Virtual reality's roller coaster ride to the mainstream

AP Photo/Mark Cowan

In the early '90s, four odd-looking arcade games appeared at a rented-out store in my local mall. For about seven dollars, anyone could play three minutes of a new virtual reality game called Dactyl Nightmare. I paid up, put on the massive helmet and... the game was over before I'd even figured out what I was doing in the blocky, chessboard-like environment. The whole experience left a lot to be desired and I never went back. It certainly wasn't the first VR experience (or the most advanced) made available for public consumption, but it sums up how many felt about the ill-fated, first wave of consumer-facing VR projects: all hype and not enough substance.

The times and technology have changed, though, and it's finally time for round two. VR systems are being developed and promoted at a rate that outstrips the previous era, with better graphics and games (and far less queasiness) than ever before. VR, it seems, is just about ready for prime time. So to commemorate its second coming, let's take a look at virtual reality's bumpy road to mainstream recognition.

Before VR, there was TV in your eye

x-ray delta one/Flickr

In 1963, writer, inventor and futurist Hugo Gernsback was the focus of an in-depth piece for Life magazine. In the article, he discussed his teleyeglasses: a head-worn, TV-viewing device he'd conceived of 30 years earlier, well before capable technology existed.

However, the year the Life article was published, Gernsback revisited his idea and had this mockup produced. He believed that technology had advanced to the point where the Teleyeglasses could be manufactured; a device he believed millions would desire. It was a far cry from the virtual reality tech we know today — it was more a technological spinoff of the classic stereoscope from the 1800s — but it did help plant the seeds for the VR movement.

Sights, sounds and scents


In A Brave New World, writer Aldous Huxley touched on the concept of films coupled with augmented sensory experiences (or "Feelies") — this was back in 1932. Morton Heilig then expanded on that idea in his own 1955 essay entitled Cinema of the Future. Heilig aimed to actively engage the senses of viewers to enhance their experiences. This led him to construct a series of devices to fully immerse people in the cinematic world. One of his concepts, The Telesphere Mask(pictured) added audio, aromas and air currents to 3D stereoscopic visuals in a single wearable device.

The Sword of Damocles

Computer scientist Ivan Sutherland worked on building the ultimate display during the 1960s, which, as he put it, would be a "looking glass into a mathematical wonderland." This stereoscopic system was also nicknamed "the sword of Damocles" since it was connected to the ceiling to reduce its weight. The head-worn display was one of the earliest examples of an actual virtual and augmented reality device. It worked by displaying a simple grid of geometrics overlaid onto the wearer's surroundings.

NASA's VIVED VR vision

NASA / Scott Fisher

NASA's Ames Research Center played host to a VR research project spearheaded by Michael McGreevy in 1985. Within a year of its development, the agency was able to produce a working prototype the Virtual Visual Environment Display (VIVED). It was a helmet-mounted VR device outfitted with medium-resolution, 2.7-inch LCD screens viewed through 120-degree optics, and it incorporated real-time head tracking with "six degrees of freedom."

Also of note: NASA's role in developing the groundwork for future workspaces with the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW) and telepresence.

A different kind of EyePhone

AP Photo/Jeff Reinking

VPL Research was founded in 1984 by futurist and virtual reality enthusiast Jaron Lanier. The company developed an innovative set of devices throughout the decade, like the EyePhone and DataGlove of the late '80s, designed for VR immersion. It also marketed the companion VR software.

For around $100,000, VPL sold a complete commercial VR system called RB2 (Reality Built for Two). The company's budget option, called Microcosm, cost less than $50,000, but consequently operated at lower levels of performance.

Sega tries to get its Virtual Reality on

Sega Visions Magazine

Before the company's fall from video game grace, Sega was on track to release a consumer VR gaming system in 1993 backed by lots of promotion and a visit to CES that year. California-based IDEO handled the device's design and four games were already in development for the VR platform.

Unfortunately, like many systems at the time, it proved to be underwhelming at best. And, according to an article by Ken Horowitz, Sega shuttered the project, claiming the experience was too realistic and that gamers were hurting themselves by moving around in VR too much. The project was then quietly shelved...

A date with a virtual quartet


In 1993, when the technology was still trendy, musician Thomas Dolby was tapped by Intel to help create a "music-based VR experience." The Virtual String Quartet, as it was titled, was to be part of Virtual Reality: An Emerging Medium at New York's Guggenheim Museum in Soho. Using head-mounted stereoscopic displays (powered by IBM 286 machines) and headphones, visitors could view an animated quartet within an enclosed 9-foot, square area. Both sound and image followed movement, letting users get up close to hear each instrument more loudly. While the video was low-res and jerky, according to Dolby, he made sure the audio portion of the experience was top-notch.

VR at home


Reasonably affordable home VR kits like Virtual IO i-glasses soon drifted into the marketplace, offering a glimpse into the — still glitchy — world of virtual reality. With color stereoscopic 3D, head tracking and audio, you could watch movies or play computer games. An additional clip-on visor was also available to improve the immersion experience. Graphics and motion-tracking tech were still a bit underdeveloped though, and the hype naturally outpaced the reality of VR at the time.

Nintendo's red-visored stepchild

Evan Amos / Wikimedia

Nintendo first tried its hand at virtual environments in 1989 with the Mattel Power Glove (co-developed by Jaron Lanier from VPL) as an accessory to its NES system. Like many other products at the time, it failed to live up to the hype.

But its most high-profile VR failure came in 1995 when the company tested the waters of VR again with the Virtual Boy. There was no head or motion tracking on this gaming system — it was meant to be played sitting down at a table — just a monochromatic red display that used parallax to create a 3D effect. Each eye's display had a resolution of only 224 x 1 pixels, which then scanned across the horizontal field of view. The resulting experience was uncomfortable and, with its high price, the Virtual Boy failed to gain momentum in the market.

Actual immersion

AP Photo/Mark Cowan

Not every VR endeavor involved bulky headsets. Projects like the University of Illinois's The CAVE employed stereoscopic LCD shutter glasses and wall projections to create room-sized, three-walled virtual environments. In operation since 1995, The CAVE and its four-walled partner project at the Illinois Simulator Lab called The CUBE now incorporate Intersense IS-900 motion-tracking systems allowing wireless movement throughout the spaces.

Sony sees through the VR future

Sony via Getty

In 1998, Sony joined the head-mounted display scene with its PC Glasstron personal LCD monitor. While it wasn't actually VR, it gave users a simulated 30-inch-screen view at SVGA (800 x 600) resolution, plus stereo sound. The display's transparency could also be adjusted to let users see the surrounding environment. Similar to VR systems at the time, though, this display was prone to giving users a queasy feeling, as evinced by the tone of Sony's multi-line warning:

  • Individuals diagnosed with eye or heart disease, injury or high blood pressure should consult their doctor prior to use.

  • The product should not be used while subject to external motion.

  • Users should read the instruction manual and all of its safety instructions prior to use.

It's all in your head

FOR USE WITH FEATURE TITLED VIRTUAL THERAPY -- Esther Begle, left, wears a virtual-reality helmet as she demonstrates a therapy session at Virtually Better Inc. in Atlanta, May 23, 2000, to combat her fear of flying. She reaches toward Ken Graap, CEO of Virtually Better, who uses a computer to control the simulated flight that Begle experiences.  (AP Photo/Ric Feld)


During the mid-'90s, one of the most successful VR systems for the home was ForteVR's VFX1 unit. It was one of the most comprehensive units available with a three-axis tracking system, a flip-up front visor that housed the 263 x 230-pixel LCD screens and adjustable-focus lenses. The headphones offered high-quality audio and there was even a built-in mic for chat-enabled games. In 2000, a higher-resolution model with a design similar to the VRX1 was released called the VFX3D. While its potential as an accessory in the gaming market had stalled, other more therapeutic solutions for the headset, such as treating phobias like a fear of flying, were explored.

Through a robot's eyes


NASA continued its research into VR systems, eventually pairing its tech nicely with the agency's Robonaut project, which was ready for testing in 2000. While Robonaut could be programmed to work autonomously, it could also be controlled through telepresence. Users with head-mounted displays and other hand-held controls could see from the robot's perspective and manipulate its appendages remotely.

NASA plans to use this virtual telepresence tech for help with future space walks and navigation in other dangerous outer space environments.

Serious headspace


No, this wasn't Deadmau5's early prototype; it's Toshiba's 2006 head-mounted display concept that ditched individual optics in favor of your own, personal 15.8-inch IMAX. According to the Associated Press, Toshiba planned to market the device to virtual reality gamers (amongst others) and said it gave wearers 120-degree (vertical) and 160-degree (horizontal) views from any angle a viewer's head turned. Unfortunately, the bulky, six-pound device was eventually dropped from any further company announcements.

Enjoying the wide-angle view


NASA had been having issues with the limited field of view its current VR products were providing, so it reached out to Baltimore-based Sensics to help find a solution. The company responded in 2008 by delivering a high-resolution, ultra-wide field-of-view display called piSight. It seamlessly patches together images from a series of microdisplays to provide a 150-degree field of view.

Sony serves up some 3D views


While Sony continued to develop the sci-fi looks of its head-mounted displays, the product line still didn't tie into the world of VR.

The HMZ-T1, its first in a new series of 3D-viewing visors, launched in 2011. This unit boasted an "HD organic EL panel" with a 1,280 x 720 resolution. Of course, consumers disappointed in the lack of head tracking for VR gaming would soon be able to rectify this omission with a little hacking.

Kickstarting the next generation of VR


The next generation of commercially acceptable VR gear was ushered in by Palmer Lucky and his 2012 Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift. The project exceeded its funding goal, surpassing $800,000 in pledges in less than 24 hours.

The project, now wholly owned by Facebook, has since gone through several (official) iterations, with numerous prototypes and two Developer Kitsshowcasing increasingly improved resolution. The final consumer version is still a ways off, but Oculus has finally committed to a 2016 launch date.

Building the standard


By the time CES rolled around in January 2014, Oculus had a new prototype of the Rift, code-named Crystal Cove, which was soon to be followed by a revised developer version, DK2, in July that same year. This model added features like low persistence, an HD OLED screen and positional tracking made possible via an external camera and markers on the outside of the device. Latency on this Oculus prototype was reduced from 60ms down to 30ms.

Budget shape-shifter


Thanks to advances in smartphone technology, Google was able to devise a budget-minded VR solution for consumers. Cardboard, as the project's called, utilizes the displays of select smartphones to simulate the VR experience. This affordable corrugated device has since played a key role in advancing adoption and awareness (it was given out at this year's Sundance festival) of the platform.

A perfect partnership


Instead of building its own integrated system, Samsung leveraged its existing stable of mobile devices for the Gear VR. The company also got a helpful assist from Oculus, which partnered on the project. It's important to note that Samsung's Gear VR is the first "modern day" VR tech to be made available for consumers.

VR, for kids!


Everyone's favorite childhood distraction, the View Master, originally arrived in 1939, building on the idea of stereoscopes. It featured a more modern design that played host to circular reels that offered virtual slideshow tours.

The toy, which has existed in one form or another for over 75 years, is now getting a new lease on life with Google's help. As part of the Cardboard project, it's now joining the virtual reality game. Instead of static 3D stereoscopic images, the new generation of View Master will let users experience 360-degree worlds — along with clickable tags for metadata.

Enter the Grid


Remember those space-age-looking 3D displays Sony had been releasing? Well, they've finally grown up, adding virtual reality to the mix to become Project Morpheus. Slated for a 2016 commercial release, Sony's VR headset has a bit more Tron futurism in its exterior design than many other offerings. Unlike the PC-dependent Oculus Rift, Sony's Morpheus is made to work with the tens of millions of PlayStation 4 consoles already in the wild.