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Virtual Reality

The Origin Of Virtual Reality

The concept of virtual reality dates back to World War II. Then, piloting training for combat missions had need of realistic flight simulators. The technology of the day was insufficient to produce much beyond a rudimentary simulation.

By the 1960s, technology advanced to a point where virtual reality became possible. In 1966, Ivan Sutherland conducted experiments with the first head-mounted three-dimensional displays at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory. Although the headset was extremely cumbersome, the user was able to view a computer-generated three-dimensional cube floating in space and, by moving his or her head, inspect various aspects of the cube and determine its dimensions. Sutherland built the first fully functional head-mounted display unit in 1970.

Myron Krueger also worked on the infant science of virtual reality, first at the University of Utah and later at the University of Connecticut. His "artificial realities" used both computers and video systems. VIDEOPLACE was first exhibited in 1975 at the Milwaukee Art Center. Using video displays, computer graphics, and position-sensing technologies, Kreuger was able to create a virtual environment in darkened rooms containing large video screens. People in the room could see their own computer-generated silhouettes and follow their movements in the virtual world projected onto the screen. In addition, people in two different rooms could see each others' silhouettes and interact in the same virtual world.

As is the case with other technological advance, much of the initial development of virtual reality was funded by the military. By 1972, the General Electric Corporation had built one of the first computerized flight simulators, using three screens surrounding the training cockpit to provide a 180-degree field of view that simulated flying conditions. In 1979, virtual reality technology was incorporated into a head-mounted display developed by the McDonnell-Douglas Corporation. Three years later, Thomas Furness III, who had created visual displays for the military since 1966, developed the prototype Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator. Donning a specialized oversized helmet, pilots were presented for the first time with an abstract view of flying conditions instead of a reality-based image. Since they were unable to see anything but the computerized cockpit's field of view, pilots became totally immersed in the graphic representation.

While scientists like Sutherland and Furness concentrated on the visual components of virtual reality, Frederick Brooks began experimenting with tactile feedback, or the sense of touch, in the early 1970s at the University of North Carolina. However, it was not until 1986 that the computer industry developed the tools to simulate tactile experience (i.e., sensing by touch). Brooks was able to develop his GROPE-III system, which used a specialized remote manipulator based on a device that mimicked arm motions to handle radioactive substances. Specifically, the GROPE-III system generated stereoscopic images of molecules and protein structures that could be felt and manipulated as though they existed in the physical world.

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