The Origins of Virtual Reality

It may surprise you to know that the idea of Virtual Reality (VR) started in the 30s. From what started as a novel about goggles that mimic real life sense, has turned into a sensational development in technology. Most of us remember the latest developments in VR. However, many things happened before this to build the foundations of virtual reality and explore how digital technology could develop.

So what are the highlights of the last (almost) 90 years of VR development? We have listed a brief overview of the ones that stand out to us below…

Starting with 1935

The concept of Virtual Reality begins. Stanley Weinbaum releases Science Fiction novel Pygmalion’s Spectacles. The main character gets transported into a fictional world by putting on a pair of goggles which mimics real life senses.


Until Headsight, the first motion tracking head mounted display (HMD), was developed for military training purposes.

1962 was the introduction of the ‘cinema of the future’

Sensorama was patented – a game simulator. Said to be the cinema of the future. Four people at a time would fit into the booth.


The first head mounted display (HMD), known as the The Sword of Damocles, was created for VR purposes by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland. Due to the weight of the device, it never got released. The system was made up of six subsystems:

  • Matrix multiplier
  • Clipping divider
  • Vector generator
  • Head position sensor
  • General purpose computer.


The Super Cockpit was created by a military engineer called Thomas Furness. This was a computerised simulator project used for pilot training purposes.


The first interactive VR experience was created by Myron Krueger. VIDEOPLACE was showcased at the Milwaukee Art Center and used computer generated silhouettes to shadow users movements, and enabled users to interact with other silhouettes in the same virtual world.


The Aspen Movie Map was developed by MIT as a VR version of Google Street View. It used laserdisk players and a computer to project photographs taken from a car.


VPL Research Inc was created by computer scientists Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman. This was the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves.


The term “Virtual Reality” was created and used by Jaron Lanier.


Virtuality was demoed at a computer graphics exhibition in London. Virtuality was a VR arcade machine created by Jonathan Waldern, who is the founder of DigiLens.

Over the 90’s-00’s there were many attempts to bring out VR HMD’s, however the technology at the time was not quite up to the task of meeting people’s expectations. Many of the ideas for moderns HMD’s came from this period. We very briefly touch upon a couple of the main contenders, however there is much more that we simply cannot cover in just this article.


Sega started developing a VR headset. Sega VR has sensors to track head movement. They marketed it as a chance to explore an alternate reality. This was then released in 1993.


Nintendo released the “Nintendo Virtual Boy”, a 3D portable console. As the games were in red and black and relatively difficult to use, they were discontinued after a year.


“The Matrix” was released to cinemas, which explores the theme of an alternate reality.


Google street view was released in 2007, and then upgraded to 3D in 2010.

In 2010, the first prototype of the Oculus Rift headset was created by Palmer Luckey.


Oculus Rift raised $2.4 million in their crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.


The HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PSVR were released, ushering in a new era for affordable virtual reality.

Many other companies followed suit from here, including HP, Samsung, Valve and Lenovo.


The first standalone wireless VR headset was introduced – the Oculus Quest!

At only £399 with no need for a VR ready PC, the Oculus Quest opened up the VR market to a wider number of people due to its ease of use, affordability and lack of wires!

The Future

The VR industry is set to grow at an astounding rate over the next 5-10 years, and with the many applications that VR has (in entertainment, healthcare, education, training etc.) I know we are all excited to see where it leads us!

Posted on: October 11, 2019, by :

3 thoughts on “The Origins of Virtual Reality

  1. There were dozens of VR HMDs, gloves, treadmills, bicycles, CAVES etc in the 1990s and 2000s. Many of the application ideas rolling out today were attempted back then. Alas the rendering, tracking and display tech was not up to the dream. The Oculus wasnt really all that different than the early hmds, except for the displays and tracking. nVidia made rendering affordable, which, imho, was the major game changer.
    Big Caveat to new generation of VR/AR is to be very wary of the Trough of Disillusionment. 1990s VR had LOTS of hype and high expectations, but before people got disillusioned, they were distracted by the DotCom Boom. VR quietly slipped into background to let the tech mature a bit.

    1. Yes very true, this article is a fairly basic summary of the history of VR – we could have gone into more detail and included more but felt it would have made the post too long. Unfortunately in the 90’s the tech hadn’t quite caught up with peoples ideas and expectations for VR.

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