The History of Virtual Reality


What would you do if you could run the world your way?

That’s a question you might have an instant answer for or one which you might
have to think about for a while. It’s something most of us have fantasized about
in one way or another at some point.

Yet such a scenario might actually be possible a lot sooner than you think.
Of course, you won’t have almighty power over all of humanity and the earth, but
you might be able to enter your own virtual world, created by you (or someone
else), for you, and live as you wish without rules.

That’s the ultimate dream of virtual reality. It’s been in the making for
close to 100 years now, and if you’re under 60 reading this today, there’s a
very good chance you will see the dream of the early VR pioneers come to
fruition within your lifetime.

VR is still in its early stages, relative to where it’s going. But to
understand how we got to this stage, it’s first important to understand what
virtual reality is, and how we got to where we are today.

What Is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality, in a nutshell, is a digital world which you can access
through a virtual reality headset.

It’s something like a dream world, except that it’s generated by a VR headset
and powerful server computers, so it has a basis in actual reality. If you’ve
ever seen Vanilla Sky starring Tom Cruise, that’s a good depiction, although VR
is nowhere near that level yet.

VR developers have studied the human brain in intricate detail and have
discovered the “rules” most human beings
live by. For example:

  • If we drop a stone, it will fall to the ground
  • The ground will feel harder than a rubber ball
  • The sky will be blue when we look up on a sunny day
  • If we walk towards something, it will get bigger as we get closer
  • If we move away from the source of a sound, the volume decreases

These are simple rules our brains have learned, and virtual reality
developers have woven them into worlds of their own making – digital worlds,
that is.

Once “in,” you can then explore these worlds by moving around within them and
interacting with them. As the technology progresses, you’ll be able to do more
and more within these virtual worlds, but more on that a little later.

So, virtual reality is just what the name suggests – a digital waking dream.

A Short History of VR

While most of us “normies” have only heard of virtual reality within the last
five years or so, it actually has a long history stretching back to Victorian
times (the 1800s).

The 1800s and The Wheatstone Stereoscope

It was in 1838 that the precursor to the VR headset we know today was
invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone. It was known as the Wheatstone stereoscope
and used mirrors at 45-degree angles from the eyes to generate what appeared to
be a 3D image.

The 1930s and The View-Master

Back in the 1800s, science and technology were just in their infancy, so
there was nowhere near the sort of pace of development we have come to expect in
today’s world.

It took until 1939, a grand total of 101 years after the invention of the
Wheatstone stereoscope
, for things to develop to
the point where the View-Master was conceived of by Edwin Eugene Mayer.

A World War I veteran, Mayer worked in a pharmacy and bought early into
Sawyer’s photofinishing company, which would go on to manufacture and distribute
the View-Master.

It wasn’t until the 1940s, however, that people could view reels of 3D images
through the View-Master headset.

The 1980s and the Rise of Virtual Reality

You probably don’t need us to tell you that there have been a lot of advances
in the various fields associated with virtual reality (optics, computing,
haptics, and neuroscience, for example), from when the View-Master came out
until today.

It was really in the 1980s, though, that the first use of the term “virtual
reality” began being used more frequently.

While Hollywood Cinematographer Morton Heilig had created one of the earliest virtual
experiences in the form of a motorbike ride through a busy city in 1956, it
wasn’t until the ’80s that computers, graphics, and our understanding of how the
human brain works had progressed enough to allow the first forays into creating
virtual worlds.

Since then, things have exploded in growth, as all technologies do when they
reach a tipping point. Virtual reality is becoming a massive industry in and of
itself and is shaking up lots of other industries along the way.

Let’s take a look at VR today, and its current applications.

VR Today – A Blossoming Industry

If we told you to think of a huge internet company at the cutting edge of
digital technology, it’s a pretty safe bet that Facebook would be the first one
many of you think of, and Google would be the other.

Those two, and several other well-known global firms, are playing a key role
in driving virtual reality forward today. In fact, on March 25th, 2014, Mark
Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had acquired Oculus VR, an industry leader,
for a staggering $2 billion USD.

Yet Oculus is not the market leader today. Samsung Gear VR and Google
Cardboard have both taken the lead in the past couple of years.

Other global tech giants such as Microsoft and Sony are racing to get the
edge in what experts predict will be a $215 billion market by 2021.

Needless to say, VR has come a long way since Charles Wheatstone took off his
top hat and discovered that two images with mirrors at the side could look 3D.

Some Popular VR Applications Today

While the early pioneers of VR imagined immersive games and novelty
experiences, VR has taken on a life-force of its own, and there are many more
applications today than were first imagined.

VR today is used in:

  • The Military
  • From testing strategies to training
    recruits how to react in certain situations, the military has adopted VR
    wholesale. Since no actual harm can come as a result of mistakes made in VR war
    scenarios, it’s inevitable that this has already and will continue to save

  • Professional Sports
  • Virtual reality has slowly
    crept its way into sports, being adopted by competitive sports people looking to
    get an edge over their rivals. From golfers practicing their swing to snooker
    players hoping to improve their shots, VR will no doubt continue to play a role
    in the world of sports. Fans can also now enjoy unique sports experiences such
    as stadium walkthroughs.

  • The Media
  • Hollywood producers were one of the
    first groups to understand VR’s potential and how it could create more immersive
    movie experiences. From movies where you can feel the vampire breathing down
    your neck, to live news reports which reenact the scene in virtual reality, VR
    is seen as the future of many forms of media.

  • World Travel
  • While nothing will ever replace
    sipping red wine on the French Riviera, basking in the sunlight, it’s not always
    possible for us to go where we want when we want. VR travel is changing that. VR
    tours of cities, natural wonders, historical sites, and places of interest all
    over the world are popping up all over the place. For example, you can visit
    Mount Everest in VR.

  • Medicine and Healthcare
  • Junior doctors and
    surgeons are now able to perform virtual reality surgery on digital patients,
    giving them valuable experience before the real thing is necessary. VR is also
    used in medical diagnostics, and in training doctors in empathy and bedside
    manner through simulated interactions.

  • Gaming and Gambling
  • Computer gaming is almost
    always at the forefront of any emerging technology, and VR is no exception. From
    role-playing games to online slots, gaming as a whole is in the midst of the
    virtual reality revolution.

VR and Gambling – An Inevitable Match

Gambling is a fiercely competitive market, with those who get an edge over
their competition earning what is basically a license to print money.

It might not be so surprising, then, that gambling was one of the first
industries to fully embrace VR. The first VR casinos started popping up around
2012 and 2013, and things have developed pretty quickly since.

What VR Casinos Are Like Now

Although VR casinos are still in their beginning stages, you can now:

  • Play VR casino games such as
    slots, roulette, and blackjack. You can stand in front of slot machines and
    watch the reels spin, reach out and pull a handle, and hear the roulette ball as
    it spins around the wheel.
  • Move around VR casinos as if you
    were on foot. You can hear the sounds of VR slots beeping and ringing, jackpots
    being paid out, dice being rolled, and typical relaxing casino music as you
    watch the weather change outside floor-to-ceiling windows.
  • Interact with dealers and other
    people at game tables. Each of you will have an avatar. This brings a new
    dimension to card and table games, as facial expressions can change. This is the
    social element of VR casinos which lacks in normal online casinos.
  • Peek at your cards, turn them
    over, and fold, and perform other functions as you would if sitting at a real
    casino table.

This is pretty revolutionary stuff, and it’s likely to get a whole lot better
as graphics, hardware, and other VR technology improves.

How This Is Changing the Entire Gambling Industry

VR is literally forcing slow-moving online casinos and land-based ones to
think about how they are going to adapt. In fact, according to CNBC, VR gambling
is set to grow 800% by 2021, with high-rollers leading the pack.

Sportsbooks, too, are jumping aboard the virtual reality train.
Forward-thinking bookmakers are already beginning to think about how virtual
reality could help offer experiences their competitors can’t, such as betting on
virtual reality fights and horse racing.

Bingo halls and poker rooms haven’t missed the signs of the times, either.
It’s perfectly possible to play a game of virtual reality Texas Hold’em, and in
fact, there are even global tournaments occurring already.

All of this is leading to advancements in online gambling and new experiences
for players and punters.

Just where could VR end up? Let’s take a look at that now.

Popular VR Headsets Today

The VR hardware industry is on fire, with Samsung, Google, Facebook, TCL, and
HTC all in the race.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the most popular VR headsets:

  • Samsung Gear VR
  • This mobile headset was released
    in November 2015 after being announced almost a year earlier. It was developed
    in partnership with Oculus. The Gear VR has been a long time in the making, as
    Samsung had filed a patent for a Head Mounted Display back in January 2005.

  • Oculus Rift VR
  • Perhaps the best-known VR headset,
    the Oculus Rift was released in March 2016. Development began in 2012 after
    Oculus raised $2.5 million for development through a wildly successful
    crowdfunding campaign. The Rift has gone through five models since, and Facebook
    Inc. now owns it, having purchased Oculus for $2 billion in 2014.

  • Google Cardboard
  • This extremely low-cost virtual
    reality head mount was released by Google in 2014. It’s literally made of
    cardboard and is intended to be used with a mobile device. It was created by
    Google for the express purpose of generating interest in VR. It can be purchased
    for a few dollars, or you can create your own for free by following Google’s

  • Google Daydream View
  • November 2016 saw Google
    launch its own VR headset with the first-generation Daydream View. It is used in
    conjunction with compatible mobile devices, and shortly after its release, a
    “slate” color version was released. In October 2017, the second-generation
    version was released.

  • HTC Vive VR
  • This device was unveiled by HTC at
    its World Mobile Congress in 2015, although early prototypes were tested in
    2014. It was developed in partnership with the Valve Corporation. The first
    customer units were available in April 2016.

Where Is VR Headed Next?

Where VR is headed next is anybody’s guess. Entire worlds could be created,
with casinos, shopping centers, entire new cities, and even outer space all in
the virtual reality mix.

One thing is for sure – the variety of VR experiences will continue to grow.
Pretty soon we could be dating in VR, socializing in VR, and living out our
wildest dreams in VR.

There’s still a long way to go before VR comes anywhere close to real life.
But if past technological development trends hold, we could be there a lot
sooner than we think.