring the first 90-degree field of vision and relied on a computer’s processing power to deliver the images. This new development was a key moment that boosted interest in VR.

2014 A Game Changer

Facebook bought the Oculus VR for $2 billion; Sony went public on Project Morpheus (VR headset for the PS-4); Google released the Cardboard – a low-cost stereoscopic viewer for smartphones and Samsung announced the Samsung Gear VR, a headset that uses a Samsung Galaxy smartphone as a viewer.

By 2017 the rush was on to develop VR headsets.  Entering the market – HTC, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft Sony and Samsung.

2018 Oculus (Facebook) demonstrated a new prototype, the Half Dome – a varifocal headset with a 140 degrees field of vision.

In 2019 the Oculus Rift S was releases and the standalone headset, the Oculus Quest. These headsets reversed the tracking to inside-out rather than external outside-in tracking seen in previous generations of headsets.

In 2020 the Oculus Quest 2 was launched with improved features include a sharper screen.  Importantly, the prices are falling and performance increasing.

Virtual reality has significantly progressed and according to Grand View Research the global VR market will grow to £62.1bn by 2027, an annual growth rate from 2020 – 2027 of 20%.  At the time of publication of this blog, Facebook have reportedly sold over 3 million Oculus Quest 2 headsets in just three months. And you need to login with Facebook to use it…

Watch this space for the next developments!