Virtual reality may
have popped into the headlines only in the past few years, but its roots
reach back decades ago.
Around 1930, the Links Corporation designed the first flight simulators,
which were to see considerable development in the following years. Research
in this field was essentially for military purposes and centered on the
training of fighter pilots. Other industrial applications were soon found
such as training ship pilots or for driving training. The techniques of
simulation eventually entered the field of entertainment and leisure.
Before 1950, apart from a few black and white graphs done on graphic plotters
or as print-outs, computers very rarely produced images. Nonetheless,
they were already attempting to simulate processes which are specific
to the human mind and to the world around us, exploiting knowledge taken
from mathematics, from formal logic and from various other scientific
disciplines. They were designed, then, as tools of simulation, aiming
at the creation of an abstract and formalised double of reality, incomplete
perhaps, but as close as possible to its initial point of reference. Obviously
this simulated reality only existed as a potential, or, in other words,
it only existed virtually, inside the computers circuits. The trouble
with such machines was that they offered no direct means of access for
the user. The data, at this time, was entered via punched cards and the
operator had no information, no control over how the programme was carried
out. What is more, it was often necessary to wait for days for the results
of the calculations, which took the abstract form of endless printed listings.
In the 1950s, the idea of connecting a television type of cathode ray
tube to a computer was considered. The first use of a device of this type
was for an American military land surveillance system, SAGE. The electronic
image displayed results only of a simple and highly schematic nature,
but they did introduce an authentic dialogue between the user and the
calculating machine, in other words a certain form of interactivity.
In the late 1950s, just as the nation was shaking off stale traces of
McCarthyism and was shaking to the sounds of Elvis, an idea arose that
would change the way people interacted with computers and make possible
VR. At the time, computers were hulking Goliaths locked in air-conditioned
rooms and used only by those conversant in esoteric programming languages.
Few people considered them more than glorified adding machines. But a
young electrical engineer and former naval radar technician named Douglas
Engelbart viewed them differently. At first, Engelbart's ideas were dismissed,
but by the early 1960s other people were thinking the same way. Moreover,
the time was right for his vision of computing. Communications technology
was intersecting with computing and graphics technology. The first computers
based on transistors rather than vacuum tubes became available. This synergy
yielded more user-friendly computers, which laid the groundwork for personal
computers, computer graphics, and later on, the emergence of virtual reality.
As early as 1962, Ivan Sutherland developed his Sketchpad system which
allowed him to draw directly on a screen. He demonstrated the full range
of possibilities offered by what was then known as interactive computer
graphics. In 1968 he invented the Incredible Helmet, the ancestor of our
present-day viewing headsets. The exhibition mounted at Stuttgart in 1965
by the mathematicians Frieder Nake, Michael Noll and George Nees was another
demonstration of how the computer was entering the world of art in the
mid 1960s. Its development was contemporaneous with serial art, minimal
art, conceptual art and performance art. The computer was already being
used in all sorts of artistic projects.
Then, in the 1970s, there appeared a new type of computer image which
was both three-dimensional and mobile. Its quality improved rapidly. These
images were used for various purposes, military of course, but also for
industry and research. The screen was no longer a simple display surface
for charts and graphic symbols, it opened onto a virtual world that could
be realistic or abstract, was totally synthesized and of growing complexity.
It was a universe with which the user could have a real dialogue. This
was an unprecedented event in the history of images.
From about 1975 on, and at the same time as more powerful mainframe computers
were being built, microcomputers made it possible for non-specialist users
to experiment with interactive images in various forms. One of the simplest
forms was nothing other than the word processor: the blank screen of the
opened file already constituted a little virtual universe in its own right.
It is worth noting that the basic principles of both a simple word processor
and an advanced flight simulator are exactly the same. Both give access
to virtual realities with which the user interacts and converses. The
only difference is the degree of complexity. By using simulation models
with a view to reconstructing and acting upon fragments of reality, computer
technology is giving birth to an immense virtual universe which is gradually
integrating the functions of storing, duplicating, transmitting and producing
various forms of knowledge and information such as images, texts and sounds
all this in a process embracing everything from scientific and
technical research and industry to communication and networks.
historical events and forces that marked the development of VR:
Because of the cold war in the 1960s and fear of attack, the United State
military commissioned a new radar system. This system collected large
amounts of data and displayed it in a format that humans could understand.
This radar defense system became the first real-time application.
In 1962, the first computer light pen was developed. This device allowed
users to interact with a computer without the aid of a traditional keyboard.
This opened the way to use the computer for more than alphanumeric input
from a keyboard. Designers could now use computer-aided design applications
to create blueprints of objects and products. Early in the next decade,
the first mouse pointing device were unveiled.
Following World War II, both the military and industrial segments put
millions of dollars into simulation research and technology. So much so
that soon it became cheaper and safer to train pilots on the ground than
in the air. The models became even better in the 1970s when computer-generated
graphics replaced videos. They could operate in real-time and were sensitive
to actions taken by the pilot.
Another major player in the development of early Virtual Reality was the
entertainment industry. Like the military research, entertainment investments
were a source of spin-offs for many other uses of Virtual Reality applications.
In the 1970s Hollywood was using computer generated special effects with
great success in their action blockbusters. Following this trend came
the computer gaming boom. Versions of action games were introduced in
both home and arcade versions. One computer peripheral device designed
at NASA Ames got its first major use by a toy company; Mattel created
the PowerGlove for children to use with the Nintendo computer games.
Running a parallel course at this time was another important component
of virtual reality design. Scientific visualization was graduating from
flat bar charts and line drawings to three dimensional images and models.
Vast amounts of quantitative information could now be more easily assimilated
for review by scientists. Scientific examples of these uses are DNA sequences,
molecular models, brain maps, and cosmic explosions. The models create
a much clearer picture than does reading columns of numbers or bar charts.
However, this early form of modeling lacked one feature, interactivity.
Interactivity could produce the models that result from asking "what
The Gulf War brought home the profound changes which are affecting the
world of images today. If this war confirmed the importance of the television
image, the effects of which remain essentially ideological or psychological,
it also revealed the terrifying efficiency of the virtual image. Invisible
to the eyes of the public, these images had their own logic, a logic not
of communication but of commutation. The images allowed aircraft or guided
missiles to hit their targets with tremendous precision, by means of calculators
which, at each instant of the flight, compared the image of the terrain
flown over obtained by radar or infrared scanning to the virtual map system
loaded in their memory, containing all the information needed for the
Scientists, military, government, business, and entertainment all wanted
interactivity. This market pull demand pushed visualization ever closer
to virtual reality. The accompanying technology required to make this
expressed desire reality was also happening. Faster computer processors,
increasing memory and drive storage capacities at ever decreasing prices,
digitalization of all media types had been achieved, (text, still graphics,
still images, audio, animations, and motion video), increased network
capabilities, and the compression technologies developed that would allow
these data types to be transported over networks, were all converging
near the same time.
Basic elements and ideas of VR were in place in the 1980s, but it took
the quality of machine that only became available in the 1990s to bring
VR closer to reality. This fact has changed the complexion of computing
forever. No longer are computers glorified adding machines, but can become
exciting vehicles for exploration and discovery.
Today virtual reality is only beginning. Its current use is more often
found in the lab or test center. It's impact is unknown at this time.
Fifty years ago when the first computers came "online," few
people imagined that one day many individuals would have their own personal
computer in their home. VR does appear here to stay. Research and investments
made in long-term projects will certainly help VR grow and develop. And
like Fidler's 30-year rule, when it becomes mature, cheaper, and more
accessible the impact on society will be easier to assess. Until then,
VR is still the realm of anyone's imagination.