A History of the Rise of Virtual Reality

Twenty years ago, virtual reality was a technology breakthrough that used crude graphics and bulky headsets to transport participants to another realm—a virtual playground.

In 1995, the movie Strange Days foreshadowed a more complex type of VR, an experience that tapped into the brain to relive moments and events that were captured from the past. The movie explored the addictive qualities of this type of virtual reality, equating it to a drug that enables users to get high off the euphoria and emotions of moments seemingly lost in time.

While the VR experiences in Strange Days never came to reality, the past two decades have seen an uptick in this technology. There has been a clear evolution from those once crude graphics and massive headsets to a streamlined form of virtual reality. Today’s augmented reality is built into our cars, our homes and our lives. Bulky headsets aren’t required to experience these virtual worlds; now we simply need to start the ignition of our cars or say “Hey, Siri.”

Here’s a look at the evolution and history of augmented reality and how it has progressed throughout the years since its inception:

Antique Virtual Reality

The Virtual Reality Society is the go-to hub for all things VR. The site has a full history of virtual and augmented reality from this technology’s inception. In the beginning, though, VR was a bit more…basic.

According to the VRS, the birth of virtual reality began with panoramic paintings. How is a painting virtual reality? In the 1800s, the idea of experiencing a moment in time or another world could really only be captured in pictures. To bring the individual into the moment, these pictures had to be large and “fill the viewer’s entire field of vision.”

Viewing a panoramic painting allowed the individual to feel as though they were transported into that scene, that painting. Panoramic paintings are the primitive form of VR as we know it.

The View-Master

Did you play with a View-Master as a child? These camera-like devices required you to place a round disc lined with pictures into a viewing slot. When you peered through the glasses (and, yes, they looked like VR glasses), the pictures created a virtual world that seemed to come alive.

Clicking through the pictures helped tell a full story, and, as you clicked through the slideshow, the characters and scenes seemed to come alive before you. According to the VRS, William Gruber invented the View-Master in 1939, but the toy version was popular for many decades.

Moving Pictures (or Motion Pictures)

Although the VRS doesn’t include motion pictures in its virtual reality history, the movies that we now enjoy regularly were cutting edge when they were introduced. Watching a movie allowed viewers to be transported visually to a new adventure and a new place. Movies captured far-off destinations and brought books to life. Moving pictures evolved from silent shows with captions to pictures with dubbed sound, and black and white pictures eventually became a world of color.

The Sensorama

In the 1950s, a new device called the Sensorama was invented by Morton Heilig. The VRS describes this “an arcade-style theatre cabinet that would stimulate all the senses, not just sight and sound.” Speakers, fans, vibrating elements and a 3D display enabled participants to virtually experience movies with titles like Motorcycle, Dune Buggy, Belly Dancer and helicopter.

Augmented Reality in a Computer

The 60s gave us groovy music, peace and love…and, yes, even virtual reality in a computer. In 1969 Myron Kruegere created the first virtual reality (or artificial reality) in a computer program.

Kruegere allowed for individuals to interact with each other virtually in a computer environment; his invention let those living in different places stay in touch via the screen…a common habit we take for granted today.

VR Headsets & Simulations: The Fun & Funky ‘70s Started the Trend

In the early 70s, General Electric created a virtual flight simulator. The simulator was used for pilot training, according to the VRS.

In 1975, Myron Krueger invented Videoplace, and it was the very definition of funky. A website devoted to Krueger has all the details about his invention. Videoplace consisted of two rooms; participants could step inside and their image would be projected on the screen (and others could be projected with them). While in Videoplace, you also could virtually interact with other projected items. Plus, you could manipulate your image too (changing the color, size, etc.). VRS includes Videoplace in its history of VR, as this creation was an important contribution to the emerging technology.

The latter part of the ‘70s saw the creation of a program called the MIT Movie Map, which was invented at MIT. VRS states that “It was almost like an ancient precursor of Google Street View.” Unlike Google Street View, Movie Map only allowed users to virtually experience one location: Aspen, Colo.

Two years later (in 1979) McDonnell Douglas created the precursor to the VR headset: the VITAL Helmet. With the helmet, pilots could see virtual imagery.

The ‘80s & ‘90s: Perfecting VR

The ‘80s and ‘90s were times of virtual reality evolution. The phrase “virtual reality” was used for the first time in 1987. Sayre Gloves were invented in 1982, and these were the precursor to “data gloves,” according to the VRS.

Throughout the ‘80s, VR was exploding…and the VRS notes many historic breakthroughs. VPL Research—the first VR company to sell VR items like HMDs and gloves—was founded in 1985. And, in 1986, The Super Cockpit allowed for more detailed VR flight simulations for pilots. NASA also became involved in VR in 1989, and used virtual reality program simulators to prepare astronauts.

In the ‘90s VR went commercial. This was the decade that virtual reality really went mainstream. Kids heading to the arcade could jump in a simulator and experience virtual reality. Sega and Nintendo both had VR offerings; Sega’s never jumped out of the prototype phase, according to VRS. Nintendo launched its Virtual Boy, but it failed to land with consumers.

The New Millennium

Virtual reality was the subject of the movie The Matrix (1999), which transformed the notion of virtual reality as the technology moved into the new millennium. In The Matrix, Neo had to choose to take either a blue pill or a red pill–a choice that was the key to either continuing to live in the virtual, artificial world known as The Matrix or to wake up and face a brutal (and annihilated) world post apocalypse.

While the movie might have left viewers wondering if we were all just trapped in a virtual reality, it also pushed virtual reality and its capabilities into the forefront. Although the machines took over the world in The Matrix, our world embraced the rise of computers and virtual assistants.

The new millennium slowly introduced virtual reality into our daily lives. Game consoles like the Wii let players virtually experience different types of sports and games. The controllers were small handheld contraptions that sensed movement and interacted with the console to virtually control the game action on the screen.

VR Today

VR is now fully integrated into our lives. In 2011, Apple integrated Siri into the iPhone® 4S, and this emergence of built-in virtual assistants became yet another type of augmented reality. Our phones responded now to our requests. With a simple “Hey, Siri…,” we could order pizza, search the web, send a text and make a call.

Siri gave rise to Alexa, a VR assistant built-in to Amazon devices. These devices—fueled by Alexa’s ingenuity—could control appliances in our home and even call for food deliveries. Alexa ushered in the Internet of Things (or IoT), and homeowners could purchase smart plugs and smart power strips designed to work with Alexa; daily appliances like the coffee maker could be plugged into the strips or plugs, and, suddenly, Alexa could take over.

The morning routine, once a series of rituals like brewing the coffee, turning on the television and making breakfast was suddenly a virtual experience. “Alexa, brew the coffee.” “Alexa, turn on the light.” “Alexa, what’s the weather today.” With one simple command, life became almost effortless.

Augmented Reality: Driving Our Lives

The millennium also gave rise to VR in the automobile, although computers were taking over already. While many automobiles were utilizing computer chips for different functions, virtual reality started slowly creeping into the drive.

Many drivers started using VR in the car thanks to portable devices like GPS systems. Garmin devices could plug into the car and display an easy map of the trip, giving voice commands and highlighting the route along the way. Getting lost was now a problem of the past. And forget about those bulky maps that could never be refolded with ease! Who needs a map when you have a navigation screen!

The popularity of these systems likely led to manufacturers finding a way to include them into the automobile. Cars began to incorporate smart features like digital driver displays that alerted drivers of inflation issues with tires, old oil or other issues. Back-up cameras started to become a standard feature, as the rear camera view allowed drivers to parallel park with ease and back out of tight parking lots, and, hopefully, reduce fender benders.

Today’s cars are loaded with virtual features, and many consumers probably don’t realize that these features are a form of VR. Backup cameras have evolved into multiple cameras that give drivers a full view of the entire car. Warning sounds alert when a driver pulls too close to an obstacle, and some cars even stop automatically when an obstacle is detected by sensors. To ease the issues of night driving, rearview mirrors now project images from the backup cameras to give drivers a better view behind them.

Even smartphones have found a home in the car. Smartphones can integrate into the vehicle’s entertainment system, and we can interact with the phone in our car…without lifting a finger. We can stream music, make calls and pull up maps and other functions.

Augmented Reality: Driving the Automobile Shopping Experience

While virtual reality has taken over the driver’s seat in most vehicles, the technology also has transformed the way many dealerships are doing business. During the pandemic, restrictions may have forced dealerships to close or limit the number of customers. Shopping for a vehicle was no longer an easy and laid-back experience.

To ensure that consumers could still view inventory and shop for their dream car, dealerships began offering virtual showrooms. These online sites allowed customers to view the interior and exterior of the car and check out the features, too.

Dealerships that couldn’t set up their own online virtual showroom could direct buyers to sites like RelayCars, which hosted online showrooms filled with new (and older) makes and models. The site lets customers browse at their leisure and find the car that is right for their budget and lifestyle. Customers can look at different vehicles and even change some of the vehicle’s features (like the paint color).

For dealerships and manufacturers, virtual reality also created other opportunities to elevate the shopping experience. VR gave manufacturers and dealerships the opportunity to offer test drives when the customer couldn’t leave home. Some test drives were available through app experiences; customers could tilt their screen to navigate the car…just like a game.

VR in the Driver’s Seat: Usage Beyond the Shopping Experience

Manufacturers and dealerships might have embraced the virtual reality world for showrooms and test drives during the pandemic out of necessity, but this technology has been used by the industry for many other reasons, too.

Volvo teamed up with Varjo for a “mixed use headset” called the Varjo XR-1 headset. This headset was used by engineers “to develop and evaluate active safety solutions more easily.”

Porsche’s “Tech Live Look” partners smart glasses with a software platform to help guide service technicians in repairs. The glasses include an LED light to shine on hard to see places and the glasses also magnify, allowing technicians to see tiny details.

Apple also might be taking over the windshield. The company applied for a patent for a smart windshield. According to an article by Future Car, the writer of the patent detailed that the windshield, “…could facilitate video calls and other forms of communication while waiting to reach one’s destination.” Yes, videoconferencing in the car may be our future!

VR Taking Over: The Self-Driving Car

The future for virtual reality in the automobile industry is leaning toward a fully virtual car. While this technology hasn’t been perfected, it is on the horizon. Virtual reality is already embedded into our vehicles, and a car that drives and navigates without a human behind the wheel may be our space-age reality.

Are we ready, though, for machines to take over our lives completely? The Matrix might have been a work of fiction, but it also could have been a foreshadowing of what will come next. Will the machines become smarter than humans…and conquer humanity? Or will the computer—and virtual reality—just act as our virtual chauffeur, chef and personal assistant? Whatever the future holds, just remember to buckle up… and be prepared to relinquish the driver’s seat.