Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality as a technology has been around for many years. This short series of blogs will give you a brief history of the technology, the influences of popular culture on its shaping the views of the public, and will look at its current and future applications. The business landscape has changed forever with the impact of Covid-19 on our networks. We have readily embraced conferencing technology to retain links to business communities. As we move forward into the new landscape, what technologies will we need to grow and embrace the new? Virtual Reality technology you will learn has predominantly been utilised the military, as an obvious way to improve training while reducing risk, and in gaming where immersive worlds have transformed user experiences.  The advancement of technology however, shouldn’t be seen in isolation of film and literature which has paved the way for Virtual Reality as we know it today.

Source: (Link to VR use in the Military)

Let’s Define It: 

virtual reality
  1. the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

There are many definitions of ‘VR’ today, it specifically refers to computer generated imagery with hardware that’s designed to bring that rendered space to the user in a completely immersive way. Most definitions insist that VR needs to be completely immersive to be coined ‘VR’, however plenty of computer generated VR isn’t immersive or interactive at all. Consider 360 degree video or 3D movies, these are immersive but not interactive. So in summary, we need to broaden what we see as VR and technologies have branched into many different directions to encompass the term ‘Virtual Reality’.

Let’s Start with Some History.

Pygmalion’s Spectacles

It really started in 1935 with Stanley Weinbaum. He wrote a science fictional story called ‘Pygmalions Specatcles’ who’s main character Dan Burke meets a professor, Albert Ludwig who invents a pair of goggles which transports him into a fictional world. Many consider this as the very origin of VR as a concept although the first VR technological developments began in the 1830s. Over the preceding years, the technological developed alongside parallel fictional concepts in film and literature, paving the way to mainstream acceptance of our virtual future.

Pygmalions Spectacles 1838 ‘Stereopsis’

Sir Charles Wheatstone  (1802-1875) was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society in 1840 for his discovery of binocular vision. His research described ‘stereopsis’ which demonstrated that the brain combines two photographs (one eye viewing each) of the same object taken from different points to make the image have a sense of depth and immersion (3D). Wheatstone created the earliest types of stereoscope.

(source: Sage Journals ‘Perception, 2002’)

Binocular Vision image to show start of virtual reality


Some 20 year’s later in 1956  Morton Helig created ‘Sensorama’, arguably the first VR machine. It was a booth that could fit up to four people at a time and combined multiple technologies for all of the senses. Full colour 3D video, audio, vibrations and atmospheric effects like wind. He created six short films for his ‘Cinema of the future’.



In 1961 ‘Headsight’ was created by Comeau and Bryan which used the first motion tracking system used for the military to allow them to look remotely at hazardous situations. It incorporated a video screen for each eye and a motion tracking system that was linked to a closed circuit camera. Head movements would move a remote camera allowing a user to naturally look around an environment. This was the first step in the evolution of the VR headset but it was yet to be integrated with computer and virtual imagery.

The Ultimate Display

It was a computer scientist Ivan Sutherland in 1965, who while conducting research into immersive technologies wrote a paper on ‘The Ultimate Display’. This was the very first time the idea of computer technology could replicate reality using a headset. His idea included the user being able to interact with objects and it was his paper that has been seen as the blueprint for VR.

“The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.”

(Source: Kent Bye – Fred Brooks on Ivan Sutherland’s 1965 Speech 2016)

Digital Flight Simulators and ‘Video Place’.

During the 60’s flight simulators (1966 Thomas Furness) and training cockpits for the military using 3D maps, tracking systems and sensors were developed. Although the computer generated graphics were very primitive.

A major influence on kick starting VR in the gaming world was computer artist Myron Krueger (1969). He developed ‘artificial reality’ experiences using computer and video games which later lead to the development of ‘Videoplace’ (1975). This was the first interactive VR platform using computer graphics although this technology didn’t involve goggles or gloves but consisted of dark rooms with large video screens to surround the user.

Wired Gloves and  MIT Movie Map

In the 70’s and 80’s saw further advances in the military in head tracker technology. Sayre gloves (Sandin and Defanti) were the first wired gloves which began the development of gesture recognition. In 1977 MIT created the Aspen Movie Map, this was a computer program that enabled users to walk through a city, the first suggestion that a computer generated world could transport people to places.

From NASA to Arcade Games

In the 90’s  the Virtuality Group launched Virtuality. These were arcade machines where gamers could play in a 3D gaming world, this was the first mass- produced VR entertainment system. Arcade games like SEGA, VictorMaxx and Nintendo start to develop the world of gaming using VR technology, and NASA designed a VR system to drive the Mars robot from Earth (1991 Medina VR Mars Robot).

Virtuality’s ‘sit-down’ unit. Image Credit” Virtuality Group


Google Street View and PTSD Therapy

Virtual Reality was used in research in 1997 by Georgia Tech and Emory University researchers to create war zone scenarios for veterans receiving exposure therapy for PTSD and getting close to familiar technology in 2007 Google introduced Street View.

Occulus Rift

Palmer Luckey at SVVR 2014.jpg
By DcoetzeeOwn work, CC0, Link

In 2012 Palmer Luckey, just 18 years old, created the prototype of the ‘Oculus Rift’ Headset. It featured a 90-degree field of vision, and relied on computer processing power to deliver the images. This had never been seen before. It was Facebooks purchase of the Oculus VR company for $2 billion that was a defining moment in Virtual Reality history and we suddenly see a boom. We have Sony developing VR headsets for the PS4, Samsung announces the Samsung Gear VR and the possibilities of VR start to be explored rapidly and start to become available to the general public. By 2016 hundreds of companies were developing VR Products.


Film and popular Culture Influence

As with all technological advancements there is a defining moment in the history of VR when the technology gained momentum. This needs to be viewed alongside the movie industry and popular culture which introduced the concept of virtual reality to a wider audience. Films like Tron (1982) The Lawnmower Man (1992), Disclosure (1994) and The Matrix (1999), Vanilla Sky (2001), Avatar (2009) and more recently Ready Player One (2018) have all have had a major cultural impact and brought the concept of simulated reality into the mainstream.

Into The Mainstream

From 2019 a dramatic reduction in the cost of VR headsets and computer hardware brings Virtual Reality into the mainstream. Virtual Reality is now being used in an impressively wide range of industries which is rapidly expanding. VR is obviously still used in gaming, providing gamers with completely immersive gaming experiences. In the military it is used for a huge range of training simulations. Virtual reality now helps to treat psychological disorders using exposure therapy, to treat anxieties phobias and depression, teach new skills, take terminally ill people on virtual journeys.

VR is now used in fashion with virtual simulations of store environments enabling retailers to design their product displays without fully committing to the build.  It is used in recruitment and training with the corporate sector engaging with employees in seemingly real work scenarios. Virtual Reality has the potential to transform sales and marketing across every kind of business with virtual showrooms, Estate agents, and any business where product or venue viewings are important.

Coronavirus and Virtual Reality

The current Coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted how the world communicates. Virtual Reality gives businesses the opportunity to replace face-to-face sales and communication. At Firetree were are one of the first Virtual Reality producers to integrate video conferencing technology. This technology permits users to invite users by video link to share a virtual space, enabling teams to invite others to join a venue from anywhere in the world. This technology has the potential to transform the working practices of a wide range of industries from fashion, warehousing and manufacturing. Reducing the impact of travel on the environment, increasing productivity and during the current pandemic, mitigating the risks imposed by Covid-19.

We are currently providing advice on Virtual Reality to a wide range of industries. For information please get in touch.

Link to contact Firetree Visual Media.

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