As cited in the “Inventor of the Field of Virtual Reality” article, the Sensorama (pictured above) is considered to be the first true virtual reality device. It was created in 1957 by filmmaker Mort Heilig which featured an arcade style cabinet with a 3D display, vibrating seat, wind blowing effects, and even a scent producer. This technique is still used today to create what we now call 4D rides. Heilig had envisioned this new machine as the “Cinema of the future”. He was right but the hardware limitations of the time wouldn’t allow its success.
The Financial Time’s article “Virtual Reality: Four ways it could change your world” recognizes computer scientist Ivan Sutherland as the first person who conceptualized a virtual reality headset that used a head-tracking, head mounted display. Suggesting that:
“A computer-generated visual display might one day become so believable it could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.”
The head mounted display concept is still used today in brand new virtual reality headsets. Here is a video of what it looked like.
“Voices From a Virtual Past” , written by Adi Robertson, Michael Zelenko, and published by The Verge credits NASA’s Ames Research Center and the U.S. Air Force for their early VR technology. Their technology though was used to create flight simulators to train pilots with the help of Thomas Furness’s ingenuity and Ivan Sutherland’s equipment.
According to Robertson and Zelenko, consumer versions of VR devices started to come out in the 1980’s. In 1984 VPL Research company, founded by Jaron Lanier, released the EyePhone along with the Data Glove. The EyePhone served as the head mounted display used to immerse users into a computer simulation. The Data Glove was used as the interface. Although it helped to advance computer hardware and software technology at the time, the device couldn’t become a consumer success as just the Data Glove alone cost $9000. Jaron Lanier is also credited with being the first person to coin the term “Virtual Reality”.
The technology in the Data Glove was later used to create the Power Glove accessory for the Nintendo Entertainment System.
In the 1990’s the concept of virtual reality was starting to boom. Movies like The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix stretched the imagination as to what kind of experience virtual reality could bring. Movie theaters and arcade rooms featured virtual reality pods as well most prominently made by video game manufacturers Sega Genesis and Virtuality.
Sega rival Nintendo created their own home based virtual reality device in 1995 called the Virtual Boy (I got one for Christmas that year. I’m old.). Although it was released at an affordable price, it was a commercial failure due to negative publicity. It was discontinued from production the following year.
In the late 90’s the hype and interest of virtual reality tapered off with the birth of the internet.