While VR has only recently gained immensely in mainstream popularity (Metz, 2015a), it is a concept that has actually been around since the 1960s. The ‘Sensorama’ by Morton Heilig incorporated a contraption that showed a pre-recorded 3D slideshow (such as a motorcycle ride in the city) and stimulated other senses with displays of smell, wind machines, and stereo sound. In the late 60s, Ivan Sutherland, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is credited with creating the first HMD that reacted to head movements. The graphics were primitive and involved stick representations of for example biological molecules (Mazuryk & Gervautz, 1996; Sherman & Craig, 2003).
After almost a decade with constant research taking place, but without major breakthroughs in VR development, the team around Andy Lippmann from MIT created the Aspen Movie Map in 1978. It involved pictures of every street in the town of Aspen taken with four cameras. Users could move in four directions within the graphic display, which is considered a major milestone in the creation of interactive displays. The service can be credited as the predecessor of Google’s Streetview service, which follows the same concept, but with a more advanced approach (Gutiérrez et al., 2008).
In the 1970s, the functionality of computers was added to enhance the created VEs, which ultimately led to the first true VR systems in the mid-80s. Researchers at a NASA research center combined several existing technologies to create a pilot simulator for manned space missions. However, “[at] that time, VR helmets (HMD) were too heavy, computers didn’t have enough processing power, and touch feedback systems weren’t reliable enough.” (Ellis, 1994; Gutiérrez et al., 2008, p. 6).
The following decade added further input devices such as data gloves to the technological possibilities, and in 1989, the term VR was coined by Jaron Lanier, the founder of VPL Research, Inc., a company that invented some major contributions to the development of VR. The 1990s saw the invention of CAVE systems, where stereoscopic images are displayed on the walls in a room surrounding the user, who carries lightweight goggles that convert the stereoscopic images into 3D images. This generated a much wider field-of-view than HMDs could display at the time. Users could move around freely and multi-user functionality was given (considered a semi-immersive system). They also saw a major price drop for HMDs, resulting in the development of some entertainment solutions by companies such as Sega, Nintendo, and Disney (Sherman & Craig, 2003, Gutiérrez, 2008).
As a matter of fact, VR has previously experienced a hype in the 1990s, however, the technical performances of the devices were unable to live up to the high customer expectations resulting from the promise of believable virtual worlds. Due to this, the commercialization failed and public interest into the technology faded quickly, which possibly delayed the further advancement of VR technologies by a few years (Charara, 2015a). Ellis (1994) mentioned the earlier failures and predicted yet another failing attempt to enter the markets in a commercial way:
[…] there are now prospects for helmet displays costing only a few hundred dollars from Sega and Sony. The developers of the cheaper virtual environment systems have generally settled for much poorer performance than have systems for flight simulators. In fact, most head-mounted virtual environment display systems cannot meet basic standards […]. Whether this strategy of marketing systems known to have poor performance will succeed remains a question. Poor performance and reliability were partially responsible for the fall of the former market leader, the now dissolved and reorganized VPL Research. (Ellis, 1994, p.20)
Fast forward to 2012, where after starting out as a garage project the relatively young company Oculus went to the public on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding site, to help finance a completely new iteration of head-mounted displays. Combined with just the right amount of media coverage and industry support, the Kickstarter campaign went viral and brought people to believe that a new era of VR had arrived. Oculus is hailed as a pioneer that managed to revive this long existing (and constantly failing) area of VR and make it popular and affordable for the mainstream. Since their Kickstarter for their Rift HMD they have created two developmental kits, have been bought by Facebook for a price of two billion US$ and are due to release their first consumer-ready headset in the first quarter of 2016. By now, other companies such as HTC and Google are also developing their own headsets (Kumparak, 2014).