From the pages of fiction to real life, virtual reality has come a long way in a very short time. VR began in 1935 as a science fiction story about a pair of goggles that transported wearers to another world. Although the 19th-century stereograph had already offered a glimpse of 3D vision, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the technology for simulating reality began to develop.
What started as an entertaining novelty is now recognized as a powerful tool for Digital Experiential Learning (DExL). Over the last 8 decades, as technology has advanced, the range and scope of VR have steadily accelerated.
To get an idea of where this technology may be headed, let’s look back at where it’s been. Each era, beginning in the ‘60s, has seen advancements in VR as computing has evolved.
Throughout the ‘60s, the first head-mounted display (HMD) virtual reality systems were being developed, beginning with Until Headsight, a military training HMD made for hazard training. These first systems were heavy, unable to track motion, and were rarely used because they were too big and the computing power was still very limited. Nonetheless, the training potential was clear and these first efforts led to innovations in flight simulation, and eventually the first augmented reality system.
The first Air Force flight simulator generated heavy military investment in VR technology, paving the way for the next 20 years of innovation in VR training tech. Meanwhile, non-military developments were focused on interactive simulations, beginning with VIDEOPLACE, created by Myron Krueger in the mid-70s. Krueger’s system simulated a virtual world using computer graphics, projectors, video cameras, video displays and position-sensing technology in two separate rooms. Not long after, MIT developed an interactive “movie map” that gave viewers the experience of driving through another city.
From interactive simulations, technology advanced quickly with the invention of VR goggles and gloves that enabled gesture recognition. This new level of sophistication brought about flight simulation where pilots could control aircraft using gestures, speech and eye movements. Ultimately, simulation-based learning in the ‘80s culminated in a NASA-developed VR training system for astronauts. However, despite these rapid advances, computer processing power and speed was still limited, and these devices relied on heavy equipment with large core systems.
With VR training systems fully realized, video game consoles and arcade games hit the market introducing 3D interactive gameplay. Despite the popularity of the concept, the technology wasn’t advanced enough, and neither Sega nor Nintendo were able to produce a hit. The limits of technology were the biggest obstacle to creating video games that could harness the power of VR. However, two films with virtual reality themes, Lawnmower Man and The Matrix, introduced radical concepts that inspired a generation to consider the possibilities and consequences of the technology.
VR in the 21st Century
Google Street View brought stereoscopic imaging mainstream in 2007, and in 2012, a $2.4 million Kickstarter campaign brought the Oculus Rift VR headset into being. By 2019, a standalone, wireless Oculus VR headset hit the market, free from wires or the need for a PC. The explosive growth of VR technology in the last few years is the result of digital tech arriving at an inflection point where processing speeds are fast enough and hardware is small enough to produce a seamless simulation experience. Check out this infographic to learn 6 reasons why VR will help solve the skills gap in the trades.
Now that VR technology is both agile and advanced, the lines between video games and training are beginning to blur. Digital experiential learning (DExL) is being used to simulate dangerous, challenging and complex training scenarios. Full-body suits employ haptic feedback: sensory inputs of heat, pressure and impact to create fully immersive simulations. Social scientists, manufacturers, firefighters and surgeons are all using VR for training and to gain field-like practical experience. This type of learning offers an advantage beyond a safe way to practice dangerous maneuvers — it is proven to be more effective than traditional learning. The immersive virtual environment engages learners and facilitates considerably higher retention levels than classroom learning.
AR Applications on the Rise
While VR generates most of the attention, augmented reality (AR) is another branch of the same technology, with advantages of its own. Google Glass and Pokeman GO are examples of AR. What makes AR unique is not its ability to generate a different reality, but the potential to make current reality more efficient. By offering a real-world overlay, AR gives users a tool to help them understand the world around them. Stargazers can identify constellations in the night sky, but more practically it helps maintenance technicians work on a complex wiring repair in real-time.
What began as science fiction is now very real. It’s expanding to fill gaps in hands-on disciplines. As adoption rates for VR and AR increase, this unique technology will continue to solve problems and reveal creative new ways of tackling real-world problems. The potential for VR to change the world and the way we work, learn, train, and live is limited only by our imagination. Who knows what the next chapter will bring?