How Virtual Reality Endured Numerous Failures To Go From Sci-Fi Dream To World Changing Tech


In 1968, at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, you could walk in and see what many consider the first true virtual reality device. Showing simple wireframe models to the user, it was a bulky, experimental rig, essentially two televisions hung from the ceiling. What many saw was the future of not just computer graphics, but a technology that could potentially change the world, a new way of simulating and solving real world problems. Simulating the real world in exacting detail promised to change engineering, architecture, physics, and a host of other disciplines. The rig at Lincoln was promise, concentrated, hanging from the ceiling in microchips and power tubes.

One observer, though, had more practical concerns. Observing the heavyweight, and the thin wires suspending it, an unknown wit christened it “The Sword of Damocles.” Unknowingly, he predicted the future of VR; just like the Sword of Damocles cuts both ways, VR has found enormous success even as the prize it really wants, a revolution led by a headset on every desk, continues to elude it.

A Dream For The Future

Like so many technological marvels, virtual reality was first theorized in science fiction. In 1935, Stanley Weinbaum’s short story, Pygmalion’s Spectacles, more or less predicted it. The story follows a camera executive and a gnome-like professor who demonstrated a clever device using photography and chemistry to fool the viewer into seeing another world.

Unbelieving, still gripping the arms of that unseen chair, he was staring at a forest. But what a forest! Incredible, unearthly, beautiful! Smooth boles ascended inconceivably toward a brightening sky, trees bizarre as the forests of the Carboniferous age. Infinitely overhead swayed misty fronds, and the verdure showed brown and green in the heights. And there were birds — at least, curiously lovely pipings and twitterings were all about him though he saw no creatures — thin elfin whistlings like fairy bugles sounded softly.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Weinbaum’s unlikely vision became the preoccupation of oddballs, engineers, and most importantly, computer scientists. Recreating reality, and doing so perfectly, was the core goal of computer graphics engineers, and in 1978, the first real breakthrough arrived: The Aspen Movie Map. Using a combination of photography techniques not unlike those of Google Street View and polygon rendering, MIT researchers created a shockingly accurate, for the time, look at the city of Aspen in winter and summer. It was a demonstration that VR could be used to recreate, and simulate the real world.

This inspired Atari, at the time one of the biggest tech companies in America, to start its own virtual reality lab in 1982. Among the employees were Jaron Lanier, who first popularized the term virtual reality. When Atari shut down the lab due to the video game crash of 1984, Lanier took his ideas and technology and founded VPL Research. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, post-graduate student Jonathan Waldern founded W Industries, a company that was building off his groundbreaking research, in his garage.

Lanier’s interest wasn’t in games, but in creating virtual worlds for practical purposes; VPL was short for “visual programming language.” Lanier had grander ambitions, but to start with, he wanted to make programming a computer as simple as drawing a picture. VR, in Lanier’s view, was a means to a technological revolution. The idea was total immersion, and to that end, Lanier created the components of VR we know so well, the headset, which Lanier called the Eye Phone, and the Data Glove.

But world-changing revolutions aren’t cheap. VPL’s VR rig needed over 6,000 microcontrollers (tiny computers on a chip, a job they ultimately hired a contractor to help with since he was the only one that could program them) and supercomputers that dwarfed the power available from desktop PCs at the time. The cutting edge in consumer computers when VR was being pioneered could perform 40,000,000 operations a second. For comparison, the iPhone 7 is fifty-one times as fast.