Over the years, futurists have predicted many innovations that have failed to come to fruition, from flying cars and hoverboards to robot butlers and teleportation machines, but when you consider the cost implications and logistics of these inventions, it’s understandable that technology might fail to keep pace with our aspirations for the world of tomorrow. That said, one exciting and long-anticipated innovation is so close you can… well, you can almost touch it.

For more than a generation we’ve waited with bated breath for a truly user-friendly and cost-effective piece of apparatus that would allow us to experience virtual reality environments from the comfort of our own homes or offices. As a multi-disciplinary design practice, Hames Sharley has monitored the development of such hardware with great interest, because the benefits to architecture, interior and urban design are huge (we investigate that topic further in our recent piece 6 Advantages of VR).

What may surprise you is the long history of VR. This isn’t a technology first imagined by the Hollywood scriptwriters who sat down to pen Tron or any number of similar 1980s sci-fi movies. In fact, if you allow a looser definition of virtual reality, the technology was initially created as long ago as the mid-nineteenth century.

An early stereoscope.

Pre-Tech VR

It could be argued that stereoscopes were the earliest forerunner of modern VR. Invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, they worked on a similar principle to modern devices in that the user would view a pair of separate images, depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene, which together acted as a single three-dimensional image. The resulting user experience would be crude to modern eyes, but it wowed people in the nineteenth century, who could enjoy famous buildings and landmarks as if they were really there. Modern virtual reality apparatuses, such as Google Cardboard, use exactly the same principles as stereoscopes did almost two hundred years ago.

An early flight simulator.

Stimulating flights of the 20th century

We had to wait almost a century for the next significant step in VR tech, with the invention of flight simulation. Link Trainer, aka Blue Box, is widely recognised as the first true flight simulator and was invented in the early 1930s as the aviation industry really took off.

By 1935, science-fiction writers were also imagining a future of augmented reality, with Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles describing VR goggles with a holographic recording of fictional experiences that included smell and touch.

Next came Sensorama in the 1950s, a technology that was both immersive and multi-sensory. Sensorama allowed the user to have aural and olfactory experiences in combination with chairs that moved in sync with the action on a screen. While not particularly successful, this technology did lead to the birth of 3D cinema and television, both of which have seen a renaissance in the past decade.

As we entered the swinging 60s, we saw the emergence of the first head-mounted displays. This kit that remains crucial to today’s VR. Philco Corp’s Headsight was initially intended for observing atomic bomb tests from a safe distance, and it enabled its wearer to alter camera angles simply by tilting or turning their head.

By the middle of the decade, computer scientist Ivan Sutherland had created Ultimate Display, an innovation that set in place the guiding principles that remain in all VR. Sutherland’s system created an augmented reality that was accessed via a head-mounted display, while also providing further interactivity through sound and the ability to interact with objects as the environment responded to the user in real time. A further advance for the technology was that the system was directly linked to a computer and this marked a huge step towards the realistic virtual places that we can now explore.

A poster for IntelliVR by Atari

The beginning of the boom

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the term ‘Virtual Reality’ was first coined at computer games company Atari. Jaron Lanier (who is commonly referred to as the Father of Virtual Reality) and Thomas Zimmerman, (inventor of the data glove) both parted ways with the console giant to form VPL Research and further advance the sector.

During the 90s the Virtuality Group led an expanding field of tech firms in the development of arcade headsets, a move that broadened the reach of VR to a significantly larger audience. In 1991, Computer Gaming World boldly predicted “affordable VR by 1994”, and while most people would argue that they were a little ambitious with their prediction, the decade did see advancements in all areas of the technology, with many of the systems that we recognise today to put in place.

While Apple released QuickTime VR in 1994, beyond its nomenclature it had little to do with VR. It was really just a method by which people could take in 360 degrees of a vista in a flat image, and bore none of the other characteristics of what we now consider virtual reality.

As popularity and access to the technology grew, gaming behemoths Sega and Nintendo entered the arena, and while their offerings never really took off, their financial backing pushed forward research into innovations such as VR body suits and glasses.

The HTC Vive VR Headset

VR goes global

And so to the new millennium. As you read this article, more than 230 companies are busy developing VR-related products. The world’s largest and most powerful organisations – Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, Sony, Samsung and Microsoft – all have dedicated VR technology teams spending billions of dollars in research and development.

Here at Hames Sharley, we have invested in the technology ourselves, and after in-depth research into what’s currently available, we have settled on HTC’s VIVE apparatus for our VR requirements. We are discovering surprising benefits to VR every day and now regularly see awe-struck clients wearing headsets and gesturing into empty space.

In terms of VR, the exciting tomorrow that futurists have predicted is nowhere, and as users engage, and new ideas and functions emerge, you can be sure R&D departments the world over will continue to push the envelope that little further.

Did you enjoy this article?