The concept of virtual reality has been around since the 1970s, only a few decades longer than the origins of the phrase itself, which can be traced back to French experimental theatre. Yet the practical applications of the technology have evolved, both in how they’re used and who they’re used by. From the first generation of virtual reality and augmented reality researchers such as Dan Sandin, Myron Krueger, Richard Venezky and Jerry Erdman, to the plethora of possibilities being helmed by the new generation, this fairly recent technology has gone from inaccessible to a growing household mainstay in just a few quick decades.
Organically spawning from the world of computer sciences and the academic study of it in the US, one of the earliest forms of the medium was called Metaplay. Developed by Krueger, it incorporated much of the early hallmarks that would define what virtual reality is and could be: reactive sensors, immersive visuals and stereo sound. It – along with his later works like Videoplace – were exhibited at art galleries in the US before he continued his research at the Science and Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as people started to understand the practical applications of virtual reality.
Meanwhile inventor Tom Furness had been developing virtual reality devices within the Air Force as the first type of training simulator: there was little belief in the system at first and it would take until after the first Gulf War for administrators to realise its importance as a training tool. At NASA, David Em created navigable virtual worlds – becoming the first person to do so – with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). It ran from 1977 to 1984 and was one of many different types of simulators that started to pop up as training mechanisms: from flight and driving, to space and drilling. Work that was developed at MIT like The Aspen Movie Map and then Eric Howlett’s Large Expanse, Extra Perspective (LEEP) optical system a year later in 1979 (which was later redesigned by NASA in the mid-80s) continued to push the boundaries.
In theory there seemed to be plenty of public interest by the 1990s and 2000s, largely thanks to pop culture representation in films like Tron (1982), The Lawnmower Man (1992), Strange Days (1995) and The Matrix trilogy (1999–2003). The reality, however, seemed to be indifference. The first attempts at making virtual reality accessible commercially ranged from mixed to disaster. There was the Sega VR headset, Virtuality system, Nintendo’s ill-fated Power Glove, QuickTime VR from Apple, and Nintendo's Virtual Boy console, among many others. Although its uses were continually being expanded upon in the training spheres – virtual reality was named by NASA as one of its most important tools to train astronauts and universities such as RMIT are developing it for medical training among surgery students – it didn’t crossover into the lives and homes of the masses until the 2010s.
In 2012, American developer, designer and entrepreneur Palmer Luckey started a Kickstarter to crowdsource funding for Oculus Rift: a virtual reality headset. The campaign was successful, raising over two million dollars, before Facebook purchased the entire product wholesale for two billion dollars in 2014. It hit the market commercially in 2016, with various improved headsets and designs released since then along with gaming, educational, and even immersive media experiences tailored to go with the technology. Considered the first accessible virtual reality device for the home, it’s price tag was exclusionary for many.
Enter Google Carboard, which was launched in 2014 with a low-cost system that meant it was a much more realistic option for those wanting to engage with the tech. “It’s a VR experience starting with a simple viewer anyone can build or buy,” said the internet giant. “Once you have it, you can explore a variety of apps that unfold all around you.”
Developed by French Google engineers David Coz and Damien Henry, its defining trait was a fold-out cardboard viewer which – once a smartphone was inserted – could be turned into a virtual reality headset. Designed to encourage others to develop their own applications of the technology – much like LEGO’s Mindstorm series – users could build their own viewers from cheap components using a blueprint made downloadable by Google or purchase a pre-manufactured headset. Cardboard also had a software development kit (SDK) that was released for the Android and iOS operating systems meaning that people could develop their own virtual reality content in apps and online, as well as add it to pre-existing online spaces. In the world of moving image, the difference between virtual worlds represented in the decade between James Cameron’s Avatar (2008) and Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) became symbolic of where the technology was headed: from an unattainable science-fiction concept that couldn’t be reached outside of space (the former) to something that could be accessed, utilised and developed by all (the latter).
– Maria Lewis