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Who Invented Virtual Reality?

Find out who the creator of virtual reality is and the full history of VR below.
Last Updated on July 15, 2024
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Can any one person lay claim to be the inventor of VR? Probably not, but let’s delve deeper and see who may have had their virtual fingers in the virtual pie first.

Who Invented Virtual Reality?

It is quite difficult to say, with any degree of certainty, who invented virtual reality. As with many inventions, it tends to draw upon a range of different sources and influences.

It becomes harder to pinpoint who the father of virtual reality is as many individuals have been involved in the development of this technology. However, if we were to focus on who produced the first interactive film experience, then the answer is Morton Heilig.

Morton Heilig was the first man to create an interactive viewing experience where people were invited to watch a film that would use all of their senses. This multi-sensory experience became the first 3D film but was only designed for a single viewing. However, it allowed viewers to become a part of the film and immerse themselves in the screen’s surroundings. To achieve this, Heilig used an oscillating fan so the viewer would feel the wind blowing on their face during a certain scene.

This sense-driven experience did not become a widely adopted form of viewing but Heilig’s ideas helped form future research into virtual reality.

Others who could take the crown for the father of VR include:

  • Douglas Engelbert
  • Jaron Lanier
  • Ivan Sutherland
  • Myron Krueger

All of these men worked with early technologies that led to the advent of virtual reality as we know it today.

How long has virtual reality been around?

The term “virtual reality” was coined in 1987. However, its beginnings precede this date. To determine how long VR has been around, we need to discuss the true meaning of the term.

The point of virtual reality is to deceive the brain into thinking something is real when it isn’t. There are examples in early cinema where viewers saw a train heading toward them (straight to the camera) and they felt like it was coming straight to them. While TV and film imagery can influence our sense of reality, to a point, we don’t think of these as being a virtual reality today.

In modern times, we usually think of computer-generated imagery when we use the term “VR.” Many believe that VR should be interactive. Therefore, it differentiates from 3D movies, 360-degree videos, and similar forms of media.

So, if we consider early VR to be panoramic paintings to create the illusion that we are somewhere where we are not, VR is hundreds of years old. But, possibly in the truer sense of the term VR, the first VR headsets and experiences occurred in the 1960s, although it was very different from what we experience as VR today. It wasn’t until the 1980s that VR began to advance into something similar to today’s technology.

What was the first virtual reality device?

The first virtual reality device also depends on how you see VR. In 1838, Sir Charles Wheatstone first described stereopsis. This is the “perception of depth produced by the reception in the brain of visual stimuli from both eyes in combination.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary) This enabled him to go on and create the stereoscope where people could see something that wasn’t physically in front of them.

While this may be VR in its purest form, the earliest VR device as we may know it today would be the Sensorama by Morton Heilig in 1956. This was a large booth that could fit up to four people and combined different technologies to stimulate all of the senses. With a full-color 3D video, vibrations, audio, smell, as well as atmospheric effects like wind, people felt like they were in a reality that wasn’t physically there. In other words, a virtual reality.

When did the first VR headset come out?

The first virtual reality headset was created in 1968. It was developed by American computer scientist Ivan Sutherland along with his student, Bob Sproull.

This was powerfully named “The Sword of Damocles.” This term often denotes a sense of foreboding coming from a precarious situation. Maybe because this technology was unknown and untried with the masses, the developers were unsure how the future of virtual reality was going to pan out. Sounds familiar to AI today, doesn’t it?

This Sword of Damocles was a head-mount connected to a computer and not a camera as we are used to today. It was rather primitive as it was only able to show simple virtual wire-frame shapes rather than realistic realities like we are used to today.

This early 3D model changed a user’s perspective as they moved their head because of the then state-of-the-art tracking system. However, this was never developed for commercial use and remained a lab project. This was because it was too heavy to wear comfortably. Users had to be strapped in as the device was suspended from the ceiling. Thank goodness technology has evolved!

Who invented virtual reality glasses?

Interestingly, the man who is credited for introducing the term “science fiction” may have invented the first virtual reality glasses. However, his invention may have come a long time before technology could support such a device.

The man behind this famous term and glasses was Hugo Gernsback, a publisher, inventor, and entrepreneur. He produced the teleyeglasses in 1968, 48 years before the Oculus Rift VR headset hit the shelves.

These TV glasses included a small screen for each eye. They displayed stereoscopic or 3D images in a similar way that modern VR devices do today. It’s believed that Gernsback may have first thought of these virtual reality glasses way back in 1936. However, he ditched the idea as they were deemed too impractical.

Luckily for us, he decided to build a prototype with some of his employees. The first models weighed around 140 grams and were made around tiny cathode-ray tubes. These ran on low-voltage currents from very small batteries. They featured a dial and buttons on their front with a TV-styled antenna on the top. Stylish!

While this bizarre yet ingenious invention never went into production, it gave an early indication of how early VR headsets began to evolve.

Similar methods were even used in the 1800s to display 3D images in a stereoscope. As we mentioned, this involved viewing two almost identical images side by side. When viewed through a viewer, the scene appeared to be 3D.

Andrew is one of three co-founders of BGFG, the parent company of PC Guide. A keen gamer and PC enthusiast, Andrew dabbles in a bit of writing sometimes - when he gets the chance to!