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Virtual Reality - The Past, Present and Future

Just a few years ago, virtual reality was a mysterious concept that was reserved almost solely for sci-fi movies. However, as technology has developed and media coverage has greatened, we have grown accustomed to this once foreign idea.

But what exactly is virtual reality? Is it merely a way of making gaming more immersive or can it have wider benefits? The following article charts the history of the technology, its many benefits and the potential it holds.

What is virtual reality?

Although the term may be thrown around a lot, virtual reality is defined as:

The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.

Virtual reality: a history

Like most movements, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact date that virtual reality emerged. However, most are in agreement that it was in the 1950s when it really started to skyrocket and the public began to take notice of new developments in the field.

One of the founding fathers of virtual reality as we know it is cinematographer Morton Heilig. With the aim of creating a more stimulating movie experience, Heilig designed and built Sensorama, a single user console, in 1957. It featured everything from a stereoscopic display to stereo speakers, odour emitters, fans and even a moving chair.

Heilig created many other virtual reality gadgets, including the Telesphere Mask. This patented design was mounted to a user’s head and offered 3D, wide vision and stereo sound. Although the headset was unable to track motion, his inventions were instrumental in the development of virtual reality.

In 1961, Philco Corporation created what is recognised as the world’s first head-mounted display (HMD). Using a basic magnetic tracking system, the Headsight device was able to monitor and determine the direction of the user’s head. While Heilig’s designs were used passively by cinema-goers, Philco’s offering helped the military by allowing them to view dangerous situations from a distance. At this point, it seemed like the world was finally realising the potential that virtual reality has.

Computer Scientist Ivan Sutherland was another influential figure in the field of virtual reality. In 1965, he unveiled his vision for the Ultimate Display, a HMD that would create a fully interactive, life-like virtual world for all users. It would also feature a computer to maintain a real time world model.

This concept sent shockwaves through virtual reality and in 1966, he brought his idea into reality. Attached to a computer system, Sutherland created a HMD that was so heavy, it had to be suspended to avoid causing injury to users. The device was able to display images in stereo and could effectively track movements.

For many years following this development, virtual reality was largely side lined from public view. Up until 1984, the technology was mainly used as a mode of recreating vehicle and flight experiences for training purposes. At this point, Michael McGreevy started work on NASA’s first virtual environment workstation. The head-mounted display was both low cost and offered a wide field-of-view.

After the technology was officially dubbed virtual reality in 1987, media coverage drummed up a substantial hype around the movement in the 1990s. People were promised things that had never been seen before, so when they were introduced to clunky equipment and jarring experiences, they were less than impressed.

However, despite this general feeling of disappointment, the 1990s saw virtual reality really starting to influence the gaming sector. In 1991, the technology was added to arcade games by the Virtuality Group, before Sega unveiled their wrap-around headset in 1993 and Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in 1995.

Major developments later occurred in the noughties, most notably with Oculus’s creation of the Oculus Rift. Gaining momentum through a successful Kickstarter campaign, the headset was unveiled to much acclaim at tech shows and trade events, offering immersive gaming and movie experiences to users. The headsets are lined up for release in quarter 1 2016.

In 2014, Sony entered the virtual reality market with Project Morpheus, a headset which can be used with the Playstation Move controller.

These major developments from two leading brands show the potential that the technology has by providing a more active experience for users. While gamers may be dubious at first, as the technology develops, these immersive games could be set to populate the market.

The wider world of virtual reality

From driving simulators to gaming experiences, there’s a lot more to virtual reality than meets the eye. In fact, the technology offers many benefits across a number of sectors.

Training & education

With the ability to create a lifelike scenarios digitally, virtual reality is set to become instrumental in how we train and educate. In fact, in some instances, it is already crucial. Britain currently uses the technology to train trauma medics. The software recreates the stress of a war-torn environment, allowing medics to adapt to the conditions before they reach the area.

It has always been difficult to train people in dangerous environments, where one wrong move could be fatal. Virtual reality helps eliminate this risk by allowing training to be carried out digitally without impacting the overall experience. It can also help to keep costs to a minimum, eliminating the need for expensive training materials.


Surprisingly, virtual reality has the potential to hugely impact healthcare. The immersive experience the gadgets offer can be used as an effective therapy for those with phobias.

Whether it’s dealing with a fear of flying, needles or claustrophobia, the technology can recreate uncomfortable situations in a virtual world. This provides almost a comfort blanket, helping people to face their fears without the need for exposure therapy.

Studies have shown that it is clearly an effective alternative. One research project found that out of 150 patients, over a quarter reject exposure therapy, while just 3 percent decline a virtual reality alternative.

The technology may also have a number of benefits for preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia. Over a two year period, a study was carried out with 63 adults aged 58-99. Some were asked to ride a stationary bike, while others rode a ‘cybercycle’ with virtual reality display two or three times a week for three months.

Those who rode the cybercyles had improved memory and problem solving skills, as well as having a 23 percent reduction in progressing to Mild Cognitive Impairment, the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease.


Virtual reality is also having a huge impact in manufacturing, especially with regards to product design. Using the technology, designers and manufacturers are able to create a product using 3D datasets, experience them virtually and collaboratively review and improve them.

The future

Despite the wide-reaching existing benefits of virtual reality, it appears we have only scratched the surface of the potential this technology can offer.

Statistics have predicted that the industry will be worth a staggering $407.51 million by 2018, with over 25 million people regularly using the technology. With such growth predicted, many more sectors are set to be impacted.

From immersive brand experiences to improvements in healthcare, the future of virtual reality certainly looks bright.