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A brief history of virtual reality: What's special about now?

It’s one of the biggest tech trends of 2017, and a closer look at the evolution of virtual reality shows why now is the perfect time for this great idea to become a phenomenon.

Virtual reality’s shift into the mainstream technology market is now closer than ever to complete. More than 15 million Australians own a smartphone, which is all you need to get started, and as such 216,000 VR units were sold in Australia through 2016.

One in four homes is expected to have a VR device by 2021, which equates to roughly 2.4 million units in just a handful of years.

However, virtual reality is not the overnight sensation it appears to be. When we look back at its evolution, we can see it has been a long road to success for the technology’s pioneers.

Early origins of virtual reality

English scientist Charles Wheatstone first began paving the way for VR way back in 1838, when he discovered stereoscopic 3D by allowing each eye to see the same image remotely.

Much later, in 1935, science-fiction author Stanley G. Weinbaum would describe virtual reality in his short story Pygmalion's Spectacles – he theorised the use of goggles and, inside, holograms of a fictional world.

The first use of the term “Virtual Reality,” however, came a few years later in 1938, where French playwright Antonin Artaud used it to define a way of creating an illusionary effect on stage through the placement of characters and objects.

The following year, the first device that might be called a precursor to VR arrived in the form of Sawyers View-Master. Still used as a toy today, although also available as a modern VR unit, you could look into a binocular-like device and rotate images to view them in stereoscopic 3D.

In 1960, Morton Heilig invented the first headset, called the Telesphere Mask, for watching movies, and it was followed a year later by another headset that included rudimentary motion-tracking.

It wasn’t long before these devices were detached from cameras and attached to early computers. Expensive and hard to build, over the next two decades, this would pave the way for VR to be used in fields like medicine and military.

The ill-fated first attempt at consumer VR

Famously, virtual reality had a fleeting few years as a phenomenon in the mid-90s. Game console maker Sega was the first to give it a go, announcing Sega VR in 1991, but the company was never able to get it cost-effective and functional enough to make it into homes.

Arcades, however, benefited, with cabinets made by Sega and another company, Virtuality, able to dodge their hefty price tag by operators charging a princely sum for their use.

It was Nintendo’s 1995 hardware, called the Virtual Boy, which defined this failed first era of consumer VR. In order to get the device down to a price that was remotely affordable, Nintendo had to compromise on many features.

The device sat on a table, with the player asked to lean into the headset for play. It was terribly uncomfortable and not very portable.

The controller of the time used two d-pads to try and allow players to move properly in 3D space, which was clunky. And the limited number of games didn’t display in full colour. On top of all this, it was still very expensive for the time.

The Virtual Boy was discontinued in just seven months!

The short-lived 90s VR phenomenon wasn’t helped by the high profile VR-set movies of the time, such as 1992’s The Lawnmower Man and 1995’s Virtuosity.

They set an expectation for VR that the contemporary technology simply couldn’t match, so fans saw it as a failure and the phenomenon died.

The VR renaissance

By 2012, virtual reality was little more than the brunt of jokes as journalists pointed their finger at the nineties and laughed. But then the dream was sold anew.

Oculus Rift debuted on Kickstarter in August 2012 and quickly raised almost US$2.5 million on the back of its “step into the game” tagline.

The promise of a comfortable headset that plugged into your PC and actually worked reignited the flame for technology lovers. So passionate was the response that Facebook bought the company for US$2billion just two years later in 2014.

The headset would ultimately release on March 28, 2016, by which time other large technology companies were also ready with their own headsets.

Notably, phone maker HTC teamed up with game developer and distributor Valve to create the high-end and now-popular Vive, and Sony released the mid-range, PlayStation VR.

Meanwhile, a thriving mobile driven, low-end VR experience was taking hold. Led at first by Google Cardboard in 2014 and Samsung Gear VR in 2015, and now followed by almost all the major handset manufacturers.

We’ve previously taken a more detailed look at the VR options currently available in Australia.

So what changed? Why did VR suddenly boom and thrive?

Effectively, the key parts to the VR puzzle – the components that make it work – finally came together at a price the average consumer could potentially afford.

Modern virtual reality works by first creating a stereoscopic 3D view of what the user is looking at. It then tracks the motion of the user’s head and as they look around, the computer redraws what the user can see.

This redraw happens faster than the human eye can pick up, so the transition from image-to-image is so smooth that it appears like a video. The headset also closes off the outside world, and the illusion is completed by the addition of 3D sound.

The higher-end headsets take it all a step further by adding motion-controllers for your hands, allowing your hand movements in the real world to simultaneously occur in the virtual landscape, while modern fast internet can even allow these experiences to occur online in multiplayer games.

All these puzzle pieces are intensive computer processes that require high-end, modern hardware. Not only does it need to run the software, the sound and track your movements, it has to run it all twice – once for each eye – to get the stereoscopic 3D effect.

And it has to do it all fast enough that the illusion isn’t broken. It’s only in the last few years that technology has become powerful enough to achieve all that, and small enough to be deposited into a comfortable, light headset.

A bright future

Now that the technology is up-to-speed with the needs of virtual reality, the sky is the limit. The manufacturers involved are now busy optimising their headsets with features like wireless VR.

And we’re only in the infancy of the kind of experience developers can make to work with these headsets: look at Melbourne developer Opaque Multimedia’s astronaut simulator Earthlight. We can’t wait to see what reality awaits us next.

Virtual reality isn't just for gaming and entertainment. Check out these interesting and unexpected ways people are using VR across multiple industries.

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