There have been many innovators who were important through the history of VR, and helped make the VR industry what it is today.
Since VR is a relatively new endeavour, Most of these people are still alive and involved in creating the future of virtual reality as well. Here is an overview of some of the people who made it happen and will continue to do important innovative work, as VR reaches an ever more global audience:
Charles Wheatstone (1802-75): The father of stereoscopic 3D technology
Sir Charles Wheatstone was Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King’s. His career began with an interest in acoustics and musical instruments, as the son of a musical instrument maker, and he is most commonly known for pioneering the electric telegraph. However, by the 1830s his attention had turned to stereoscopy.
Stereoscopy is the technology of creating the illusion of 3D from flat images using small changes in angles, and this preceded the invention of photography. Wheatstone was quick to spot the potential of this new technology, producing the first working model (using line drawings) and coining the term ‘stereoscope’ at a public unveiling at the Royal Society in 1838. Stereoscopes became popular toys during his time. This marked the start of what would later become 3D graphics, and the basic technique of creating the impression of depth through viewing images at different angles by each eye, still remains a technique used by the 3D graphics technologies of the modern day, such as VR headsets.
Morton Heilig (December 22, 1926 – May 14, 1997): Creator of The Sensorama, one of the First Functioning Efforts in Virtual Reality hardware
Morton Heilig was a thought-leader amongst the early VR innovators of his time. By applying his cinematographer experience he developed the Sensorama machine over several years from 1957, patenting it in 1962.
The Sensorama was a big, bulky, machine shaped like a arcade game machine from the arcades of the 1980s and was an impressive achievement for 1950s and 1960s technology. The game gave the player a recreation of the experience of riding a motorcycle on the streets of Brooklyn. The player felt the wind on their face, the vibration of the motorcycle seat, a 3D view, and even smells of the city.
He wanted to create “cinema of the future.” The Sensorama was burdened however, from the high costs of the filmmaking. The problem was that the business community couldn’t figure out how to sell it. He was not able to find the funds necessary to create new 3D immersive films.
Ivan Sutherland (born May 16, 1938): Innovator of the Head Mounted Display
The next big step for VR was to miniaturise the experience small enough for it to fit on someone’s head, and the start of this idea was with the 1968 3D Head-Mounted Display System created by Sutherland and an enthusiastic team at Harvard University. The system is widely considered to be the first virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD) system. This lead to decades of research and development in VR, and how to make the hardware smaller, lighter and more wearable.
The HMD was named the sword of Damocles because of its heavy structure suspended from the ceiling above the user; The system displayed output from a computer program in the stereoscopic display.
When Sutherland moved to the University of Utah in the late 1960s, work on integrating the various components into a single HMD system was begun. By the end of the decade, the first fully functional integrated HMD system was operational. The first display application was a cube suspended in the air in front of the user. That is why the system is often cited as a precursor to VR and AR technology.
Ivan Sutherland was an innovator in other areas of computer technology as well, He invented the Sketchpad computer program in 1962, the first drawing program on a computer screen. Ivan Sutherland was introduced to the National Inventors Hall of fame in 2016.
Jaron Lanir (Born 3 May 1960): Developing VR further and popularising the term Virtual Reality
Lanier’s name is often associated with Virtual Reality research. He either coined or popularized the term ‘Virtual Reality’ and in the early 1980s when he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products.
In the late 1980s he led the team that developed the first implementations of multi-person virtual worlds using head mounted displays, as well as the first “avatars,” or representations of users within a virtual world. While at VPL, he and his colleagues developed the first implementations of virtual reality applications in surgical simulation, vehicle interior prototyping, virtual sets for television production, and assorted other areas. He led the team that developed the first widely used software platform architecture for immersive virtual reality applications.
Thomas Furness (Born: 19 April 1943): Pioneer of VR in training and education
Furness has been pioneering virtual and augmented reality for the past 50 years. His history in VR started back in 1966 while he was in the Air Force building some of the first helmet-mounted displays, visually-coupled systems, and eventually The Super Cockpit, a VR pilot training system. Furness left the military and brought his knowledge of early virtual reality technologies to the larger public by starting the Human Interface Technology Lab at the University of Washington, which has been doing original research to validate the efficacy of VR for everything ranging from medicine, education, and training. He also helped invent the virtual retinal display technology in the early 90s, which is being used as some of the basis of Magic Leap’s lightfield display technologies. Tom continues to be a virtual reality visionary, and is interested in the future of VR in education and the metaverse.
John Carmack (Born August 20, 1970): Creating the software graphics engines necessary for virtual worlds
John Carmack is a computer programmer, video game developer and engineer. He co-founded the video game company id Software and was the lead programmer of its games, most notably the Doom and Quake IPs. Through his life Carmack been making some of the biggest innovations in 3D computer graphics, such as algorithms that allow for realistic real time lighting in virtual environments. He is well known as one of the most important contributors to the software behind modern real time 3D graphics.
He talked to Palmer Lucky on an 3D-enthusiast internet forum and together they collaborated on HMD prototypes that were a big leap forward from the existing technology of the day. In 2013, he resigned from id to work full-time at Oculus VR, where he served as CTO and later Consulting CTO in 2019. He has always been very interested in VR and the future of VR, and it maybe due to his influence that Facebook is rebranding itself as a metaverse company.
Palmer Luckey (born September 19, 1992): The Oculus VR innovator who brought us the popular modern VR HMDs
Luckey is a young innovator and VR enthusiast who was frustrated with the inadequacy of existing head-mounted displays in the market, which suffered from low contrast, high latency, low field-of-view, high cost, and high bulk and weight. To adress this, he started experimenting with his own designs in 2009.
Luckey developed a series of prototypes exploring features like 3D stereoscopy, wireless, and extreme 270-degree field-of-view, while also decreasing size and weight of the hardware. He shared regular updates on his progress on MTBS3D, a forum frequented by a small number of virtual reality enthusiasts. His 6th-generation unit was named the “Rift”, intended to be sold as a do-it-yourself kit on Kickstarter crowdfunding Web site to fellow enthusiasts.
John Carmack of id Software, a notable game developer famous for his work on the Doom and Quake game series, requested a prototype headset from Luckey, who lent it to him. Carmack used it to demonstrate id Software’s Doom 3: BFG Edition on the device at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2012. With the resulting attention of thousands of people suddenly drawn to the Rift, Luckey dropped out of university to focus on it full-time.
Luckey also demonstrated the unit to Valve, and received a Kickstarter endorsement from Valve’s managing director Gabe Newell, who said “It looks incredibly exciting. If anybody is going to tackle this set of hard problems, we think that Palmer is going to do it.” When Luckey launched his Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift, it contained endorsements from other prominent figures in the game industry.
The Kickstarter campaign was successful, raising US$2.4 million, 974% of its original target. After raising more than one million dollars, Brendan Iribe was hired by Luckey in August 2012 to be CEO of Oculus.
The hype around the startup caught the attention of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Oculus VR was acquired by Facebook in March 2014 for US$3 billion. He was later pushed out of the company due to political squabbles, and is now working on a new hardware startup.
Gabe Newell (born November 3, 1962): Founder of Valve that brought us the VIVE headsets
Gabe Newell (nicknamed Gaben), is the co-founder and president of the game developer and digital distribution company Valve.
Gabe Newell dropped out of university to join Microsoft, where he helped create the first iterations of Windows. With Mike Harrington, he left Microsoft in 1996 to found Valve. Harrington left in 2000, leaving Newell as the sole owner.
After creating some of the most popular games of the 90s, such as Half-Life, Newell led the development of Valve’s digital distribution service Steam, which launched in 2003 and controlled most of the market for downloaded PC games by 2011.
Gabe has been very interested in VR technology throughout his life, and decided that Valve will develop a series of headsets called VIVE to compete with the Oculus headsets. The VIVE line of headsets are recognised as some of the most high quality and technically impressive consumer headsets on the market, and are popular despite often being higher priced than the Oculus headsets.
Mark Zuckerberg (born May 14, 1984): The Facebook founder that now wants to create a VR metaverse for everyone
Mark Zuckerberg is a former Harvard computer science student who along with a few friends launched Facebook, the world’s most popular social network, in February 2004. Zuckerberg currently is the chief executive officer and president of the Facebook group of companies, now rebranded as Meta.
Zuckerberg has always been interested in virtual reality and how it can be used to connect people, which lead him to have Facebook acquire the startup Oculus. He has been directing resources into the acquisition ever since, giving them the funding to develop ever better headsets, and subsiding their unit cost in the hope of making them accessible to as many people as possible.
While perhaps not one of the names most associated with the History of VR, its looking increasingly probable that people like Zuckerberg are pushing for the popularisation of the metaverse, and bringing VR to the masses, and every year VR becomes less of a niche interest, and perhaps one day will be part of everyone’s life.