Evolution of the VR headset - part 1
| Tony Mowbray
Virtual reality (VR) technology has evolved considerably from the creation of the first head mounted display (HMD) in 1960 through to the present day. If you are not quite sure what the terms VR or HMD mean, take a look at our previous article here that defines them.
This article will be split into two parts. In part one, we take a journey back in time to explore the creation and evolution of some of the very first VR HMDs. In part 2, we’ll take a much more modern look at how far VR HMDs have progressed over the last twenty years or so since the turn of the century.
Where it all began
Our story begins in 1960 with the creation of the first ever VR HMD called the Teleshpere Mask that allowed users to view film in wide vision stereoscopic 3D. Inventor, Morton Heilig, used minaturised TV tubes to create the Telesphere Mask which made it small and light enough to be worn on the head. Whilst the headset lacked many of the features we see in today’s HMDs, such as head tracking (i.e. the ability to register the rotation of the head), it was still an impressive device that is considered ahead of its time.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Similar headsets of this type were released in the wake of Heilig’s Telesphere Mask and improved upon his design to include features such as head tracking. Despite the improvements, these earlier headsets all had one thing in common, they could only display images and video from a camera. It wasn’t until 1968 that a headset called The Sword of Damocles was produced which was capable of connecting to a computer to display digital graphics.
From video to digital graphics
The Sword of Damocles was created by Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull. It was a large heavy device that was suspended from the ceiling by a mechanical arm. The mechanical arm supported the weighty headset and also tracked head movement. Users would be strapped into the device and it enabled them to view basic computer generated wireframe images in stereoscopic 3D.
Whilst The Sword of Damocles was unwieldy and primitive compared to what we have today, it represented a big first step in VR history. The ‘70s through to the ‘80s saw more companies develop VR HMDs capable of displaying digital graphics, and these were used mostly for training and simulation applications such as pilot training. Surprisingly, despite the increasing interest and use of VR technology, the term ‘Virtual Reality’ did not begin to get used until 1987 when it was first coined by computer scientist Jaron Lanier.
Bringing VR to the public
Lanier founded the company VPL Research in 1984 which became the first company ever to sell VR equipment to the public. VPL Research had three products in their range; a glove that could interact with virtual objects, a tactile feedback suit, and a HMD called The EyePhone. Despite the name, The EyePhone has no relationship with Apple’s popular range of iPhones that exist today.
Whilst The EyePhone HMD and accessories were available for purchase, the eye watering price tag (costing upward of $250,000 for the full setup) made it unaffordable for most consumers. The technological limitations of the time also created problems. For example, The EyePhone could only generate a stuttering, vomit-inducing, 6 Frames Per Second (FPS) and the bulkiness of the device made it impractical. These limitations along with the steep price caused VPL Research to go bankrupt by 1990.
However, these setbacks didn’t stop the advancement of VR and only paved the way for what was to come. As we entered the ‘90s, there were more attempts to bring VR to the public, such as through the release of the VR-1 arcade attraction by the video game company SEGA. This attraction was a rail-shooter game featuring 32 motion based pods complete with HMDs that gave many the opportunity to experience VR for the very first time.
SEGA’s main competitor Nintendo also tried bringing VR to the masses in 1995 with the creation of the Virtual Boy. The Virtual Boy was a portable tabletop HMD that allowed users to experience the illusion of depth through what is known as parallax effects. It was expensive at around $180 (or $330 in today’s money) but for many, this was the first time a VR HMD had been affordable enough to purchase.
However, much like earlier attempts at VR HMDs, the technological limitations of the time meant that the Virtual Boy would become yet another commercial failure. Whilst the monochrome display could deliver up to around 50 FPS (which far exceeded The EyePhone’s 6 FPS capacity), the device had poor optics and premoderm 3D visuals that spawned many reports of eyestrain, headaches and motion sickness.
It wouldn’t be until the 2010s that VR began to enjoy some commercial success.
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