A Brief Visual History of Virtual Reality

by Charlie Gallagher

I began trying to understand virtual reality (VR) by looking at its early history. This clarified how VR came to be; however, it left me with more questions than when I started. Chief among them was how to define VR. For this, I turned to the Crerar library and eventually to reading a large portion of the textbook Understanding Virtual Reality, by William Sherman and Alan Craig. While it was an excellent text, it was very vague in defining virtual reality. This led me to investigate how VR works. I began to understand virtual reality as a give and take between the many types of inputs fed to a VR system and their corresponding outputs. While my understanding increased, I was not much closer to a working definition. My goal with this blog is to trace out a brief history of VR to supplement my power-point (link at the end).

This being a film class, I decided to analyze the history of virtual reality primarily through clips supplemented by background research. I have prioritized significant developments that can be shown in image or video form as that seems to fit best with this class.

AB Pratt.png

My history begins with what some consider to be the first Head Mounted Display (or HMD). Head mounted displays are central to modern VR systems. This example is patent number 1,183,492, from 1915. This is apparent from the German style helmet, although it is an American design. After careful examination, you will notice the reticle functioning as the sight for a gun located just above the head of the wearer. Like many designs in VR history, this one did not catch on, I can only imagine that like many other designs, it suffered from not being very comfortable… Especially upon firing the weapon.

At roughly the same time came the “Rouleur” or “penguin trainer.” This is significant because it is one of the first simulators. It was essentially a light training aircraft with clipped wings for practicing ground maneuvers. These are especially tricky in tail-wheel airplanes. This is sort of like pushing a shopping cart backwards, but with a lot more horsepower.

By the early 1930s, the United States had developed one of the first virtual reality simulators. At first it may not look like much, after all there are no screens, only controls and guages; however, this was really a remarkable innovation. This is because of much of flying in challenging conditions is done under “instrument flight rules,” where you cannot see outside the window anyway. So, it was actually an effective simulator.


As soon as 1960, pioneers in VR like Morton Heilig were coming up with a more general understanding of simulations. Above is Heilig’s own account of his Telesphere, another early contender for the first HMD. From class you may remember Cinerama. Another Heilig invention, “Sensorama,” was heavily inspired by Cinerama. It was close to a 4-D movie experience today. The user could go for a bike ride, feel his chair vibrating, here stereo audio, smell the fresh air, and feel the wind.

Unfortunately, my next example has no surviving images that I could find. I think this is because of its military history and very limited practical use. It was called “Headsight.” Essentially, the user was strapped into a video display with a basic magnetic tracking system. As the user looked around, video from a camera which moved with the user’s head was fed into the display. This allowed the user to see from a different perspective. The idea was to allow the military to view hostile areas remotely, but the idea never really panned out.

This brings us to Sutherland’s “Sketch Pad,” developed in 1963. Ivan Sutherland was a genius in computer science, and anyone interested in VR should become familiar with him. His presentation “the Ultimate Display,” was the first conceptual understanding of virtual reality.  This is one of his first and most impressive inventions. It was essentially a computer aided design system. It is especially notable for being the first object-oriented software, the first interactive graphics software, and the first example of non-procedural programming.

Sutherland struck again in 1968 with the first true VR experience, the “Sword of Damocles.” The HMD featured miniature cathode ray tubes which were used to feed a separate video display to each eye. It also featured a mixture between mechanical tracking (notice the arm attached to the top of the HMD) as well as ultrasonic tracking from the ceiling. The virtual world it presented was simplistic by today’s standards. It was mostly revolving stick models, 3d representations of simple molecules, and simple shapes.

Above is Myron Kruger’s “VideoPlace,” first developed in 1976. It is one of the earliest examples of projection based virtual reality. 3D forms are projected from our world into a 2D shadow-like world with different rules. This shadow is free to interact with its surroundings. Like the “Sword of Damocles,” it featured multiple tracking methods for increased accuracy, with spectacular results. This type of technology is still popular today at science museums as a way of demonstrating simple scientific concepts.

Most of the 1980s were spent iteratively improving existing VR technology. Significant improvement was made in the creation of realistic 3-dimensional sound. It was not until 1990 that the first VR game was created, “Dactyl Nightmare.” As interesting as it appears, especially for 1990, it was largely a commercial flop. Unfortunately, this was true of all of the other VR games in the 1990s as well. It was not until the invention of the Oculus Rift in 2010 that VR was revived from these early failures. The systems at the time were simply too bulky, uncomfortable, and expensive. In this first-generation system, the player was required to wear a heavy helmet and bulky magnetic sensor belt.

For more information, my power-point can be found here:


My sources are below in case you want to use the for your own blog posts. I particularly recommend looking into the works of Ivan Sutherland and the text Understanding Virtual Reality by Sherman and Craig.

Works Cited

Barnard, Dom. “History of VR – Timeline of Events and Tech Development.” VirtualSpeech, VirtualSpeech, 6 Aug. 2019, virtualspeech.com/blog/history-of-vr.

Das, Sumit. CAVE® – A Virtual Reality Theater – 1992. YouTube, YouTube, 17 Dec. 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKL0urEdtPU.

Dickson, Sam. “We Present the ‘Helmet Gun’ – It’s Rather Mind Blowing.” The Vintage News, 1 Oct. 2016, http://www.thevintagenews.com/2016/07/29/we-present-to-you-the-helmet-gun-its-rather-mind-blowing-2/.

Dormehl, Luke. “8 Major Milestones in the Brief History of Virtual Reality.” Digital Trends, Digital Trends, 4 Apr. 2018, http://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/history-of-virtual-reality/.

“History Of Virtual Reality.” Virtual Reality Society, http://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality/history.html.

“INVENTOR IN THE FIELD OF VIRTUAL REALITY.” THE FATHER OF VIRTUAL REALITY: Morton L Heilig, http://www.mortonheilig.com/index.html.

“Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 Feb. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5RyU50qbvzQ.

“Link Trainer.” YouTube, YouTube, 19 Dec. 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MEKkVg9NqGM.

McFadden, Christopher. “History of Virtual Reality.” Interesting Engineering, Interesting Engineering, 24 Sept. 2018, interestingengineering.com/whats-in-a-name-the-long-and-short-history-of-virtual-reality.

“Myron Kreuger – Video Place – 1989.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 Apr. 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqZyZrN3Pl0.

“PONG – First Documented Video Ping-Pong Game – 1969.” YouTube, YouTube, 13 Feb. 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNRx5hc4gYc.

Pratt, Albert B. US1183492A. 16 May 1916.

Sherman, William, and Alan B. Craig. Understanding Virtual Reality. Morgan Kaufmann, 2002.

“Sword of Damocles (1966) – First Augmented Reality Head-Mounted Display.” YouTube, YouTube, 22 Apr. 2018, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVUgfUvP4uk.

“Teleoperations Control Station (circa 1992).” NASA Jet Propulsion Labratory, 1992.

Traian, Shmuel. “Linux Kernel and Gaming Input-Output Latency.” 2014.

“Virtual Reality in the 90s.” YouTube, YouTube, 30 Dec. 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dji9YiPZ4AM.

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