How did we get here? The History of VR and VR Haptics
Virtual reality and haptic technology feel as though it has only had a presence in our lives over the past decade. For several years, the public has had access to various virtual reality headsets, allowing them to explore new environments and experiences. Often, this is all done from the comfort of their own living room. It is also becoming commonplace to see businesses and large corporations using VR and haptic technology to upskill their staff with simulated training environments. This all seems very modern and very exciting, and it really is.
But…it isn’t necessarily new. The concept of virtual reality has been around for over 60 years. The theories and early technology that laid the groundwork for where we stand today, date back over 150 years. Over the next few paragraphs, we will talk about the brief history of virtual reality and explore some of the key years and time periods that help shape where we are today.
Our story begins in the 19th century with Englishman Sir Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone was a musician, scientist, and inventor. He created a device known as a Stereoscope. This tool was, in essence, the Victorian virtual reality device.
It worked by using two nearly identical still images, with both having subtle differences. One picture was presented to the left eye and the other was presented to the right eye. Due to the distortion and the way these two images were presented to the human brain, the result was one singular 3-dimensional image. This was the earliest form of virtual reality.
The stereoscope worked by manipulating stereopsis, through binocular vision. Sir Charles won the Royal Medal of the Royal Society for his work on stereopsis and binocular vision. He was later knighted in 1868. We could spend a long time talking about stereopsis and the stereoscope, but we need to fast forward almost 100 years into the 19th century.
Regarded as the first specific fictional model for virtual reality, Pygmalion’s Spectacles is a science fiction novel, by Stanley Weinbaum, published in 1935. In the book, the main character Dan Burke meets Professor Albert Ludwig. Ludwig has created a pair of goggles that immerse the user in a film that feels real. The goggles simulate sight, sound, taste, smell and touch and place the user right in the heart of the movie. Given the fact that this was written in the 1930’s it is amazing to think that we in the current day are pushing closer and closer to what was considered ‘science fiction’, nearly 100 years later.
Morton Heilig was an artist and a filmmaker, looking to expand the art of cinema, he creates Sensorama, the first VR machine. After writing an essay in 1955 titled ‘Cinema of the Future’, Heilig looked to introduce environmental effects while short films played. Heilig shot, produced, and edited all his films. Films such as ‘Motorcycle’ tried to simulate the feeling of riding a real-world motorcycle. The seat would rumble, the handlebars would shake, and the engine would play through stereo sound, combined with sounds to simulate the wider environment. The technology was patented, but sadly the Sensorama didn’t go beyond the prototype stage. Intended as an arcade novelty, it proved too complex for daily use and the concept remained a prototype.
Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist, presented his vision of the ‘Ultimate Display’. The essay published by Sutherland discusses the state of play around computer technology for the time. He describes computers as “a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland”. Sutherland goes on to discuss the use of the human body for computer control. Going beyond the hands and arms used for keyboard and joystick interaction, he theorises that computers should and eventually will have the capability to be controlled by more of the human body.
Myron Krueger created VIDEOPLACE, the first interactive VR platform. Complex and impressive for the time, it used computer graphics, projectors, video cameras, video displays and position-sensing technology. Two dark rooms were used, and participants entered. Their movements then interacted with the computer programming, which in turn, reacted to the physical presence of the participants. There was no use of goggles or gloves. VIDEOPLACE created a feeling of virtual reality. The user was immersed in a virtual environment.
Sayre gloves were created by Daniel Sandin and Thomas DeFanti and were the first wired gloves. This was the beginning of gesture recognition, as the device measured finger flexion. The device monitored hand movements and allowed for dimensional control.
Thomas Furness had been working with the U.S. Air Force for several years, developing visual displays and flight instrumentation. Furness was then placed in charge of the Super Cockpit programme. The system fed data to the pilot in the form of 3D maps, radar imagery and in-flight data. This heads-up display data allowed for more simplified controls within the cockpit of the plane and increased the control and connection between pilot and machine.
NASA contract Crystal River Engineering Inc and its founder Scott Foster, to help with the audio programme for NASA’s Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW) Project. This was a VR training simulator for astronauts. VIEW is a head mounted display system that projects a virtual environment or, a real environment broadcast via video feed.
The VIEW system was also combined with the DataGlove, which used fibre optic cables to track the users’ movements, so that they could interact with the computer scene and grasp objects within it.
Antonio Medina, a NASA scientist, designed a VR system to drive the Mars robot rovers from Earth in real-time. Due to the limitations on the technology at the time and the distance between the planets, there were time delays between the movement of the operator and the rover on Mars. This system is called “Computer Simulated Teleoperation”.
A relatively quiet period in the world of VR and haptics ensued. The 90’s and early 2000’s saw little in the way of progress. Video game products came and went, and Google Street View was introduced and was later enhanced with a stereoscopic 3D mode.
Then, in 2012, Palmer Luckey, the young entrepreneur and creator of the Oculus Rift, started wildly successful Kickstarter campaign and secures $2.4 million dollars. The Oculus Rift was the first of its kind to have 90-degree field of vision and the graphics were delivered based on the performance of the computer and its processing power. It was clear that there was now a mainstream and commercial demand for VR products.
Facebook, now known as Meta, makes its move and purchases the Oculus VR company for $2 billion. This was the proverbial match that lit the fire and in the following years, companies all over the world were creating and releasing their own VR products.
SenseGlove founders Johannes Luijten and Gijs den Butter, produce the first working SenseGlove prototype in 2017. This was done in partnership with Volkswagen and stemmed from the pair’s graduation project from their time at the Delft University of Technology. It was at this point, companies such as HTC, Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft Sony, Samsung etc had all began developing and investing heavily in their own VR products.
Forbes publishes its article, ‘The Year Virtual Reality Gets Real’. Growth in this market had increased and financial predictions for the future of the industry seemed nothing but positive. Oculus Quest has also released Facebook’s standalone headset.
At the time of writing this, it is 2023. Haptic technology is incorporated in our phones, on our wrists, and in our cars. Virtual reality and head mounted displays are being used by the public to enhance a videogame experience, to bring what is fiction into the user’s reality. But, VR and these head mounted displays are more than just tools for entertainment, they are now seen as sophisticated learning tools that teach and enhance knowledge. Engineering, health, and wellbeing are just some of the industries, we personally here at SenseGlove, are involved with. Haptic technology such as the SenseGlove Nova, combined with virtual reality tools, provides hands-on and technical experience, from the safety of a virtual environment.
Do you want to learn more about how SenseGlove can optimise your company’s training? Get in touch!