Virtual reality has conquered the entertainment industry. How did humans devise the format, and who pioneered the research? In fact, today’s VR gadgets are built upon century-old ideas. The concept is advanced development of practical photography, which dates back to the early 1800s. The first telescope invented in 1838 projected a single image using twin mirrors. Isn’t this reminiscent of the twin-screen headsets of today? The term “virtual reality,” however, was coined in the 1980s. Back then, Jaron Zepel Lanier, founder of VPL Research, started developing the gear for what he called ‘virtual reality”.
Humans first attempted to create simulated environments in the mid-twentieth century. There were three major milestones.
- The Sensorama machine of 1956 was the first example of multi-sensory technology. This device was comprised of a motional chair, a stereo-sound system, a color display, odor emitters, and fans. The experience simulated the urban environment. A viewer “rode” on a motorbike, looking at the road, hearing the engine, feeling the vibration, and smelling the exhaust.
- Head-mounted devices followed. A few years later, Morton Heilig, the Sensorama creator, patented a display device called the Telesphere Mask. In the mid-1960s, Ivan Sutherland unveiled “the Ultimate Display”. This device was supposed to be a “window into a virtual world.”
- In the 1970s and 1980s, optical advances and haptic (i.e., involving touch) novelties went hand in hand. NASA Ames Research Center presented the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW). This system added gloves to the VR gear set.
Today, Jaron Lanier is regarded as the founding father of virtual reality. This computer philosophy writer, programmer, and visual artist was born in 1960. Together with Thomas G. Zimmerman, Lanier established VPL Research, Inc. in 1985. This company was the first to commercialize the sphere and sell VR goggles and gloves. Despite the initial success, it went bankrupt in 1990. Sun Microsystems purchased the patents related to VR and graphics, and the technology developed further.
Later, Lanier focused on Internet2 applications, and in the 2000s became a visiting scholar at several universities. Next, he was employed by Microsoft, and since 2009 he has been an Interdisciplinary Scientist for Microsoft Research.
Today, the digital pioneer is a web rebel urging people to delete their social media accounts. His books on the internet and digital ownership include You Are Not A Gadget and Who Owns the Future? He even composed neoclassical music. In 2007, he co-authored the soundtrack to The Third Wave. In 2010, Lanier was a nominee in the TIME 100 list of most influential people.