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Virtual Reality: The History, Rise & Fall of VR

Written by David Bryan, June 8, 2016
Sensorma

Virtual Reality: The History, Rise & Fall of VR

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Despite ‘virtual reality’ now gaining its rightful place as one of the hottest buzzwords in the tech world, it is not a new concept. In fact, the beginnings of virtual reality date back to the 1950s when a group of visionaries believed in the possibility of viewing images on a limitless, boundary-less screen. However, at the time the technology and the visuals weren’t competent enough and so the concept remained only a dream. It stayed this way for many years, despite some small military interventions where they began using virtual reality technology for effective war training simulations. By the 1980s and 1990s, the concept had once again been reborn with a lot more strength, albeit it mostly in films such as The Matrix, Virtuosity, The Lawnmower Man and Strange Days.

The Lawnmower Man VR

The Lawnmower Man – image credit: Pinterest

While it eventually fell again in this period, it is now undergoing yet another re-rising, with the exception being that this time it now seems somewhat unstoppable, with the virtual reality and augmented reality industries expected to be worth $150 billion by 2020.

This article is part of our series of articles below on “VR for business”:

  1. The History, Rise & Fall of Virtual Reality
  2. Has Oculus Lost the First Generation of Virtual Reality to HTC
  3. How Marketers Can Use Virtual Reality
  4. Virtual Reality vs. Augmented Reality & the Applications for Business
  5. Open Source Virtual Reality and What This Means for Business
  6. Virtual Reality Web Design; Why Every Business Will Need to Factor VR into Their Digital Marketing
  7. Virtual Reality eCommerce & the Future of Online Shopping (vCommerce)
  8. The Lowdown from Our VR Gurus, Rob and Adam

We would love to encourage some discussion and debate around where this interesting and game-changing technology is heading, so please feel free to leave us a comment below or on social media and we’ll get back to you. In this article, we examine the history, and the rise and fall of virtual reality.

History of VR: the early years

True virtual reality is no easy feat; you’re attempting to transport the user into a whole new experience, plucking them out from their current one. Of course, they know it’s only virtual, but companies that can make users forget this, even for just a second, will be the ones that push ahead in the market.

It’s no surprise then that virtual reality never came close to taking off in the 1950s. As the world has only just recently become familiar with 3D screens and Blu-ray technology, the hardware and software simply didn’t exist previously to take virtual reality from fantasy to reality. The closest anyone came in this period was in 1962 when Mort Heilig patented the Sensorama, which was a cabinet with a 3D display, vibrating seat and a scent producer.

Sensorma

In 1962 Heilig patented the Sensorama – image credit: Wikipedia

Some would even argue that the concept of virtual reality predates the 1950s, with 360-degree murals (panoramic paintings) and stereoscopic photos and viewers of the nineteenth century, or the first flight simulator in 1929. Regardless of when the concept of virtual reality began, it’s clear that people know that an audience wants to be transported out of their current experience to a new one, which is why films like Avatar were so successful.

A small minority of inventors returned to the concept of virtual reality in the 1980s and 1990s after its failures three decades before this. The personal computer was becoming mainstream, and many of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters were using computer-generated special effects to give viewers a new experience in the cinema. Alongside this, arcade headsets, sensor-equipped gloves, and full-body motion tracking suits had also been released. Could these inventors make use of this new technology? Unfortunately not. The technology remained lacklustre when trying to achieve a vision for virtual reality, and while users could experience a rough version of an alternative reality, the actual experience, and the concept, were still a world apart. It was also costly, both in terms of time and money.

This was shown when The National Center for Supercomputing Applications, based in the U.S., produced an award-winning animation of smog descending upon Los Angeles, which showed the breadth of what could potentially be achieved with animations and virtual reality. But, it took six months to produce this animation, and it couldn’t be changed once it was finished. People, whether this is in the military, in businesses or the gaming industry, wanted interactivity with their virtual reality. With this in mind, the virtual reality industry in the 1990s all but died, yet again. Instead, it was replaced by a more exciting, and more realistic concept; the internet.

Here’s an excellent timeline of VR from http://www.tomshardware.co.uk:

Virtual reality visual history and timeline

Virtual reality timeline from Tom’s Hardware

The rise of VR: what came next?

It wasn’t a ‘what’ so much as a ‘who’. Palmer Luckey, using much-improved technology, raised enough funding to establish the now well-known Oculus. Now they’re one of the industry leaders in virtual reality with their Oculus Rift headset. Our chief techical guru Rob was one of the early adopters of the Oculus Rift and previously blogged about his experiences using the technology back in 2014. At this time it was clear that the virtual reality industry still had some way to go but for the first time ever virtual reality could be experienced properly.

Oculus Rift

The Oculus Rift headset – image credit: Maurizio Pesce

What could take Oculus from where they were to where they needed to be? A $2 billion acquiring deal from Facebook was to be the answer and suddenly Oculus became a household name, and virtual reality became the next ‘big thing’.

With the $599 Oculus Rift headset, it was clear that virtual reality was here to stay. The groundwork for virtual reality had been laid over a number of decades, all it needed was an entrepreneur with a vision to put all of the different pieces together. With the help of researchers such as Skip Rizzo, who had been using virtual reality to help treat cognitive and motor illnesses, Luckey was able to achieve what visionaries had been trying to for many years.

It was in 2000 that you could achieve some form of virtual reality on a PC. Then from 2002 other innovations which showed promise were brought to the public eye, such as the Wide Five display in 2006 which allowed for a much wider field of view than was previously available. Then in 2009 Luckey started to bring all of this research together. At the time, not even him, Rizzo or Mark Bolas, a researcher from the Institute for Creative Technologies who was also assisting in the production, could have predicted the success that virtual reality would achieve.

In fact, the night before they launched the Kickstarter campaign, Luckey said:

“Look, even if we sell 300 developer kits, that’s a huge success for VR. No one has gotten that many game developers interested in VR.” He later said, “it was kind of a silly worry in hindsight.”

Current VR: virtual reality is now a hot topic

Fast forward a few years and now Oculus has some serious competition. In fact, it appears they may not even be market leaders anymore. With poor decisions such as moving their headset into retail stores before fulfilling all their current pre-orders, and the rise of suspected competitors such as Samsung, with their lower cost Samsung Gear VR as well as surprise entries such as the HTC Vive, the virtual reality industry is now booming. Before, it was only a few visionaries who were trying to make virtual reality mainstream, and now all the big players are involved. Competition breeds innovation and perfection, and these stats show that Oculus has been knocked off the top spot for expected revenue in 2016.

Why has virtual reality suddenly seen this dramatic rise?

As we’ve learnt by now, virtual reality is not a new concept, and people have been trying to bring it out to the public for at least sixty years; longer if you date its beginnings back to the 360-degree murals. Quite simply, it’s been about waiting for the right technology. The immersion that virtual reality can achieve is something that will always appeal to humans. It’s why we read books or watch films that bear no truth to our everyday lives; people like to be taken into new experiences that aren’t real.

The reason there have been several attempts at virtual reality is that the want for it has never died. Perhaps it’s simmered a little, or dropped out of the public eye completely for periods, but human nature and virtual reality go hand in hand.

Innovation sometimes requires patience. While virtual reality may have been dismissed as a fantasy not so long ago, many are slow on the uptake of new technology. Who can forget Bob Metcalfe infamously predicting in 1995 that the internet “will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 will collapse.” Now as humans, both young and old, we couldn’t imagine a life without the internet (and Opace would have never been born!).

It looks as though virtual reality is heading in the same direction. It’s taken many, many years to get to the stage that it’s at now, but it’s clear that it’s only going one way. While simpler predictions, such as that virtual reality will now permanently be in the consumer market, now seem obvious, there are other high hopes for virtual reality such as its ability to treat mental health issues.

It’s clear that not only has it now moved away from the idea that it’s simply the next stage of gaming, but that it is witnessing a dramatic re-rising which is only going to continue going up. The only question now is which VR provider will win the race to become the dominant player, a question that we we examine here.

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