According to the Oxford Dictionary, virtual reality or VR is a simulation generated by a computer that is rendered in a 3D environment or image that a user can interact within a seemingly physical or real way with the help of a special electronic device. A VR user can use a pair of sensor-fitted gloves or a helmet fitted with a special screen inside.
In the real world, all people interact with the world in a virtual sense already, as the brain receives a huge amount of data from the neurons or sensors located all over the human body.
The sensors in the body convert the data such as light, sound, pressure or heat into electrical impulses. They are sent to the brain to be processed so the person can identify the impulse as a ”real” feeling.
The Virtual Reality Society says that VR is used to describe a 3D environment created by a computer that a person can explore and interact with. The person is immersed in the virtual environment and can perform different actions or manipulate things.
Taking everything in context, virtual reality means that things are produced artificially so that the user can experience something that is as close as possible to reality. To experience it, the user must be isolated from the physical or ”real” world somehow.
Virtual reality is different from augmented reality (AR) solutions. In the latter, some digital elements are added to a live view using a device such as a smartphone. Good examples of augmented reality are Pokemon Go! and Snapchat lenses and the new Android smartphones with tabletop AR.
While virtual reality is the rage today, it is not a product that was recently invented. There were attempts to reproduce reality in the late 17th and 18th centuries. They were not technological in nature. In the 18th century for example, the Realist Movement saw several artists create realistic artworks, such as the great panoramic renditions of battle scenes and landscapes. The paintings were larger and usually created in 360-degree fashion so that the field of view of the observers was filled with the scenery, making them feel part of the landscape before them.
Almost at the same time, around 1838, English inventor and scientist Charles Wheatstone was researching how the brain could process two different images seen from each eye and process them into one composite image in a person’s mind.
When two pictures were combined side by side, the viewers were able to reproduce a sense of depth in two dimension (2D). The research of Wheatstone led to the creation of the View-Master stereoscope. It became a very popular product and in 1939, the creators had it patented.
The technology is still used today, particularly in Google Cardboard and some cheaper VR headsets.
The Link Trainer was developed by Edward Link in 1929 and patented in 1931. Link Trainers is the premier flight simulator. It had motors that imitated the way the controls felt. It was capable of simulating movements during turbulence and other atmospheric disturbances.
The rich and fanciful imagination of writers can be used to predict the future. For example, Pygmalion’s Spectacles was a fictional story written by Stanley G. Weinbaum in the 1930s. In the story, the protagonist had a pair of goggles. While wearing them, he could experience a different environment – a virtual world with different touch, taste, smell and holograms.
Invention of Initial Virtual Reality Devices
Morton Heilig, a visionary and cinematographer, is considered as the ”father of virtual reality.” In the mid-1950s, he developed Sensorama, a theater cabinet resembling an arcade-style console. Introduced in 1962, Sensorama had the capacity to simulate sound and sight and other senses of the user. The user sat on a vibrating chair, while watching a stereoscopic movie in 3D. With the various smell generators and fans, the machine allowed the user to feel the wind or smell aromas while watching a movie.
Heilig later developed the Telesphere Mask, patented in 1957. It was a head-mounted display that showed non-interactive films. There was no motion tracking but the user could enjoy the stereo sound, wide vision and stereoscopic 3D view.
Bryan and Comeau were two engineers working at Philco Corporation. In the early 1960s, they developed the first modern head-mounted display (HMD), which was named Headsight. It was a motion tracking device that had separate video screens for each eye. The angle of the camera can be changed when the user moved his head. It was created to enable the users to watch hazardous situations from afar, such as when testing bomb detonations.
Ivan Sutherland, hailed as the Father of Graphics created the blueprint for VR’s future developments as early as 1965 through his concept of Ultimate Display. He envisioned the potential of reality simulation where the user would not be able to identify the difference between what’s real and what’s virtual. In his concept, the virtual world could be seen through a head-mounted display complete with tactile feedback and 3D sound.
As it had connection to a computer, the simulation could be done in real time, allowing the user to realistically interact with computer generated graphics.
Sword of Damocles
He turned his design into reality with the creation of the Sword of Damocles in 1968 with the help of Bob Sproull, one of his students. It was not a sophisticated piece of equipment. The name came from the fact that the headset was suspended from the ceiling. The user was strapped to the device but the computer graphics were quite primitive. Wireframe rooms provided the environment.
Would you believe that it was only in 1987 when the term virtual reality came into being? It was coined by the founder of VPL (Visual Programming Lab), Jaron Lanier.
Lanier developed different types of virtual reality gear, such as the EyePhone HMD, Dataglobe and other VR googles for commercial use.
Continuing the VR Development Timeline
Several people, engineers, developers and visionaries had a hand in the development of virtual reality devices.
- Military engineer Thomas A. Furness III created a flight simulator on 1966. It was the first of its kind and created specifically for the U.S. Air Force
- In 1972, General Electric Corporation created a computerized flight simulator. With three screens in the cockpit, the unit was able to provide the user with a field of vision of 180 degrees.
- McDonnell-Douglas Corporation included virtual reality when the company developed VITAL, an HMD helmet for the military in 1979. The helmet had a head tracker that followed the movement of the pilot’s eyes. The tracker matched the images created by a computer.
- Sandin and Defanti developed the Sayre gloves in These were the initial wired gloves that became the precursor of gesture recognition. The hand movements of the wearer were monitored using photocells and light emitters located on the fingers of the gloves. The movements of the fingers and the amount of light hitting the gloves were turned into electrical signals.
- In the same year, Thomas Furness created another virtual flight simulator for military use – the Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator.
- Between 1986-1989, Furness developed yet another flight simulator called the Super Cockpit, a training cockpit that included advanced radar and infrared imagery and 3D maps created by a computer. The pilot using the training cockpit was able to hear and see in real time. The pilot could control the aircraft through eye movements, speech and gestures, tracked by the helmet’s sensors and tracking system.
- Virtual Cockpit, an HMD version created by the British Aerospace in 1987, employed the technology of the Super Cockpit. Speech recognition was featured in their version.
- Crystal River Engineering, Inc. was established in 1989 by Scott Forster after he got a contract from NASA. He was tasked to develop the audio element of the VR training simulator called the Virtual Environment Workstation Project. It was used for training astronauts.
- 1991 saw the introduction of Virtuality arcade machines from the Virtuality Group. The players wore VR goggles so they can play and immerse in real time with stereoscopic 3D visuals. They were also able to enjoy multiplayer experience using networked machines.
- The creation of VR glasses was announced by Sega in 1993. These were made for the Sega Genesis console. The visor of the headset had an LCD screen, stereo sound and head tracking features. But technical difficulties prevented the VR glasses from taking off from its prototype phase.
- The VR-32 or the Nintendo Virtual Boy gaming console in 3D was introduced by Nintendo in 1995. Despite the hype of being the first console in 3D that was portable, if flopped because the graphics where only in red and black. The unit was not comfortable to use and there was no support for its software.
Through the succeeding years, more developments happened using VR technology for various applications. The gaming industry alone had released so many products, integrating virtual reality for their gaming gear. Smartphone manufacturers have also integrated VR into newer phone models, making the technology more accessible. Even social media platforms have jumped into the bandwagon. Facebook is one of the first, when it bought Oculus Rift in 2014.
Virtual reality has various applications. Outside of the immersive gaming experience the technology provides, VR found many uses in training and education in different fields. It can be used to help patients with psychological disorders. It can teach new skills to young and old people. It can be used to provide virtual journeys to people with terminal illnesses. Virtual reality is a very promising option to provide training for surgeons, as well as applications in other fields such as business and governance.
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Image Copyright: ESA [CC BY-SA 3.0-igo], via Wikimedia Commons