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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 computer’s 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.

Major 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 if" questions.

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 mission.

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.