When Did Virtual Reality Come Out? (2020 Update)

When did virtual reality come out is a common question we get asked often here at VR Gear Pro.

Looking today at the progress of virtual reality, it nearly feels impossible such technology exists. Virtual reality is a world, full of explorations and infinite possibilities that one can ever imagine. Through virtual reality, we can create an environment to travel to different parts of the world and even discover underwater life. It can also help in treating patients and giving adequate training to professionals. There is no industry where virtual reality can be of no use. But the main question that arises is, “When did virtual reality come out?”, how was it even possible, who invented it and how everything started.

Early Developments

We need to go through the early developments to answer, “When did virtual reality come out?” One of the very first attempts towards virtual reality was panoramic paintings. The main focus of panoramic painting was to create an illusion of an environment where we are not. The objective of these panoramic paintings was to change the vision of the viewer allowing them to feel as they are in a historic scene.  

Charles Wheatstone is the reason behind virtual reality. If it wasn’t him then probably virtual reality would have never existed. Through his research and studies, he was the one to discover that the brain processes two different images from each eye into an object of three dimensions. This was a remarkable step towards the invention of virtual reality. By the use of stereoscope, viewing two images at the same time creates an in-depth and immersive vision. A few years later, the “View Master” came up with a stereoscope that was used for virtual tourism. Allowing the user to experience the whole world by sitting at one place.

The First Flight Simulator

Edward Link created the first-ever flight simulator in 1929 called “Link Trainer”. Amateur pilots were trained using this simulator. The basic idea was entirely electromechanical. By the help of steering column and rudder that was linked by motors were used to modify the pitch and roll. Disturbances were created using a small motor. It was a huge success as no aircraft and life were put in danger to train new pilots. The US military bought six of these Link Trainers. And later in World War II, 10,000 of these link trainers were used to train 500,000 pilots so that they can improve their flying abilities.

Pygmalion’s Spectacles

An American fiction writer Stanley G.Weinbaum came up with a fictional model of virtual reality in 1935. This fictional story was known as “Pygmalion’s Spectacles”. The vision of this virtual reality was based on a contraption that uses holographic experience. The story consists of a professor who invented a pair of goggles that give the sight and sound, sense of touch and smell. This is the earliest approach we could ever think of. From this story to today’s virtual reality progress seems like an impossible achievement. Who would have ever thought that this fictional story will become reality one day?

Sensorama (The World’s First VR Device)

In 1957, Morton Heilig who was a cinematographer wanted to create a more realistic cinema experience. He came up with an arcade cabinet like device that was the world’s first virtual reality machine. It was not patented until 1962. This arcade booth is a non-computerize virtual reality machine. With the help of scent producer, rotating chair, speakers and stereoscopic 3D screen developed the senses of smell, 3D video, audio, vibrations and even atmospheric effects like the wind.

Sensorama was a step towards immersive 3D experience but it did not offer an in-depth vision. As it was the first VR device, it lacked many aspects. However, six short films were created for Sensorama which were pretty much enjoyed by the people.

Following the lead of Sensorama, Morton Heilig developed a Telesphere mask that was a first head-mounted device (HMD) in the history of mankind in 1960. It did not have an immersive interaction but was able to provide a 3D video with stereo sound effects. As it did not have motion and head tracking, it was unable to create an immersive vision for the user.

First Motion Tracking HMD

Soon after the invention of the Telesphere mask, Philco Corporation developed the first-ever motion tracking head-mounted device “The Headsight”. It consists of a magnetic motion tracking system and two video screens; one for each eye. Both of these are linked to a camera. This was mainly created for military purposes. The motion tracking system senses the movement of the head which allows the user to look around the virtual environment. However, the Headsight lacked computed generated graphics and immersive images.

The Sword Of Damocles

By the year 1968, Ivan Sutherland was a famous person because of his invention of a computer program known as Sketchpad. Due to this program, human and computer interaction was made possible. So, he wanted to progress in the same domain and made efforts to improve the interaction of humans with computer programs. He developed and designed the first head-mounted device (HMD) which is considered as a revolutionary invention in the history of virtual reality.

Ivan Sutherland together with Bob Sproull created The Sword of Damocles. It made a huge impact on augmented reality. It was an HMD which was connected to a computer that would allow the user to see computer-generated 3D images imposed on real-world objects. As it was also equipped with motion and head tracking system, so as the user moves his head the perspective of 3D images changed. Although this is augmented reality, it made a huge contribution to virtual reality as well.

Aspen Moviemap

In 1977, Andrew Lippman together with MIT students took the idea of Ivan Sutherland to the next step. They created the Aspen Moviemap that allowed the user to roam around virtually in the streets of Aspen, Colorado. The project used a gyroscope and camera fitted in a car that would take pictures every 10 feet. In this way, the whole of Aspen was captured using the camera that would allow the user to experience it later anytime. Google Streetview is the same as Aspen Moviemap, allowing the user to experience any street virtually by the use of virtual reality.

Contribution of Thomas Furness

When Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull were working on the Sword of Damocles, at the same time a military engineer was working on a project. This project was a flight simulator. As he worked tirelessly on this project, it came out to be as “Super Cockpit”.  This training cockpit was able to render computer-generated 3D images and maps and as well as radars. The Super Cockpit provides training to new pilots through aircraft simulations, which allows the trainer to control using gestures, head movements, and speech.  

The Time When the Word “Virtual Reality” Was Born

After all these inventions, virtual reality was still in progress. It had many faults and needed improvements. Jaron Lanier, the founder of Visual Programming Lab (VPL) worked day and night to popularize the term “virtual reality”. He developed a wide range of VR products including the DataGlove and EyePhone HMD. DataGlove also includes the contribution of Tom Zimmerman, without him, this was not possible at all. VPL became the first company to sell Virtual Reality goggles as it was a major development in the field of virtual reality and haptics. Let’s see the contributions of years in detail to answer the question, “When did virtual reality come out?”.


After seeing the developments in the field of virtual reality. NASA wanted to develop a virtual environment where astronauts can be given proper training. NASA gave the contract of developing an audio element of a virtual environment that is known as Project View to Scott Foster. It is a virtual reality simulation for astronauts. Scott Foster is the founder of Crystal River Engineering Incorporation. This company is responsible for developing a real-time binaural 3D audio.

In the same year, Mattel introduced the Power Glove that was the successor of VPL’s DataGlove. But it was a controller for Nintendo Entertainment System and was very difficult to use.

Virtual Reality in the 1990s

This was the decade in which virtual reality take off massively. Many developments and improvements were made regardless of the VR devices. VR developers were busy in creating an immersive and in-depth environment. In these years people were becoming familiar with the word virtual reality and what it could do. The importance of virtual reality was recognized by technology reviewers and journalists. Jaron Lanier’s contribution together with Tom Zimmerman cannot be forgotten as they worked tirelessly to promote and raise awareness about this new form of technology that is virtual reality. They together marketed for virtual reality gears in the year 1990.


In 1991, teleoperation was introduced. Antonio Medina who was a scientist at NASA designed a VR system through which he drove the Mars Robot from the earth in real-time. Although there were time delays between the signals of the planet yet the system worked perfectly fine and without any delay in responsiveness. This system was known as “Computer Simulated Teleoperation”.

In the same year, VR arcade gaming machines were invented that a huge success across the world. This allowed gamers to play games in a 3D environment. This was the project of “Virtuality Group” and was known as Virtuality. This was a huge step in the virtual gaming world and it became a popular gaming entertainment system.


Later, by seeing the development of gaming through virtual reality, SEGA announced that they will be launching a SEGA VR headset. These were mainly focused on arcade gaming and Mega Drive Consoles. The company ensured the public that it is being made in huge quantities and will be available for the public to purchase. The visor of this headset contains stereo headphones and sensors for tracking head movement. These features were included because the company wanted the users to experience a more realistic and immersive gaming virtual environment. However, this hype for over as SEGA released only four games on this platform. As people were damaging themselves as the games were too realistic. So, SEGA terminated this project and put an end to this platform.


In the year 1995, Nintendo came into the industry of virtual reality. Nintendo aimed towards gamers and developed a gaming VR device known as Virtual Boy. It was a 32-bit console while rendering 3D graphics. It was a first-ever VR gaming device that was portable and portrays 3D graphics. But it was a complete failure as it had a price tag of staggering $180. At this price, the performance was very poor. It lacks color in graphics, software support was not up to the mark and it puts the user in an uncomfortable position while using it. So, the company had to discontinue this project.

1997 (The Year in Which VR Entered Medical World)

VR was becoming more and more involved with future technology. It was used in many industries, but the most remarkable achievement of virtual reality is its treatment to particular patients. These patients are those who suffer from anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder. VR develops an environment according to the condition of the patient (that only the therapist knows) and treats them specifically.

For treating patients, efforts were made by Georgia Tech and Emory University as they designed the virtual environment of a war zone for veterans that were receiving post-traumatic stress disorders. This virtual simulation was used as Virtual Vietnam. It helped the patients to get back to their normal condition. The therapist knew to what extent the patient should be exposed to the virtual environment and even if the patient gets hyper, the therapist was there to control him.

Virtual Reality and Today

Following the lead of former VR devices, new companies came into existence with their vision and inventions. Virtual reality is improving day by day and making progress in multiple fields that are not only related to gaming and medical treatments. The new technology was introduced in VR devices that are Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and Samsung VR gear to name a few. All of these devices provide the user with a more realistic and immersive experience that one can ever imagine.

Standalone and Tethered VR Devices 

Among the improved virtual reality devices, there were standalone VR devices and tethered VR devices. Standalone VR devices were those that came with a built-in display, stereo headphones, memory storage, motion, and head tracking sensors.

These were very much liked by the people but due to their price tag, they were not in the reach of every human being. Now coming to tethered VR devices that provide a more realistic and immersive experience than standalone VR devices.

It is because tethered VR devices used computers that were high-ended to render graphics onto the VR glasses. The VR glasses are connected to the PC via HDMI cable. This enabled the user to experience a higher graphics VR environment that is immersive too. The user could also interact with the environment using external Bluetooth controllers.

Mobile VR Headsets

The only disadvantage of both of these VR glasses was the price tag and hidden cost. The developers then built a smartphone VR glasses that are very cheap and easily available. These headsets use only magnifying lenses. The rest of the tasks were done by the smartphone. The smartphone developed two separate images one for each eye. There is a divider in the center of the smartphone that separates the two images and makes the eye not to mix up these.

These images are easily available on any VR application. These applications are available on both App Store as well as PlayStore. The headset has a compartment where the smartphone can slide in. Smartphones act as a 3D screen itself. The only thing that VR headset does is to create an in-depth vision using the lenses. Because all the work is done using the smartphone and headset consists of an external body and magnifying lenses. These smartphone VR headsets are the cheapest that anyone can buy.

Through the inventions, we can see the massive drop in prices and increment in technology. Virtual reality is still in a developing phase and is expected that other VR glasses besides smartphone VR glasses will drop down in price eventually. The use of virtual reality glasses can be seen in many industries that include education, medical, movie, games, entertainment, tourism, military, etc. Virtual reality is the future of technology and cannot be ignored by any sensible person.


From early developments as Pygmalion’s spectacles to Sensorama to Sword of Damocles to Aspen Moviemap to Oculus Rift and finally, to Smartphone VR headsets, we can conclude that VR was there in the late 80s, but it was just a vision. A vision that took virtual reality to where it is today; available to every human at an affordable price.

The improvements and contributions of scientists and philanthropists are impeccable, and it was due to their hard work, VR is common today.   The use of Virtual Reality in many industries portrays how diverse virtual reality has become. Whether it be providing training to a pilot or surgery to a clinical staff VR is there.

It is also being used to educate special children which is a great cause to work for. As we can see the development of VR in many phases, we can only expect it to grow and serve humanity in every aspect as it can. We have explained everything in detail, now you might have got the answer to the question, “When did virtual reality come out?”.

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