VR is a technology that is shaking the status quo of the gaming community, but how did this inventive technology come to be?
In 1962, filmmaker and inventor Morton Heilig patented the Sensorama, a theater cabinet in which viewers could sit and watch a film while having all of their senses stimulated. Equipped with a vibrating seat, 3D display, stereo speakers, fans, and a scent-producer, the Sensorama was the 4D theater of its day. Heilig then went on to develop the very first example of a head-mounted display (HMD), the Telesphere Mask. This HMD—which featured a 3D stereoscopic display and stereo sound—provided viewers with a new way of watching films and opened the door for further progression in HMD technology, an invention that would later become a staple technology in the VR industry.
The Telesphere Mask provided viewers with a new way of watching films.
In 1965, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland revealed his concept for a new form of virtual reality through computer simulation—”The Ultimate Display.” Described as “a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter,” the Ultimate Display was conceptually an HMD with which users could see and interact with objects generated by a computer. Sutherland’s innovative plan married its HMD technology with three-dimensional sound and tactile stimuli to completely enrapture its users in an interactive virtual environment. In 1968, Sutherland and a student of his turned this concept into a reality with the “Sword of Damocles,” a preliminary version of the Ultimate Display. This contraption was rather large and heavy and had to be suspended from the ceiling to be used. Although an ambitious concept, the visuals the Sword of Damocles generated were very simplistic wire-frame rooms that largely lacked interactivity. The Sword of Damocles’ underwhelming results perfectly illustrated that the world was not quite ready for the many ambitious plans for VR due to the technical restraints of its day.
Developments in the field of VR died down throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, but momentum picked back up in 1987 when the term “virtual reality” was actually coined for the first time by Jaron Lanier. Founder of Visual Programming Lab (VPL) Research, Lanier not only contributed the name “virtual reality” to the field, but he and his company also contributed many pieces of technology, such as the Dataglove. Developed by Lanier and Tom Zimmerman, the Dataglove served as an input system for computers that could track hand movements and orientation to a fine degree. Although VPL Research filed bankruptcy soon after the development of the Dataglove, the technologies it produced greatly contributed to further developments in VR technologies.
The term “virtual reality” was actually coined for the first time by Jaron Lanier.
1990 saw the birth of gaming VR when W Industries—now Virtuality— distributed VR arcade games and machines. These special arcade machines featured mounted VR headsets with a stereoscopic 3D display. By 1991 W Industries was mass producing its VR games and machines to be distributed all over the world, further spreading the concept of VR to the public. That same year, Sega announced its Sega VR headset. Planned to be released for the Sega Genesis and later the Sega Saturn, Sega VR featured a visor with full head-tracking, LCD screens, and stereo sound. Sega VR was showcased at CES in 1993, revealing its $200 price-point and the fact that Sega had four games in development specifically for VR; however, Sega VR never came to light due to development difficulties.
Despite the weight Nintendo carried in the industry, the Virtual Boy was a complete flop.
After the failed release of the Virtual Boy, interest in VR largely died off for the better part of seventeen years. This disinterest changed, however, on August 1, 2012, with the launch of a Kickstarter campaign for a little project known as the Oculus Rift. Developed by Palmer Luckey, alongside Brendan Iribe and Michael Antonov, the Oculus Rift was a VR HMD developed for the sole purpose of VR gaming. While only being a prototype, the Oculus Rift’s first development kit quickly captured the attention of the video game community, including countless developers, but more importantly captured the attention of Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg. On March 25, 2014, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had acquired Luckey’s upstart VR company for $2 billion.
Now with the backing of a multibillion-dollar company, Oculus pushed the company’s capabilities far past what Luckey had ever imagined. In July 2014, Oculus released its second dev kit, which was a major step forward from the DK1. The DK1 offered an HMD with a 7-inch screen, stereoscopic 3D graphics, and full rotational head tracking. The DK2, however, offered stunning HD graphics in 1080p on a low-persistence OLED display and head tracking along multiple planes of motion. On May 6, 2015, Oculus announced a consumer version of the Rift. Finally, the Rift would be opened up to the public, rather than just Kickstarter backers, developers, journalists, and those lucky few able to get their hands on a dev kit. Pre-orders for this consumer edition opened up on January 6, 2016, at a hefty price point of $599.99. These headsets started shipping out on March 25, 2016, but due to equipment shortage and the sheer amount of pre-orders, many shipments were delayed by several weeks. Hopefully by now all of those who have pre-ordered a Rift have gotten their hands on a headset.
Although Oculus has been the frontrunner in the VR industry, several other competitors have emerged in the field; two of which, Samsung and Google, are currently working to push VR into a mobile direction. Developed by Samsung Electronics in collaboration with Oculus, Samsung Gear VR is a mobile HMD that uses a Samsung Galaxy smartphone as its display. Samsung’s VR device has had several iterations, with the first releasing in December 2014 and the most recent releasing in November 2015. Google has taken a similar approach as Samsung with its Google Cardboard. Cardboard similarly consists of an HMD with a smartphone functioning as its display, however, Cardboard’s HMD is just that—cardboard. Marketed as a simple, inexpensive way to experience VR, Google Cardboard’s headset is composed of a fold-out cardboard viewer with a pair of lenses. Due to its simplicity, Google Cardboard can even be self-made by consumers using specifications provided by Google and a set of low-priced components.
On the other end of the spectrum, Google is developing a total departure from the Cardboard with its Daydream VR initiative. Announced at Google’s I/O 2016 keynote, Daydream is a new mobile VR platform built from the bottom up for Android’s upcoming Android N operating system. Releasing in Fall 2016, Daydream promises a high-quality VR experience on a comfortable, sleek headset and intuitive motion controller. Unlike Google Carboard, however—which could work with almost every smartphone—Daydream can only be operated by a select number of existing and upcoming Android-compatible smartphones.
When it comes to high-performance gaming VR, Oculus currently only has two real competitors—the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. The Vive, developed by HTC and Valve, utilizes more than just HMD technology, but rather takes advantage of entire rooms, thereby turning them into virtual play areas. Using a set of base station sensors, the HTC Vive provides 360° motion tracking along a 15 x 15 ft play area. The HTC Vive’s headset offers a 2160 x 1200 combined resolution, a 90 Hz refresh rate, and an 110° field of view, making it one of the most powerful VR headsets on the market. Additionally, the headset has a front-facing camera that can detect any static or moving object in front of the viewer. This “Chaperon” feature serves to warn the user if he or she is about to walk into a wall, for instance. The HTC Vive does not just come packaged with the headset and base stations, though, as it also comes along with two wireless motion controllers. These controllers contain 24 sensors for precision hand-tracking and a trackpad and triggers for HD haptic feedback. The HTC Vive released on April 5, 2016 for $799 USD, $200 more than the price of the Oculus Rift.
The Vive takes advantage of entire rooms, thereby turning them into virtual play areas.
PlayStation VR, on the other hand, is Sony’s initiative to bring VR to the console market. Unlike the Rift and Vive, which are designed to run on PC, PlayStation VR is designed to specifically run on the PlayStation 4. PlayStation VR’s stylish headset holds a 5.7-inch OLED 1080p display that offers a 100° field of vision and up to 120 Hz refresh rate, a mighty feat for a VR headset running with a console rather than a beefy gaming PC. LED’s on headset work alongside the PlayStation Camera, a required piece of tech to have alongside PlayStation VR, to track 360° head movements. Additionally, LED’s on the PlayStation 4’s Dualshock 4 wireless controller and PlayStation Move controllers are detected by the PlayStation Camera to track hand movements. PlayStation VR is also able to render two images simultaneously: one image for the headset and a separate image for the television or monitor wired to the PlayStation 4. This feature allows games to be played with one player using the PlayStation VR headset as the display and a separate player using the TV as a display. PlayStation VR is currently set to release on October 13, 2016 for $399 USD, with the promise of over 50 PlayStation VR compatible games releasing from launch until the end of the year.
Although the concept of virtual reality has originated for decades, the lofty expectations of what VR could be have not been realized until the turn of the twenty-first century. Thanks to the endeavors by Oculus, Google, HTC, and the many other companies working in VR, the ever-evolving field of VR has become a thriving industry. Through products like the Rift and Vive, VR technologies have ushered in a new era of interactivity with virtual worlds and creativity in the electronics market. With the rate at which the VR industry has risen in just the past few years, it is not out of the question that VR devices will become a commonplace in everyone’s daily lives by the close of the twenty-first century and beyond.