In 1956, Cinematographer Morton Heilig created the Sensorama - a machine in which the viewer “experienced” a bike ride through Brooklyn. It delivered movement; smells; sight and sounds (albeit rudimentary) - all of which, Heilig said, demanded “the active participation of the spectator”.
This was early Virtual Reality though it was not until 1987 that the term came into common parlance. It was coined by Jaron Lanier, founder of the Visual Programming Lab (VPL), whose company was the first to sell VR goggles (the cheapest were $9400) and gloves ($9000). Only a few years later, the technology caught NASA’s attention and was used to create a VR simulation that let users pilot a Mars rover.
VR became the signaller of “the future” as Tron (1982); The Lawnmover Man(1992); and then The Matrix (1999) all pay testament, but it was the Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift headset that brought VR into homes.
By 2014, the market was ready and the technology fit for purpose. In the two years that followed, Google Cardboard, PS VR; the Samsung Gear VR; HTC’s Vive and the Meta Oculus were all launched. Meta’s Quest 2 headset is just $299 now.
The Magic Leap 2 AR headset offers a seamless switch between AR and VR. It features “Global Dimming”, which allows users to essentially turn off the real world whilst in AR mode and enter the virtual.
For gamers, VR has been game-changing. They can visit the galaxies of Star Wars; a zombie-infested Wild West or cook virtually. The technology isn’t restricted to the home. Audi’s Holoride brings VR to some of its Sedans and SUVs combining movement data from the car and AR technology. This area could reach $674 million by 2025, reports Allied Market Research.
Beyond entertainment, the Maudsley Hospital in London is using VR to help treat anorexia patients whilst Visualise, a London-based VR & AR agency, is one of many using the technology to allow doctors (and patients) to navigate around the human body virtually. It is also being deployed to help women through labour; boost doctors’ empathy and help with physical therapy.
Architects are deploying VR to give clients a realistic sense of their newly designed spaces before the earth is broken. Indeed, most design facing companies will be using VR in some form to get consensus during the design process. A VR interactive environment where participants can meet from all over the world is an attractive proposition for so many industries, not least as we slowly emerge from the Pandemic.
However, VR experiences are not pan-sensory at the moment. Smell-o-Vision and AromaRama tried to bring in scent but didn’t quite get it right with wafts hitting cinema-goers at the wrong moment in the film or combining to produce unnerving stinks. Experimentation started in the 1940s. In 1939, Groucho Marx declared: “I'm not really interested in radio, I'm waiting for the smellies or tasties. I want to crash through to the unseen audience in six assorted perfumes or flavors.” The appetite remains. A British startup has just raised £1m in seed funding to “digitise the sense of smell for use in metaverse applications”. The “Scent Delivery Device” will deliver the “missing piece of the puzzle” to create a “truly immersive and lifelike-believable world” says OW Smell Digital.
This is another point on a road that is leading to VR experiences being as realistic as the real world. To be truly immersive, VR needs to be a seamless extension of “normal life”. By placing hyperreal versions of people in VR spaces, you could change this. By making objects and places hyperreal, even more barriers will disappear, and we will reach the point that Heilig was dreaming of - where there is a transfer of consciousness. This doesn’t mean a disconnect from reality but a space where it is mirrored but also enhanced.