The Sensorium: A Brief History of Virtual Reality

14365410_3572131673235_1037397107_n Ever since their evolution to Homo sapiens, humanity has been obsessed with the realm of experience. Emulating an emotional response that is provoked by art, or music, or even games has been a driving force in human creativity since people started drawing on caves walls. These experiences and cultural achievements have not only connected us together as individuals, but also moved society along, as a whole be it for the message that is communicated or the emotion that is conveyed. Humanity since then has discovered many modes of entertainment, of experiential transference, and we are always seeking more. One of the most exciting prospects of this burgeoning realm is virtual reality, a topic long fantasized about, fantasies that are becoming ever more palpable with our recent technological jumps forward. We are the closest we have ever been as a society to complete sensory transference, the ability to exist in a virtual plane that is close in perception to our own, and while this goal is transforming, it is a constant reminder of the strange new territory we are blindly venturing into.

While this territory, over the scope of invention, is rather new; explorations in virtual reality began quite early. Of course there were the popular science fiction pieces looking into the future of entertainment, theorizing the possibility of holographic or insubstantial environments we could explore. However, even as far back as the 50s, one can see these dreams begin to come to fruition. Morton Heilig, a cinematographer, then began planning the device that would eventually become his “Sensorama”, a box in which someone would insert their head for a full viewing experience complimented by stereoscopic sound and even time released aromas to accompany the smells of the environment portrayed on screen.  Unfortunately, Heilig could not find backers for his invention, leading to a halt in production in what might be the earliest virtual reality device.

Then there was the boom in public interest in virtual reality in the late 1980s and early 1990s, fueled by some fantastic progression in the field by Silicon Valley upstart VPL Research (as early as 1984 they were working on a head-mounted display for use in interaction with computer simulations). This research was so promising that Computer Gaming World magazine declared that affordable household virtual reality would be available by 1994, an assertion now comical in its hopefulness. However, perhaps they were not too far off as not-so-fully-fledged virtual reality systems started entering the home video game market, both of the prime examples of which were decisive commercial failures. Sega attempted home virtual reality with the “Sega VR”, a console to be released in 1993 but never got off the ground due to the unexpected side effects of extended stays in virtual reality, including motion sickness and headaches. However, Sega’s subsequent assertion that they could not release it because it was too real was likely a large overstatement, as the technology and processing power available would not denote such a result. Even if released, Sega VR would still have the same issues as Nintendo’s “Virtual Boy” console, a product released in 1995 to dismal reviews and cancelled a year later to become one of Nintendo’s worst selling consoles. In both of these situations, the technology was just not far along enough to provide a marketable experience, but the desire on both the producers’ and consumers’ side for such a product was very real indeed.

This need made itself palpable in several forms, notably the movies and their portrayals of virtual reality as signs of growing public interest. Films like Hackers, Lawnmower Man, and Tron all presented versions of a fully virtual environment in which the heroes of the film interacted as avatars. This would be a repeated motif through the 80s and 90s with films like the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic Total Recall and shows like the Canadian-produced children’s series ReBoot. Even one of the largest cultural touchstones of the past twenty years, The Matrix, built its epic and deep portrayal of virtual reality on these cultural predecessors. And despite the lack of console success, one could find elements of virtual reality infiltrating people’s lives more regularly. Starting in the nineties one could go to an amusement park and sit in a hydraulic seat with air blowers and water sprayers helping them live out their favorite movie scenes. The military was one of the first to start exploring the practical usefulness of virtual reality, very early on adopting it to train soldiers and pilots in simulations.

All of this pre-eminent virtual reality culture created our current climate of pro-VR sentiment. The “Oculus Rift” virtual reality headset really kicked off a more comprehensive public interest in the impending possibility of real, palpable virtual reality; most notably when it was purchased for two billion dollars by culture mega-corporation Facebook. However, while the Oculus Rift might have been the big player in this game, there are further signs of proliferation challenging their lead on this technological pursuit. Sony has already announced their “PlayStation VR” peripheral, priced for release this fall at a relatively affordable four hundred dollars, and not to be outdone, Valve partnered with HTC to begin production on the “HTC Vive” headset for Valve’s Steam platform. There are even affordable virtual reality options becoming available, just look at Google’s “Cardboard” project, a device that is simply a cardboard headset that holds your phone, essentially transforming it into a method of accessing virtual reality apps and displays for a measly twenty dollars.

This proliferation has not avoided the spread in popularity of other forms of reality-exploitation, as it were. Most notably, augmented reality has become a hot topic, especially with the introduction of Niantic’s Pokémon GO game, which superimposes the adventures of a virtual Pokémon master onto the real world. This, while a very preliminary technology, has been explored in games before and now finds itself being used to add a sense of dimension to magazine covers, as a vein finder in the medical field, or even as a tool to guide navigation. All of these practical applications make augmented reality a powerful rival to virtual reality. Just sticking to Pokémon GO as an example, the game is lauded for its ability to get people up, out and active, interacting with the people and community around them to accomplish the game objectives. Virtual reality was panned even as an idea by critics for its closed off nature, the insertion of yourself into an unreal environment as opposed to the inclusion of unreal aspects to a real environment. Tim Cook of Apple recently even said that technological trends would veer towards augmented reality away from virtual reality.

However, when one looks at the potential applications of a fully-fledged virtual reality product, it’s hard to discount the young upstart technology yet. Can you imagine the entertainment potential? Being able to see a sold out show of roadway’s Hamilton through your VR goggles while on the comfort of your couch, but feeling like you are right there, the experiential difference almost nil compared to actually being there. Beyond pure entertainment, how much better would it be for a child with a chronic illness to be able to attend class in a way that makes them feel actually present? What forms of therapy can we refine with this new technology? Even philanthropy gets an upgrade, as even currently there are attempts to allow donors to see the fruits of their gifts by getting virtual reality tours of the areas they are helping. However practical and predictable the general applications of virtual reality technology might be, their effects on individual people and society as a whole are not so cut and dry. To illustrate the already tricky nature of how people relate with virtual reality, one needs simply to look at one of the non-video game industries that adopted it as early as was possible: pornography. Pornography with a virtual reality element was in production for the public almost at the time that the Oculus Rift was even announced. This helps define the purely base nature of experience that is sought for with this technology, while also displaying the potential pitfalls of such developments. When one can access their deepest, most intense fantasies on a daily basis for an affordable cost, what would be needed then? Would this portend an end to productivity? The eventual disintegration of society into hedonistic pleasure seeking in the form of people plugged into a fantasy simulator twenty-four hours a day?

I choose to think not; even the most basic and animalistic of personal pursuits in virtual reality have a positive potentiality: what about couples who must be apart for weeks, even years due to military or business engagements? What does the realm of sexuality via virtual reality allow a long distance couple? Or a couple who cannot physically commit to each other due to a disease or disability? While the scare of social denigration has been with the technology since its inception, virtual reality remains an important advancement for our culture. It will not only change the way humans interact with technology, but also how we use technology to interact with each other. And while there may be some pratfalls along the way, something as essentially magical as the complete transference of ones senses into an environment of our creation has to be explored, if only for the potential to find something out about ourselves as humans in the process.