Virtual Reality in the 20th Century

Virtual Reality is fast becoming an integral part of human life. From its inclusion in the education sector to the entertainment sector (gaming and movies) and even in medicine and health, it is safe to say that VR is here to stay.

Photo by Lux Interaction on Unsplash

However, Virtual Reality technologies aren’t as novel as they seem. Research and inventions in this sector began decades ago and have been improving ever since.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer-simulated experience that allows people to interact and be fully immersed in a fabricated or artificial environment using electronic devices or gadgets such as the VR headset, headphones and special gloves.

Virtual reality creates the semblance of a real environment. Using motion sensors, people can move around in this simulated environment in real-time. This enables them to enjoy different experiences without having to be physically present. Imagine touring the insides of an Egyptian pyramid in the comfort of your room. That is what virtual reality does for you.

Virtual Reality in the 20th Century

Virtual Reality began in the early 20th century and have progressed over the years. The basic inventions and prototypes are the building blocks on which the high-end technologies of today stand.

Charles Wheatstone’s Stereoscope, invented in 1838, is the earliest invention of a Virtual Reality device. The Stereoscope is an optical instrument with two eyepieces that let the observer view a pair of separate images taken from different points of view to create the effect of solidity and a 3D feel.

Stereoscope (Photo by Joaquim Alves Gaspar)

Then in 1891, Thomas Edison and William Dickson invented the Kinetoscope, a device that sent a piece of film between a light bulb and a lens while the viewer peeped through the hole at the top of the device to view the image.

Albert Tissandier — Originally published as an illustration to “Le Kinétoscope d’Edison” by Gaston Tissandier in La Nature

The Link Trainer Flight Simulator (aka Blue Box or Pilot Trainer) was developed by Edward Albert Link created in 1929. It was a fuselage that simulated plane movements in a bid to create safer methods of teaching pilots how to fly.

Link trainer in use at a British Fleet Air Arm station in 1943. (Royal Navy official photographer, Zimmerman, E A (Lt))

In 1938, the View-Master, an improvement on the stereoscope, was developed by William Gruber and Harold Graves and patented a year later. It contained seven pairs of transparent film which could be viewed simultaneously.

View Master (Photo by sally from Toronto, Canada)

The later parts of the 20th century saw great improvements in the world of Virtual and Augmented Reality at that time.

Morton Heilig, a cinematographer and VR pioneer, developed and patented the Telesphere Mask, one of the first Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) which made use of stereoscopic technology, widescreen vision, 3D imagery and stereo sound. This was in 1960.

Telesphere Mask

In 1962, two Philco Corporation engineers, Bryan and Comeau, created Headsight, the first motion tracking HMD. It tracked head movement with a magnetic tracking system and projected a video screen for each eye.

Headsight uploaded by Olivier Balet

Morton Heilig also invented the Sensorama and Motorcycle Simulator in 1957. The Sensorama is a theatre booth that stimulates the viewer’s senses to create real-like experiences. This was executed with a viewing screen in full-colour 3D for vision, fans for touch, speakers for auditory manipulation, devices that emitted smells, and vibrating seats to create the illusion of movement.

The Sensorama (Morton Heilig — Figure 5 of U.S. Patent #3050870)

The Sword of Damocles was a primitive headset developed by Ivan Sutherland in 1968. It hung from the ceiling and displayed computer images as the viewer moved around.

Sword of Damocles (photo uploaded by Georgi Kostov)

In 1975, Myron Krueger created Videoplace, an artificial reality lab that allowed users to interact with virtual objects.


Electronic Visualization Laboratory scientists, Daniel J. Sandin and Thomas Defanti created the Sayre Glove, the first wired glove in 1977. It was inexpensive, lightweight and monitored hand movements by converting finger movements to electric signals.

Sayre glove

In 1986, Thomas Furness designed the Air Force Super Cockpit Program, a system that projected information like computer-generated 3D maps, forward-looking infrared and radar imagery, and avionics data to create a simulated aircraft experience that pilots could control with gestures, and eye movements.

Air Force Super Cockpit Program

In 1991, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed the Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW). It is a head-mounted display (HDM) that displays visuals that could be either real or artificially generated by computers. Its users could then interact with the displayed environment.

Virtual Interface Environment Workstation (VIEW)

The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) was invented by Carolina Cruz-Neira, Thomas A. DeFanti and Daniel J. Sandin in 1992, at the University of Illinois, Chicago Electronic Visualization Laboratory. It was a room-sized cube where projectors projected realistic visuals on the walls of the room for users to interact with.

Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (self-photograph using timer by Davepape)

The Virtual Boy is a portable video game console developed by Nintendo Designer, Gunpei Yokoi. It was released in 1995. The players use the console like a head-mounted display to see a red monochrome (red and black) display.

Virtual Boy (photo by Evan-Amos)


Founding fathers like Morton Heilig and Charles Wheatstone set the pace for innovation in Virtual Reality. Basic inventions like the Stereoscope and the Sword of Damocles are the blueprints for Head-Mounted Displays.

Learning basic history like this helps us appreciate how far we’ve come in the Virtual Reality industry.

Freelance Writer