“Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man? Between me and the butterfly there must be a difference. This is an instance of transformation.”
– Chuang Tzu, 4th century BC
Escapism is perhaps the most addictive vice for your average wetware human being. Ever dream? Ever wished you were stronger or smarter or cuter? There’s probably a pill for that. There’s also a fancy pair of glasses you can buy with a mouse click that will transform you into a Stygian Prince or a butterfly, bestow you with 10 charisma or turn you into whatever it is you are not (and want to be).
In our cranium sits a virtual reality machine connected to our eyeballs and other sensory apparatus, and the great thing about our brain is that it’s both in the deception business and a real sucker. Your brain is easily fooled; all it takes is a little stimulation. There is a long history of people and companies who have worked to construct our felt reality through control of what, and how, we perceive. Let’s take a look at the history of Virtual Reality (VR) machines, and trace our stumble towards the Oculus Rift and the Lenovo Mirage.
A stereoscope is a device for viewing a stereoscopic pair of separate images, depicting left-eye and right-eye views of the same scene, as a single three-dimensional image. Our brains already do a lot of post-production work to process the sensations those two marbles in our skulls produce, so why not exploit that fiction to flood our visual landscape with three-dimensional extrusions of black-and-white pictures of people wearing funny clothes?
The View-Master system was introduced in 1939, four years after the advent of Kodachrome color film made the use of small high-quality photographic color images practical. Tourist attractions and travel views dominated View-Master’s lists of available reels, an early hint at how strong our desire to “virtually travel” is. Unlike many of the early attempts at VR, the View-Master has managed to maintain its charm, leading to a new version built for the modern, goggle-driven VR world.
Sensorama Simulator (1962)
This magnificent construction was a machine that played a 3D film accompanied by stereo sound, aromas, and wind in order to create an immersive sensory environment. It was one of many 3D-related creations that visionary inventor and cinematographer Morton Heilig gave the world. His ideas for adding layers of sensory stimuli to augment a simple cinema presentation led the way towards today’s “virtual reality” experiences. Rama-lama-bing-bong-whoosh. Heilig also invented the first head-mounted VR experience, the Telesphere Mask. Ever hear of him? No? Now you know what “forgotten genius” means.
The Sword of Damocles (1968)
Widely considered to be the first VR and augmented reality (AR) head-mounted display (HMD) system. It was created in 1968 by “The Father of Computer Graphics” Ivan Sutherland with the help of his student Bob Sproull (who later did things like work on inventing the personal computer and the laser printer while at PARC). Given this sort of brain-trust and explosive innovation, it isn’t surprising that it was anticipated that true virtual reality would become a real reality very soon. As soon as some of the, um, practical difficulties were solved.
Tomytronic 3D (1982)
The Tomytronic 3D was a series of portable, handheld gaming devices produced by Takara Tomy Co. Ltd. The device featured a strap so the player would be able to wear it around their neck between uses. The Tomytronic simulated 3D by having two LCD panels that were lit by external light through a window on top of the device. Released in 1983, it was the first dedicated home video 3D hardware. Given that this was nearly 40 years ago, that a small, cheap, almost-good-enough consumer VR product was produced at all shows how excitement around this tech has never been in short supply.
Virtuality Group (1993)
Virtuality produced a line of virtual reality gaming machines built to fill video arcades in the early 1990s. The machines delivered real- time (less than 50ms lag) gaming via a stereoscopic visor, joysticks, and networked units for multi-player gaming. The technology and gameplay with this system was pretty darn good—the problem was that they hitched their pixelated wagon to arcades just when that entire industry was about to be eclipsed by the rise of home video gaming systems.
Virtual Boy (1995)
A 32-bit table-top 3D video game console developed and manufactured by Nintendo, the Virtual Boy was marketed as the first “portable” video game console capable of displaying “true 3D graphics” out of the box. A perennial innovator, Nintendo unfortunately stretched their ambitions a little too far on this one. Nevertheless, by the time we got to the Wii it was clear that there was a real demand from consumers for something to take them (at least a little) outside of reality.
Technology is starting to catch up. New breakthroughs are occurring every week. Early adopters are eager to jump on board. Think of how the social web opened up the internet to the masses—everyone jumped in, including (in not-insignificant numbers) Baby Boomers. VR—after many exciting short flights and spectacular crashes—may have finally have found just the right mix of price point and technology.
In addition to entertainment and advertising, expect to see huge VR growth in these key industries:
- Tourism. The strong market for “virtual tourism” that the View-Master stumbled into discovering is already being catered to via experiences like “The Wild Within…an interactive, 360* video that allows travelers to experience the pristine coastal wilderness of British Columbia, Canada in a truly immersive way.” Or how about the “Marriott Teleporter,” which frees guests of the hotel chain to “travel” without packing a bag. Remember Sensorama? Check this: “They were taking inventory of the breeze, the sea spray and sensations like that…so we’ve used mechanical elements like industrial grade misters and fans in the Teleporter to recreate those sensations. It’s like an amusement park crammed into a closet.”
- Healthcare. VR exposure therapy allows patients to confront their phobias and fears, helping them cope with a myriad of conditions: fear of flying, fear of heights, fear of public speaking, agoraphobia, arachnophobia, social phobia, panic disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder due to motor vehicle accidents. VR is even being used to treat those with phantom-limb pain. Researchers at the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory have created “SnowWorld,” a brain-tricking snowscape that helps burn victims during bandage changes and wound cleaning – excruciatingly painful experiences that traditional pain-killers like morphine do little to assuage. VR is even being used to train surgeons, to the relief of cadavers everywhere. It’s clear that this technology is delivering real, transformative, benevolent good for many.
- Skilled Trades. With the cost of education rising, and access to good trade schools disappearing for many, VR offers new opportunities to learn at a much lower cost, and from anywhere. For example, those training to be welders are doing so virtually in greater numbers. Picking up from the times of flight simulators (another very early “VR” use), simulations are being used to train people to do dangerous jobs without putting them in dangerous situations. In general VR, may do enormous good by opening up education for many who simply do not have access to it today.