All hail the headset. Or, alternatively, all ignore the headset, because it’s gonna be a dismal failure anyway.
That’s pretty much the conversation around virtual reality (VR), a technology by which computer-aided stimuli create the immersive illusion of being somewhere else—and a topic on which middle ground is about as scarce as affordable housing in Silicon Valley.
VR is either going to upend our lives in a way nothing has since the smartphone, or it’s the technological equivalent of trying to make “fetch” happen. The poles of that debate were established in 2012, when VR first reemerged from obscurity at a videogame trade show; they’ve persisted through Facebook’s $3 billion acquisition of headset maker Oculus in 2014, through years of refinement and improvement, and well into the first and a half generation of consumer hardware.
The truth is likely somewhere in between. But either way, virtual reality represents an extraordinary shift in the way humans experience the digital realm. Computing has always been a mediated experience: People pass information back and forth through screens and keyboards. VR promises to do away with that pesky middle layer altogether. As does VR’s cousin augmented reality (AR), which is sometimes called mixed reality (MR)—not to mention that VR, AR, and MR can all be lumped into the umbrella term XR, for “extended reality.”
VR depends on headsets, while AR is (for now, at least) more commonly experienced through your phone. Got all that? Don’t worry, we’re generally just going to stick with VR for the purposes of this guide. By enveloping you in an artificial world, or bringing virtual objects into your real-world environment, “spatial computing” allows you to interact more intuitively with those objects and information.
Now VR is finally beginning to come of age, having survived the troublesome stages of the famous “hype cycle”—the Peak of Inflated Expectation, even the so-called Trough of Disillusionment. But it’s doing so at a time when people are warier about technology than they’ve ever been. Privacy breaches, internet addiction, toxic online behavior: These ills are all at the forefront of the cultural conversation, and they all have the potential to be amplified many times over by VR and AR. As with the technology itself, “potential” is only one road of many. But, since VR and AR are poised to make significant leaps in the next two years (for real this time!), there’s no better time to engage with their promise and their pitfalls.
The History of VR
The current life cycle of virtual reality may have begun when the earliest prototypes of the Oculus Rift showed up at the E3 videogame trade show in 2012, but it’s been licking at the edges of our collective consciousness for more than a century. The idea of immersing ourselves in 3D environments dates all the way back to the stereoscopes that captivated people’s imaginations in the 19th century. If you present an almost identical image to each eye, your brain will combine them and find depth in their discrepancies; it’s the same mechanism View-Masters used to become a childhood staple.
When actual VR took root in our minds as an all-encompassing simulacrum is a little fuzzier. As with most technological breakthroughs, the vision likely began with science fiction—specifically Stanley G. Weinbaum’s 1935 short story “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” in which a scientist devises a pair of glasses that can “make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it.”
Moving beyond stereoscopes and toward those magical glasses took a little more time, however. In the late 1960s, a University of Utah computer science professor named Ivan Sutherland—who had invented Sketchpad, the predecessor of the first graphic computer interface, as an MIT student—created a contraption called the Sword of Damocles.
The name was fitting: The Sword of Damocles was so large it had to be suspended from the ceiling. Nonetheless, it was the first “head-mounted display”; users who had its twin screens attached to their head could look around the room and see a virtual 3D cube hovering in midair. (Because you could also see your real-world surroundings, this was more like AR than VR, but it remains the inspiration for both technologies.)
Sutherland and his colleague David Evans eventually joined the private sector, adapting their work to flight simulator products. The Air Force and NASA were both actively researching head-mounted displays as well, leading to massive helmets that could envelop pilots and astronauts in the illusion of 360-degree space. Inside the helmets, pilots could see a digital simulation of the world outside their plane, with their instruments superimposed in 3D over the display; when they moved their heads the display would shift, reflecting whatever part of the world they were “looking” at.
None of this technology had a true name, though—at least not until the 1980s, when a twenty-something college dropout named Jaron Lanier dubbed it “virtual reality.” (The phrase was first used by French playwright Antonio Artaud in a 1933 essay.) The company Lanier cofounded, VPL Research, created the first official products that could deliver VR: the EyePhone (yup), the DataGlove, and the DataSuit. They delivered a compelling, if graphically primitive, experience, but they were slow, uncomfortable, and—at more than $350,000 for a full setup for two people, including the computer to run it all—prohibitively expensive.
Yet, led by VPL’s promise and fueled by sci-fi writers, VR captured the popular imagination in the first half of the 1990s. If you didn’t read Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash, you may have seen the movie Lawnmower Man that same year—a divine piece of schlock that featured VPL’s gear (and was so far removed from the Stephen King short story it purported to adapt that King sued to have his name removed from the poster). It wasn’t just colonizing genre movies or speculative fiction: VR figured prominently in syndicated live-action kiddie fare like VR Troopers, and even popped up in episodes of Murder She Wrote and Mad About You.