Early Virtual Reality: Pioneering Milestones in Simulated Reality

Simple Set of 360 Degree Image and Video Related Vector Line Icons

Although murkiness lingers over whether the public feels ready for it, the technology for virtual reality (VR) has finally arrived, with devices like the Meta Quest 3, HTC Vive Pro 2, and Apple Vision Pro all delivering state-of-the-art 3D graphics to wireless headsets.

The current moment has been a long time coming, with innovations in virtual reality going back to the early decades of computing, when PCs did not yet exist and using the massive machines required access to a dedicated facility.

From devices that simulated immersion with filmed footage and scents to military experiments meant to keep American pilots one step ahead of the Soviets. So, adjust those VR goggles and prepare to dive down the rabbit hole of virtual reality history.

The Sensorama (1962)

The Sensorama, from U.S. Patent #3050870
Image Credit: Morton Heilig, Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.

Building on his 1955 paper, inventor Morton Heilig built one of the earliest virtual reality simulations in 1962 with his prototype for the Sensorama. This mechanical device combined filmed scenes with stereo sound, aromas, and a haptic chair. Wind would even blow onto the users face as they enjoyed a motorcycle ride or water skiing outing. Other experiences included bullfighting, tobogganing, skydiving, and a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, Heilig failed to secure adequate funding for the Sensorama, and so it never achieved broad commercialization.

The Sword of Damocles (1968)

Figure from paper "A head-mounted three dimensional display* (Ivan E. Sutherland, University of Utah).
Image Credit: Ivan E. Sutherland (University of Utah).

Computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland laid out the concept for a lot of what we think of as VR and AR (augmented reality) with his “Ultimate Display” concept, which he first published in 1965. Several years later, in 1968, working with his student Bob Sproull, Sutherland developed the “Sword of Damocles,” a device the Guinness Book of World Records considers the first virtual reality headset. The goggles, composed of two cathode ray tubes, hung from the ceiling, reportedly too heavy to wire from the ground. Most astonishing for something made in the 1960s, the Sword of Damocles used actual 3D graphics in the form of wireframe boxes that redrew as the user moved their head.

Flight Simulation by Evans & Sutherland (1970s)

 Evans & Sutherland First Flight Simulation CG 1972
Image Credit: The Computer Graphics Museum.

Ivan Sutherland and partner David Evans took their groundbreaking computer graphics innovations and put them to use for military applications in the 1970s. Working out of their firm Evans and Sutherland, the pair created a wireframe graphics flight simulator to teach pilots how to perform carrier landings as early as 1972. They upped their game exponentially a decade later, pulling off the CS5 flight simulator in 1981, which managed graphics at least a decade ahead of what consumers would see. While not VR in the contemporary sense, these simulations laid crucial groundwork in interactive 3D graphics and immersive environments.

Aspen Movie Map (1978)

More detailsThe Quick and Dirty Animation System developed at the Architecture Machine Group in 1979 in conjunction with the Aspen Movie Map project. This figure shows the texture-mapping feature.
Image Credit: Walter.bender, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons.

The Aspen Movie Map, developed by a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), used photos taken by vehicles in all four seasons to present the public with a digital version of Aspen, Colorado. The project counts as among the earliest virtual reality tours—a very early precursor to Google Street Views. The map allowed people to explore the mountainside city in a free and non-linear fashion, combining photography and computer graphics with a touchscreen interface.

DataGlove and Nintendo Power Glove (1980s)

An American Power Glove controller for the NES, made by Mattel.
Image Credit: Evan-Amos, Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.

Back in 1982, virtual reality trailblazers Thomas G. Zimmerman and Jaron Lanier patented an optical sensor that would attach to a glove and track finger movements. The resulting device, the DataGlove—patented in 1989—became an early input device for virtual reality. Working out of their company VPL research, the pair designed the glove with scratches in the fiber near the finger joints, allowing for local sensitivity that could detect bending motions. Meanwhile, ultrasonic and magnetic hand positioning advancements further refined the design. The same year, Nintendo went on to develop its legendary Nintendo Power Glove with help from the two VPL inventors.

NASA's VIEW (1980s)

NASA Virtual Reality headset early prototype
Image Credit: National Air and Space Museum.

NASA introduced one of the earliest comprehensive VR systems with the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW), built to simulate a space environment for astronauts in training. The system, developed by the Ames Research Center, resembled a motorcycle helmet with night vision goggles attached to the exterior. VIEW incorporated a wide-angle, stereoscopic display and graphics that moved based on the operator's position. It also took advantage of voice commands and a version of the DataGlove. While much more cumbersome than today's virtual reality devices, VIEW represented a major step forward at the time. 

Famicom 3D System (1987)

The 3D imaging glasses for the Nintendo Famicom video game system. The device only worked for specially-produced games and functioned via an active shutter system, which gave each eye a separate image to produce stereoscopic 3D.
Image Credit: Evan-Amos, Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons.

Nintendo's first foray into VR came in 1987 with the Famicom 3D System, a commercially unsuccessful device that only ever received a Japan release. The 3D system arrived as an accessory to the Famicom, the original name in Japan for what people called the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in other regions. The Famicom 3D system used LCD shutter glasses to create a stereoscopic 3D effect. The glasses connected to the console and worked by alternately darkening one eye and then the other in synchronicity with the TV display. With few games and a clunky design, the 3D device quickly phased out, and Nintendo wouldn't try virtual reality again for nearly a decade.

Cyberface (1989)

Cyberface 1989 prototype headmount made by VPL research.
Image Credit: By eVRydayVR/Wikimedia Commons.

Eric Howlett, a provider of optical systems to NASA, invented a wide-angle stereoscopic and photographic system called Large Expanse Extra Perspective (LEEP), which he leveraged into one of the first commercial virtual reality products. In 1989, using LEEP, Howlett released a VR device named the Cyberface that offered monochromatic VR graphics in a head-mounted display. The slightly bizarre setup involved a flat pane called the Feathermount that hung from the user's neck on straps, giving a counterweight to the headgear while serving as a port for cables.

Virtuality Group Arcade Machines (1991)

The 1991 Virtuality 1000CS arcade unit showing the headset and space joystick controller. The unit has original "W Industries" branding with virtuality embossed and the word "cyber" prominently displayed on the side.
Image Credit: ctrl-alt-rees, CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Jonathan Waldern, founder of the Virtuality Group, played a key role in the commercialization of VR. In 1989, he developed a prototype for a sit-down arcade machine, leading to investment that helped the formation of his company. Virtuality's early headsets and arcade units came with a high price point, which made them better suited for business customers like British Telecom and Ford.

By 1991, however, the company began to release video games as arcade machines. As an attendant had to operate these machines, they also came with substantial costs. Despite initial popularity with the public, Virtuality's gaming venture failed to catch on widely. Some have speculated this may have a connection to unrealistic expectations set for the quality of virtual reality after the release of the 1994 film Lawnmower Man. In any case, Virtuality went bankrupt in 1997, and Waldern moved on to found a string of other companies.

CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment (1992)

The CAVE technology at INL's Center for Advanced Energy Studies was developed in the 1990s by researchers at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Image Credit: Idaho National Laboratory, CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons.

The CAVE automatic virtual environment (CAVE), first developed in 1992 by a team from the Electronic Visualization Laboratory (EVL) at the University of Illinois, Chicago, projected graphics onto the walls, ceiling, and floor of a room to create an immersive environment. The user wore a light pair of glasses with a sensor mounted on the rim that enabled motion tracking as the person moved through the space, while handheld devices allowed for object manipulation. Applications ranged from science to architecture, art installations, and data visualization.

Sega VR Headset (1993)

Sega VR headset featured in Sega Visions magazine
Image Credit: Sega Visions.

In 1993, during the era of the Sega Genesis console, Sega announced the imminent arrival of the Sega VR headset. The company presented the device at the Consumer Electronics Expo (CES) in Chicago that year, intriguing audiences with a relatively low $200 price point that nonetheless promised cutting-edge VR, with head-tracking, stereo sound, and LCD screens built into a 3D visor. Sadly, the Sega VR headset never saw the light of day, and the project got canceled due to the severe motion sickness it gave some users after prolonged use.

Virtual Boy (1995)

Nintendo Virtual Boy
Image Credit: Sergey Galyonkin – CC BY-SA 2.0/Wiki Commons.

In 1995, Nintendo released its most famous early VR system, the Virtual Boy, and discontinued it only five months later. It remains Nintendo's least successful standalone console, selling fewer than one million units. The Virtual Boy relied on a table-top setup the company touted as portable that, in reality, really wasn't. Its display projected red images on a black background to create a 3D effect, while the controller resembled a typical console input. Weak sales combined with poor ergonomics and complaints about headaches and eye strain led the company to shunt aside further development on the Virtual Boy in favor of the N64.

Author: Tim Rinaldi


Tim Rinaldi is a journalist who spent his youth inside a video game console, occasionally emerging to read novels and watch films. After earning his degree in Literature from Fordham University, he moved to China over a decade ago to teach English and learn the language, eventually migrating to Taiwan. There, he served as an editor at the nation’s primary English-language daily, Taiwan News, contributing to coverage spanning the arts, business, finance, Chinese politics, and cross-strait relations. Today, Tim is a freelance writer reporting on entertainment, personal finance, and other topics. In his spare time, he tinkers with 3D software like Blender and aspires to craft animated short films.