Reality is broken, so let's try something else
In 1955, Morton Heilig detailed his vision of a cinematic experience that engaged all the senses. Then in 1962, he built the Sensorama, a mechanical device that combined stereoscopic 3D images, stereo sound, smells and movement.
The first virtual reality (VR) machine was quickly followed by others. In 1966, the US Air Force created the first flight simulator, and in 1968, Ivan Sutherland created the first head-mounted VR system. It was so heavy it had to be suspended from the ceiling, and gained the nickname the Sword of Damocles. In 1978, the Aspen Movie Map was made at MIT – a virtual simulation of the town of Aspen, it was an early version of Google Street View (see Surrogate Travel).
Until recently, successful applications of VR were restricted to training simulations and gaming. In the mid-80s, Jaron Lanier founded VPL Research, the first company to sell virtual reality goggles, and Nintendo released the Power Glove, but adoption was poor.
It was not until the emergence of the iPhone that VR became mainstream. Apps such as Blippar use the phone's camera to enhance rather than replace real-world environments. In a process known as augmented reality, the camera or webcam is used to identify an object and then overlay it with computergenerated graphics. Global Positioning Systems (GPS), accelerometers and solidstate compasses enhance the in-built environment further.
Examples of augmented reality are plentiful, from commercial applications, such as estate agents showing which houses on a street are for sale, to educational apps that annotate the night sky. When seen for the first time, the results are truly magical.
The latest developments in VR, like Oculus Rift, have come full circle, back to the headsets first envisioned in the 1960s. However, rather than a helmet suspended from the ceiling, technologies such as Google Glass are embedded in a neat pair of spectacles. In the future, displays will be integrated into people's normal eyewear.
Criticism of permanently layering the Web over our daily lives has been widespread, ranging from the potential to insert advertising, to privacy and safety concerns. It is interesting to note that these are the same concerns that greeted radio 100 years ago.■
‘In future, displays will be integrated into actual eyewear.’