‘”VR”’ or Virtual Reality is the use of computer technology to create a simulated environment. VR’s most recognizable distinction is the head-mounted display (HMD); the technology used today to experience virtual enviroments. Major developers of the display, and experiences, include HTC and their Vive, Oculus and Rift, and Sony’s PlayStation VR (PSVR).
Unlike traditional user interfaces, VR places the user inside an experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of them, users are immersed and able to interact with 3D worlds. By simulating as many senses as possible, such as vision, hearing, touch, even smell, the computer is transformed into a gatekeeper to this artificial world. The only limits to near-real VR experiences are the availability of content and cheap computing power.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are similar but not the same. You could think of Augmented Reality as VR with a foot in the real world: Augmented Reality simulates artificial objects in the real environment; Virtual Reality creates an artificial environment to inhabit. In Augmented Reality, the computer uses sensors and algorithms to determine the position and orientation of a camera. AR technology then renders the 3D graphics as they would appear from the viewpoint of the camera, superimposing the computer-generated images over a user’s view of the real world.
In 1957, Filmmaker Morton Heilig invented a large booth-like machine called the Sensorama, intended to combine multiple technologies to give people the illusion of being in a fully 3D immersive world — complete with smell, stereo sound, vibrations, and even atmospheric effects like wind in the hair. In 1960, he honed this into a patent for the world’s first head-mounted display, promising stereoscopic 3D images, wide vision, and true stereo sound. Neither technology ever materialized in his lifetime, but they both helped lay the groundwork for VR.
In 1968, Ivan Sutherland, one of the most important figures in the history of computer graphics and paving the way for Computer-Aided Design (CAD), developed the first head-mounted display. Sutherland’s work connected to a stereoscopic display from a computer program depicting simple virtual wireframe shapes, which changed perspective as the user moved his or her head. Around the same time, military engineer Thomas Furness was the early work in flight simulators; working throughout the 1980s, Furness was able to project computer-generated 3D maps, infrared, and radar imagery, into a real-time 3D space.
More history converged in the development of VR with MIT, in 1978, with DARPA: the Aspen Movie Map developed a basic digital map beyond the 3D graphics that could be created at the time, using photographs taken from a car driving through Aspen, Colorado – the first time someone could experience a city virtually, as we do with Google’s maps today. And it was in the 70s that computer artist Myron Krueger referred to “artificial reality,” years before computer scientist and artist Jaron Lanier coined VR in the 1980s.
Sega was the first to attempt to really bring VR to games, “Sega VR will create the impression that you are exploring an alternate reality. As your eyes shift focus from one object to the next, the binocular parallax constantly changes to give you the impression of a three-dimensional world.”1
In 2010, 18-year-old Palmer Luckey created the first prototype of the Oculus Rift. Boasting a 90-degree field of view that hadn’t been seen previously in a consumer device. Oculus raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter before being acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.2
Unsurprisingly, the video games industry is one of the largest proponents of Virtual Reality. Support for the Oculus Rift headsets has worked into games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, but newer games like Elite: Dangerous come with headset support built in. Scientific and engineering data visualization has benefited for years from Virtual Reality, although recent innovation in display technology has generated interest in everything from molecular visualization to architecture to weather models. In aviation, medicine, and the military, Virtual Reality training is an attractive alternative to live training with expensive equipment, dangerous situations, or sensitive technology. The treatment of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, stands to benefit from the application of Virtual Reality technology to ongoing therapy programs. Allowing veterans to confront challenges in a controlled environment, or overcoming phobias in combination with behavioral therapy, VR has a potential beyond gaming, industrial, and marketing applications to help people heal.