History of Virtual Reality, Part 3
Morton Heilig announced to the world his intention on spreading the idea of virtual reality with the Sensorama. While it did not prove financially successful, he continued onward with his development of VR and the rest of the industry has him to thank for it. So, you should not be surprised the very first VR mounted head display is his design and invention. In fact, the VR headset saw a wave of inventions beginning in the 1960s to reach nearly where it is today.
Introduction to the World of “Portable” VR
The main problem with the Sensorama is, undoubtedly, its size. In order to help provide a more portable, personal option, Heilig created the “Telesphere Mask.” Officially recognized by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1960 (two years prior to the Sensorama, although he started work on the Sensorama a half-decade prior). This device became the very first head mounted display (now known in the VR world as an HMD).
The Telesphere Mask took advantage of stereoscopic 3D visuals, taking up a user’s full visual spectrum. However, it did not include any kind of tracking with the visuals. More or less it provided 3D video along with stereo sound. While virtual reality has come a significant way, this design in 1960 could pass as a modern VR today by the shape and design.
Motion Tracking and Gaming Opportunities
A year following the creation of the Telesphere, Philco produced a new device it referred to as “Headsight.” Now, the company never had any intention on it providing entertainment value. Instead, with the headgear, each eye had an individual video screen with the headset connected to a closed circuit camera on the other end. A magnet in the headset helped determine the direction the user looked in, which would control the camera. Philco created the device as hardware for the military so soldiers could move cameras into dangerous environments without immediately putting humans in harm’s way (the U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam War, so technology again had a military tilt to it, although not to the extent of the second World War).
At the end of the 1960s, Ivan Sutherland created a “head mounted display” known as the Sword of Damocles. Head mounted display is in quotations as while worn on the head, the device weighed so much it had to be secured to the ceiling and the user strapped in. So, it did not prove to be a comfortable head mounted device, but it did prove to be the first true VR experience. Up to this point, everything used pre-recorded video. The Sword of Damocles connected to a massive computer where the movements could interact with wireframe objects. This pushed the notion of computer graphics and VR into an all-new era. A VR device three decades later would essentially mimic the Sword of Damocles, and would prove almost as popular (neither sold well).
Apple fan boys might sulk while Apple haters may rejoice. The iPhone was never the original (another company bested it by twenty years). A company known as VPL (short for Visual Programming Lab) created a device known as the EyePhone. This company coined the phrase Virtual Reality and pushed the idea of VR in the late 1980s. The technology paired with VR gloves, allowing a user to not only look around a computer-generated environment, but also interact with it thanks to the glove. Of course, all of this technology didn’t come cheap, as the EyePhone HRX sold for $49,000 along with the $9,000 gloves. Up until this point, most designers had focused only on the creation of headwear and not accessories to go along with the virtual world experience. Computers had reached a point where some more powerful graphics could be created.
The Birth of VR Arcade Games
The early 1990s saw a birth of virtual reality within arcades. These game stations took up a considerable amount of space and often included full seats for the players and bulky headset goggles. VR simply required too much computing power and hardware for the average home user to take advantage of, so it had to remain in arcades. The Virtuality Group sold a variety of VR arcade games, typically in three or four person units. The units either worked independently of one another or were networked into a single game. Movements in these systems were limited, but this gave the general public their very first experience with virtual reality in virtual worlds.
Adult based content in these systems proved few and far between. As most headsets and systems used computer-generated environments, the graphics did not prove capable of properly replicating the human form to any desirable measure (not to mention most devices were just too large for anyone at home to try out). However, with a budding consumer base, true virtual reality was right around the corner.