The world is always a bit smaller than we think: it's hard to get your head around the reality that only 66 years passed between the Wright brother's first flight at Kitty Hawk and the Apollo moon landing! Virtual reality seems like a 21st-century phenomenon, but the history of VR goes back almost 100 years. What's even more exciting is the future of VR.
A Science-Fiction Past
In 1935, a science fiction writer by the name of Stanley G. Weinbaum first envisioned the idea of VR with his novel Pygmalion's Spectacles. Weinbaum was a ground-breaking sci-fi writer and would have had even more influence than he did if he hadn't tragically passed away from cancer in his early 30s.
In his story, Weinbaum described a pair of goggles that allowed the wearer to see, taste, smell, and touch a holographic world. At the time it was pure science fiction, but like many sci-fi ideas, scientists began playing around with it.
In the 50s, a cinematographer designed the world's earliest immersive sensory experience: a special vibrating chair equipped with fans, stereo speakers, devices to generate scents, and a special display. In the 60s, he advanced this by designing the first VR head-mounted display: Morton Heilig's Telesphere Mask.
Heilig was a visionary, but the genius and potential of his inventions weren't appreciated as they should have been. Later in the 60s, a number of other people made important contributions to the world of VR, most notably computer artist Myron Krueger, who developed the first computer-generated environment that could react to people.
Where Are We Now?
VR headsets were just for gaming in the 90s (and not that comfortable to use), but the release of Oculus (and acquisition by Facebook in 2014) really brought VR into our common consciousness. The Oculus system allows users to access a fully immersive experience in their own home and provides a platform for everyone to write and develop applications.
The potential of Oculus has spurred other companies to develop their own headsets and tech, and this has spurred the development of ever-better cameras, VR glass experiences, apps, games, and more, even integrating the world of VR with the real world in unexpected ways. VR headsets are also getting better at making efficient use of processing power, allowing consumers to acquire them more cheaply and use them for longer. And this is just the beginning.
The Future of VR
The future is exciting, but a big challenge to be overcome is "locomotion." The problem at the moment is that users typically move in the VR world either through joystick walking or by teleportation. Both are "unnatural" and can even leave users feeling seasick. Several companies are working on omnidirectional treadmills that will allow users to walk and run, crouch, and even go backward easily.
Other companies are working on ways to make the experience even more fully immersive, with haptic feedback gloves, Tesla suits, and more. Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is getting VR to be more affordable. While prices have never been lower, VR sets are still pricey, and the idea of adding a haptic suit and treadmill to the mix would put it completely out of reach for more people.