A headgear user with a stereoscopic screen displays animated pictures of a simulated environment in a standard VR style. Motion sensors pick up the user’s movements and modify the display on the screen accordingly, frequently in real-time (the instant the user moves). This gives the appearance of “being there” (telepresence). As a result, a user can walk around a simulated suite of rooms, changing perspectives and viewpoints that are plausibly tied to his head turns and steps. The user can even pick up and handle objects that he sees in the virtual environment while wearing data gloves with force-feedback devices that offer the sensation of touch.
Jaron Lanier developed the term virtual reality in 1987, and his research and engineering contributed to the embryonic VR business with several products. The role of the federal government, particularly the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was a common thread connecting early VR research and technological development in the United States (NASA). Projects supported by these organizations and carried out at university-based research laboratories resulted in a large pool of skilled personnel in sectors like computer graphics, simulation, and networked environments and establishing links between academic, military, and commercial activity. This article is about the history of technological advancement and the social context in which it occurred.
Work done at the beginning.
Techniques for building imaginary worlds, putting storylines in fictional places, and tricking the senses have always piqued the imagination of artists, performers, and entertainers. Numerous precedents preceded virtual reality to suspend disbelief in an artificial environment in creative and entertainment mediums. Paintings or vistas have created illusory environments for homes and public spaces since antiquity, culminating in the massive panoramas of the 18th and 19th centuries. Pictures showed involvement in the events represented by blurring the visual boundaries between the two-dimensional images representing the primary scenes and the three-dimensional regions from which they were seen. Over the twentieth century, this picture heritage prompted the development of a variety of mediums to produce comparable effects, including future theatre designs, stereopticons, and 3-D movies, as well as IMAX movie theatres. For example, Waller’s research of vision and depth perception led to creating the Cinerama widescreen film format, which was initially called Vitarama when it was conceived for the 1939 New York World’s Fair by Fred Waller and Ralph Walker. Waller’s research prompted him to focus on the relevance of peripheral vision for immersion in an artificial environment, to develop projection technology that could replicate the whole human field of vision. The Vitarama approach utilized many cameras and projectors as well as an arc-shaped screen. Even though Vitarama (as Cinerama) did not become a commercial success until the mid-1950s, the Army Air Corps successfully used the system for anti-aircraft training during World War II under the name Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer—an example of the link between entertainment technology and military simulation that would later advance the development of virtual reality.