Virtual, augmented, mixed: history and evolution of the new man-made realities

The term virtual reality (VR) identifies various ways of simulating real situations with which the human subject can interact through the use of computers and the aid of specifically developed interfaces. A device for virtual reality consists primarily of a visor on which the scene is represented and sounds are reproduced; once worn, it shows three-dimensional and stereoscopic environments following the movements of the user. To the viewer can be added control peripherals, “controllers” that simulate hand gestures in the virtual world and allow to recall menus and interact with the environment, such as gloves (dataglove) equipped with sensors to simulate tactile stimuli and to translate movements into instructions for software.

The purpose of virtual reality is to simulate a real environment by means of electronic technology, to give those who experience it the impression of being truly immersed in that environment. The consequent sensation of physical presence in virtual reality is defined precisely as immersion and the expression “virtual reality” is used to refer not only to the experience or reality created, but also to the technology used to make it all possible. Today the locution has assumed a more extended meaning and indicates all those simulations that allow some degree of interaction with the described environment, as it happens for example in video games, even when the simulation is not full, but involves only some senses.

Historically, one of the first concrete attempts to simulate a virtual reality is attributed to Morton Heilig. In 1955, Heilig illustrated his vision of an apparatus capable of stimulating multiple senses and in 1962 he presented a prototype, the Sensorama: it consisted of several mechanical parts, users were seated on a chair that moved along with the simulation, while a large stereoscopic screen and stereo speakers provided visual and audio stimuli. The system also used a wind tunnel to create air effects and diffuse scents. Sensorama was too pioneering for its time and failed to attract investors, never moving beyond the prototype stage. Heilig himself worked on a portable version through a visor called Head Mounted Display (HMD), which was incredibly similar to modern visors: he patented the idea, but again, the project remained only on paper.

Sensorama prototyped by Morton Heilig

A primitive virtual reality viewer was created by Ivan Sutherland between 1965 and 1968 at the University of Utah: the unit used two cathode ray tubes and optical elements to project computer-generated images directly into the operator’s eyes. The optical elements allowed users to see 3D images superimposed on real objects, making the device a full-fledged augmented reality viewer. The first prototype was so large and heavy that researchers had to mount it on an arm suspended from the ceiling to use it. This detail earned him the nickname of “Sword of Damocles”. Sutherland in the following years invented other viewers, increasingly sophisticated and handy, including the first prototype of a video helmet.

The “Sword of Damocles, an ancestor of VR headsets”

Another decisive step towards “hypermedia” was the Aspen Movie Map, realized in the form of software by MIT in 1977. The main purpose of this simulator was to virtually recreate Aspen, a small town in Colorado. Users could choose to virtually walk through the streets of the city by choosing different scenarios: summer mode, winter mode and polygonal mode, the latter with graphics rather poor by today’s standards, given the technological limitations of the time.

The interest in virtual reality also expanded to the military sector: still in the ’70s Thomas Furness experimented with the idea of creating a computer-simulated cockpit in order to train the pilots of U.S. Air Force fighters. His work was successful and in 1982 he developed the Super Cockpit or VCASS (Visually Coupled Airborne Systems Simulator), also known as ” Darth Vader”, given the similarity between the mask supplied and that of the famous antagonist of the saga “Star Wars”.

A pilot in flight simulation with the Super Cockpit

The military industry was not the only one interested in virtual reality: in 1982 the video game manufacturer Atari was in its heydays and founded a laboratory dedicated to the research on virtual reality technologies. The lab would serve as a springboard for the careers of several of the early VR pioneers, including Jaron Lanier and Thomas Zimmerman, but shortly after its opening, the video game market crashed and the lab was shut down.

The birth of the term “Virtual Reality” dates back to 1989, the year in which Jaron Lanier founded the VPL Research (Virtual Programming Languages). In the same period, the famous sci-fi television series “Star Trek” presented the Holodeck, a hologram room where characters interacted with each other at a distance: the entry of VR in pop culture managed to give millions of people a more concrete idea of how this technology worked, bringing the general public to familiarize themselves with this innovation.

The enthusiasm for these technologies in the eighties and nineties, however, failed to translate into commercial success on a large scale: even large gaming companies such as Nintendo and Sega suffered defeats in the market, and many projects for visors sank or did not reach the expected sales results. With the end of the ’90s, the interest in this technology ceased almost permanently, and for more than a decade there were no concrete attempts to innovate virtual reality.

Starting from the decade of 2000, finally the visors and augmented reality have begun to spread even in the consumer field: Palmer Luckey, an American teenager with a passion for technology, assembles a prototype of a visor called Oculus Rift and in 2012 he finances it through a Kickstarter campaign that collects in a month over 2 million dollars. The time was mature for a virtual reality revolution, also for the penetration in the social fabric and for a conscious use of technological tools.

Two years later, in 2014, Luckey’s company is purchased by Facebook for $3 billion. From then on, virtual reality devices got progressively better: Google starts distributing the Google Cardboard, a cardboard VR visor that works by sticking a smartphone inside it. In 2015, Oculus launches the Gear VR, a visor made in collaboration with Samsung and designed to use a Samsung Galaxy inserted inside as a screen. In 2016, when Oculus launches the first consumer version of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Valve (Oculus Rift’s main rival) also arrive, as well as PlayStation VR, Sony’s Virtual Reality visor for its PlayStation 4 console.

Google Cardboard

In actual fact, however, the world of VR visors has never really taken off: in the video game sector, the latest data collection from Steam (the main distribution platform for computer games, owned by Valve) shows that in March 2020 only 1.29% of users had a VR visor connected to their PCs, or just under 2 million gamers; Playstation VR, on the other hand, remains the best-selling visor, with almost 5 million units. More generally, the unaffordable prices of these devices and the difficulty in managing them, especially in terms of their application in the professional world, have resulted in a decidedly uphill road for this technology. A critical factor has been the timing: this innovation has arrived too early with respect to the habits of people and the capabilities of companies, a sign of a society not fully prepared to welcome it.

The signs of a possible change arrived from 2019 with the release of Oculus Quest, later surpassed by its successor Oculus Quest 2 in 2020. The advantages of this device over the others are significant: it is lightweight, does not need to be connected to a computer or console, works perfectly with Virtual Reality “room scale” (i.e. it reads our movements and allows us to move in virtual space while moving in the real one without the need for any external device), has two controllers tracked as well in their movements in space, and it’s relatively cheap. Oculus Quest is succeeding in effectively expanding the Virtual Reality audience in fact, according to Facebook, 90% of the Oculus Quest purchased at Christmas 2019 were activated by people who did not already own an Oculus VR visor. Facebook’s stated goal is to aim to make its visors the perfect platform for smart working and, in parallel, to transform its social network into a real immaterial place where you can virtually meet your contacts, bringing the social experience to levels that until not long ago could have been defined as science fiction.

What has influenced the development of virtual reality the most, especially in the last decade, is the development of a complementary technology to it: augmented reality (AR). While virtual reality allows you to simulate a reality or context different from the one in which the subject is physically located, augmented reality allows you to see the context around you enriched by additional virtual data (which may or may not be connected to the surrounding environment), thanks to technologies that allow the overlay of content (such as text, images, live action or animated footage) perceived as part of the real environment in which the subject finds himself.

Augmented reality has come a long way since it exploded into the mainstream in 2016 with the launch of Pokémon Go. The mobile game, a collaboration between Niantic, Game Freak, The Pokémon Company and Nintendo, smashed mobile app download records and exposed many people, for the first time, to a technology that overlays virtual interactivity on top of real-world vision. Since then, a growing number of companies have explored its viability as an effective business tool. Perhaps the greatest use of augmented reality has been in online shopping: think for example of Ikea, which has implemented its use by giving its customers the ability to see what furniture might look like in their homes even before they buy it. Thanks to the complementary nature of the two technologies, AR and VR, a parallel development has been possible that has led to the use and consideration of both as a single technology, giving rise to what can be considered mixed reality, exponentially expanding the range of its possible applications.

Pokémon GO

Large companies around the world have started to explore the capabilities of AR and VR, not just to increase customer engagement, an approach that dominated early deployments, but also proposing to improve the productivity, safety and capabilities of their industrial workforce. The impact of these technologies in manufacturing environments has prompted tech giants such as Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google to enter the market. Analyst firm IDC predicts that worldwide spending on AR and VR will reach $160 billion by 2023, with significant investment in training ($8.5 billion) and industrial maintenance ($4.3 billion).

Online shopping, industrial production, but also medicine and surgery, training, museum visits and virtual reconstruction of archaeological sites: virtual reality has the ability to make people live in any past era, to take them to every corner of the planet and project them into the center of the action of a movie or video game (just as Spielberg told in Ready Player One), but also to allow a doctor to perform an operation thousands of miles away. All without having to leave the room in which we are. As much as VR and AR technology has developed in the last decade, it is only the beginning of a journey towards innovation that will see in the coming years its maximum expression, in constant projection into a future increasingly virtual.

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