The idea of Virtual Reality existed long before the PCs came to everyone’s house. But bringing the concept to life required more than one single invention. Virtual Reality results from the development in multiple disciplines.
So it is hard to specify one person as the ‘inventor’ of Virtual Reality.
Morton Heilig can be considered as the ‘inventor’ of the modern virtual experience. His 3D film was the first of its kind that allowed users to become a part of the movie. Heilig used an oscillating fan to give the idea of a wind blowing across viewer’s face. He called the experience as Sensorama.
Although the Sensorama concept did not get wide acceptance, it became the foundation of the immersive 3D experience we see today in the virtual reality world.
Jaron Lanier is said to have coined the term ‘Virtual Reality’ back in 1987 when the research into this technology started to pick up the pace. Lanier started Visual Programming Lab (VPL) and developed the first interactive component called the Dataglove and a Head-mounted display called EyePhone. He even sold the first pair of virtual reality glasses and full data suits.
Comeau & Bryan attempted to create a head-mounted device that had a screen for each eye and also had a magnetic motion detector linked to a closed-circuit camera. The device was not built for entertainment and was developed to help the military view dangerous situations remotely. The head movement controlled the camera movement, allowing the wearer to change the direction of view.
Many people consider Ivan Sutherland as the main inventor of the virtual reality technology. He created a head-mounted display (HMD) unit attached to a PC. The unit he developed can be called grandfather of the modern VR headsets. The device was almost like a mini TV and was too heavy to be worn comfortably. But the unit had none of the interactive components and motion tracking was not available.
His paper on “Ultimate Display” specified a lot of features that later came to be known as virtual reality. In 1965, he had proposed the concept of a virtual world that can be viewed by an HMD. This world can look and feel realistic when supported by 3D sound and feedback. He also proposed using computer hardware to create and maintain the virtual world and was one of the first people to imagine interacting with the virtual world through special tools.
Culturally, the Matrix was the first movie to bring the idea of Virtual Reality to the mass audience. Although many other movies tried to use the concept, Matrix was successful in explaining a virtual world with full immersion in a way, no other movie or a person could.
In the last decade, Virtual Reality has made rapid strides and its area of application has gone beyond the gaming industry. In the last few years Oculus, a Facebook company, has been making massive progress in the domain and is setting new standards for the market to match.