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Welcome to virtual reality

Daniel Lim

With virtual reality (VR) gaming making waves as the next big gaming platform, the history leading up to technology is riddled with challenges tackled over decades as technology continues to advance forward.

While one might assume that VR is a relatively new line of technology, the idea of VR can be traced back to the mid-20th Century, with the earliest example of an attempt to mimic VR being the humble View-Master, a stereoscopic visual simulator introduced in 1939.

The basic design of the View-Master can still be seen in many VR headsets today, with two nearly identical viewing ports sitting close to the eyes and projecting two separate images – one for each eye – the only difference being a slight shift, resulting in a stereoscopic 3D effect that tricks the brain into perceiving depth.

Over the next decades following the View-Master, various advancements have been made in VR, though many in research centres were more focussed on developing the tech further, while aiding in the various industries that can benefit from VR such as medical, flight simulation, automobile, and military training purposes, and were not widely available to the public.

As such, the fantasy of being immersive in the world of VR could only be found in science fiction films and series.

It was not until the early 90s that saw the tech had been developed that companies were starting to have confidence in the success of VR for the wider mass consumer market. An early example is the Sega VR, originally an add-on to the Sega Genesis console and never saw mass production and release. It served as an inspiration for the separate and mildly successful VR headsets for amusement parks and arcades in Japan, as VR-1.

Opened in July 1994 at the original Joypolis indoor theme park, Yokohama Joypolis, VR-1 not only refers to the headset itself but the whole experience of being in a VR amusement park attraction. As such, playing in the VR-1 was not as convenient as booting up a game on a home console or PC.

But being released in the 90s, this mattered little as the experience that it delivered was like no other. The home consoles and PCs at the time were not powerful enough to match the capabilities of the VR-1 platform.

This made VR-1 one of Sega’s greatest achievement in the field, despite being significantly less available to the public due to the limited release only in select amusement parks.

Its popularity also inspired other similar headsets of the time such as Virtuality, found in video arcades, providing an immersive gaming experience through games such as Grid Buster, a robot shoot-em-up and Legend Quest, a fantasy adventure game. While the experiences of these early VR platforms at amusement parks and arcades were immersive for the time, attempts at miniaturing the technology behind it to the home market were not so successful, with the most famous blunder being the Virtual Boy by Nintendo in 1995, which has its own issues to contend with.

Following the turn of the century, development in VR, especially for the home, had slowed down, and while there were attempts to introduce an easy-to-approach and use VR by Google in the form of Google Cardboard, it was not until a small company by the name of Oculus, now known as Meta, introduced their first prototype in 2010 that VR started to pick up.

Something that should be noted is that many of the VR platforms and experiences leading up to the Oculus Rift were done so in Three Degrees of Freedom (3DoF).

In essence, 3DoF enables users to look around by tilting their head up and down, left and right, and rolling side to side, which can result in VR being limited to seated or stationary experiences.

With the Oculus Rift and subsequent releases of VR headsets, the Six Degrees of Freedom (6DoF) was introduced, helping to set the standard and expectation for the VR platform.

With 6DoF, users not only can look around, but also traverse and walk around forward and backwards, higher and lower, as well as side to side. The experiences no longer restricted players and enabled them to be fully immersed in VR.

With the continued advancement in the tech that enables the headsets to operate through a single cable or wirelessly, the freedom it offers means that the fantasy of being fully immersed in the VR world is closer to reality than one might assume.

The goal for VR eventually is to be a device that can simply be picked up, similarly to how one would pick up an everyday smartphone.

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