The History of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality

In the grand range of possibilities for digitally stimulating alternative reality across the senses, the two most technically realised and exciting buzzword concepts of the day are Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (VR). While these share the common element of altering one’s perception of the world, they sit at significantly different points on the continuum of virtuality to reality. Sitting at the far virtual end of the spectrum, VR aims to psychologically transport the user to an entirely different location by immersing their senses in a computer-generated recreation of a life-like environment, without relocating them from their living room. The ambition is to leave users completely dissociated from the current world; while the stimulated reality and all encounters within it are experienced with the appearance of such actuality users forget it is artificial. While VR alters the very locus of your presence holistically by replacing what your eyes perceive, AR enhances reality by overlaying digital information on top of what you already perceive. Still virtual, AR is closer to the reality end of the continuum, as your environment is not completely replaced or your presence catapulted into an artificial world. Rather your pre-existing environment receives a layer of superimposed complementary virtual aspects which cannot interact with the physical. 

Elements of the modern concept of virtually stimulated reality appeared as early as 1935 mainly in Science Fiction novels. It remained an idea until the 1962 when cinematographer Morton Heilig developed the first ever prototype in his ambition to draw viewers deeper into onscreen activity. A large booth-like mechanical device, his ‘Sensorama’ was intended to create the illusion that one was in a fully 3D immersive world, complete with smell, stereo sound, vibrations and even atmospheric effect.  In the next 6 years Ivan Sutherland created what is widely considered to be the first head-mounted display (HMD) system for use in immersive simulation applications, despite extreme primitive hardware and realism.

By the 1970s VR kicked off mainly in the development of devices for medical, flight simulation, automobile industry design and military training applications. This era lasted until the 1990s when Sega made the very first attempt to create a mainstream consumer-facing virtual reality headset to enhance gaming experience. While this was never released, a turn had been made towards the development of VR consumer headsets for the widespread commercial use. 2010 saw the first prototype of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset for gamers which inspired the likes of HTC, Apple, Amazon, Sony, Samsung and Google to join the race, resulting in HTC Vive, Sony PlayStation VR, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR within the past few years. 

AR shared VR’s ancestry; however advances in computing throughout the 1980s and early 90s propelled its emergence as an independent field of research. The term ‘Augmented Reality’ was coined in 1989 by Boeing researcher Tom Caudell who proposed the imposition of virtual graphics onto a physical display for workers configuring airplane wiring. Caudell devised complex software which projected the location certain cables should go in the building process to assist manufacturing and engineering. However many had already experimented with AR throughout the 70’s by mixing human interaction with computer-generated overlays. For example in 1974, computer artist Myron Krueger established an “artificial reality” laboratory called “Videoplace” which combined projectors, video cameras, and special purpose hardware that emitted onscreen silhouettes, to surround users with virtual elements. In the decade following Caudell’s innovations AR became increasingly popular and its use diversified across various fields. In 1992 Louis Rosenberg developed one of the earliest AR systems, “Virtual Fixtures”, for training pilots in the US Air Force. The same year researchers at Columbia University built an HMD called KARMA which could automatically infer appropriate instruction sequences for repair and maintenance procedures. Two years later, in 1994 Julie Marin devised the first ever AR theatre production “Dancing in Cyberspace” which featured acrobats performing around virtual objects on a physical stage. 

VR has traditionally been used for gaming and entertainment or to enhance training for real-life environments such as flight, battlefield or boot camp stimulation. However it is set to infiltrate into all kinds of sectors due to its wide range of intriguing uses. It is becoming more widespread in the arts, from virtual theatre to virtual galleries. It is used in the fashion industry to build virtual stores, and in business for the 360 presentation of products, the training of employees and for tours of business environments. It has been adopted in education to present complex data in an accessible form which is fun and easy to learn. It has utility as a training aid or performance analyser across all sports and it has mammoth potential to revolutionise construction, engineering and architecture by enabling design testing without the time and cost of actually building.  In the late 90’s and early 2000s AR tech began to be developed by the medical, manufacturing, research, mechanical operation and entertainment industries.

By 2017 it had slipped seamlessly into the everyday through score overlays on telecasted sports games, adverts which show rare animal species walking through shopping malls, portable games such as Pokémon Go and Smartphone apps which allow customers to overlay selfie make-up in real-time or instantly translate a text into a another language. As AR is developed into apps and used on mobile devices its possible commercial applications are - like VR - unlimited. Soon there could be apps to view how a retailer's furniture will look in your room before you buy, to populate a dining table with your favourite action-adventure game characters, to augment your museum visit with fact and figure displays or to show you how a historic site would have looked 10, 50 and 100 years ago. Important medical, military, and educational developments are also on the horizon. For example AR can aid the explanation of complex medical conditions to patients, combine with MRI or X-ray systems to bring everything into a single view for doctors or allow neurosurgeons to see a map of the brain in 3D on top of the patient's anatomy to register exact coordinates before operating.  

There are multiple challenges which face the development of technology for VR and AR. Nevertheless investment exploded for $1.1 billion in 2016 with Facebook (Oculus), Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft, as well as newer companies such as Magic Leap committing to the race. Foresighted investors see that digital reality is on a clear path to be the origins of the future of computing, and no one wants to be left behind. While there is a long way to go before all that VR and AR have the potential for materialises, there is also no doubt that we have already come a very long way from the ‘Experience Theatre’ cubicles of the 60s.