VOICES FROM A VIRTUAL PAST
An oral history of a technology whose time has come again
Compiled by Adi Robertson and Michael Zelenko
Aug 24 2014
When Facebook bought virtual reality company Oculus in early 2014, virtual reality blew up. While game and movie studios began reimagining the future, others looked back at the “old days” of VR — a loosely remembered period in the 1990s when gloves and goggles were super cool and everyone was going to get high on 3D graphics. But things were never so simple. We spoke to 18 key VR innovators about their work and dreams. What follows is over two decades of memories and visions for what the future could be.
Some people identify the birth of virtual reality in rudimentary Victorian “stereoscopes,” the first 3D picture viewers. Others might point to any sort of out-of-body experience. But to most, VR as we know it was created by a handful of pioneers in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962, after years of work, filmmaker Mort Heilig patented what might be the first true VR system: the Sensorama, an arcade-style cabinet with a 3D display, vibrating seat, and scent producer. Heilig imagined it as one in a line of products for the “cinema of the future,” but that future failed to materialize in his lifetime.
In 1965, Ivan Sutherland — already known as the creator of groundbreaking computer interface Sketchpad — conceived of what he termed “The Ultimate Display,” or, as he wrote, “a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter.” He demonstrated an extremely preliminary iteration of such a device, a periscope-like video headset called the “Sword of Damocles,” in 1968.
Meanwhile, at the Wright–Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, military engineer Thomas Furness was designing a new generation of flight simulators, working on a multi-decade project that eventually became the hallmark program known as the Super Cockpit.
A few years later, in the late ’60s, an artist and programmer named Myron Krueger would begin creating a new kind of experience he termed “artificial reality,” and attempt to revolutionize how humans interacted with machines.